Deputy Sport Editor Jason Segall previews the 2019 Masters Championship that gets underway today, with him predicting a memorable tournament for one of Northern Ireland's favourite sons.
It is an oft repeated golfing proverb that the Masters doesn’t begin until the back nine on Sunday. For some, there it ends. The history of golf is littered with great final day collapses, Jean van de Velde’s notorious triple bogey on the last to concede a three-shot lead over Paul Lawrie in the 1999 Open Championship at Carnoustie immediately springs to mind. But Augusta National has a way of causing collapses unlike any other major venue. From Jordan Spieth rinsing two on 12 to open the door for Danny Willett four years ago to Greg Norman’s final round 78 to lose to Nick Faldo by five in 1991, the treacherous, water covered back nine at Augusta is ripe to destroy rounds of golf.
Northern Ireland’s Rory McIlroy found this out first hand eight years. With a four shot lead reduced to just one by a charging Charl Schwarzel by the turn on Sunday, Rory proceeded to deposit his ball into the Butler Cabin from the tenth tee, and would go on to shoot 80, with Schwarzel taking the green jacket.
For some, such a collapse would have ended a career, but Rory’s talent shone through winning the US Open at a damp Congressional by a record margin just two months later. Now, with an additional three majors to his name, McIlroy sits one green jacket away from the golfing history books as just the fifth golfer to capture all 4 men’s majors over a career. Could this, finally, be his year?
Form wise, he could not be in a better place. A stellar start to 2019 culminated in his first Player’s Championship victory at Sawgrass in March, an event which is often regarded as a pseudo-fifth major and is certainly one of the most difficult tournaments to win in the golfing calendar, before a close quarter final defeat to Tiger Woods in the World Match Play two weeks ago.
This season, he sits 24th on the PGA Tour for strokes gained on approach, compared to 56th last season, while he is currently gaining 0.327 of a shot putting compared to 0.06 last season. A player blessed with massive natural power from the tee, the last few years have been dogged by poor wedge play and indifferent putting which, for someone averaging comfortably over 300 yards off the tee, is all that stands between McIlroy and the true domination of golf courses of which he is capable, and even this small improvement over last season has led to 0.57 more birdies per round.
And nowhere is approach play and putting more important than at Augusta. With wide fairways and short rough, Augusta is known in golfing circles as a second shot golf course, where a score is built on putting the ball in the right place on the green rather than being in perfect position off the tee. Once one reaches the putting surfaces, they are undulating and lightning fast, so putting touch is even more of a must than in a regular tour event. If Rory is to at last capture his place in the annals of golfing brilliance, it is those areas of his game which will have to be on top form this week.
For his part, McIlroy is confident that he has what it takes to conquer Augusta, saying in an interview with the BBC that five top-10 Masters finishes in a row “proves I have the game for it”. He attributes his return to the winning circle at Sawgrass to a change in mindset,
saying “A change of attitude has been one of the biggest keys to how I’ve played for the first few months of the year, it’s about not getting caught up trying to play perfect golf. I meditated for 20 minutes on the Sunday morning of the Players Championship. My routine now consists of meditation, juggling and mind training, doing all the stuff to get you in the right place.”
As is to be expected, it is far from a weak field which stand between McIlroy and his first Green Jacket. In the media hype at least, his main opponent would appear to be, as always, the resurgent Tiger Woods, having finished last season on a high with a win at the Tour Championship after almost a decade of personal and injury woes, albeit in a field consisting of only 30 golfers. With 4 Masters titles to his name, and galleries which are sure to be behind him should he reach anywhere near the top of the leaderboard, Woods is always a threat around the Augusta pines. His putting has been suspect since his return, but his iron play is as sharp as ever. His second shot on 18 at the WGC Mexico Championship earlier this year is all the proof anyone needs, fading the ball around a tree from a bunker to 10 feet. It is this which could prove the difference if Tiger is to once again capture the Masters.
Elsewhere in the field, Europe is well represented among the favourites, with last year’s Open Champion Francesco Molinari in great from having won the Arnold Palmer Invitational at Bay Hill in the past month, while Tommy Fleetwood has continued his Ryder Cup form stateside, sitting in the top five on tour for strokes gained scrambling, another crucial strength when the greens get tough to hold on Sunday evening. The ruthlessly consistent Justin Rose is always one to watch at Augusta and was narrowly defeated in a playoff by Sergio Garcia in 2017.
For the Americans, the relentless power of Dustin Johnson is dangerous around any course, while Ricky Fowler’s record over the last few years leaves him as one of the finest current players on tour to have never won a major. Look for him to make a strong bid to change that this weekend. And don’t discount the likes of Jordan Spieth and Bubba Watson, who, while having had somewhat turgid starts to the year, have both shown in the past that class is far more influential around Augusta than form.
As Augusta finally makes moves towards the 21st century with the great success of the Augusta National Women’s Amateur event last weekend the first step on the road to a long-awaited women’s masters tournament, I think the champion of this years Men’s tournament will be one of 21st century golf’s greatest figureheads in Rory McIlroy. He has the ability to dominate golf courses, and with the form he is in there are very few in the world today who can challenge the Northern Irishman. It will all come down to the two classic stumbling blocks in golf: the flatstick, and the steel between his ears. If he can conquer those, I see no reason why Rory shouldn’t be wearing green by Sundays end.