Masters 2017 Preview, Picks & Analysis
Post by Sports Writer Derek Clements
THE grass is impossibly green, the water is a more radiant shade of blue than a cloudless sky, the magnolia trees look magnificent and the azaleas are in full bloom, gloriously fragrant and picture perfect, Yes, it's that time of year. It can only be The Masters, staged at Augusta National. The tournament and the course were the brainchild of the legendary Bobby Jones and with each passing season its legend grows.
The Masters is the signal that spring is truly here, the sign that it is time for golfers all around the globe to dust down their clubs and prepare for another year of hope and expectation that this might finally be the season when we all finally get on top of this most frustrating of games. It is the four days when we will see some stunning golf played, when some poor unfortunate will come to grief, when one short birdie putt will turn into three, when what appears to be a glorious approach shot runs and runs and runs and finishes up in some evil spot from which there is no way back. We will see approach shots holed, we will see balls spin back into the water. We will see the world's finest golfers reduced to gibbering wrecks. And, at the end of it all, we will see somebody emerge triumphant, grinning from ear to ear as Danny Willett, the Englishman who won the 2016 edition, help the 2017 champion into the Green Jacket.
It is the major that everybody wants to win, nobody more so than Rory McIlroy, for whom victory would complete a full set of majors and elevate him alongside some illustrious company. Only Jack Nicklaus, Tiger Woods, Ben Hogan, Gary Player and Gene Sarazen have won all four of golf's majors. McIlroy believes that Augusta owes him a victory, but everybody knows that golf doesn't work like that - this is a brutal test and unless the Northern Irishman is firing on all cylinders, he will not win his fifth major.
Despite his injury layoff, he has returned to the game striking the ball quite wonderfully. He failed to progress beyond the pool stages of the WGC Dell World Matchplay in Austin, Texas, but will not be losing any sleep over that. He played superbly in losing to Denmark's Soren Kjeldsen and hit some drives that defied belief, including a couple that travelled in excess of 400 yards. Even allowing for the fact that the fairways were hard and the temperatures were in the 80s, that is some feat.
For McIlroy, taming Augusta is all about how he copes with the greens and the omens are good. He has putted well since returning from his rib injury, but the putting surfaces at Augusta are something else.
Even if he brings his A-game to Georgia, it may not be enough to secure the Green Jacket for McIlroy. Dustin Johnson, the US Open champion, will start the season's first major as a warm favourite, and it is difficult to bet against him. He looks like winning every time he tees it up and has played some sensational golf this season, carrying on from where he left off in 2016. He is now the world No 1 and if he continues playing as he has then he is going to be a very difficult man to catch. Against him is the fact that patience is required if you are to win at Augusta over four rounds, and the big American still has a tendency to hit the odd wild shot.
Then there is Jordan Spieth, who has one Masters title and two runners-up finishes to his credit in three appearances. Nobody has a better short game than the Texan and he feels like he owns this piece of golfing heaven. He will want to get the par-three 12th hole out of the way safely after the seven that cost him the tournament 12 months ago. He wouldn't be human if last year's disaster didn't enter his thoughts when he boards the tee on Thursday, but Spieth has a fantastic temperament and will surely be unaffected. He will be overpowered by McIlroy and Johnson but that will not worry him in the slightest.
There is huge anticipation surrounding the debut of Spain's Jon Rahm. He is just 22 years old and has not competed at Augusta before, but this young man is a very special talent with a huge future ahead of him. A former world number one amateur, he has taken to the professional game like a natural. He has no weaknesses. There is always huge expectation surrounding The Masters, but this year there is something special in the air.
Justin Thomas and Hideki Matsuyama are the latest twentysomethings to find something extra. Matsuyama has been knocking on the door for a while and longs to become the first Japanese golfer to win a major. He already spends his life under the microscope from his country's media, who follow his every move. Can you imagine how his life will change if he is the man being helped into the Green Jacket on Sunday? It is safe to say that no golfer will ever have faced scrutiny quite like it - and that includes Tiger Woods.
There is nothing to Thomas. He is a slight figure but possesses a will of iron, hits the golf ball a long way and now knows what it takes to win big tournaments. There are also some encouraging signs surrounding the form of Phil Mickelson. Every loves Flaky Phil and the advancing years have seen no evidence of a diminishing of his extraordinary powers, but it is a long time since he last tasted victory - the 2013 Open Championship to be precise. There wouldn't be a dry eye in the house if he were to win The Masters for a fourth time.
To Win: Jordan Spieth. His record here is second to none
Each Way: Rory McIlroy. May want it just a little too badly
Each Way: Dustin Johnson. Now a brilliant wedge player
Each Way: Jon Rahm. Utterly fearless
Jordan Spieth. Has a point to prove
Rory McIlroy. It all depends on his putting
Dustin Johnson. Forget the power hitting - his short game is fantastic
Jon Rahm. It might just be too early for him
Tyrrell Hatton. Has total belief in himself
Phil Mickelson. Sentimental crowd favourite
Matt Fitzpatrick. Played well here 12 months ago
Rickie Fowler. Which Rickie will turn up?
Henrik Stenson. Always rises to the big occasion
Hideki Matsuyama. Will win a major this year, but is this the one?
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