Top 10 Masters talking points

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1. Can ‘you-know-who’ end his six-year drought?

It is easy to forget Tiger is officially still the best golfer on the planet and has been number one in the world since before the Masters last year. Given that he has also already won four Green Jackets (and so quite likes Augusta National) it is not that surprising that he is favourite to win the first major of the year. What’s more, in the eight Masters he has played in since his last Green Jacket (2005) he has finished 3rd, 2nd, 2nd, 6th, 4th, 4th, 40th and 4th. In other words, even though he has not won any of the last 22 majors, he has not been a million miles away from a fifth Masters victory.

And yet, it is now nearly six years since he won a major championship. And, perhaps more pertinently, three years since he broke 70 on the weekend at a Grand Slam event. His Navy-Seal ruthlessness in finishing off tournaments he is winning seems to have deserted him.

Pre fire-hydrantgate, when Tiger was winning majors, he was outdriving everyone in the field, leaving himself short irons to greens where others had mid to long-irons. He was also unbelievably secure with his putter, seemingly incapable of missing any crucial putts under eight foot. The landscape has changed dramatically since then. Tiger carries more scar tissue – both physically and mentally; and he no longer has the ability to freeze the blood and chill the spines of the new young guns who have come into the game.

Having said all that, surely soon the new swing he has been working on with his coach, Sean Foley, must pay dividends and win a major? Brandel Chamblee (not Tiger’s best mate these days) recently told this magazine: “When Tiger changes his method, it typically takes him three years to get back to the player he was.” Tiger has now been working with Foley for two-and-a-half years. If Chamblee is right (and he has been before) 2014 could mark the end of the long drought.

**UPDATE: Tiger Woods has been ruled out of The Masters 2014 since publication – a talking point in itself!

2. Will Skippy be on the menu?

Poor old Arnie and Jack and Gary. They must be getting very tired of being proverbial ‘guinea pigs’ when it comes to Champions Dinners, which in recent years have turned into a sort of Bush Tucker Trial for the Green Jackets.

In 2010, Angel Cabrera served up ‘blood sausage’ and something called ‘mollejas’, which turned out to be the thymus glands from sundry unfortunate Argentinian animals. Two years later, Charl Schwartzel revealed the sauce on the delicious steaks they had all enjoyed was actually monkey gland sauce. This year, it is very possible that Adam Scott will serve up kangaroo (which several trendy chefs are currently championing as an environmentally friendly alternative to beef and pork). Quite whether it will be ‘Kangaroo Steak’ (a bit of a novelty meat, like crocodile or emu) or ‘Kangaroo Tail Soup’ is not yet certain. Whatever, Palmer and Nicklaus are unlikely to ask for seconds, even if it is low in saturated fats and full of iron. The Black Knight, on the other hand, probably will...

3. How will they protect the 17th hole?

Only at Augusta National could they make the felling of a tree sound like the death of a close relative. When the Chairman of the club, Billy Payne, announced that a ferocious ice storm had so severely damaged the 65-foot-tall loblolly pine on the 17th hole that it would have to be dug up, it sounded just like he was switching off the life-support machine of one of the club’s oldest members.

“The loss of the Eisenhower Tree is difficult news to accept,” said Payne. “We obtained opinions from the best arborists available and, unfortunately, were advised that no recovery was possible.” Whether or not the Chairman had tears in his eyes, the press release doesn’t record; but what will be interesting now is to see how the club react.

This iconic 125-year-old tree was already showing its age, and many of its limbs were being held together by thick ropes and cables. In the 1950s, it became known as Eisenhower’s Tree, because it represented clear and present danger to the former President’s tee shot every time he played the hole. He hated it so much he campaigned vigorously with club officials during his White House tenure to have it removed; when the club “politely refused” his requests, he discovered the power he held in the Oval Office didn’t extend to this corner of Georgia.

The 440-yard par-4 17th hole was the sixth toughest on the course last year, averaging 4.22 strokes with 25 birdies and 86 bogeys or worse. The primary reason for this difficulty was Ike’s tree, which grew taller and wider every year, meaning the tariff on the perfect drive (a faint draw down the right-hand side) subtly and relentlessly increased. If no replacement tree is found, the design strategy would seem to disappear. The penultimate hole becomes a bit of a ‘nothing’ hole, with players able to bomb it anywhere. At the time of going to press, the club was keeping their cards typically adjacent to their sternums.

“We have begun deliberations of the best way to address the future of the 17th hole,” said Payne, “and to pay tribute to this iconic symbol of our history. Rest assured, we will do both appropriately.”

What about a 65-foot tall plaque, Billy, precisely 210 yards from the tee, with Dwight D Eisenhower’s name engraved in big green letters? They have deep pockets at Augusta, and in previous years, huge mature trees have miraculously appeared from one year to the next, as ‘tweaks’ to the course have been announced. Although trying to transplant a tree of this size is an extraordinary engineering undertaking, it would be a brave man, given their history, who would rule out such a feat. And indeed, rumours were rife that a reserve loblolly pine had already been identified, and exists in some undisclosed location in Georgia.

4. Let’s hear it for kids

The inaugural ‘Drive, Chip and Putt Champs’ will take place before the event, giving 88 kids a Sunday they are unlikely to forget. The 21-year-old Tiger will no longer be the youngest Augusta winner.

5. Can a European finally win?

Once upon a time Europeans used to win this Tournament – six times out of seven from 1988, in fact. In the last 20 years of the 20th century, we won 11 Green Jackets. And yet, in the first 14 years of the 21st century we have won exactly none. Worse still, we haven’t really been that close. Last year, there was no European in the top five. Oh sure, Westwood was the runner-up behind Mickelson in 2010, but he was still three shots behind. Since Olazabal’s win in 1999, the top European has been an average 5.7 shots behind the winner. Certainly, given European success in the Ryder Cup, it doesn’t seem to make sense. Yet this year there is still more hope than expectation that Europe’s glory days are about to return.

6. Who should your money be on? Rory McIlroy?

The key here is value. Is a golfer at a bigger price than you think he should be? It’s your judgment against a bookmaker’s. For example, if you think that efforts to Tiger-proof the course seem to have worked, and that he has lower than a one-in-five chance of winning, then you should steer clear of the 5/1 favourite. He’s also nine years older than when he last won (2005) and he began 2014 like he’d forgotten how to swing the club. And Rory McIlroy, never better than 15th after blowing his one big chance, yet 7-1 second favourite? Who knows what images of that nightmare 2011 blowout will resurface if he gets into the same position? At five times their price, wouldn’t Sergio Garcia, a happy winner again in both his professional and personal life, represent better value? Next, you should look at past course form. Augusta National has always been the sort of place where the old masters come to the fore. Angel Cabrera, who is 44, and who lost in a play-off to Scott last year, seems to always save his best for this week. Fred Couples may be 10 years older at 54 now, but amazingly the 1992 Champion hasn’t finished outside the top 15 in the last four Masters Tournaments.

Current form is also very relevant (even though Trevor Immelman’s win in 2008, which came after he missed the first eight weeks of the season recovering from a calcified tumour, would seem to contradict this). Power and flair also seems to be a regular trait of Augusta winners. Since the course was most recently lengthened (2006) only Zach Johnson in 2007 (then 169th in the long-driving stats) has defied the criteria that you need to be a 290-yard-plus bomber to win here. On a course so much hillier than it looks on TV, the extra yardage has made clearing the fairway peaks that much harder. And Augusta has always encouraged flair. If it’s a close call, always go for a creative golfer like Seve, Tiger, Phil and Bubba over the plodder. 

7. The three holes the players fear the most

So often, all anyone talks about at Augusta when it comes to the course is Amen Corner. However, there are three holes, which come very early in the round, which get far less air time, but which are arguably more relevant when it comes to determining the champion. The par-4 445-yard 1st, the par-3 240-yard 4th and the par-4 445-yard 5th are historically three of the toughest holes on the course. Last year they were ranked 2nd, 1st and 5th hardest respectively. Three of the toughest holes in the first five! And invariably, these three holes set the tone for your round.

No one likes a difficult 1st hole because, however many major championships you have won, 1st tee nerves are always a factor; just ask Tiger, who has ended up left of the left-hand trees on more than one occasion. But the real difficulty at the 1st is the slippery green. All too often, players who have come hot off the relatively slow practice putting area, come a cropper 10 minutes later on the lightning-fast 1st green.

The 4th is just a brutally tough par 3, where the wind is as deceptive as anywhere else on the course. Indeed, even though for two days of the tournament the tees are put forward, it is still – all too often – statistically the toughest hole on the course. The left side of the fairway at the 5th offers you the best line into the green, but two deep oblong bunkers guard the inside corner of the dog-leg – and carrying them is not an option unless you can fly the ball some 315 yards.

8. Will Fitzpatrick make the cut?

The amateur challenge is led by Sheffield’s Matthew Fitzpatrick, who sensationally became the first Englishman to win the US Amateur in more than a century, last August. A month earlier the teenager with the magical short game won the Silver Medal as the low amateur in the Open. Last autumn Fitzpatrick went to Northwestern University in Chicago (Luke Donald’s alma mater) but has since quit after just one term; and this despite winning one of the five tournaments he played. “Based on the opportunities

I have right now from a golf perspective, I feel it is important to dedicate 100 per cent of my time to the game and have decided to withdraw from university in the US”, he said. The 19-year-old has however assured the English Golf Union that he wants to continue playing amateur golf at least until the 2015 Walker Cup at Royal Lytham. We will see. If he makes the cut, that might all change.

9. The odds

T Woods 5/1
R McIlroy 7/1
A Scott 12/1
P Mickelson 12/1
J Day 16/1
H Stenson 18/1
D Johnson 25/1
J Rose 25/1
C Schwartzel 33/1
B Watson 33/1
Z Johnson 33/1
S Garcia 40/1
J Spieth 40/1
M Kuchar 40/1
H Mahan 40/1
L Westwood 40/1
B Snedeker 40/1
Note: Odds likely to change.

>> For TG's betting tips of the week with odds from William Hill, click here

10. The big names that may not qualify

Because of tweaks made to the 18 categories of invitees this year, the final list is likely to produce one of the biggest fields ever. Although unlikely to beat the record (1962, 109) the final figure could still top 100, which hasn’t happened for more than 50 years. The list stands at 93 as we go to press; and you can add any PGA Tour winners not already invited between now and the second week of April. Anyone who makes it into the top 50 by March 30th will also make their way down Magnolia Lane; so George Coetzee (53), Pablo Larrazabal (58), Scott Piercy (66) and Peter Uilhein (68) better start playing well soon. Big names likely to miss out are Nicolas Colsaerts (101), Paul Lawrie (128), Rory Sabbatini (138), Padraig Harrington (139), Geoff Ogilvy (144), Robert Karlsson (223) and Darren Clarke (290). It will be especially sad not to see three-time major champion Harrington in the field: the Irishman has not missed a Masters for 15 years.

11. A bonus talking point - TG's free-to-play Fantasy Golf game

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