The Masters: Big guns face a tough test at Augusta
Will it be Dustin Johnson, golf’s man of the moment? Well, on that basis alone, the 28-year-old American certainly has to be viewed as one of the leading contenders. Three wins in a row, two of them World Golf Championship successes, since he became world No 1, suggest Johnson is peaking nicely. Two other factors are in his favour. He’s no longer got that major monkey on his back, having overcome adversity in the shape of a rules penalty to win the US Open last June. He’s also got decent form here, having chalked up top-six finishes the past two years.
The only negative factor for Johnson - apart, of course, from the fact he suffered a “serious fall” on the eve of the event - is that recent history is against him. Tiger Woods, in 2002, was the last world No 1 to win at Augusta National (having been the game’s second-ranked player when he claimed his fourth title triumph three years later). If this event was being played anywhere else, you’d really fancy Johnson to keep that hot streak going. He knows, though, that trying to win here is possibly the toughest test in golf.
“It’s a tough golf course,” Johnson pointed out, sending a clear message to anyone foolish enough to think he can overpower it in the way he can most courses and turn this into a one-man show. “Everything in your bag needs to be working for you to play well around here. If I want to win here, everything is going to have to go well for me. I’m going to have to drive it well, hit my irons well, putt it well.”
Yes, of course, all that can come together for Johnson, especially as he’s a more complete player these days than the one who had a bad habit of shooting himself in the foot. In my book, though, the ‘real’ favourite heading into this event is Jordan Spieth because I honestly believe that the one big blip he’s suffered here in his three appearances so far won’t effect the young American one bit.
Just think about it. His record in this event is 2-1-2. He’s also led in seven of the last eight rounds. It would have been eight out of eight if he’d not opened the door to Danny Willett by coming to grief in Amen Corner 12 months ago. A quadruple-bogey 7 at the 12th was particularly damaging. The Texan is made of stern stuff, though, and the game’s greatest player is confident he won’t be hampered by any lingering mental scars.
“He’s a very sharp kid and very good player and one that will put that behind him,” predicted six-time Masters champion Jack Nicklaus. “He’ll learn from it rather than dwell on it. I think you’ll see Jordan play very well this year. I think he’s going to be contending in a lot of Masters for a lot of years.”
Spieth opened with a 64 when he won two years ago. He also burst out of the blocks a year ago with a 66. He’s looking to get his name up on the giant leaderboards around this course as quick as possible again. “I am confident that we can get out there and get off to the same kind of start that we’ve had in the past,” said the 23-year-old. So, what is it about this place that brings out the best in him? “It’s imaginative golf,” replied Spieth. “It’s feel golf and I really enjoy that. When I go away from technicality and towards feel, it’s an advantage for me compared to how I play other places.”
Of all the places Rory McIlroy wants to win, this, of course, is top of his list. Becoming Masters champion would see the Northern Irishman become just the sixth player to complete golf’s career Grand Slam, joining Gene Sarazen, Ben Hogan, Gary Player, Nicklaus and Tiger Woods.
Two attempts have come up fruitless thus far. The 27-year-old is, to borrow an equine phrase, lightly-raced coming into the event this time around. It was down to a rib injury that he was unable to play as much as he’d been hoping in the build-up. He’s left no stone unturned though in preparation for this specific test, having played 99 holes in two weeks here up until Tuesday.
McIlroy knows exactly what he needs to do to get back into the Masters mix for the first time really since he squandered a big lead on the inward nine in 2011. He’s also aiming to take on board advice from Nicklaus over the next four days. “I had a little conversation with Jack and he said to me, ‘I took on too much a couple of times and it cost me a couple of Green Jackets,” revealed McIlroy. “He said it is a golf course that can tempt you into doing a bit too much. It’s just a matter of being smart, taking your medicine when you have to and moving on.”
He’d have saved himself a few shots in last year’s event with that mindset. “I cast my mind back to the 11th hole on Saturday last year where I’m in the pine straw on the left and I’m trying to hit this heroic shot and it goes in the water and I make a 6. That’s the last thing I needed when I was three or four-over for the day,” he added.
Who else might get in the mix? With his mind back on golf, world No 3 Jason Day will be trying his butt off to win for his mum, Dening, as she recovers from cancer surgery. He certainly knows how to get it round here, as, of course, does 2013 winner Adam Scott. Recent Arnold Palmer Invitational winner Marc Leishman was also in the hunt that year. A strong Australian challenge could be on the cards and the same goes for an English one.
A record 11-strong representation includes defending champion Danny Willett. With all due respect to the Yorkshireman, the likes of Matthew Fitzpatrick, Tommy Fleetwood, Ross Fisher and Tyrrell Hatton look more probable contenders on this occasion. I fancy Hatton to pull off something big this year. If he can hole putts how he normally does, then it might even be this, which would be some achievement given that you have to go back to Fuzzy Zoeller in 1979 to find the last first-time winner.
The weather looks set to play its part. For the first time, yesterday’s Par 3 contest was cancelled. Players and patrons were evacuated from the course at 1.30pm, an hour after it had started. Today’s later starters could be faced with winds gusting up to 35mph, with tomorrow’s test set to be tricky, too.
For Nicklaus, it just adds to the Masters magic. “That’s what makes the golf course wonderful and a great tournament,” he declared. “You never really know what is going to happen. Even the players, as good as they might be, don’t know what’s going to happen.”
We can’t wait to find out.