#1 - Does Augusta need Bubba-proofing?
With two Green Jackets in three years and an ability to take routes few others can, Watson’s Masters wings need to be clipped. Or do they?
What we saw at last year’s Masters has led to some excitable sorts calling for Augusta National to be ‘Bubba-proofed’, to save it from the big-hitting Texan. And while it’s true that Bubba’s ability to drive into areas of Augusta other players cannot reach, the hysteria is unfounded.
To illustrate this, let’s rewind to the late 1990s, when Tiger had just won the first of his four Masters. That he won by 12 strokes caused understandable alarm – and calls to ‘Tiger-proof’ Augusta National. Changes duly followed in 2002, with nine holes lengthened and several other additions. “They put trees wherever he used to hit it,” was how Tiger’s one-time coach Hank Haney remembered it. “All the margins have gotten tighter and he doesn’t overpower the course any more.”
Watson may have won two of the last three Masters and clearly has the game to play Augusta, but talk of Bubba-proofing the course is a knee-jerk response.
Watson led the stats on distance in the 2014 Masters, as you’d expect, but he also tied 13th in driving accuracy, hitting an impressive 71.43 per cent of fairways.
Those two factors, combined with his natural power-fade, allowed Watson to outlast Jordan Spieth, but only by three strokes, not 12. Watson reinvented routes around Augusta, particularly on the 13th tee in the final round, but he didn’t overpower the course like Tiger.
Look back further and we see Watson is nowhere near the danger to Augusta that Tiger was in his prime. His scoring average at Augusta over 24 rounds is 71.79. Impressive, but still some way short of Tiger’s 69.83 – and behind Jack Nicklaus’ 71.72. Indeed, Bubba’s average for the last three is 71.08 – inferior to Adam Scott’s 71.00. If Bubba wins again in 2015, the calls will grow louder. But for now, Augusta is fine as it is.
#2 - Do left-handers have an advantage?
With six holes dog-legging left and a fade easier to control than a draw, right-handers face the toughest test.
The fact that six of the last 12 Masters have been won by Mike Weir, Phil Mickelson and Bubba Watson has led to understandable claims that Augusta favours the left-handers.
But the fact that every one of the first 66 champions was a right-hander undermines that contention. And to suggest that Augusta favours lefties suggests that all lefties play the same brand of golf – the fact Bubba usually hits a fade and Phil Mickelson almost always a draw debunks that myth.
The truth of the matter is that Augusta certainly seems to favour the players who hit the ball right-to-left, because of the high number of dog-leg left holes. The 2nd, 5th, 8th, 9th, 10th and 13th holes all benefit the player who turns the ball left – an unusually high number for a major championship course.
Where left-handers might have a natural edge over their right-handed rivals is that it is generally agreed that a fade is the ideal ‘go to’ shot for consistency – and, clearly, a fade for left-handers slides right-to-left.
However the fact Jack Nicklaus was a right-hander who predominantly played a fade and won the Masters a record six times, and that Nick Faldo won three Masters with his left-to-right shape, help undermine any suggestion Augusta is a drawer’s course.
#3 - What type of player wins The Masters?
Does Augusta National reward brawn or finesse? The last 30 winners suggest the truth is somewhere in between.
#4 - Can a young American win?
With both Tiger and Phil looking like fading forces, America needs a new hero. Of the youngsters lining up to take their place, these three look best equipped...
For a few short holes on the Sunday of last year’s tournament, it appeared that US golf’s most gifted new star would become the youngest Masters champion in history. Aged just 20 and playing Augusta for the very first time, Jordan Spieth stood two clear of the field after Sunday’s first seven holes, until Bubba came out blasting. And yet, for a man with no status at the start of 2013, to have come within three strokes of winning on his Masters debut was a victory in itself. “I’ve worked my whole life to lead Augusta on Sunday, and although I feel like it’s very early in my career and I’ll have more chances, it stings right now,” Spieth grimaced afterwards. “The only thing I’m thinking about is when am I getting back next year.” The experience of contending in the final group will stand Spieth in good stead when he stands there again, while the memory of Rory’s Masters near-miss and his subsequent success will only fuel his fire.
Winner-in-waiting or nearly man? Rickie Fowler’s total aggregate for the four majors in 2014 was 32 under – better than anyone, including Rory McIlroy, but he’s the only player in history to finish among the top five in all four majors during a single season but not win one. He also has just a single PGA Tour title to his name so far. Working with Butch Harmon has clearly helped Fowler’s game, particularly his driving (up 11.1 yards from 2013 to 2014), but the next 12 months should show us if he possesses the extra gear a major winner needs.
The Texan may not quite be one of the “top five players in the world”, but a year on from his proclamation, he’s clearly no mug. The world No.15 won four PGA Tour titles before the age of 25, a feat matched only by Tiger Woods, Rory McIlroy and Sergio Garcia. He was also one of the few Americans to emerge from Gleneagles in any kind of credit, returning 3.5 points from four. He can blow up (final-round 77 at the Quicken Loans National) and misses lots of cuts (including the 2014 Masters and Open), but if he blows hot for four days, Patrick Reed can win at Augusta.
#5 - Which holes should the stars fear most?
The start of the back nine is always talked of in feared tones, but are the three holes straight after the turn really Augusta’s toughest tests?
Based on the numbers stretching back to the inaugural Masters in 1934, Augusta National’s three toughest holes do indeed arrive immediately after the turn. The 10th is Augusta’s toughest test of all – a par 4 of 495 yards that has averaged at 4.31, followed, in order, by White Dogwood (11th) and Golden Bell (12th). However, based purely on how the course played in 2014, the three holes below are statistically the toughest examinations at Augusta National – and quite possibly where the 2015 Masters will be won and lost.
Dog-legging to the right, the hole’s opening shot has to carry a valley. A deep bunker right, trees either side and the simple fact this is the opening hole make this a daunting start.
A regular on Augusta’s hardest holes list.
Flowering Crab Apple
Extended in 2010, with the tees pulled 25 yards back, the 4th’s shallow, sloping green is protected by bunkers, making pinpoint accuracy paramount. Amen Corner-esque winds complicate further.
Amen Corner’s opening hole, where the wind is often a factor. The tee shot plays downhill and left-to-right. A pond and bunker guard the green and make for the toughest approach on the course and Augusta’s toughest test in 2014.
#6 - Can Bradley made the cut?
How 19-year-old Amateur Championship winner Neil is thinking ahead of his debut.
“I expect to win”
“I’ll go thinking I can win, otherwise what’s the point? The difference is, my expectation of winning will be lower than Rory’s. To me, it’s about the experience of a great tournament.”
“I have no fear”
“I genuinely cannot wait to hit that first drive. There are no nerves or fear about it, why would there be? This is why I got into the game, to stand on the 1st tee at Augusta and test myself. I’m hoping it goes long and I hope it goes straight, of course, and then I’m away.”
“I am prepared”
“I went to Augusta in January, just to get a feel for it, and it hits you immediately. It’s hard to define what is so amazing about the place but I suppose it’s the fact you just can’t escape its history. Everywhere you look there are things you recognise from watching it every year on the television, only in the flesh it’s more remarkable. It’s like St Andrews in that respect.”
“I’m in with the crows”
“I’ll be staying in the Crow’s Nest but only for the first night. I want the experience of staying there, but after that I want to be staying with my family and sharing the whole experience with them.”
“I have a dream”
“I’ll view realistic success as making the cut and being the top amateur. If I can come away on the Sunday having achieved that, I’ll be very happy.”
“I have been briefed”
“Justin Rose and Adam Scott have both spoken to me about what to expect. They said to take in the whole experience of playing a Masters and to be prepared for the change when the tournament actually begins. What goes before it on the practice days cannot prepare you for the glare of the tournament itself.”
#7 - Could this rookie class finally break the curse?
It’s 36 years since a first-timer won a Jacket. One of this trio may end the drought.
Brooks Koepka, America
The Phoenix Open winner and Manchester United fan already has a T4 in the 2014 US Open to his name and has the length to put himself in contention at Augusta. Won against a strong field in the 2014 Turkish Open.
Shane Lowry, Ireland
The two-time European winner ended 2014 with a career-best 10th in The Race To Dubai, breaking into the world’s top 50. He opened 2015 with a T7 in the Farmers Insurance Open, his first top-10 finish in the US.
Danny Willett, England
A consistent performer, with seven top 10s en route to 25th in the 2014 Race to Dubai. Willett secured his second European Tour win in his first 2015 event, the Nedbank, seeing off Ross Fisher and Luke Donald.
#8 - Could Augusta re-energise Tiger Woods?
His form and fitness have been abject, but Tiger’s history at Augusta gives reason for optimism...
|The number of times he has won the Masters, starting in 1997 as the tournament’s youngest winner, then again in 2001, 2002 and 2005.
|Tiger’s winning margin in 1997, aged 21 years, 3 months, 14 days. Calls for the Tiger-proofing of Augusta followed, and changes were made.
|Number of Tiger’s top-five finishes at the Masters – second only to Jack Nicklaus (15).
|Tiger’s aggregate score at Augusta, played over 74 rounds and 19 appearances.
20 - 1
|Almost always previously the default favourite, Tiger’s a 20-1 outsider this time. Rory is the 4-1 favourite.