On the Cover:
Tiger Woods, who is seeking his fifth green jacket, will be making just his second appearance at the Masters since 2013. He may never dominate like he once did, but the 2018 version of Tigermania roars louder than ever.
It’s April, Augusta National and Azaleas await. As Mike Wilson predicts, there promises to be a masterpiece at the first Major of the year, with any one of the top 25 in the world in line for a fitting of the iconic Green Jacket. With archrivals Phil Mickelson and Tiger Woods rewriting history, and Rory McIlroy bang back in form, it truly is a mouthwatering prospect.
For some, this correspondent included, the Masters was in danger of losing its allure, its lustre, the stardust it sprinkled in abundance in the heyday of the ‘Big 3,’ and Tiger in his pomp. But, it seems the good times are rolling once more for what should be a masterpiece of pure theatre on one of the greatest stages in sports.
It really does say something about the reinvigorating nature of elite men’s professional golf that the man currently wearing the fabled Green Jacket, Spain’s Sergio García is, to all intents and purposes, something of a rank outsider with those wise men they call ‘Turf accountants.’
The Spaniard broke his Major duck at Augusta 12 months ago, shaking off the least wanted moniker in golf as ‘The best player never to win a Major’. His birdie three to Ryder Cup teammate Justin Rose’s bogey five earning the Spaniard the near US$2m winner’s cheque, appositely on the birthday of the late, lamented compatriot Seve Ballesteros.
For García, who was looking and sounding more and more like a tortured soul seemingly destined always to be the bridesmaid and never the bride, winning the 2017 Masters was less
and less about the money. His burgeoning bank account is now more than US$70m – and more a moment of epiphany, the monkey eventually off the back of the man who has no fewer than 19 top-10 finishes in 77 attempts at winning one of what. For every elite golfer is the only true currency of their sport, a Major title.
“Definitely [a] demonstration of my character, and my mentality. You know, how positive I stayed even when things weren't going that well,” was his immediate reaction following the somewhat cheesy Green Jacket donning ceremony in Butler’s Cabin, few believing him when he said, “I'm still the same guy. I'm still the same goofy guy, so that's not going to change.”
“I think the problem is because where my head was at sometimes, I did think about, am I ever going to win one. I've had so many good chances and either I lost them, or someone has done something extraordinary to beat me, so it did cross my mind.
Now married with a new baby daughter in his arms and a Green Jacket in his locker, García looks and sounds like a man vindicated, the shackles off, the doubters - and there were many - consigned to beyond the out-of-bounds markers. This correspondent included who was roundly and vociferously castigated by him at the World Match Play Championship in his native Spain for the audacity of asking him to see a sports psychologist to overcome his demons.
García, who seems to have taken his recent change of clubs from TaylorMade to Callaway in his stride, goes into his title defence inside the top-10 of the Official World Golf Ranking. All of which makes his longish-odds not only more intriguing but all the more attractive for the punters.
But the big back-story to this, the 82nd staging of the season-opening Major, must be the resurgence of two former champions. Both forty-somethings, Phil Mickelson and his archrival over two halcyon decades, the fully-fit again and reinvigorated Tiger Woods. And the more recent renaissance of Rory McIlroy who goes into this month’s Masters not only in search of a first Green Jacket but also the coveted career, Grand Slam.
That would enable the Irishman to join the elite and exclusive club currently comprising five members, Gene Sarazen, Ben Hogan, Gary Player, Jack Nicklaus, and Tiger Woods. Each of who has won all four Majors, at least once.
Interestingly, Mickelson would also join that gilt-edged group was he able to go one better than the half-dozen runners-up finishes he has endured in his home US Open at Shinnecock Hills in June. It will be his 26th attempt at winning what, for most US professionals in the jewel in their crown, much more of which in the June edition of HK Golfer.
Woods is 1-up on Lefty in the Green Jacket stakes, four to three. But the prospect of the pair of them slugging it out through Amen Corner come Sunday afternoon would, without question, send the TV ratings through the roof and into the stratosphere. They were up a reported 181% as Woods went head-to-head with eventual winner Paul Casey at the recent Valspar Championship.
Woods has been managing his rehabilitation with unprecedented care, and, a humbler man than ever before. 12th in the Honda Classic and runner-up to Casey in the Valspar points to a man who, for the first time in many years, justifies his status as the second favourite to win a fifth Masters title. It was a feat only ever exceeded by Jack Nicklaus, the Golden Bear, going winning his sixth Green Jacket in his 46th year back in 1986.
Intriguingly, was Mickelson to make it a fourth Masters win - and, take note of a possible omen, he only dons the Green Jacket in evennumbered years - at 47-years-old - five-yearsolder than Woods - he would surpass Nicklaus as the oldest player ever to win a Major title.
And Lefty comes into Augusta on a run of fine form. Three top six finished topped-off with a barnstorming victory in the WGC-Mexico Championship. Clear evidence of a man not only in the way of his life but belying his years, and, at odds of 20/1, he’s well worth a punt.
The Official World Golf Ranking (OWGR) would suggest that Dustin Johnson, world number-one is the man to beat. But his track record at the Masters, two top-10s in seven outings would indicate that, as they say in golf, Augusta National, ‘Does not suit his eye.’ Perhaps his big-hitting, powerball game lacking the subtlety to plot his way around one of the most strategic courses in world golf.
The phrase, ‘A sledgehammer to crack a nut,’ springs readily to mind when it comes to DJ, arguably lacking the guile, and perhaps the temperament to win on the biggest stage of all.
American idols, Justin Thomas and Jordan Spieth, will, without doubt, be amongst the fans’ favourites. Thomas, second on the OWGR, is yet to record a top20 finish in two appearances at Augusta to date, but his time may yet to come.
Meanwhile, his Ryder Cup teammate Spieth, runner-up twice and Masters champion in 2015, left one to wonder if the scars of what looked like a nailed-on title defence when leading by five strokes heading into the back-nine, suffered one of the biggest collapses in Masters history after bogeys at the 10th and 11th holes. Spieth hit two balls into the water at the par-3 12th hole, carding a quadruple-bogey and dropping him to a tie for fourth.
Memories of Greg Norman’s calamitous collapse around the notorious Amen Corner in 1996 when the Great White Shark sank without trace. Handing the Green Jacket to Nick Faldo and, despite three runners-up finishes, the Australian was never to experience the schmaltzy ritual in Butler’s Cabin, whereas the 24-year-old Spieth has, preceding his 2015 US Open victory with a maiden Major at Augusta.
Justin Rose, the reigning Olympic champion and up to fifth on the OWGR must surely learn from last year’s playoff defeat to García and has the game, and the temperament to add the Masters to his 2013 US Open victory. With five top-10 finishes - runner-up twice - in 12 Augusta outings, the 37-year-old South African-born Englishman will be one to watch again this year.
Those two inheritors of Sergio García’s burden as the best players never
to have won a Major, Lee Westwood and Rickie Fowler not only have that albatross circling as-yet unfulfilled careers. But, take heart, if the Spaniard could find a way to win after 18 years of trying and at the 73rd attempt, then Westwood - in the same territory and with three top-three Masters finishes since 2010, anything is possible.
And Westwood, unlike Fowler, is careering headlong outside the top-100 on the OWGR. In the parlance of the sport of racing, he so loves, his race may run, whereas Fowler, #7 in the world, started the season well with a win at the Hero World Challenge and fourth in the Tournament of Champions before his form tailed-off as the calendar year of 2018 has unfolded.
One man not hitherto mentioned in dispatches to date is Rory McIlroy, memories of his momentous meltdown at Augusta in 2011 still redolent sevenyears-on. Just one top-25 finish on the PGA TOUR to date this year hardly suggested the career grand slam would a realistic option for the Northern Irishman - once the anointed heir-apparent to Tiger Woods - whose game had gone seriously off the boil of late.
But wait a moment; Rory roared right back to form with a barnstorming victory in the prestigious Arnold Palmer Invitational at Bay Hill last month. Thanks in large part to a final round 64, covering the final 13 holes in eightunder-par, playing what he later described as, ‘flawless golf.” In the heat of battle with US favourite Bryson DeChambeau, Justin Rose, Henrik Stenson and, again, a reinvigorated Tiger Woods were hot on his heels. But a final round 64, eight-under-par giving him a three-shot margin of victory and up to seventh on an OWG Rhe once threatened to dominate - 95-weeks at #1 - in what appeared to be the post-Woods era.
For his part, Woods, fully fit again, it seems in both body and mind is just outside the top-100, having been down amongst the dead men and heading towards the exit door of the top1,000, quite a comeback.
But does his Arnold Palmer victory, impressive though it was, make McIlroy an authentic candidate for a maiden Masters title?
McIlroy needs - more than wants - a Masters title, and he needs it badly. First, to secure his legacy as one of the greats of the game, rather than one of the great enigmas, but also to atone for and lay the ghost of one of the most cataclysmic, calamitous, catastrophic and publicly humiliating meltdowns in world golf at Augusta seven - years, seven - years ago.
With a four-stroke cushion going into the final day at Augusta National in 2011, his unravelling was both painful and strangely compelling to watch as South African Charl Schwartzel found himself the unlikely wearer of a Green Jacket made-to-measure for the Irishman.
In reflective mood recently, the fourtime Major winner (and his last, the Open Championship and USPGA both four years ago now) claimed that fateful Sunday, the 10th of April 2011 had been, "the most important day of [my] career," adding, "I learned so much about myself and what I needed to do the next time I got into that position."
But there are those who would suggest that a series of managerial disputes and personal mishaps and misjudgements have revealed a chink in the previously seemingly mental armour.
These included a belatedly abortive plan to marry the recently-crowned Australian Open tennis champion Caroline Wozniacki; oversleeping and almost missing his tee-time at the ‘Miracle of Medinah’ Ryder Cup of 2012; declining the opportunity to play at the Rio Olympics and a hapless and ill-judged ankle injury playing football on the eve of the 2015 Open Championship - he hasn’t won a tournament anywhere in the world since the PGA TOUR Championship in September 2016 - derailed what had promised to be a stellar career of the Woods/Mickelson/Nicklaus dimension.
And, perhaps, therein lies the rub, fame hanging-out with boy-band members, NBA superstars and Premier League footballers - and fortune - a 10-year US$200 million contract extension with Nike for apparel only, plus a 10-year $100 million equipment deal with TaylorMade to use their clubs, ball and bag. Not to mention marriage to PGA TOUR staffer Erica Stoll, the trademark swagger and burning ambition may just have been blunted.
But, if anyone of the near-100-man field at Augusta this month not only covets but craves, a Green Jacket, it is the Irishman. Otherwise very good, if not great players like Danny Willett (2016), Bubba Watson (twice in 2012 and 2014), Trevor Immelman (2008), Mike Weir (2003) and the aforementioned Schwartzel will have had the honour not only of wearing a Green Jacket in perpetuity but also setting the menu for the pre-Masters Champion’s Dinner.
The Masters has, over the years, thrown-up some unlikely and unheralded winners, like Larry Mize in 1987, Mark O’Meara in 1998, Ángel Cabrera in 2009 and Willett two years ago. So, given a fair wind, a good draw and some large slices of luck, anyone in it can win it.
And, like sticking a pin whilst blindfolded in the start list, the best of the rest could be the currently in-form Casey, with the fresh smell of Valspar victory in his nostrils. 2016 Open Championship winner Henrik Stenson, whose Augusta record to date is lamentable. US-based Spaniard John Rahm, tied for 27th on debut last year and Jason Day, almost anything is possible.
However, with Lefty, Tiger, García and Rose, Spieth and Thomas, Johnson and Bubba, Matsuyama and Kiradech - and now possibly Rory - all in contention come late afternoon US Eastern Time come Sunday 8th April, it would make for compulsive, compelling and clamorous viewing. It would also give men’s professional golf the shot in the arm it so badly needs. And we’ll all, for sure, have Georgia on our minds.
But, with a course like Augusta National, four-times around Amen Corner, many of the best players in world golf in the field and the world watching, picking the winner of the Green Jacket this year is, for predicting pundits, a cross between playing Russian Roulette, a Medieval Joust and a Franco-Spanish duel to the death.
May the best man win.
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