The Augusta Masters is the only major tournament that is played on the same golf course, at more or less the same time, every year.
The Augusta Masters is the only major tournament that is played on the same golf course, at more or less the same time, every year. Given that, as well as the fact that the course requires a specific set of skills—putting, course management and feel—it shouldn’t be hard to pick favourites. In the last 15 years that I’ve tried to predict whose shoulders will don the coveted Green Jacket, I’ve got it right only once: given the pre-eminence of Tiger Woods in 2002, I reckon most people got that one right. Yet, here I am, on Tuesday, in the Masters week, willing to stretch my neck out, again. So, with that disclaimer in place (and with the understanding that I’m writing this before the tournament has got underway), here’s who I think might win, and those who won’t.
The most crucial bit of information has come from the weatherman: we now know that high winds have been forecast on the first two days and a bit of rain over the weekend. Windy conditions immediately hand the advantage to the European and Australian players who are much better at managing their game in these ‘home’ conditions. Ergo, the likes of Charl Schwatzel, Henrik Stenson, Lee Westwood and Sergio Garcia should make it comfortably to the weekend.
But that edge loses its shine once the money rounds begin, which, if the forecasts are on target, will make the course play longer and softer. Those conditions immediately favour the long hitters who can fly it 300 yards and have mid-short irons into the greens, while those who can’t will always be playing catch-up on their long-iron approaches. Advantage to the likes of Adam Scott, Bubba Watson, Jason Day, Rory McIlroy, Rickie Fowler, Sergio Garcia and Louis Oosthuizen. On the flip side, the prospect of the course playing any longer than it is puts the shorter hitters out of the running: don’t expect to see Jason Dufner, Jim Furyk or Mike Weir in the final groups on Sunday.
Let’s first get the reigning champion out of the way: Danny Willett is playing possibly the worst golf of his professional career in 2017 and he’s got no chance at all at defending his title. Miracles do happen and when he got it done in 2016, playing some of the best golf of his life, then that was one. For him to repeat that feat would require divine intervention. Adam Scott, possessor of the world’s finest golf swing and one of the best ball strikers ever, isn’t a great putter. In fact, he’s not even good, not since he had to abandon the belly putter when that club was ruled as non-conforming in 2015. Even when he won the Green Jacket in 2013, using that putter, it was literally because he stuck everything so close to the pin that he barely left himself any long putts. Scott still has the length, and with the rain minimising roll on the fairways, the Australian will have a big advantage over the guys who can’t hit it long. If he can putt it half as well as he hits it, then Scott could steamroll the field. If the greens were any slower than they are at Augusta National, Rory McIlroy would have won the tournament ages back. The Ulsterman also tends to get too aggressive, at least for Augusta National where small misses can translate into big numbers, and possibly still bears scars of his now-famous meltdown here in 2012. Could he keep a lid on his buoyant go-for-broke play for four days? Unlikely.
From what one saw of him at last week’s Shell Houston Open, the greens-in-regulation monster—Justin Rose—has reason to feel good about his chances. Rose’s putter, literally the only variable in an ironclad tee-to-green game, looked like it was warming up. Not hot, but definitely getting there. The copybook Englishman is always in with a chance. Not surprisingly, the bookies’ favourite going into the tournament is Jordan Spieth. Now, Spieth is often compared to Jack Nicklaus because of his guile and course management. He also knows how to play Augusta National—where to hit, and where to miss—and can putt like a man possessed. It’s no small measure of the benchmark he has set for himself when you hear people talk about how he’s not doing well in 2017: Spieth won on the PGA Tour in February this year, and is ranked sixth in the world—hardly the stats of someone who’s hit a rough patch. More so, Spieth will undoubtedly be keen to make a statement, and appears to be the man to beat. If you have one wager to make, it should be on Spieth.
The popular favourite is Dustin Johnson, and justifiably so: Johnson, who skipped last week’s Shell Houston Open, comes into the Masters after winning three tournaments on the trot. His play has looked almost vintage Tiger-esque, and that’s ironic, given that the only man to win the Masters, while being the top-ranked player in the world, was Woods in 2002. If he wins, it would be the fourth straight victory on the PGA Tour for Johnson: again, only one man has ever done that before, and that would be Woods in 2006. Just for reference, that year, Woods won eight times on the PGA Tour, had one runner-up finish and yet another top five. That really does put into perspective what Johnson is going to be attempting this week—he has to match the Tiger Woods of 2006. Johnson is undoubtedly the most phenomenal player in the world right now, but I won’t be putting any money on him this week.
The Masters Tournament has a penchant for throwing up surprises, and it’s quite likely that the winner might be someone who’s on no one’s radar. If Hideki Matsuyama can take it, he’ll be the first Japanese golfer to win at Augusta, and, given Asia’s ascent in the world of golf, that would be the cherry on the cake. Whatever you do, don’t miss the final round on Sunday night.
A golfer, Meraj Shah also writes about the game