Fantasy Golf is back and where better to start than Augusta National and the 79th Masters. Rory and Tiger have dominated the headlines ahead of the season’s first major but for starkly different reasons. The Northern Irishman is seeking to become the sixth player – after Gene Sarazen, Ben Hogan, Gary Player, Jack Nicklaus and Tiger Woods – in the modern era to win all four majors – a ‘career grand slam’. He would be the first European and only the third – after Nicklaus and Woods – to do it before their 26th birthday.
McIlroy is the clear favourite ahead of his seventh trip to Augusta. Of his six previous appearances he has recorded three top-20s (2014, 2011, 2009), missed the cut once (2010) and broken 70 five times (from 22 rounds). Eighth place last year represented his best finish, with his lowest total score (four-under par) coming in 2011. The latter turned out to be one to remember but for all the wrong reasons as McIlroy took a four-shot lead into Sunday, before a spectacular collapse led to a final round 80 as Charl Schwartzel left wearing the green jacket. The 25-year-old has since called that ‘the most important day of my career’ and spoke of feeling ‘comfortable’ at Augusta after practice rounds there last month. He will return in decent form with one win (Dubai Desert Classic) and two other top-10s from his five starts since the turn of the year.
A then nine-year-old McIlroy penned a letter to Tiger Woods in 1998 warning him: ‘I’m coming to get you’. How right he was. This year marks the 10th anniversary of Woods’ last Masters win and ‘that shot’ at the par three 16th hole. Since then the American’s fall has been as dramatic as McIlroy’s rise with the former’s slide outside of the world’s top 100 for the first time since 1996 making him as big as 50/1 with some bookmakers to claim a 15th major title this week.
Just like McIlroy and Woods, Augusta itself needs little introduction. The former indigo plantation, founded by Bobby Jones and Clifford Roberts, has hosted the Masters since 1934. The 7,435-yard layout boasts spectacular scenery, tall pines and vivid flora but there is plenty of bite behind the beauty. Its undulating fairways, water hazards and fast greens require power, accuracy and touch to be negotiated efficiently.
Taking advantage of the four par fives is key to success with the second, eighth, 13th and 15th holes ranking as the four easiest on the course in the tournament’s history. Avoiding trouble at the start of the back nine is equally important with the par four 10th and the start of the fabled Amen Corner (par four 11th and par three 12th) the three toughest holes.
Bubba Watson claimed his second green jacket last year with a winning total of 280 (eight-under par). He was one of just seven men to break par – Blixt, Spieth, Jimenez, Fowler, Kuchar and Westwood the others. Here’s who I’m backing to go well in week one…
Jordan Spieth, £3.5m
Man in form. Winner of the Valspar, runner-up in Texas and further top 10s at the Northern Trust and Pebble Beach since the start of February. Took to Augusta like a duck to water last year, finishing runner-up.
Jimmy Walker, £3.0m
Another man enjoying a stellar season thus far. Two wins at the Sony Open and Texas Open and a second place at the Hyundai have proved that 2014 was no fluke. Eighth in his first Masters in 2014.
Dustin Johnson, £3.0m
A man on a mission since returning to the game. DJ has recorded a win and three other top-10s since the start of February. A 13th-place finish in 2013 – when he shot an opening 67 – is his best Masters finish in five attempts.
Bill Haas, £2.0m
The man from North Carolina has a win to his name in 2015 (Humana Challenge) and was seventh best of a high-class field at the WGC Cadillac. No missed cuts and two top-20s from five trips to Augusta.
Ryan Moore, £1.8m
Five made cuts and a best of 14th (2010) from six Masters appearances is steady rather than spectacular. However, Moore comes in on the back of an impressive start to 2015 with top-10s at the WGC Cadillac and Valspar Championships.
Paul Casey, £1.4m
The Englishman is enjoying something of a resurgence, finishing second at the Northern Trust and third at the Honda Classic in February. This will be his ninth Masters and his first since 2012. Sixth (2004) and 10th (2007) are his best finishes.
Let's see who the TG team are backing this week!