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Column: At the Masters, it's not the players who are stars

The not-quite-ready-for-prime-time Thanksgiving exhibition with Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson produced such bad golf that Mickelson and country singer Jake Owen traded barbs about it a day later at Jordan Spieth's wedding.

Owen said it was so bad he deserved a refund. He told Barstool Sports' "Fore Play" podcast that Mickelson, who won $9 million from the TV spectacle, pulled out a wad of $100 bills, handed one to Owen and told him he had 90,000 more where that came from.

Golf's two biggest attractions are back at the Masters, eager to play the kind of golf this week that they couldn't produce in The Match. The two 40-somethings will be on prominent display, though the trash talk that was promised on the pay-per-view money grab will not be heard on the hallowed grounds of Augusta National.

And, unlike The Match, the Masters will deliver. It always has, with moments like Woods stunning the field in a runaway victory at the age of 21, or Mickelson leaping for joy on the 18th green after finally winning his first major in 2004.

It always has, even when an unknown like Danny Willett came from nowhere to win, only to quickly disappear from the golf landscape. And it even did last year when Patrick Reed won a green jacket that few in the Sunday crowd seemed particularly happy about.

The Masters enjoys special status as the enduring annual rite of spring, the place every duffer who has ever picked up a club dreams of hitting shots. Set under magnificently manicured fairways and greens and framed by towering pines, it offers a tantalizing glimpse of summer in a place where nothing seems to change but something is different every year.

Arnold Palmer won there four times and Jack Nicklaus six. Woods has four green jackets, and Mickelson has three. Still, the defending champion is rarely the focus and for the most part the big names in the game aren't either. The course is the star, even when the real tournament begins — as is Masters lore — on the back nine on Sunday.

That's true more than ever this year, even as spectators and television viewers got a rare sneak preview of Augusta National on Saturday for the first time with the final round of a women's amateur tournament.

Reed comes in mired in a deep slump that had him seeking the aid of swing coach David Leadbetter last month, at the insistence of his wife. Bookies in Las Vegas make him a 40-1 pick, long odds for someone trying to become the fourth player to repeat as Masters champion.

Still, Reed said last month he was looking forward to everything about the Masters, except the fact he will have to turn in his green jacket if he's not successful in repeating. "You want to keep it around as long as you can," Reed said of the famous jacket. "The only way you're going to do that is continue winning at Augusta and continue winning the event so you can have it year in and year out."

History suggests that won't be happening, since only three players before Reed have returned to successfully defend their title. But there is golf to be played before that's decided, and a champion's dinner to be eaten.

Reed said at The Player's Championship that he figured out the menu for the dinner long before he won. "Oh, I knew that back when I was 13," he said. "I mean, it was always a bone-in ribeye, mac and cheese, creamed corn, creamed spinach. I'm going to fatten those boys up a little bit."

Reed didn't exactly bask in the love of the galleries last year when he rolled in a 3-footer on the 18th green to beat Rickie Fowler by a shot and Spieth by two. The stories that followed didn't make him any easier to root for, when he declined to discuss why his parents weren't welcomed at the tournament despite living just a few miles away.

Mickelson and Woods, meanwhile, have had their own personal issues, though that hasn't dented their popularity. The two are icons of modern golf, and even in their 40s they are among the group of favorites that include Fowler, Spieth, Rory McIlroy and Dustin Johnson.

Just don't expect Mickelson to do what he did at the U.S. Open last year and run after a putt and hit it while it's still moving. Do that at Augusta National and you'd get a one-way trip back out Magnolia Lane, and no invitation in the mail the next spring.

Don't expect Mickelson or Woods to play as badly as they did in their pay-per-view match, either. Both know every inch of grass on Augusta National, both know how to hit miracle shots when it really matters and both have lots of experience in putting the green jacket on.

Then again, Woods hasn't won a Masters in 14 years, and Mickelson is almost a decade removed from his last green jacket. They're legends on a legendary golf course, but there are probably 20 younger players who can beat them when playing their best.

Mickelson and Woods sold their Thanksgiving match with a promise of riveting golf and even better TV. No need to sell this. It's the Masters, and it's as real as golf gets.

Tim Dahlberg is a national sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at tdahlberg@ap.org or http://twitter.com/timdahlberg

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