It’s one of the most eagerly anticipated weeks of the sporting calendar as the golf’s best players make the trip up Magnolia Lane seeking to be crowned Masters champion of 2013. The Masters is arguably the most prestigious of golf’s four major championships and it is steeped in history with the greatest players in the games history amongst its past champions. Bubba Watson added his name to that list last April with his maiden major victory after a frenetic final day capped by his now famous shot from the trees on the 2nd playoff hole. For me that shot was the champagne moment of his tournament but what was vital to his victory was his ability to bounce back from dropping shots to regain those shots on the next hole, he simply didn’t allow the momentum of his tournament to turn negative and on a course as tough as Augusta this is key.
Bubba Watson may be the defending champion but there is little doubt that Tiger Woods is the man to beat this week, he has three wins to his name already this season at Torrey Pines, Doral and most recently at Bay Hill which have seen him regain the world number one spot in the World Golf Rankings. There will be cynics who will point out that he has won three times on courses he has a clear liking for but it is hard to question his putting performances at Doral and Bay Hill which bore all the hallmarks of the Tiger Woods that dominated the game in a period between 1999 to 2002 where he collected 7 major titles including 2 Masters titles. He tops a number of the PGA Tour statistics but it is his putting that is difference maker in his game and if he reproduces the putting displays from Doral and Bay Hill at Augusta this week then it would surely require catastrophic failings in his tee to green game to prevent him being in contention for this fifth green jacket.
What makes the Masters special is the tension and intrigue of the final round particularly on the back nine. The famous quote ‘It all starts on the back nine on Sunday’ couldn’t be truer when reflecting on the prospects for Rory McIlroy in the upcoming week. There is no doubt that he has moved on since his back nine collapse in 2011 when leading, he has two major’s to his name and his performance at the Texas Open showed major signs of encouragement but I am still unsure if he can land a blow this week. He is definitely getting his game back to where he wants its but I just think that this week will come too soon for him despite his high finish at San Antonio. My basis for this is that he is still not putting consistently well enough; he took 30 or more putts in his first three rounds at San Antonio and while there was an improvement in his total of 26 in the final round, he needs to string that sort of round together more than once in a week to contend at Augusta, its possible he could do it this year but I am taking the stand that he won’t but would be pleased if he proved me wrong.
Before highlighting ten players to follow this week, it is important for me to reflect on what makes a good player at Augusta National. It is clear that in recent years that long hitters have flourished, Zach Johnson is the only short hitter who has won since 2006 when the course was lengthened to 7,445 yards and that win was in windy and cool conditions which negated need for length off the tee as scoring was so tough. Another requirement is to be able to take advantage of the par 5’s and not allow the par 3 damage your card, Bubba Watson was -8 for the par 5’s but it is overlooked that he was also -4 for the par 3’s. Finally, you have to be able to hit a high proportion greens in regulation, ideally 70% or better, it may sound like an obvious comment but there are courses where you can get away with missing greens regularly, an example would be Bay Hill but Augusta is not the course to miss greens. Based on these criteria and other factors, the ten players who I think are worth following this week are as follows.
Dustin Johnson – Anyone who has previously read my articles will know I am a big fan of D.J. He is real deal in my eyes, it is only a matter of time before he wins a major championship and it would be no surprise to see him do so this week. He is a hugely talented player from tee to green and he has worked very hard on his short game in the close season and it is showing through in recent performances. He has a win to name already this year in the PGA Tour’s curtain rising Tournament of Champions where he hit 88.89% of greens in regulation and was -9 on the par 5’s. Add to that a superb effort to finish in a tie for 4th at Redstone on his final start. If he can restrict the mistakes around the greens then there is every chance his game at Augusta will click this week with great results
Phil Mickelson – In my opinion, Phil is the biggest challenger to Tiger this week and he looks set for a stellar season which could explode if he gets his putter hot again. His performance in wining the Phoenix Open was relentless in its quality and it showed what Phil is capable of doing when putting well. It’s obvious he has been building towards this week since his Phoenix win and he comes alive when he gets to Augusta, he will feel that he should have won last year but for two poor holes that cost him triple bogies in the opening and closing rounds. His putting is the obvious area for concern and he will hope it doesn’t cost him the opportunity of challenging this week but it is a worry that his tinkering in this area has failed to produce a consistency on the greens in past 2 years.
Keegan Bradley – Keegan is a perfect representation of the new breed of American golfers who have confidence that belies their relative inexperience. He showed his PGA Championship victory in 2011 was no fluke with a string of impressive performances last year capped by his victory at Firestone to add a World Golf Championship to his resume. He has started 2013 with a number of strong performances without winning, it would be fair to say that he has not put his best foot forward on Sunday’s this year so far but he can take confidence that he finished strongly in his prep tournament at Houston by posting 5 birdies in his final 7 holes to finish in a tie for 10th. He is clearly a player who thrives on the big stages and will arrive at Augusta National full of confidence that he can build on his Master debut finish of tied for 27th and make a bold bid for the green jacket.
Matt Kuchar – It could be his unassuming nature or his style of play but I do feel Kuchar is underestimated as a force in the golfing world. He has grown in stature over the past 12 months after failing to build on his 2010 season in 2011 and he has picked up two big victories in this time, The Players Championship last May and then this February he lifted the WGC Matchplay Championship. His 3rd place finish at Augusta last year was his best in a major so far and, thanks to his connections to Georgia Tech, he will enjoy a great deal of support from the patrons this week. If there is a concern for his prospects then it would be his driving accuracy this season which is below par by his standards, he is currently 145th for driving accuracy on the PGA Tour statistics whereas he has finished inside the top 60 for this area in the last 3 seasons.
Peter Hanson – Having taken over the mantle of the top Swedish player from Robert Karlsson, Hanson will be looking to cement this status and pick up a PGA Tour victory this season. Having led at Augusta last year after 54 holes he will be returning with good memories despite a tough final round which saw him finish in a tie for 3rd as he has grown as a player since that near miss, This was in evidence when he showed a fearless streak by beating an in-form McIlroy when the latter was defending his BMW Master title. 2013 has started with a consistent run of making cuts and a best finish of tied for 8th at Doral. His prep tournament would be considered, on the face of it, a meager effort by finishing outside the top 20 in San Antonio, A closer look will show that he bounced back from a 78 in Round 3 with a 66 with his best performance from tee to green of the season. For me he rates as the best prospect for a European winner this week.
Ian Poulter – I think if Poulter is ever going to win a major then it has to be this year as he is riding the crest of a wave following his strong finish to 2012 where he played a pivotal role in Europe’s improbable Ryder Cup victory at Medinah and then tucked his second World Golf Championship at Mission Hills 4 weeks later. He is winless so far in 2013 but he has only played 5 events, making the cut in all 4 of his stroke play events and finishing 4th in the WGC Matchplay Championship. He boasted three top 10’s in majors last year which included a solo 7th at Augusta to continue his record of making the cut at every Masters he has played in and his worst finish is a respectable tie for 33rd. He clearly likes the course and if he is able to get himself into the zone that finds himself in at the Ryder Cup then he has to rate as a big player this week.
K.J. Choi – Choi had not been in my thinking for Augusta at the start of the year following his less than stellar 2012 but his performance at San Antonio where he came close to getting his first PGA Tour win since 2011 has persuaded me to roll the dice with him at a course where he has enjoyed his best performances in majors, he has two top-5 finishes at Augusta to his name as well as a top 10 in 2011. Reviewing his playing statistics for the year to date, he is inside the top 60 for greens in regulation, inside the top 25 for scoring average and inside the top 60 for driving accuracy so he is not playing particularly badly this year but the problem has been making birdies, he was outside the top 100 for Birdie or better percentage conversion when he arrived at San Antonio. Fast forward four days and after making 18 birdies this past weekend, equating to 16% of his total birdies for the season, he has lifted him to 71st in Birdie or better percentage and he is taken to continue this progression at Augusta.
Angel Cabrera – Certain players come alive around Augusta, Mickelson and Couples are two obvious ones but Cabrera boasts a decent record around Augusta and has not missed the cut here since 2005. He is an enigmatic player who contends infrequently and wins even less frequently, he has just two PGA Tour victories, both of them major championships. His Masters victory in 2009 came on the back of a string of indifferent performances and it just exemplifies how difficult it is to predict what Angel is going to do. He looked in decent form in his final outing prior to Augusta this year with a top 20 finish in Houston and might well build on that this week as he bids for his second green jacket and win his third major.
Freddie Jacobson – This may be a potentially surprising selection but Freddie shouldn’t be underestimated as he is a player, much like compatriot Hanson, who is on the upgrade. After missing the cut in his first tournament of the year, he has made 5 consecutive cuts and a top 20 finish in San Antonio was an adequate warm up for Augusta. He made the cut in all four majors last season and while his final positions may look uninspiring they represent an element of consistency in a season where he had only one top 10, it is worth bearing in mind that he already has two top 10’s this season in 6 start stroke play starts. He sits inside the top 10 in strokes gained-putting and total putting on the PGA Tour so has to be respected if hitting the greens this week.
Thorbjorn Olesen – Many in the golfing world, including myself, feel Olesen is the next superstar of European golf. He showed maturity beyond his experience when finishing tied for 9h at last years Open Championship in just his second major championship. As a debutant at Augusta, he will do very well to win this tournament but he is capable of making an impact on proceedings. Whether that comes in the form of being an end of round leader or shooting the low round of a day remains to be seen but he has shown that he is capable of going low on tough courses by shooting 66 at Bay Hill on his way to a 7th place finish there.
Clearly anything is possible and we could all be waking up next Monday to the news that one of the above ten players has clinched the green jacket equally so we could be waking up on Saturday morning to the news none of them have made the cut. What is a given is that we will see an action packed four days of golf as the worlds best attempt to win the first major of the year for men’s golf.
‘What makes greatness is not attaining success, it is the endless pursuit to retain and improve that success, there are no half measures when it comes to this pursuit’
The Sportsman 2013
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