Golf: Top-ranked Day favoured as Masters reaches 80

Australia's Jason Day signs autographs during the Par 3 contest prior to the start of the 80th Masters.
Australia's Jason Day signs autographs during the Par 3 contest prior to the start of the 80th Masters.PHOTO: AFP

AUGUSTA, United States (AFP) - The stage was set at Augusta National on Wednesday for the 80th Masters with the field wide open and anyone out of a dozen or more players in the hunt with realistic chances of winning.

The new generation of Jason Day (age 28), Rory McIlroy (26) and defending champion Jordan Spieth (22) lead the way.

But they have a menacing trio of older, former winners - Adam Scott (35), Bubba Watson (37) and Phil Mickelson (45) - eager for second, third or fourth helpings and an array of international talent out to grab the spotlight.

The fabled Georgia layout, which has witnessed some of the mightiest battles in golfing history since it first staged the Masters at Bobby Jones' behest in 1934, is unchanged from last year, when Spieth won with a record-matching 18-under-par total.

With good weather in the forecast, all the signs are that low-scoring will again be the order of the day, which will further boost the hopes of the new "Big Three" - all top-class shotmakers.

Day, who will start on Thursday as a narrow 7/1 oddsmakers favourite ahead of Spieth and McIlroy, said he is hoping for a mass shootout come Sunday's back nine.

"The competition is very stiff. It's really tough with how everyone is playing," he said.

"Jordan and Rory are young guys, so we're all kind of motivating each other and Rickie (Fowler), as well, all motivating each other to try and play better each and every week and each and every year.

"If one of us plays well, then usually there's two-out-of-three or three-out-of-three guys that are going to step up practicing and play harder, because it's inspiring and motivating to watch the other guy win because you know that you can do it. And why can't it be you?"

McIlroy - seeking to become only the sixth player to win all four majors after Tiger Woods, Jack Nicklaus, Gary Player, Ben Hogan and Gene Sarazen - sees it likewise.

He was ranked first in the world a year ago, but has since seen his crown taken, first by Spieth, who won last year's Masters and US Open, and then by Day, who won the 2015 PGA Championship.

"I'd be lying if I said those guys having success doesn't motivate me. Of course it does," he said.

For his part, Spieth is having a quiet season after the fireworks of last year, when he came agonisingly close to becoming just the second man to win the first three majors of the year after Hogan.

In any other year, he would likely have been the favourite, but he has no problem with that not being the case.

"For me, isn't Jason the favourite, in my mind? So nice. He can be the favourite. I'll go ahead and we'll just do our thing," the Texan said.

Doing his thing was what made Spieth the second-youngest Masters winner last year, but both Day and McIlroy have previously stumbled with the winning post in sight at Augusta National.

And that certainly opens the door to an armada of major winners and big hitters like 2013 US Open champion and runner-up last year, Justin Rose.

"Look at Bubba Watson. He's not in the group you're talking about (Day, Spieth and McIlroy) and yet he's two-time champion and difficult to beat around here," Rose said.

"So Dustin Johnson, Adam Scott, myself, there are a ton of players that they're going to be certainly not overlooking, Henrik Stenson. There's a bunch. I think it's very, very strong right now."

One thing for sure, though, is that the Tiger Woods era, which started with his watershed 12-stroke victory in 1997, is over. The four-time former winner will miss the Masters for the second time in three years after back surgery.

Many believe he will never again be a realistic contender at Augusta National.