It's shaping up for a real showdown as magnificent seven ride into Augusta for a Major shoot-out

Sat, Mar 31, 2012, 01:00

In the run up to this year’s Masters, it’s almost as if the golfing hotshots, aka the gunslingers, have given advance notice of their intentions for a shoot-out for the green jacket, writes PHILIP REID

THE GOLFING paradise of Augusta National Golf Club, accessed off the neon-lit Washington Road by a drive down tree-lined Magnolia Lane that makes a player’s heart thump a touch faster and to send a spine-tingling chill down the neck, is about as far removed from the gritty, Wild West image of a place like Tombstone. You get perfect azaleas and pink dogwood and camellias, rather than tumbleweed.

Yet, this year’s Masters is different. Something is afoot. It’s almost as if the golfing hotshots, aka the gunslingers, have given advance notice of their intentions for a shoot-out for the green jacket. On tour, one stellar performance has followed another.

The rivalry for the world number-one spot has added lustre to it all, although – in truth – the prize of a Major title eclipses that statistical accolade. Everyone, it seems, is playing exceptionally well.

One big name after another has won. Phil Mickelson? Tick – Pebble Beach! Rory McIlroy? Tick – Honda Classic! Justin Rose? Tick – WGC-Cadillac championship! Luke Donald? Tick – Transitions tournament. And, most of all, Tiger Woods is back! Tick – Bay Hill Invitational!

It is, as an in-form but still winless this season Lee Westwood observed the other day, “a marketing man’s dream to get everybody playing well going into the first Major . . . it is good for golf.”

Except, there is nothing manufactured about this scene-setting. The players are simply delivering the goods on the golf course, converting their hours of practice on the range and in the short game area into the hours when it matters most of all: compiling a score.

Woods’s impressive win at the Bay Hill Invitational followed a reconnaissance visit to Augusta – where he has won four US Masters titles, most recently in 2005 – where he tested out a strained Achilles tendon injury. His practice round was followed by a full week that saw him play the Tavistock Cup and, then, by an imposing victory in Bay Hill where he out-duelled Graeme McDowell in the final round.

“If he’s going to be playing like this again, I think he will dominate golf again. Maybe not to the same level, but I see him winning a Major a year for the next five, six years,” observed Rose.

McDowell, who got a closer and more personal view of Woods’s return to winning ways – his first win in 30 months on the US Tour – was also effusive. “The message to the golfing world is he’s back. It’s great for golf, but as far as players go, it’s bad news because Tiger’s back winning.”

And, yet, Woods’s win came with a rider – not one of the world’s top-five ranked players played at Bay Hill. Donald and McIlroy, who’d swapped the one and two spots over the period, were taking it in turns to hang out at The Bears Club in West Palm Beach and to make reconnaissance visits of their own to Augusta National, while Westwood stayed away from practice at Augusta and instead concentrated on working on his game in Florida, before heading to this week’s Houston Open.

What world number four Martin Kaymer does in the run-up to the Masters seems immaterial. If he plays in the weeks running up to the Major, he misses the cut.

If he takes time out, as he did last year when taking three weeks off, he misses the cut.

The German has played four Masters and missed the cut four times. His natural tendency to fade the ball is at odds to the preferred draw shot off the tee on the dogleg-left holes (numbers 2, 5, 9, 10, 13 and 14). He is unlikely to be part of the gunslingers’ gang.

So, forget Kaymer. He ain’t no gunslinger ’round Augusta.

The enthralling aspect to next week’s first Major is that so many of the top guns, players with history around Augusta, are on form. Where once a rivalry that involved Woods and Mickelson gave an edge, the arrival of McIlroy has brought things to another dimension and the international appeal is broadened further by the recent wins on the US Tour by Englishmen Donald and Rose.

Donald’s best result at the Masters was third on his debut in 2005, but he managed a fourth-place finish last year and has brought a consistency to his game that makes him a silent assassin rather than a gun-toting outlaw.

Rose, too, has form around Augusta. He has thrice led after the first round – in 2005, 2007 and 2008 – and, in 2007, trailed eventual champion Zach Johnson by one shot as he stood on the 17th tee in the final round where his drive down the right hit a tree and the ball ricocheted across the 15th fairway and ultimately led to a double-bogey.

In modern years, no players have matched the deeds of Mickelson or Woods around the azaleas and dogwoods. Mickelson has won three Masters’ titles, Woods has won four. They are the ultimate hot-shots on the course. On a recent practice visit, Mickelson observed that, even with years of knowledge, the greens – notoriously slick – retained the capacity to ambush.

“You’ll never feel comfortable on them, because you have to be so defensive or you’re going to have three, or four or five putts.”

McIlroy, we know, has the game to conquer the course even if we remember his final round failings – the ultimate drama – more. He exorcised those ghosts with his US Open win and his form since the US PGA last August has numbered three tournament wins and a capacity to contend week in and week out.

The deadliest gunslingers, as portrayed in the movies, pitched good against evil. Wyatt Earp and Doc Holliday versus the McLaury brothers at the OK Coral. Pat Garret versus Billy The Kid at Fort Sumner. This time, there is no evil. Just good. The main contenders are hitting town with a green jacket in their sights, and – alluringly – in the form of their life.

JUSTIN ROSE

World Ranking: 6.

Pros: Four wins inside the past 20 months, most recently in the WGC-Cadillac Championship, means Rose is playing better than at any time in his career.

He is hitting over 70 per cent of greens in regulation – underpinning his accuracy with approach shots – and his status as a first-round leader of the Masters on no fewer than three occasions reaffirms his ability to play the course.

Cons: Rose’s weakness under pressure tends to come on the greens rather than off the tee.

The putter can be hot or cold. And when its cold, its like an iceberg.

PHIL MICKELSON

World Ranking: 15.

Pros: Lefty (Mickelson is right-handed, but plays golf left-handed) gets a pep in his step whenever his feet touch the hallowed turf of Augusta National where he has won three US Masters (in 2004, 2006 and 2010).

Got an early-season win under his belt with victory in the Pebble Beach Pro-Am and showed it was no flash in the pan with a runner-up finish in the Los Angeles Open. Getting his old blade back into his hands on the greens has made a huge difference to his scoring.

Cons: The 41-year-old is still prone to a wild drive off the tee

. . . and nowhere punishes errant shots as much as Augusta!

LEE WESTWOOD

World Ranking: 3.

Pros: Westwood first led the Masters on the back nine of the final round in 1999, only to buckle on the run home to finished tied-6th. Two years ago, he finished runner-up to Mickelson. Westwood has the game for Augusta – long and straight off the tee, and has a much-improved short game – but the critical factor is his experience. This will be his 13th appearance in the Major. Lucky for some?

Cons: He has knocked repeatedly on the door at the critical stage of Majors. His failure to win a Major is a monkey on his back, especially with so many of his ISM stablemates discovering the art of winning.

BUBBA WATSON

World Ranking: 18.

Pros: There is something about Augusta National that favours left-handers, and especially long-hitters.

Watson is one of the longest drivers of a golf ball on the professional tour – averaging 317 yards in driving distance on the US Tour – and, given the combination of accuracy with length, he has an advantage in finding greens in regulation too.

Knows how to contend in the Majors: he lost out in a play-off to Martin Kaymer for the US

PGA in 2010. A runner-up finish to Rose in the Cadillac and a fourth place behind Woods in Bay Hill suggests a timely run into form.

Cons: If his pink-headed and pink-shafted driver is the main weapon in his golfing armoury, the putter is his weakness.

TIGER WOODS

World Ranking: 6.

Pros: Woods is a serial winner over a course supposedly Tiger-proofed but which only played more into his hands. He has four US Masters titles – 1997, 2001, ’02 and ’05 – in his career haul of 14 Majors and his win at the Bay Hill Invitational, his first on the US Tour for two and a half years, provided flashbacks to some of his greatest plays. His driving is much improved and he is number one in all-round ranking on the US Tour this season.

Cons: Concerns about his fitness with knee and ahilles tendon/calf complaints on his medical report. He hasn’t won a Major since the US Open in 2008. The longer the wait, the more the pressure.

LUKE DONALD

World Ranking: 1.

Pros: He is more comfortable than ever with his status as world number one, a position he has held for the best part of the last nine months – apart from a two-week loan to McIlroy – and he has become a much better closer of tournaments.

Donald is number one in the putting stats on the US Tour for a reason: nobody putts better than he does.

Cons: Doesn’t drive the ball all that long, his average of 273 yards ranks only 178th on the US Tour and, consequently, he doesn’t hit as many greens in regulation as he should. He might be the world’s number one ranked player but his failure to win a Major – yet – stands out like a sore thumb on his otherwise immaculate CV.

RORY MCILROY

World Ranking: 2.

Pros: Probably the hottest player on the planet and in the form of his life. He has finished 2nd-1st-3rd in his last three appearances on tour. McIlroy heads into the Masters as a Major winner after a record-breaking winning performance in last year’s US Open at Congressional. He showed over 54-holes of last year’s Masters that he can play the course for real, rather than on PlayStation . . . and he is a much better putter since teaming-up with Dave Stockton.

Cons: Only one – will the ghosts of that hooked tee-shot on the 10th tee of the final round come back to haunt him if under pressure on the back nine of the final round?