The first major of the year kicks off tomorrow morning as the world’s best golfers attempt to navigate their way round Augusta National and into a green jacket.
For the third time in four years, Tiger Woods is absent, with the three-time champion admitting last week that he wasn’t ‘tournament ready’.
With the stage set, tornado watch effectively over, and the golf course in its usual pristine condition, Bryce Ritchie looks at what could, should, might and might not happen this week in Augusta.
THE FAVOURITE DUSTIN JOHNSON
DJ is the man of the moment, no doubt. Three wins in his last three starts and ties for sixth and fourth in his last two Masters appearances make him favourite this week. Since wrapping up his first major at the US Open last year, Johnson has finally delivered the goods as a top player. His distance will be a huge advantage, something Rickie Fowler noted earlier in the week by calling DJ a ‘freak of nature’. He leads the driving stats and the greens in regulation stats, which is a nice combo if you can get it. Four wins in a row is be a big ask, even for Johnson’s standards.
THE WINNER RORY MCILROY
In the last three Masters, Rory hasn’t finished outside the top ten. He’s stupidly long, and if he has a good putting week, I think it’s time to complete the Grand Slam. The calls for Rory to sack caddie JP Fitzgerald continue to grow from those who feel Rory could do better, but Rory is loyal to JP and will want to prove a point. He’s creative, imaginative, and determined, which is what you need at Augusta. In his column for Sky Sports, Paul McGinley said McIlroy’s lack of prep won’t bother him, either. “He's not a guy who needs a huge amount of hours on the clock and rounds under his belt to feel that he can compete. He's an intuitive player. He's an inspirational player.”
CENTRE OF ATTENTION JORDAN SPIETH
Expect the cameras to be on Spieth when he walks off 11 and onto 12 on Thursday. Last year, Spieth fell apart at Augusta’s tricky par-3 after heading into the back nine with a five-shot lead. He gave back shots on ten and 11, then dunked two into Rae’s Creek en route to a quadruple bogey, leaving him two back. It was a sensational and completely uncharacteristic crash, and it effectively dragged Danny Willett, who had hardly been a figure all day, into the tournament from seemingly out of nowhere. Spieth says he has already fought his demons in practice weeks ago, birdieing the hole on consecutive practice days. In his last three masters, his worst finish is a tied for second, and his peers know it….
Lost in the midst of Tiger fever and it being 20 years since he won his first major in 1997, there are actually two anniversaries at Augusta this week, one them still a source of inspiration for some. 30 years ago Larry Mize beat Greg Norman and Seve Ballesteros in a play-off to slip into a green jacket. “It still feels great to talk about that chip,” he said this week. It was his only major win, and he still remembers it fondly, saying he still has the polo shirt he was wearing that day. But another victory that seems to have been largely forgotten this week is that of Zach Johnson. The classy American outlasted Tiger Woods ten years ago to win his first major, and it was regarded as a triumph because Johnson is not one of the longest hitters in the game but relied on his irons, putting and excellent wedge game. “It’s 20 years since Tiger won. It’s the first Masters without Arnie. I would hope this year would be more about The King not being there than anything,” said Johnson.
The guy is class all round.
Cool stat... there are 94 players – or invitees as ANGC calls them – from 20 countries, 19 of them making their Masters debut
THE SOLE SCOT RUSSELL KNOX
No offence to Sandy Lyle, but there is only one Scot in the field this week who has a realistic chance of contending. Last year Lyle closed with an 81 to miss the cut for the second year in a row and fifth time in seven years. If he makes the cut this year, it will be a success. Ian Woosnam got tired of trying last year and said goodbye. Lyle might not be far behind.
Knox, the world No.23, is Scotland’s sole hope in Georgia. Is that acceptable for the home of golf? That’s up for debate, and now’s the not the time to debate. But he’s certainly used to the pressure of expectation from Scots by now. He told bunkered.co.uk this week he was comfortable and looking forward to the challenge.
THE ROOKIE JON RAHM
“It’s a major and my first time in Augusta. It’s very, very impressive. I’m going to tee it up believing that I can win, competing to win. I might do it… I might not.”
It’s hard to believe where Jon Rham has come from in the last 12 months. In his last six starts, he’s got two WGC top-threes, a top-five, a top-10, and a win. Might just be too much to ask for a Masters win in only his second major as a pro. But he’s a good E/W.
THE ‘NOT AGAIN’ GUY ERNIE ELS
Forget Jordan Spieth. What we don’t want to see this year is another horror show with the putter from Ernie Els. Last year, Els six-putted from three feet on the first hole to open his Masters – a tournament that has dealt him a series of cruel blows – with a quintuple bogey nine. Hopefully, this time, he drains a 20 footer.
GOODBYE HAZEL IRVINE
Hazel Irvine has been world-class servant to a broadcaster that has shamefully turned its back on golf - and sport in general - only to plough millions into ghastly competition shows and filling the pockets of fame-hungry presenters. What a disgrace. She’ll be missed.
REMEMBERED ARNOLD PALMER
Expect lumps in the throat as Jack Nicklaus and Gary Player head to the first tee at 7.40am on Thursday morning for the ceremonial opening tee shots without their friend Arnold Palmer. Palmer didn’t want to hit a shot last year – despite a plea from Nicklaus – but gave his trademark thumbs up. He died five months later. All patrons will be given Arnie’s Army badges to show their appreciate of the great man. A wonderful touch from ANGC and an appropriate start to the 81st Masters.