Hard to look beyond the hotpots at Augusta National

Two or three or more of the best players win tournaments in the months leading to April, golf fans hear the familiar, soothing notes of “Augusta” in TV spots and declare that this is shaping up to be the best Masters of them all.
Hard to look beyond the hotpots at Augusta National

No doubt, there has been enough happen in 12 weeks to start counting the days to this week.

Dustin Johnson started the year with an eight-shot victory that featured a 432½-yard drive on a 433-yard hole. He remains at No1 in the world. Two players have had a mathematical chance to replace him, most recently Justin Thomas, who was one match away.

Phil Mickelson, a three-time Masters champion, won a World Golf Championship for his first victory in nearly five years. Bubba Watson, a two-time Masters champion, had not won in two years and now has won twice in his last four starts.

The career Grand Slam became a popular topic again when Rory McIlroy won the Arnold Palmer Invitational, his first victory in 18 months. This will be his fourth attempt to become the sixth player to capture all four majors. The other three were not particularly close.

One other element to this Masters: Tiger Woods.

He is generating the bulk of the buzz, and Woods hasn’t even won yet.

So yes, Thursday can’t get here soon enough.

Excitement over the Masters typically gives the spring air a sweeter aroma. Part of that is having to wait so long since the last majors. Part of that — a big part — is that the Masters rarely disappoints.

But is that much different from a year ago? Look at the landscape in 2017. Jordan Spieth won big at Pebble Beach and had never finished worse than runner-up in three Masters.

Thomas shot 59, set a PGA Tour scoring record for 72 holes and swept Hawaii to begin his emergence as the next young star. Hideki Matsuyama was on a roll. Jon Rahm was just getting started. Rickie Fowler won again. And then Johnson found another gear and won three straight tournaments.

And then Sergio Garcia won his first major in his 20th year as a pro.

The difference now is that picking a favourite is like picking a favourite hole at Augusta National. Oddsmakers most recently had Woods, Thomas, McIlroy and Johnson at 10-1.

Spieth and Rose were 12-1. Watson was right behind at 14-1, followed by Mickelson and Day at 16-1.

Woods, the former world number one has finished 12th, second and fifth in his last three PGA Tour starts and looks to be pain free, with only some understandable rustiness arguably preventing him winning for the first time since 2013.

Three-time champion Mickelson is five years older than Woods and until recently was also without a victory since 2013, but beating Justin Thomas in a play-off for the WGC-Mexico Championship makes the left-hander a genuine candidate to surpass Jack Nicklaus as the oldest Masters winner.

Rory McIlroy’s own winning drought was only 18 months but the manner in which it ended, with a final round of 64 to win the Arnold Palmer Invitational, catapulted the Irishman back to the top of the betting market.

McIlroy’s first three attempts to complete the career grand slam have resulted in finishes of fourth, 10th and seventh, although it is noticeable that his best chance to win also remains his worst memory of Augusta, namely squandering a four-shot lead in 2011 with a final-round collapse.

Of course McIlroy is not alone in suffering back-nine nightmares at Augusta and it will be fascinating to see whether Jordan Spieth can overcome the demons which must be swirling in his head like the wind around Amen Corner.

Spieth has remarkably led after half of his 16 competitive rounds at Augusta and has form figures of 2-1-2-11, but famously blew a five-shot lead with nine to play as defending champion in 2016 and ran up a quadruple-bogey nine on the 15th in last year’s opening 75.

The fact that he recovered to lie just two shots off the lead heading into the final round speaks volumes about the Open champion’s character, but he struggled to a closing 75 as Sergio Garcia went on to beat Justin Rose in a play-off.

With so many other storylines around, including a resurgent Bubba Watson seeking a third green jacket, Garcia has been somewhat overlooked as he tries to emulate Jack Nicklaus, Nick Faldo and Tiger Woods as the only back-to-back Masters champions, with the birth of his first child — a daughter named Azalea after Augusta’s 13th hole — a welcome distraction.

But given the manner of his defeat last year and a tie for second behind a record-breaking Spieth in 2015, don’t overlook the potential of Justin Rose and the possibility of making it a third European victory in succession.

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