Expectancy of a thrilling Masters has never been so high
Tournament is wide open as so many players are on top of their game at Augusta National
Rory McIlroy hitting from the 7th fairway during final-day practice for the Masters. Photograph: Reuters/Brian Snyder
Honestly, something has got to give. For in this 82nd edition of the US Masters – only 87 teeing up but never with such firepower – it seems as if one player after another has found the secret formula to drive down Magnolia Lane at Augusta National with a sense of entitlement to a green jacket.
They can’t all win. Only one will be vindicated.
This has the makings of a humdinger – a classic of its kind. It is as if the scent of the azaleas has provided an empowering, intoxicating aroma that has been sucked in and absorbed as a stimulant. The levels of expectancy, of players and of those of us outside the ropes, have never been so high.
“There’s a lot of the top quality players, young and old, playing some of their best golf...that’s going to lead to one of the most exciting Masters in years,” said three-time winner Phil Mickelson.
How about ever?
The buzz has been electric, almost as if a kind of energy has enveloped the old orchard for a tournament which has storyline after storyline.
Can Rory McIlroy achieve the career Grand Slam? Can Justin Thomas, chasing successive Majors, add a green jacket to the Wanamaker Trophy and jump to world number one in the process?
Can Tiger Woods complete a miracle comeback? Can Phil Mickelson become the oldest champion? What of Bubba? Of Jordan Spieth? Can Sergio defend? What of Justin Rose’s search for redemption?
On and on and on...
And one of those flying in under the radar is world number one Dustin Johnson. DJ arrived a year ago as the hottest golfer on the planet only to trip up, falling down the stairs and was unable to play.
Truth is, this Masters tournament is a wide open contest because so many players are on top of their game. It’s as if the past months on tour – and with hundreds of millions of greenbacks ripe for the picking – have only served as a warming-up itinerary for the real start to the meatier part of the golf season.
“I’m approaching this as the beginning of the year,” conceded Spieth.
And in many ways the nine-month gap since Thomas rolled in his winning putt to win the US PGA has only served to underscore how much the Majors infiltrate the mindsets.
At that time nobody – not even the man himself – could have envisaged Woods playing, never mind returning to the Masters as a genuine contender. But he is.
And other storylines have fermented and reached maturity as exactly the right time. It is an intoxicating concoction, one that will unfold on a course in immaculate condition, where past demons can be exorcised and favours bestowed.
For McIlroy, those mental scars of 2011 have been banished– his mind had wandered from wondering which size jacket would fit his shoulders to becoming the central character in a tragedy.
And in the past few weeks and days the Northern Irishman’s grand plan has evolved: the win at the Arnold Palmer Invitational last month, with an obedient putter, has fuelled further confidence into a body rarely short of that ingredient.
McIlroy knows only too well the importance of a strong start and that he is not put on the back foot. For him to contend and win the aim is to play his way into a challenging position entering the back nine on a Sunday. If he is he knows he has the game to over-power the par fives, the 13th and the 15th.
In fact in 34 competitive rounds at Augusta McIlroy is 16-under in his play of the 13th, and 15-under in playing the 15th.
One of his main rivals, Thomas doesn’t believe the actual Grand Slam is a factor in McIlroy’s mindset.
“At the end of the day Rory’s going to go home, and how many Majors has he won? Four? Five? I know he wants to win more, and especially a course like this that fits and sees his eye so well. There’s a pretty good chance he’ll get it done at some point. I feel it’s just hard to win a Major. It’s hard to win a tournament in general. It’s not like the pressure is any harder just because it’s to close something out.”
And as if that weren’t enough, Jack Nicklaus – the man with the most Majors at 18 – has given McIlroy his vote.
“He is really swinging well, the best I’ve ever seen him...he’s going to be tough to beat. If you picked anybody, he’d be the number one to pick and rightly so. He’s probably playing better than anyone else,” said the Golden Bear.
McIlroy now knows how to handle whatever pressure comes his way.
“I’m an avid fan of the history of the game, and I know a win here and what that would mean, and where that would put me in history alongside some of the greatest that have ever played this game, and that would mean an awful lot to me.
“I have to try and clear my head of that, go out and play good golf, hit good golf shots, have good course management [to] hole putts. If you do that enough times, hopefully that score on Sunday evening’s the lowest out of all competitors that are here, and you walk away with something that you have for the rest of your life,” said the 28-year-old from Holywood, Co Down.
What McIlroy also knows is that he has the ability to be aggressive, to use his power play. Like on the 13th, where he – one of the few – can set off a flight path for his ball over the trees down the left, possibly leaving only a wedge or nine-iron approach to the green.
He’s not alone there, of course. And there is a rebirth of sorts this year in the tall, slim body of Bubba Watson – a two-time champion, a player whose left-handed fade is ideally suited to whipping drives up and over or around the pine trees. This could well see him emerge as the biggest threat to McIlroy’s quest for the Grand Slam.
MY THREE TO WATCH
Whatever about the regeneration of others – Tiger, Phil et al – there is a lot to like about the return to form of Watson. In emerging from a dark place last season, Watson is all sunshine and light these days, with wins in the Genesis Open and the WGC Dell Match Play. The real key to the big-hitting left-hander is his ability to shape shots with a creative mind that seems happiest of all here.
Form: (last five tournaments): 35-1-9-66-1
There’s a focus this time that just seems different. He’s adjusted things, like renting one house rather than two with just family and no entourage; and has a confidence from his Arnold Palmer Invitational win – where driver and putter performed wonderfully. That justifies a genuine belief he could finally get his hands on that elusive green jacket.
With the focus on so many others, the likelihood is that someone could slip in under the radar. Why not the Springbok? It might seem like a pick from left-field but Schwartzel has looked good in practice rounds, and, as a past winner in 2011, knows how to get the job done. And this is a place that features repeat champions.