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Jason Day, Jordan Spieth principal story lines in loaded Masters field

USA TODAY logo USA TODAY 7/04/2016 Steve DiMeglio

In the last group on the last day of the last major of 2015, the game’s best players at the time, Jordan Spieth and Jason Day, went toe-to-toe at Whistling Straits in Wisconsin. 

Above the shores of Lake Michigan and under bright skies, Day outslugged his chief rival that August day en route to winning the PGA Championship.

Fast forward eight months and head southeast 800 miles to Augusta National Golf Club, where on the first day of the first major of 2016, Spieth and Day remain two of the principal story lines at Thursday’s dawn of the 80th Masters.

They are the headliners in a cast full of contenders, Day the No. 1 player in the world and a winner of his last two starts, Spieth the world No. 2 and defending champion determined to retain the green jacket.

Between them they’ve won 13 PGA Tour titles and three majors in the past 14 months; each won five titles last year. 

Both acknowledge convincing cases can be made for numerous players who have a chance to slip on the green jacket at Sunday’s end, but each declared their game is on point.

“This year’s Masters might be the hardest one to win in quite a while as far as the depth of the field and the quality of golf being played by people who play Augusta National very well,” Spieth said. 

Jason Day shakes hands with Jordan Spieth following their second round at TPC Blue Monster on March 4. © John David Mercer-USA TODAY Spor Jason Day shakes hands with Jordan Spieth following their second round at TPC Blue Monster on March 4. However, he added, “Isn't Jason the favorite? He can be the favorite. I'll go ahead and we'll just do our thing.” 

And earlier this year, Spieth said, “When Jason is on, he's on, and when he's off, he's still on.”

Day countered. “It's a good feeling to be here, No. 1 in the world and coming off the back of how I've been playing has been fantastic. But to be honest, I don't think I'm the favorite this week,” he said. 

“There are so many players that can win around here, and there's not just one heavy favorite this week, which is fantastic. I think it's good for the game of golf and I think it's good for this tournament, as well. … It's such a competitive sport now and so many guys can win, and it's so tough to win. But I do feel good with how I'm playing right now and where I'm at mentally and physically.”

With good reason. After a pedestrian start to the season, Day moved into the Diamond Lane three weeks back and floored it, winning the Arnold Palmer Invitational and the WGC-Dell Match Play Championship in back-to-back weeks in his final tune-ups for Augusta. 

A back injury that nearly forced him to withdraw from the Match Play Championship isn’t a bother. Neither are the two near-misses he had at winning the green jacket, when he finished in a tie for second in 2011 and third in 2013.

“I feel comfortable around this course. I know it sets up well for me. It's a golf course that I can compete and play well and win,” said Day, 28, who reclaimed the top spot in the world two weeks ago.

“So I just want to make sure I don't overdo it. And this has been a tournament in the past that I've tried too hard and shot myself out of the tournament, so I've just got to kind of relax; understand that I have a certain process that I go through each tournament to get ready to compete and I need to stick to that.

“Don't do anything more; don't do anything less, and from there, just try and go out and execute.”

Spieth roared into the year with an eight-shot romp on the Hyundai Tournament of Champions but hasn’t been the Spieth of 2015. In his last six starts, a tie for ninth in the Match Play Championship is his best result. 

But he’s played here twice, winning last year and finishing tied for second the year before. He got an extra boost of motivation when he packed for his trip to Augusta to begin his quest to join Jack Nicklaus, Nick Faldo and Tiger Woods as the only players to win back-to-back Masters.

“I was like, wow, there's a possibility that I don't have this back at my house anymore when I was leaving home,” Spieth said of the green jacket. 

He is well aware that only the reigning champion can take the jacket off property. “It kind of fired me up a little bit.”

Driving down Magnolia Lane did, as well. The 22-year-old said he’s been trying too hard and has been “too passionate” to get on birdie runs and ends up running into trouble. 

He said if he doesn’t get off to a good start Thursday, he’ll have to dig deep to remain patient and not to force matters. And the setting has provided the calming atmosphere to recharge his mental game.

“I've had a fantastic couple days thus far preparing and the game feels great,” Spieth said. “Going to try and just use last year as momentum. We know we're capable of playing this place. We have proven it to ourselves the last two years. So the game actually feels better right now than I think it did last year. ...

“Hopefully we're the ones that are in contention and we're the most recent winners of it. We've got it fresh in our mind. Hopefully it's an advantage.”


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