The Masters Preview, Picks & Analysis
HAS there ever been a more eagerly anticipated Masters? Tiger Woods is back to full fitness and form, Rory McIlroy has returned to the winners’ circle for the first time in 18 months and Phil Mickelson is a winner again at the age of 47. If only those three players produce their best at Augusta then we will be in for the most thrilling first major of the season in years – and that is without considering the qualifications of the rest of a world-class field.
Let’s deal with Woods first of all. Out of the game for three years, he has returned after a fourth back surgery and already has the sport at fever pitch, and he still hasn’t won anything. He has soared up the world rankings and is now sitting just outside the top 100. Who would ever have thought it possible when he announced his latest comeback? Remember that only a few months ago the 14-time major champion made it clear that he didn’t know if he would ever be able to play competitively again. And now here we are wondering if he can actually go ahead and win again at Augusta. This comes on the back of a runners-up finish at the Valspar Championship and a tie for fifth at the Arnold Palmer Invitational.
He looks lean and fit and his swing is the best it has been in years. Better yet, he has shown no discomfort whatsoever and is generating more clubhead speed than at any time in his illustrious career. There are still some concerns about his accuracy from the tee. He threw away any last lingering chances he had of victory by going after a drive at the par-five 16th hole at Bay Hill, and promptly hit the ball out of bounds. It was an odd decision as he could comfortably have reached the green in two with a three wood from the tee. But that is not the way that Woods plays the game.
There have been plenty of birdies and, most encouraging of all, his short game remains as good as it has ever been. You may or may not know that Woods has never missed the cut at Augusta as a professional. He simply adores the place, and he knows how to play it.
Then there is McIlroy. He started his season on the European Tour and narrowly failed to win his first two events of 2018. He headed to the PGA Tour full of confidence, but then it all fell apart. There were missed cuts and a worrying return of his frailties on the putting surface. The Northern Irishman spoke with Brad Faxon on the eve of the Arnold Palmer Invitational – during his prime, Faxon was one of the best putters in the game. He quizzed McIlroy about his approach to putting and it emerged that when he stands over the ball with a driver in his hands his mind is clear; there are no complicated swing thoughts, no worries, no fears. But prior to his session with Faxon he admitted that his thought process was entirely different. Faxon told him to try to become more instinctive on the greens – and he proceeded to putt better than he has done for as long as any McIlroy observers can remember.
And the thing with putting is that once the ball starts to fall into the hole, everything becomes so much easier. Confidence rises, the player “sees” the line more readily and the putts go in from all over the place, which is precisely what McIlroy experienced at Bay Hill, no more so than during that wonderful final round of 64 that saw him catch and pass the leaders and eventually coast to a much-wanted and long overdue success. Before the tournament began, McIlroy had fallen to 13th in the world rankings, which is simply unthinkable.
He only needs a Green Jacket to complete a career grand slam, and everybody who knows about these things agrees that McIlroy and Augusta are made for each other. But his record at The Masters is pretty dismal, especially for a golfer of his quality. He should have won it in 2011 but a final-round collapse saw him finish 15th. There have been top-10 finishes in each of his past four appearances but on no occasion has he looked like winning. There is a feeling that this year could be different, especially as he will arrive at Augusta with his confidence high.
Then there is Mickelson. Everybody in the game thought he was a busted flush. Everybody other than Mickelson. He hadn’t won anywhere since his victory in The Open at Muirfield in 2013. Yes, there was that amazing Sunday afternoon when he went toe to toe with Henrik Stenson at Royal Troon in 2016 and came off second best. Many pundits thought he was carrying too much scar tissue. But Mickelson never stopped believing and he only went and proved us all wrong when he defeated Justin Thomas at the WGC Mexico Championship. Lefty has won The Masters three times, and who would bet against him doing so again?
Of course, the one he really wants is the US Open, in which he has finished runner-up six times. That is more than enough heartbreak for any golfer to deal with. But if you offered him the opportunity of winning another Green Jacket, you can be certain that he would bite your hand off. Like Woods, Mickelson possesses a short game to die for – an absolute prerequisite at Augusta National.
Apart from McIlroy, there is every reason to believe that there will be a sizeable European presence on the leaderboard come Sunday afternoon. Sergio Garcia returns to defend his title, Justin Rose is determined to go one better than 12 months ago, Stenson is back to his best, Tyrrell Hatton continues to improve, Paul Casey is a winner again, and Tommy Fleetwood loves playing in America, and is enjoying success there too.
How can you possibly discount Jordan Spieth, who has never finished worse than 11th? Or Dustin Johnson? And what of Justin Thomas, who has carried on where he left off last season, a year that saw him crowned Player of the Year with five victories, including his first major, the US PGA Championship? That is without even considering the chances of Branden Grace, Patrick Reed, Louis Oosthuizen, Matt Fitzpatrick (a short-game genius), Jon Rahm, Rickie Fowler, Jason Day, Marc Leishman, Daniel Berger, Alex Noren or Xander Shauffele. Phew!
If Rose is going to add to his 2013 US Open, then it is almost certainly going to happen at Augusta. He is not the best putter in the world, but he is one of the best strategists in the business. He knows how to put the ball in the right place, time after time, and that is what you simply have to do to win The Masters. He has played in the tournament 12 times to date and has never missed the cut, which speaks volumes about his approach to the course. He finished second to Jordan Spieth in 2015 with a score that would have won just about any other Masters and he lost in a playoff to Sergio Garcia 12 months ago. And he showed at Bay Hill that he is in form.
If you are looking for a good each-way bet (and aren’t we all?) then you could do an awful lot worse than investing a few of your hard-earned English pounds on Shauffele. Winner of the Players Championship in 2017 and rookie of the year, this boy can really play. There is not much of him, but he hits the ball a long, long way, has a magnificent short game and a wonderful temperament. And he also possesses a huge amount of self belief.
Rory McIlroy. In the form to complete career grand slam
Tiger Woods. He couldn’t, could he? Yes he could
Jordan Spieth. Brilliant record at Augusta
Rory McIlroy. If he putts well, he wins
Tiger Woods. Who would have believed it?
Jordan Spieth. Simply adores this place
Xander Shauffele. Could surprise a lot of people
Justin Rose. Must feel The Masters owes him one
Justin Thomas. Currently the best player on the planet
Henrik Stenson. Back to form at exactly the right time
Matthew Fitzpatrick. Fabulous short game
Phil Mickelson. Who doesn’t love Lefty?
Sergio Garcia. Will have great feelings
Paul Casey. Outstanding record at Augusta
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