AUGUSTA, Ga. (TNS) — Two years ago, the 80th Masters was approaching.
All the chatter and projections about who would be the 2016 champion at Augusta National was about the young "Big Three" — Jordan Spieth, Jason Day and Rory McIlroy.
Spieth arrived as the defending champion. Day was the world No. 1 and coming off a major breakthrough triumph in the PGA Championship the previous summer. McIlroy was so serious about getting a green jacket that he skipped the Par-3 Contest.
And your champion?
Danny Willett, an Englishman who grew up on a sheep farm in Yorkshire. Since his Masters victory, he has fallen to 296th in the world rankings.
It says a lot about golf's fickle nature, that even in a year such as this when the tournament is being hyped as one of the "most anticipated" Masters of all time, the beauty is we have no idea what's going to happen come Thursday when they tee it up.
The return of a healthy and competitive Tiger Woods to Augusta National Golf Club for the first time in three years has taken the interest to a new level, and in some ways maybe taken the heat off those most mentioned as favorites.
There are top players who have been in form for months, such as Dustin Johnson and Justin Rose, and those, like Bubba Watson and Phil Mickelson, who put themselves in the conversation with recent wins.
Spieth is a wild card because he's struggled with his putting. Justin Thomas can win every week, but hasn't played well at Augusta.
And who's the Willett of this field? Maybe San Diegan Xander Schauffele, a Masters rookie, or Austrian Bernd Wiesberger.
"For the fringe fan, I think you're probably seeing this through the lens of Tiger being back, and whether he's going to win a fifth green jacket," CBS golf anchor Jim Nantz said on a conference call last week. "But inside the sport, the excitement is percolating. We've never seen so many stars in the sport have their game in form coming into Augusta."
Noting that this is his 33rd Masters — his first was Jack Nicklaus' victory in 1986 — Nantz said he can't remember one he's looked forward to more.
"It's always highly anticipated for those who love the game," Nantz said. "But this is probably the most anticipated we've had that any of us have seen in our lifetime. There's a lot of factors going into that statement."
Chris Fallica, a sports statistician for ESPN, dug deep into the Masters numbers and found that 10 of the previous 14 tournaments have been won by players among the top 12 in the world rankings. This year, seven of the top 12 have at least one victory (Thomas has won twice).
The only players in the group not currently playing sharply are No. 6 Hideki Matsuyama and No. 8 Rickie Fowler. (No. 10 Brooks Koepka is out with a wrist injury.)
Interestingly, Fowler and Matsuyama fall into an area that might otherwise make them favorites. Eight of the last 11 Masters have been secured by first-time major winners, and those two are in that category, as are a pair of others in the top 12 _ Spain's Jon Rahm and England's Tommy Fleetwood.
As of Wednesday afternoon, Spieth was tabbed by oddsmakers as the 10-1 co-favorite with Woods.
Struggling with the usual strong point of his game — putting — Spieth finally found a more relaxed stroke last week in Houston, shot 66 in the final round and tied for third.
A three-time major winner at the age of 24, including the 2015 Masters, Spieth's record in just four trips to Augusta is impressive: second, first, second, 11th.
"My iron play and off the tee has been fantastic, just like it was last year," Spieth said. "It's just been about finding the (putting) setup that I had for a couple of years, that I kind of got a little stiff and away from recently.
"So settling into the round will be important, but I feel like last week was a tremendous stepping stone in the right direction."
The next three favorites are Johnson, McIlroy and Thomas. Only McIlroy, 28, has truly come close to a green jacket, blowing the lead on the back nine in 2011.
Johnson, 33, has long been considered a good fit for Augusta because of his length, but only in his last two appearances has he seemed to navigate the course well, with ties for sixth and fourth place in 2015 and '16 (he was injured last year on the eve of the tournament and had to withdraw).
Thomas, 24, last year's FedEx Cup champion and winner of the PGA Championship, has played eight Masters rounds and hasn't shot in the 60s yet. He has three scores of 76 or worse.
"I love this place so much. It's a great, great golf course," Thomas said. "It just requires a very strong mental week. You need to be mentally sharp. You need to not make stupid mistakes out there."
Somewhat under the radar has been a player who already has two green jackets, Bubba Watson. That, in part, is because he disappeared from contention last season while dealing with an illness that he has not described in detail. He said he considered retiring.
Watson finished last year ranked 89th in the world, but has climbed all the way back to 19th with wins in the Genesis Open at Riviera and the Dell Techologies Match Play two weeks ago.
The last time he seized the Masters, in 2014, he also won at Riviera.
"I've been in a good frame of mind when I won," Watson, 39, said.