A mystery writer would love this golf tournament. The 47th Masters Tournament at the Augusta (Ga.) National Golf Course this weekend has lots of leading suspects but no real favorite to win golf's first big prize of 1983.
Looming over the whole scene, of course, is the presence of Jack Nicklaus. Like the butler in any drawing-room mystery, he obviously bears careful watching. Still searching for an elusive 20th major title, the five-time Masters champion has been pointing for the major tournaments in recent years.
''I'm hopeful about how I might play this week,'' Nicklaus said just before the tournament began. As is his custom, the ''Golden Bear'' spent several days on the course last week tuning up. Observers close to him, such as his longtime mentor Jack Grout, say he's better prepared than ever for this Masters. Although he hasn't played too much this year, he's done pretty well with a few high finishes (but no victories). If his short game and putter are operating in classic Nicklaus form, he could easily don the green champion's coat a sixth time.
Defending champion Craig Stadler, the leading money-winner on the tour in 1982, is back, but has been playing poorly. If he can regain control of an erratic putter that may have cost him a victory last week at the Greater Greensboro Open, he should be in the thick of the fight; if not, he'll have to console himself with the fact no player has been able to win back-to-back titles since Nicklaus in 1965 and 1966.
Tom Watson has been tagged by some as the favorite, based on his string of strong finishes at Augusta in the last half-dozen years, including two titles ( 1977, 1981). ''Watson and the Augusta National were made for each other,'' says the legendary Sam Snead, a three-time winner of the Masters. ''It's a course that requires big drives and accurate putting, and he's a master of both.'' The question mark for Watson: Has he played enough since the off-season to be at the top of his game?
Those hoping to see the crowning of a first-time champion should keep an eye on Hal Sutton. The tall blond player had once considered remaining an amateur, a la Bobby Jones, but eventually decided that if he was going to compete from week to week with the likes of Nicklaus, Watson, & Co., he'd better turn pro. His debut in 1982 was an outstanding success, with PGA Rookie of the Year honors and Championship at Jacksonville, Fla., in March, seems to confirm that he has everything it takes to be the next great player. The only question about him at the Augusta course, says one tour observer, is that he's a low driver. The long, hilly course tends to favor a high hitter who can carry over the fairway mounds.
Tom Kite, with a string of 6th-place or better finishes in the last seven years, leads a long list of others with championship potential. Athough among the most accurate touring pros, the 5 ft. 8 in. Kite is not an especially long hitter, a fact that may hurt him on the 6,905-yard Augusta course that favors players capable of sending tee shots somewhere into the next county.
Australians Greg Norman and David Graham, a former US Open and PGA champion, along with Spain's Severiano Ballesteros, lead the contingent of 15 foreign golfers in the 82-man field.
This year's Masters course will have only one major change. The third hole will be guarded by a series of tough bunkers designed by Nicklaus (in his other career as a golf course architect).
Perhaps just as important for the players is a rules change that will break two longstanding Masters' traditions. For the first time, the golfers are permitted to use their own caddies instead of local ones furnished by the tournament. Players like Tom Watson, who's had the same caddie for 11 years and doesn't like to switch, have been lobbying for the change.
George Archer, a former champion at Augusta, is taking the rules change a step further. His 19-year-old daughter Elizabeth will be his caddie - the first woman to serve in that role at the Masters.
Despite everything from spring football and hockey playoffs to late-season basketball and early-season baseball vying for the attention of sports fans, CBS-TV has decided to increase its coverage of the Masters this year. The network will pick up the action on the seventh hole of each round on Saturday and Sunday. In past years, only play on the back nine holes was broadcast each day.