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Golf’s great depths

Phil Mickelson, one of the most agreeable of pro golf’s practitioners, was asked by an inquiring mind with pad and pen in hand if he could do some handicapping, pick a favorite in the Masters.

Mickelson flashed his trademark smile and said, “I could, but what would it matter?”

The scribe said, “It would help my column a lot.”

That’s about all it would do.

Ninety-six players are teeing it up in the first round at Augusta National today and probably 70 of them have a reasonable shot at winning.

That’s Golf 2012, folks. Winners du jour. A free for all.

Thirty-nine players won titles on the PGA Tour last year. Thirty-eight of them are playing this week. The past 12 majors have been won by 12 players. Four of the past five Masters were won by Zach Johnson, Trevor Immelman, Angel Cabrera and Charl Schwartzel, who didn’t exactly go off at short odds.

This is not your father’s Masters. Three of the greatest players on the property were to be honorary starters this morning – Arnold Palmer, Jack Nicklaus and Gary Player.

They used to own this tournament and pass the green jacket around between them, capturing 12 in all. In their day and for a long time afterward, you could count on two hands those who had any reasonable shot at winning the Masters.

They had more great players with whom to contend, people who might win six or eight tournaments in a year, but nothing like the depth of talent today.

One big source of that depth can be found in the list of entrants in the Masters this year – there are more international players in the field than Americans and it’s been that way for awhile.

Asked what had changed on the Tour, one player said, “The accents.”

The No. 1 player in the world is Luke Donald from England. No. 2 is Rory McIlroy from Northern Ireland. Both are coming off tournament wins.

They will almost certainly be in the mix Sunday. So, probably, will be crowd favorite and three-time champion Mickelson.

And, of course, Tiger Woods. He won his last start, too, and most of the attention will be focused on him as he bids for his 15th major championship.

That’s where the intrigue lies in this Masters. When he’s around, you sense that something big is going to happen. Like major championships.

Today, we quit talking about it and start playing. That’s a good thing.