The original “Big Three” is a hard act to follow. Between them, after all, Arnold Palmer, Gary Player and Jack Nicklaus racked up no less than 34 major victories. Thirteen of those came in The Masters alone. Between them, Jordan Spieth, Jason Day and Rory McIlroy currently own just one Green Jacket and have claimed seven majors in total. The next four days won’t necessarily define if they deserve to have been tagged the “New Big Three”. The 80th Masters, though, certainly marks the start of a lip-smacking era for golf.
The trio have already used their pre-event interviews this week to show what terrific ambassadors the game has sitting atop the world rankings at the moment. All their jousts with the world’s media were interesting, informative and, at times, funny. Long may that continue as it is helping promote their sport in a positive way. Day’s dilly-dallying apart, they are doing likewise where it matters even more – out on the golf course.
With six wins, including his major breakthrough in the USPGA Championship and a World Golf Championship, in his last 13 starts, Day deserves to come into this event as the world No 1. That has only just been claimed from Spieth, who lit up the golfing world by winning here 12 months ago, then adding the US Open before giving great accounts of himself in the Open Championship and the USPGA Championship as well.
In comparison, McIlroy had a quiet 2015 campaign, part of which he missed due to an injury sustained playing football. His presence in conversations about golf’s bright future is also fully merited, though, especially on the book of that purple patch during which he wonthe Open Championship, the WGC-Bridgestone Invitational and the USPGA Championship on the trot two seasons ago.
“The professional game, I believe, is in very good shape,” acknowledged Billy Payne, the Masters chairman, in his pre-event address here. “Our defending champion, Jordan Spieth, leads a remarkably talented group of young players who truly signal the bright future of championship golf.”
In addition to his red-hot form since the end of last summer, Day’s credentials as the title favourite are bolstered by the 28-year-old Australian having knocked twice on this particular door in the past. He finished second on his debut in 2011, then third two years later. “I feel comfortable around this course,” he said. “It sets up well for me. It’s a golf course that I can play well and win. I feel good with how I’m playing right now and where I’m at mentally and physically.”
The key to him following Adam Scott, the first Australian to don the Green Jacket with his 2013 victory, into the winner’s circle in this event is likely to be, well, himself. “In the past here, I’ve tried too hard and shot myself out of the tournament,” acknowledged Day. “I’ve just got to relax and stick to the process that I go through at other tournaments.”
Tiger Woods, back in 2002, was the last player to successfully defend this title. Before him, the feat hadn’t been achieved since Nick Faldo in 1990. That highlights the task facing Spieth, who, remember, is still just 22. It’s certainly achieveable, though, if the Texan matches a performance 12 months ago that left the record-book writers going into overdrive. He set new bests for 36 holes (-14) and 54 holes (-16). His 72-hole of 18-under tied Woods’ record while a haul of 26 birdies was more than anyone has ever managed round here over four days. “I’m going to try and use last year as momentum,” said Spieth, unsurprisingly. “I know I am capable of playing this place, having proven that to myself the last two years (he also finished runner-up on his debut, of course). My game actually feels better right now than it did last year, so that’s good. I also have two major championships now and that can be an advantage if I can get into contention against someone searching for their first.”
The thought of leaving here on Sunday without his Green Jacket (only the current champion can take that off the property) is adding extra fire to Spieth’s belly. “I’ve had a lot of fun wearing it.When I was packing it to come here, I became aware of the possibility it won’t be back at my house anymore. I don’t want to give it back, so that has fired me up a little bit.”
In McIlroy’s case, of course, the extra incentive is his second bite at the cherry in a bid to join Nicklaus, Player, Woods, Gene Sarazen and Ben Hogan in completing a career Grand Slam. Can this be the year? Why the heck not. Like Day, his aim is to let things happen rather than be pressing from the off. “I want to be as relaxed as possible because that means I can let my game flow and express itself,” said the 26-year-old. “If I can do that on a course like this, one that is well-suited for me, I can have a week like I’ve had in majors before and win.”
Considering we have to go all the way back to Jose Maria Olazabal in 1999, a European win is certainly long overdue in the season’s first major, with someone like Justin Rose, joint second with Phil Mickelson 12 months ago, or Henrik Stenson others capable of delivering that. At the same time, the South Africans are coming into this event with a strong hand. Charl Schwarzel, the winner five years ago, is back firing on all cylinders, as is 2010 Open champion Louis Oosthuizen, pictured left.
Add the aforementioned Scott, two-time champion Bubba Watson and Rickie Fowler into the mix and the “New Big Three” won’t be getting things their own way this week, when a mixed bag of weather will also have its say in who walks away with that coveted coat.