Martin Dempster: Countdown to Masters is well underway

Charl Schwartzel celebrates winning the Valspar Championship at the weekend, his third title victory in 2016. Picture: Getty
Charl Schwartzel celebrates winning the Valspar Championship at the weekend, his third title victory in 2016. Picture: Getty
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I don’t buy into the modern-day nonsense of building up an event, be it a golf tournament, a football or rugby match or even a concert, by claiming it will be “the best ever”.

Unless you have been at every single previous staging of that particular event, you’re not actually in a position to offer such an opinion. Even then, making a pre-event prediction of such magnitude is laughable.

Some of the greatest occasions in golf, for example, have almost come out of the blue. Take the “Miracle at Medinah”. Even allowing for Ian Poulter’s Saturday afternoon heroics, did anyone really expect Europe to match the event’s record-equalling fightback to win that match on the outskirts of Chicago?

It’s much more enjoyable, is it not, when drama unfolds naturally rather than it being almost forced on people. Which is why it has been so refreshing in golf over the past months to have gone from a position where we were being told the so-called “New Big 3” were set to have a stranglehold on the majors this year to suddenly having a wheen of genuine contenders heading into The Masters in just over three weeks’ time.

Charl Schwartzel’s weekend win in the Valspar Championship means the last five victors at Augusta National have warmed up for this season’s opening major with a triumph already under their belt this year. With his play-off success over Bill Haas in Florida, the 2011 Green Jacket recipient followed Bubba Watson (2012 and 2014), Adam Scott (2013) and, of course, defending champion Jordan Spieth into the winner’s enclosure over the past two-and-and-a-half months.

Having chalked up back-to-back triumphs, the latter in the WGC-Cadillac Championship at Doral, it is Scott that appears to have laid down the most significant marker as that drive up Magnolia Lane looms large, but don’t underestimate the growing confidence of Schwartzel.

Sunday’s success may have been his first on US soil since that one in Georgia just under five years ago, but he’s now triumphed three times in the 2016 season. The Alfred Dunhill Championship fell to him at Leopard Creek in late November, while he was equally impressive in adding another European Tour title, the Tshwane Open in Pretoria, last month.

Schwartzel was fragile when he capitulated in the South African Open early last year, losing a five-shot lead in the final round as he was pipped in a play-off by Andy Sullivan. Not now, though. He’s starting to find his feet again after discovering that becoming a first-time major winner doesn’t necessarily mean you’ve cracked it for good in this sport.

“After winning Augusta you think short term you’re going to win a lot,” said the 31-year-old. “But it was a rough ride. It was a tough few years. It became a mental thing. It’s nice to overcome that. That [winning a first regular PGA Tour event] was a big step for me.”

What a bonus it has been for golf to see the likes of Scott, Schwartzel and his fellow South African, Louis Oosthuizen, all returning to winning form at a time when it already had Spieth, Jason Day, Rory McIlroy, Rickie Fowler and, it would remiss to forget him, Watson shaping up for some exciting major battles at Augusta, Oakmont, Royal Troon and Baltusrol over the coming few months. Despite the odd hiccup since starting his season with a runaway victory in Hawaii, world No 1 Spieth is entitled to feel happy as the clock counts down to his Green Jacket defence. “Ball-striking is getting close,” he said after a top-20 finish in the Valspar Championship. “Everything is, I would say, in a good place as far as being ready for The Masters.”

Second-ranked Day has not yet got his engine warmed up this season, but don’t forget that Augusta National was where the Australian came close a couple of times to breaking his major duck before actually doing so in the US PGA Championship last year. He’ll be perfectly happy to be flying under the radar, as will McIlroy after he went into last year’s event in the spotlight chasing the last leg of a career Grand Slam and a chance to win all four majors in a row but never really got into the mix after a slow start.

Of course, it would be disappointing for him to squander a decent last-round lead at Doral in one of his key warm up events but his game isn’t too far away from clicking. One of the many reasons why something special could be on the horizon. But let’s not over-hype it.

Lower bar and fill empty spaces at Boys Championship

At the risk of being cast as a killjoy amidst the euphoria generated by the Scottish Golf Awards on Friday night, it surely has to be disconcerting to see the upcoming Scottish Boys Championship has been unable to attract a full field.

If my arithmetic is correct, the event at Murcar Links early next month will involve 234 players instead of 256, meaning 22 have already been handed byes into the second round of what will be one of the first big tournaments to be staged under the Scottish Golf banner.

It’s not the first time in recent years this has happened, occurring on this occasion despite the handicap limit being 8.4. That’s already much higher than it used to be – and even then there was normally a sizeable reserve list – so why not take it up another point or two to ensure a full field?

The draw looks messy when you have that number of players getting byes and there’s no real need for that to happen because you’re not telling me surely that there are not 22 golf-daft youngsters in the country with handicaps just above 8.4 who wouldn’t jump at the chance to play in this prestigious event. One for the new chief executive, perhaps?