Powerful hitter will don Green Jacket at the Masters

Not that you need numbers to support the argument that the game of professional golf has changed dramatically, but in 2015, Jordan Spieth’s average driving distance was 291.8 yards.

Don’t be overly impressed, because he ranked 78th.

Now return to being amazed, because at the age of 21, Spieth won both the Masters and US Open.

All of which begs the question: How was such a “short” hitter able to win two majors amid a world of big hitters?

OK, so the question is somewhat in jest, because an average of 291.8 is hardly short. But we live in a world that screams for perspective, and so does Spieth have to be considered to run contrary to the present state of the PGA Tour world. Not short, but neither is he long. Consider Spieth “average” in the muscle department.

He relies not on power, but precision. He beats people with the short clubs, not the long ones.

Yet, for all his brilliance and all the magic he has scripted in two visits to Augusta National — second in 2014, first in 2015, no round over par — why is it the gut tells me Spieth is not likely to defend his title at the 80th Masters?

Because this is a tournament that certainly favors longer hitters and the weather forecast might make length even more crucial.

Augusta National, having absorbed a wet winter and several inches of rain just the other day, is not in vintage firm-and-fast condition, and with rain possible Thursday and coolish, windy weather predicted for most of the week, it’s hard to see a repeat of 2007 when Zach Johnson used his pitching wedge to win a green jacket.

Johnson that year laid up on every par 5, yet played those holes in a whopping 11 under. Demanding weather conditions — cold and breezy — punished most of the field and while he ranked just 169th in driving distance, Johnson slipped into a green jacket.

Digest that for a moment — he ranked 169th in driving distance, at something in the vicinity of 280 yards.

Now consider some of the most recent winners of the Masters and where they ranked in driving distance the year they won the Masters — Angel Cabrera, 2009, eighth; Phil Mickelson, 2010, 13th; Bubba Watson, 2012 and 2014, first each time; and Adam Scott, 2013, 23rd. None of this is to suggest the Masters isn’t the game’s most popular major championship. It is.

But it’s to point out that a respected voice such as Nick Price is also correct; that you cannot deny that the season’s first major championship favours the man whose skill set includes massive length.

Price won three majors — two PGAs and an Open Championship — and while he established the Masters scoring record of 9-under 63 (later matched by Greg Norman), the man from Zimbabwe always preached that major championships should move around. He didn’t feel majors should be anchored to a course that didn’t allow for different styles of play.

Great validity to Price’s point of view, but it’s pretty clear things are not going to change. The US Open will continue to insist that you drive it straight, the Open will demand shot-making and ball-striking, while the PGA Championship will probably keep setting up in a way that looks like your weekly PGA Tour tournament.

But locked into Augusta National, a course everyone feels a kinship to, even if you’ve never been here, the Masters will reward those who hit it long because it is imperative you have as short a club into diabolical greens.

While purists might have issues with the Masters, clearly the public does not. It’s popularity is through the roof, to the point where fans don’t just “attend” the Masters, they make a “pilgrimage.” And, on the eve of the 80th Masters, the storyline revolves around the number of high-echelon players who are in form and labeled as favourites.

The list starts with Jason Day and continues to Rory McIlroy, Dustin Johnson, Henrik Stenson, Rickie Fowler, Justin Rose, Louis Oosthuizen, Watson, and Scott. Nine names and if you were to say the 2016 green jacket would go to one of them, in no way would you get many arguments.

Here’s another thing you wouldn’t get: Much difficulty in finding these names on the long-drive list. Each sits in the top 40, save for Stenson. The big Swede is T-72, but only because he prefers to overpower golf courses with a 3-wood, which he does on a regular basis.

It is said every spring that the Masters is “a tradition unlike any other,” and that will continue in 2016.

A big, powerful hitter will win.

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