This year’s big stories will centre on Tiger’s return and Rory’s quest for a major “slam”. But who are the other leading contenders and who has the game best suited to Augusta National?
Augusta National’s defence is its greens. Their undulations are complex and when this is combined with their speed, it adds up to the toughest greens the pros play.
This course demands careful analysis in determining exactly where, relative to that day’s pin placement, the ball should come to rest on any given green. Next is to execute the very shot that has the ball finish in precisely that spot. Finally, putt the ball with the right amount of pace, and on the right line. And therein lies the two keys to winning the Masters – approach shots and putting.
Most amateur golfers have no idea what it’s like to putt on genuinely fast greens. Stimpmeter speeds at the Masters are thought to be around 12–14 feet, although this information is not released. By comparison, the local Mountain Shadow course, some years back, was reckoned to be amongst Pattaya’s fastest. At their best they would have run at circa10 feet. The slopes on Augusta’s greens are more severe than television shows them to be, and they are fast, knee-trembling fast.
The effect these putting surfaces have on scores cannot be overestimated. Any flaws in a player’s putting stroke will be agonisingly exposed. The challenge from tee to green still exists, obviously. But fairway width is generous, and if the ball finishes in the second cut – Augusta has no rough – chances are the player can still reach the green. The test, therefore, is to place the tee-ball in a position from where the approach shot can best be played, with a lofted club. In short, be long off the tee, hope for a reasonable lie, determine where on the green to land and hit it there – with an absolutely pure strike.
So, who will win and what is likely to be the winning score?
The second question is the easier one. Here’s a tip that could win you a beer or two when backing what you think will be a tournament’s winning score. By the time you read this, you should know the score, relative to par, of the first round leader. Simply double it and then deduct two or three shots. If the leading first round score is six under par, then the winning score is likely to be 10-under. This tends to work at most tournaments except US Opens; where you should just stick to a score of even-par, or the Open Championship where you never predict the winning score unless you know what the wind is going to do, on what day, and from which direction it will do it.
As to who will win, well, that is a far harder question. Consider the following:
Length: The course has been lengthened by 500 yards over the last five years. At 7445 yards it is genuinely long. It normally has roll. Enough of it will permit the use of a more lofted club for the approach shot, and that could be vital. It favours the long hitter like few other courses. If wet, the odds for the big bombers shorten even further.
GIR: Greens in Regulation is a crucial part of scoring well at Augusta. In the last seven years, five of the winners have ranked 1st or 2nd for tournament GIR. Rather reinforces the need for pure ball-striking.
Experience: This year’s field has its normal number of first-timers – 19. The last first-timer to win was Fuzzy Zoeller in 1979, so it doesn’t happen often. But in Brooks Koepka there is a genuine chance for an upset. The challenge is in understanding those greens. It took Rory six attempts before he understood them enough to achieve a top-10. Experience counts for a great deal here.
Putting: Enough has been said.
Of course there are many other factors worth considering, but limiting these to length, GIR, Masters experience and putting, my top ten in terms of attractive odds (Paddy Power as at 6 April) would be:
11/2 Rory McIlroy: long off tee, no better iron player. Putting streaky, but worthy favourite.
10/1 Bubba Watson: defending champion, huge off tee and 12th in strokes gained putting.
10/1 Jordan Spieth: T2 in first Masters last year, 5th in putting, current form hot.
12/1 Jason Day: T2 in 2011, 3rd in 2013 – currently 8th in driving distance, 52nd in putting.
16/1 Dustin Johnson: 8 yards longer than anyone else on tour, but 144th in putting.
18/1 Adam Scott: T2 in driving distance but putting concerns remain. Won in 2013.
20/1 Henrik Stenson: Has the distance, putting game (2nd), attitude, and the flu.
20/1 Phil Mickelson: Three-time winner with form; a crowd favourite who loves the course.
22/1 Jimmy Walker: 5 wins in 18 months, 18th in driving distance, 3rd in putting – form hot.
66/1 Brooks Koepka: 4th in driving distance, 22nd in putting. First Masters but a chance if fit.
No Tiger? No, I just can’t see him doing it as much as it would be fantastic for the game. His lack of competitive golf must count against him. He is not the Tiger of old.
Enjoy one of golf’s special events.