The first major of the season gets underway this week, and players, golfers and sports fans around the world are eagerly anticipating a tournament that has all the ingredients to be a true classic. To many, the Masters signifies the real start of the golfing season, with Augusta National’s blooming azaleas and perfectly manicured fairways capturing the imagination of golfers from all walks of life. So many things combine to make the Masters so special, from its rich history, fabled golf course and elite field to its idiosyncratic traditions and unique setting. So, what can we expect at the 2013 Masters, and who are the favourites to claim the coveted Green Jacket?
The golf course
Augusta National is indisputably one of the finest golf courses in the world, and strikes the perfect balance between tough and scoreable. If you’re hitting wayward shots, you’ll be punished by water, trees, lightning fast greens and severe undulations, but if you come to Augusta in form, you can expect to make some birdies. All the par 5s are reachable in two, and the last six holes offer a number of scoring opportunities. No one is ever home and dry, and even players way off the lead can come charging through the pack with a string of back-nine birdies.
The 2nd: Players will look to build some momentum on the first three holes and target a birdie at the reachable, downhill par 5 2nd. Drives are hit downhill and around a sweeping corner, leaving a long iron or fairway wood to an enormous green that’s fronted by a huge bunker. Louis Ooshtuizen holed his five-iron for an albatross here during 2012’s final round.
The 9th: The 9th hole marks the start of a truly daunting stretch. Nowadays, players will be coming in with a wedge, but three steep tiers mean distance control on approaches must be spot on. The 10th and 11th, both 500-yard par-4s, follow on from this hole, so it’s important to avoid dropping any shots here.
The 12th: Going on distance, the 12th looks like an innocuous hole, but there’s a reason it ranks as one of the hardest par 3s in golf. It is subjected to swirling winds, and the green, fronted by Raes creek and surrounded by sand, is only 20 feet from front to back. Anyone making four pars will consider themself very fortunate.
The 13th and 15th: These two par 5s are where the tournament can be won and lost. The 13th is only 510 yards, and if players successfully bend their tee shot from right to left, a mid- to long-iron remains to the Rae’s Creek-fronted putting surface. The 15th is also protected in front by water, but it plays downhill and often downwind. Zach Johnson - who laid up on every par 5 en route to victory in 2007 - showed that the conservative approach can pay off, but most players will be aiming to take full advantage on these holes. Len Mattiace, who surged through the field in 2003 to force a play-off, played 13 and 15 in four-under-par, Jack Nicklaus did the same during his heroic victory in 1986 and in 2011, Bo Van Pelt eagled both 13 and 15 to move into a tie for the lead.
The 16th: this par 3 has seen its fair share of drama over the years, most notably on Sunday. The green is surrounded on all sides by sand and water, but when the pin is back left and downhill of a ridge that dissects the putting surface, tee shots often feed down towards the hole. In 2007, Kirk Triplett and Padraig Harrington had back-to-back holes-in-one on the 16th. With the eagleable 13th and 15th behind, anything can happen over this stretch of holes.
Almost 100 players wills be vying for the Green Jacket, but the bookmakers have installed Tiger Woods as the 3/1 favorite. It says so much about Woods’ current domination that he’s such a huge favourite in a field containing all of the world’s best players. The 14-time major champion has won three times in just five starts this season, returning to the top of the world ranking after his victory at the Arnold Palmer Invitation.
Woods is a four-time Masters champion and has an unrivalled affinity with Augusta National. Even during his spell in the wilderness from 2009-2011, he managed to finish inside the top 10 here. He seems to have rediscovered his legendary putting touch, his wedge game and short game is unrecognizable from where it was two years ago, his driving is much improved and, above all, he is once again exuding the same confidence and instilling the same fear in his peers as he did during his halcyon years. He is justifiably 3/1 favourite and the man to beat this year.
Rory McIlroy may have endured an inauspicious start to the season, but I wouldn’t be surprised to see him give Woods a good run for his money. The pair have managed to avoid head-to-head competition thus far, but this could be showdown everyone has been waiting for. The Ulsterman has shown some positive signs of late, including a 65 at the WGC-Cadillac, and he’ll be spurred on by Woods’ return to the top of the world. Ideally he’d have exhibited a touch more form coming into the tournament, but it just takes one week for everything to click into place. Why shouldn’t that happen at the Masters? His game is perfectly suited to the course, he’s becoming more and more comfortable with his equipment and he’ll feel he has unfinished business with Augusta after his humiliating final-round collapse in 2011.
There are so many other favourites that warrant a mention, but I’m going to single out Brandt Snedeker and Charl Schwartzel. The former may have spent a month out with a rib injury, but his golf swing is repeatable under pressure and he’s arguably the best putter in the world game. What’s more, his Masters record is good, and he looks ready to make the transition from PGA Tour winner to major champion. Much like Snedeker, Schwartzel is one of the form players in the world game. Since winning the Thailand Golf Championship by 11 shots in December 2012, he’s notched six top tens – including victory at the Alfred Dunhill Championship – in just eight starts. Schwartzel’s last win in America came at the 2011 Masters, and I’m expecting him to be in contention come Sunday.
It’d also be remiss not to mention the English contingent, as Lee Westwood, Luke Donald, Justin Rose and Ian Poulter have all contended at Augusta in the past. On paper, and according to the bookmakers, Rose is the Englishman to beat. He hasn’t finished outside the top 25 in his last nine tournaments, and is seemingly in contention every time he tees it up. That said, his semi-collapse during the third round of the Arnold Palmer Invitational was concerning, and questions have resurfaced about his mental strength and ability to close tournaments out. He is a class act, though, and I’m expecting him to feature. I can also see Westwood staging a real challenge. The 39-year-old has been extremely solid over the past couple of months, and he’ll be supremely confident, and indeed determined, returning to a venue where he came so close in 2011.
Also look out for Henrik Stenson and Bo Van Pelt. The big Swede has pulled himself from the abyss, and his second-place finish at the Shell Houston Open was his best American result since victory in the 2009 Players Championship. He also won on the European Tour at the end of 2012. Stenson has a good record at the Masters and his confidence levels will be high after breaching the world’s top 50 for the first time since 2010. Van Pelt also has a good record at Augusta, and despite an indifferent start to 2013, 66/1 is far too good a price for someone with such a good all-round game.
It almost feels naïve neglecting to mention so many world-class players, but that is the nature of this year’s tournament. Aside from the veteran past champions (many who should do the honourable thing and give up their place in the tournament) almost every player in the field has a legitimate chance of victory. What’s more, the vast majority of those taking part have shown some serious form over the past few weeks. From Thursday, all eyes will be on Augusta National, and a truly unique tournament that has seen unmatched levels of drama and emotion since its inception in 1934. It says so much about the potential of this year’s Masters that many are expecting the most enthralling four days in the event’s esteemed history.
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