The big questions surrounding the 2018 Masters… Answered by three men who’ll be at Augusta for Sky Sports.
There are so many storylines heading into this year’s Masters it’s tough to pick the biggest. How will Tiger perform in his first Major since 2015? Can DJ make up for last year’s staircase slip and win his second Major? Will Jordan banish some terrible recent memories and add to his Masters tally? Can Rory finally find the putting touch to go with his stunning long game, and complete the Grand Slam? And what about Rahm, Rose, Rickie, Justin, Sergio… or any one of the unusually small Masters field due to tee it up on April 5?
To get some answers, we sat down with three men who’ve played in the event, won Majors, coached Major winners and now talk about the game for a living – Sky Sports Masters team Nick Dougherty, Rich Beem and Ewen Murray. Their insight is fascinating… ➔
Masters 2018: Is DJ the man to beat?
RB: Early indications suggest so, but a lot can happen between now and then. A couple of years back, Jordan Spieth was the overwhelming favourite and all of a sudden he was five-over-par on the back nine and Danny Willett was crowned Masters champion. I’d expect all the big guns, including the world No.1, to be in contention, but that golf course is dangerous. Anything can happen on every single hole. But you’ve got to feel like his attitude and the way DJ carries himself makes him the favourite.
ND: DJ, right now, would be the favourite. But it’s also hard to say he’s the man to beat. On any given week, Rahm, Thomas, Spieth, McIlroy – any of those guys – can beat him. I would not be surprised if DJ didn’t win because there are so many world class players.
EM: If DJ doesn’t beat himself and can stay away from stairs, that would help. But there are so many players in contention. My favourite right now would be McIlroy. I can see the timing with his preparations being spot on.
What one quality do you need to win at Augusta?
RB: Watching Spieth, if he was out of position, he’d put himself right back into position. I can remember a couple of shots quite clearly. One of them was on 11. The pin was over on the right; not too far from the edge where it slopes away. You can’t miss it right, or left. The only place you can really hit it is just short of the green, and he landed it right on the fringe, with a 20-footer left back up the hill with very little movement. It was unbelievable. Two holes later, he hit it in the pines. The pin was right at the front. Now, he could have laid up to 80 or 90 yards and had a decent shot. But the ideal shot was to get it pin high right, leaving a chip just over Rae’s Creek, right up the slope to the pin. He did that and chipped it on to kick-in distance. He picked apart that golf course. The angles he left himself for the next shots couldn’t have been placed any better.
ND: You need patience and resilience to win round there. You will make mistakes from doing the right thing, even if your strategy is good and you hit a great shot. All it takes is being a smidgen out. Look at the 6th. That tier back right, which they use at least two of the four days, is so small it’s a joke. If you fall off the left side, it’s a tough two-putt. But if you fall off the front part, which is like seven feet short of the hole, you’ll be chipping. When you play there part of you thinks ‘that’s not right, I’m not having that as a good design’. But if you get sucked into that sort of mentality, you’re done. You will hit great shots which will be punished. The guys who are successful there don’t engage with that mentality and grind it out on every hole. It’s one of those Majors which can be really unfair.
EM: I’m against all this right- to-left stuff off the tee. Nicklaus won six of them going the other way. Do you need to change your swing for one week like Kaymer tried to do a few years ago? With the distance the ball goes nowadays, you don’t need to hit a driver at 13. You can hit a 3-wood to the corner and go from there. It’s another golf course that the top players have the artillery to go round and win on. I don’t think there’s any special shot you need. The greens are the defence, which means the approach work is very important. More so than putting. You need to find the right spot on the greens.
Can Tiger win the Masters?
ND: It’s brilliant that he’s got his swing speed near 180mph. He’s up there with the big hitters. After what his back’s gone through, it’s unbelievable. From what we’ve seen so far, his iron play looks superb and the putter seems to be getting back to where it was at his best. But his pitching and chipping around Augusta could be significant. Part of me thinks he’s got a chance; part of me thinks he’s got no chance. I think he has baggage like normal people now, and he hasn’t played many Masters where he’s had to contend with that. For all those great things he has done, he will know that he’s not ‘the man’ anymore. Physically, emotionally and publicly.
EM: If he is 90% healthy, I’d say they are very good given his record there. What I saw in the Bahamas astounded me. A year out from the game is a lifetime. He’s not that far away from when he was really good. He’s never been a good driver, but his putting is still outstanding. I wouldn’t rule him out. Definitely not.
RB: I wouldn’t either. I’m basing my answer on the premise that he is healthy and there are no signs of injury. When he tried to come back last year to play, from the word go you could see something wasn’t quite right. We haven’t seen that yet. He has such amazing knowledge of that golf course that it’s worth at least a stroke a round.
Where is the Masters won and lost?
RB: It’s a combination of two holes on the front and two on the back. Four is such a hard par 3, but overlooked because it’s so early in the round. It’s 235 yards downhill to not a whole lot of flatness on the green. When you stand on the tee, you’re left wondering what to do. It’s the same with the second on five. If the pin is at the front, just on top of the slope, it’s so tough. There’s no way to get it close. The 5th is the hardest green on the course, and 14 is close behind. On 10 and 11 it comes down to the second shot. There’s no margin for error.
EM: The start of the back nine is very difficult. From 13 it gets easier. But 10 and 11 are seriously dangerous. You can hit a beautiful tee shot on 11 and leave yourself a 6-iron in, which will leave you scared stiff. You can’t go left. It’s a tiny, tiny target and it’s a dangerous green. If you can get through the first two holes on the back nine unscathed over the four days, you’ll be there or thereabouts. But I do remember someone saying if you birdie all the par 5s, that’s the winning score. Par the rest of them, but take advantage of the par 5s.
NB: They would be the key for me; the par 5s. The guys who are bigger hitters, like Rory or DJ, will view them as par 4s. On holes like 15, they’ll be hitting mid-irons for their approaches if they hit a good drive. Even Zach Johnson won round there and he was 11-under for the par 5s. Amazingly, he didn’t go for a single one in two. That, in essence, was smart golf. That was the backbone of his card. The key is not making any big numbers.
Is the 2018 edition the most open Masters in recent memory?
RB: In almost every other sport – tennis and Federer being the exception – the younger players are usually the best players. In golf, it was always the opposite. Now, with the help of social media, these kids know these golf courses before they set foot on them. Jordan said he sat at home playing the Masters on his Xbox, so he had a feel for the golf course that way. These young guys are so prepared.
ND: The game has changed so much. Even looking on the range in Dubai – and this is no disrespect to these players – the likes of Richard Bland and Matthew Southgate are probably standing there thinking ‘this is a chance to win.’ When I came through, there was almost a level of respect for the top players. If Tiger played or Phil, it was almost like, I can’t win this one. They all believe now. Ross Fisher is a great example. He shouldn’t be part of the conversation to win the Masters, but I believe that if he has a decent putting week, he is capable of shooting a score around Augusta that could win.
EM: It is trending that way. Twenty five years ago, you’d pick out eight or nine players and say it will be one of them. Usually, you’d be right. But who’d have said Danny Willett would have won? Who’d have said Sergio, at his 74th crack? They are top quality players, both of them. But there’s any one of 50 who can win a Major. That probably reduces to 30 in the Masters because it’s a smaller field. But that’s still a third of the field who are capable of winning. We haven’t mentioned Justin Rose yet. His record there is unbelievable. Thomas Pieters is another. It wouldn’t be a surprise if he won.
Can Rory win the Grand-Slam?
RB: We can make this whole discussion about Rory and why we think he can win. There’s a very valid argument about that. But if we’re talking about a potential European winner, you also have to look at Rahm. He has the complete game and seems very comfortable working the ball from right to left and left to right. You can’t discount Tommy Fleetwood for that reason as well. He doesn’t have a whole lot of weaknesses, but one small one might be that he doesn’t hit it as high as some of the other players. That’s one thing you need to do. If I had to pick one European to win it would be Jon Rahm because his all-round game seems a little bit stronger than Rory’s at the moment. Rory still needs to improve from inside 150 yards and around the greens.
NB: A lot depends on whether Rory has a good putting week. But soon he’ll be having children and his life will change massively. This could be his last free run at the title. He’s really hungry after his time off and I think, deep down, he believes he is better than everyone. And it’s justified when you see how he can play. To play so many tournaments in the run-up to Augusta will be good for him. Sometimes, he looks a little rusty. We saw it with DJ last year where he went on a run and looked untouchable. I’d like to see Rory get in that flow.
EM: I agree. There are too many events in a year where Rory is just shaking the rust off. He seems to hit top form, then takes a rest. I think scheduling is hugely important, especially when you are playing all over the world. Rory’s schedule has been too sparse. The more they play, the better they play. And when Rory’s on form, he’s probably the best player in the world. The rest aren’t poorer; I’m just not sure there’s anyone better than him when he’s at his best.