Donald is best bet among local players at the Masters

The 80th playing of the Masters tournament, beginning on Thursday at Georgia’s Augusta National, won’t be like any previous stagings of golf’s first major championship of the year.

This one won’t have Tiger Woods, back surgery a week ago forcing his withdrawal, and the landmark Eisenhower Tree left of the No. 17 fairway is gone, the victim of a February ice storm. The start of Masters festivities was different, too.

Augusta National opened its gates on pre-Masters Sunday for the first time to host a youth Drive, Chip and Pitch competition, but then had to close the gates for the first time since 2003 on Monday because of a heavy rainfall.

The Masters, more than any of golf’s four major tournaments, has a tradition of high-profile champions but that could change this week with Woods out and defending champion Adam Scott, Rory McIlroy and Phil Mickelson all winless in 2014.

Slow starts for those stars could be encouraging for Luke Donald, Kevin Streelman, D.A. Points and Steve Stricker – the players with Illinois connections in the field – but none have done much recently to suggest they’ll contend this week.

Northwestern alum Donald, once the game’s No. 1-ranked player, could be the best bet of the locals. He had two top-10s on the Florida swing of the PGA Tour and a tie for 24th in the Shell Houston Open on Sunday.

Wheaton resident Kevin Streelman, adjusting to life as a parent after the birth of daughter Sophia on Dec. 26, missed his first cut of the season at Houston and hasn’t cracked the top 20 in his nine appearances since starting the season with a tie for third in the Hyundai Tournament of Champions in January.

Illinois alum Points has had a terrible year, missing the cut in his last three starts and finishing no better than a tie for 28th in his 10 tournaments in 2014. Another ex-Illini, Steve Stricker played in only his third tournament of the season at Houston. He tied for 24th with his focus not entirely on golf. A Madison, Wis., resident, he ducked out of Houston after his Saturday round to watch Wisconsin play in the Final Four that night, then got back in time to finish the tournament on Sunday.

The possibility of a Masters rookie winning is the best story-line going into this year’s championship and none would make for a better one than Kevin Stadler. He and his father Craig form the first father-son combination to play in the same Masters.

Craig won the Champions Tour’s Encompass Championship at North Shore Country Club in Glenview last June but has played in only three events this year. He won his Masters in 1982. Qualified only as a past champion, Craig claims this — his 38th Masters — will be his last appearance at Augusta National. He’s been waiting for Kevin to qualify, and it finally happened when he won the Waste Management Open a few miles from his Scottsdale, Ariz., home in February. It came in his 239th career start on the PGA Tour.

“He’s getting a little too old (60) to compete (at Augusta),’’ said Kevin. “He’s told me that for about five years. He loves going back, but that course seems to be a little too tough for him these days. It’ll be great to spend some time with him on the course when I never, ever play golf with him.’’

The last Masters rookie to win the title was Fuzzy Zoeller 35 years ago. Prior to that the last rookie winner was Gene Sarazen in 1935 – the second year the tournament was contested. That year the tourney had 23 rookies, not surprising for a tourney that young. Horton Smith, then the head pro at Oak Park Country Club, won the first tournament (when it was known as the Augusta National Invitational) in 1934 and also took the third in 1936. The only competitor still alive from the first Masters is Errie Ball, long-time head pro at Oak Park Country Club and the first director of golf at Butler National in Oak Brook. Ball, now 103 years old, is still teaching golf in Stuart, FL.