Chipping In - McIlroy suffers under the pressure of expectation
Chipping In is a weekly column from Golf Journalist Nick Bonfield
Well, it wasn’t a vintage Masters, but Bubba Watson was a thoroughly deserving champion. He compiled his first bogey-free round in a major in testing Thursday conditions and followed it with an impressive 69 to head into the weekend with a three-shot lead. Many people, though, felt he didn’t possess sufficient mental strength to deal with the pressure of leading a major championship, and I have to admit I was one of them. In the previous seven tournaments where he possessed the 36-hole lead, he managed to convert just one. On Saturday, he stumbled to a 74, looked decidedly out of sorts with his irons and missed a host of short putts on the back nine – a sure sign of nerves. Jordan Spieth, meanwhile, played the best round of his career to seize a share of the 54-hole lead.
The pair were joking on the practice round prior to Sunday’s play, and you wondered if their convivial relationship would act as a help or hindrance. I can’t help but feel it played into Bubba’s hands, but that mustn’t detract from the way he conducted himself on the course. He joked when he felt it was apt and distanced himself when he needed to focus; he formulated an aggressive strategy and stuck to it religiously (as demonstrated by his second to the par-5 15th); he putted like a master on razor-sharp greens and drove the ball as well as anyone has at the Masters. Granted, I’d have liked to see someone come from the pack and challenge a man who has a tendency to struggle under spurious pressure, but no one can argue he deserved to win. He was undoubtedly aided by the nature of the golf course – I’d love to see how he’d fare in a similar position on a US Open-style layout – but it was a fine all-round performance. He now has two major championships to his name – the caveat to any argument pertaining to his skill and ability to perform on the biggest stage of all.
I have nothing but admiration for Jordan Spieth, especially after the humility of his post-round interview with Tim Barter. His sense of perspective, maturity and ability to see the bigger picture is almost as venerable as his immense talent as a golfer. Less than two years ago, Spieth was driving overnight to attend Monday qualifying. He took his chances, earned a tour card, secured a maiden victory at the age of 19 in the 2013 John Deere Classic and excelled on debut in the Presidents Cup. He took to Augusta like a seasoned veteran and played phenomenal golf in his first appearance, vindicating the effusive praise that’s been leveled at him since the start of his professional journey. He just ran out of steam on Sunday, but had he holed slick 6-footers on 13 and 15, it could have been a different story. Granted, he didn’t win, but his aptitude and major-winning potential was plain for everyone to see. Earning the respect of the golfing world is some achievement for a 20-year-old who started the tournament six months and 29 days younger than Tiger Woods was when he produced his record-breaking performance in 1997.
Westwood’s putting woes
As much as it pains me to say it, Lee Westwood isn’t going to win a major championship unless he makes a drastic improvement on the greens. His long game was sensational over the four days, but his putting was absolutely woeful. I lost count of the amount of 5- to 10-footers he missed during the course of the week, and his abject 3-putt on the 4th green in round four, which effectively put paid to his chances, was symptomatic of a another dreadful display. I hate to be critical, and I’m sure he’s working hard to become a better putter, but is he doing enough? It’s the same year after year, as is his rhetoric, and it’s for that reason I have to question if he possesses that burning desire to improve the only area that’s stopped him winning multiple majors.
McIlroy – too much pressure?
It’s an affliction that certainly hit Tiger Woods last year, and now it seems as if Rory McIlroy is putting too much pressure on himself. Whilst commentators were critiquing his swing, in particular his take away, there’s no doubt that if a few more putts dropped, he would have been right in the mix. Indifferent putting form might stem from a lack of confidence, but it’s also a product of mindset. Instead of staying calm on Friday and realising there was still a long way to go, he allowed himself to become agitated, affecting his putting and, in turn, the rest of his game. You just feel if he relaxes, looks as the bigger picture and tries to enjoy himself a touch more, the good results will come. Golf is a game of patience, and that message needs to be reinforced.
Blixt for the Ryder Cup?
I was hugely impressed with Jonas Blixt at The Masters, as was European Ryder Cup captain Paul McGinley in the Sky commentary booth. The Swede seems to be able to produce his very best golf in the most pressure-filled situations, which makes him a perfect candidate for golf’s biggest event. What’s more, he’s absolutely brilliant on and around the greens, and his short-game display at Augusta was up there with the best I’ve ever seen. He didn’t have a single three-putt in his first appearance at Augusta, a golf course with notoriously quick putting surfaces and some unbelievable undulations. In my mind, that was the most impressive statistic to emanate from the 2014 Masters. He’s now finished 4th and 2nd in his last two majors – only his 2nd and 3rd overall – and if that isn’t an indication of his credentials, nothing is. Honestly, there’s no one I’d rather have standing over a five-footer to win the Ryder Cup.
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