This year’s Masters Friday feels like a Sweet 16 in the NCAA men’s basketball tournament. The early upsets are out of the way, some egos have been crushed, most of our bracket’s are busted, and a refreshing reset has set in.
Bernhard Langer and Larry Mize are headlining the weekend action! It’s amazing how some of the old timers continually deliver and the favorites disappoint. Is Phil finally hitting the wall? Maybe. As soon as Jack Nicklaus (had Phil) picks you for something, it’s like the kiss of death. 🙂
The first hole travesty that Ernie Els suffered through shouldn’t happen to anyone. Now this has zero comparison value, but I remember playing in a tournament 25 years ago and five-putting on a par-3 hole. I just wanted to climb into a shell and disappear. I cannot imagine how the Big Easy felt on the first hole of the greatest tournament on earth. It was difficult to watch and to his credit, Ernie answered all the questions with honesty and integrity.
My David and Goliath final match-up is history with both Zach Johnson (cut) and Bubba (made it on the number) shooting themselves out of contention. Zach was assessed a two-stroke penalty for grounding his club in a hazard on Friday and missed it by those two shots, but was already on the back-nine bogey train and headed for the weekend off.
So how’s this play out? The good news is that we are in for a surreal weekend treat. Forget about the traditional Sunday birdie barrage. Look for a U.S. Open style battle of attrition where even par is a great score and the toughest course conditions in years force the players to grind grind grind. I think this favors all the ex-U.S. Open champions in the field. Obviously Spieth has to be favored. He has the toughest demeanor in the game and the guts around the green. If the wind continues to blow, the good ball strikers like Rory and Dustin Johnson should be right there although neither of them putt as well as Spieth. If Justin Rose can banish any putting demons, he has a shot. Jason Day has a good patient approach and figures to be right there on Sunday, but flights it a little high which could be a problem if the wind is a factor. And finally, despite making a 9 in Thursday’s round on #15, look for Angel Cabrera to hang tough. All he does is win when you don’t think he should. He is definitely a horse for this course and has an Open trophy and a green jacket.
Enjoy the weekend slugfest! How’s your bracket doing?
The Masters isn’t the most difficult major to win but it has become the most coveted because of what it represents. In Michael Bamberger’s Men In Green, he describes Ken Venturi’s inability to get past his defeat in the 1958 Masters, and how it haunted him the rest of his life. It certainly showcases the importance of winning this championship and how it can make or break a player.
The 2016 edition feels like the passing of the torch from the cadre of players in their 40s and 50s (Woods, Singh, Els, Mickelson, Couples), who competed and thrilled us for years, to the younger set that is dominating play today. Of the previous group, only Lefty can be considered competitive enough to have a chance. But at 45, he’s seeing the slow inevitable loss of “the edge”. Everyone who’s ever played the game goes through the process, as the venerable Arnold Palmer has described it.
A tip of the cap goes to The King who will not be hitting his ceremonial Masters tee shot this year because of an unfortunate injury. We wish him a speedy recovery.
Now to the business at hand, let’s break the field into three groups of contenders.
Group 1 (Superstars): Rory McIlroy, Jordan Spieth, Jason Day, Adam Scott, and Bubba Watson. The world’s #1 ranking rotates regularly in this circle and sort of confirms the lack of importance of that title. Whomever is hot at the moment is the World #1.
Group 2 (Cagey Veterans): Justin Rose, Louis Oosthuizen, Zach Johnson, and Jim Furyk. All major winners and usually in contention.
Group 3 (BPTNWM: Sergio Garcia, Dustin Johnson, Matt Kuchar, and I’ll lump in Rickie Fowler, since he’s been so close with top five finishes in all the majors. Certainly he has the talent, and now he’s got the expectations.
There are plenty of great players on the periphery like Jimmy Walker, Patrick Reed, Kevin Kistner, and Danny Willett, but the champion will come from one of the first three groups.
Picking major winners is hard so let’s use the process of elimination to arrive at a champion. Getting started, here’s why Rory McIlroy will not win it despite all that talent. Rory has won his four majors but also has that Masters bugaboo since he fired the final round 80 in 2011. Becoming a first time champion at Augusta is hard work as the magnolia baggage piles up. I’m not wild about the timing of his putting change to left hand low. It may be working for him now but I like to see stability with the flatstick heading into a date with these slickmeisters. Adam Scott is striping it too, but I don’t like him for the same reason. Too soon away from the broomstick to handle the mental grind on these greens.
Now we know what the issue with defending champion Jordan Spieth is. He overextended himself with commitments after his stellar year. Seems reasonable, and he appears to be regaining some mojo, but is also struggling with the putter and won’t get all the way back, at least not this week.
Someone with imagination will win The Masters Someone who’s a great putter will win. Someone who can grind will win. Ricky Fowler can make birdies with the best of them but can he grind? He got ground out in Phoenix as a front-runner and that didn’t sit well. To have a chance he needs to come from behind on Sunday. Not likely.
Jason Day fits the bill on the requirements. Before last year’s breakthrough in the PGA, he seemed to always have an untimely injury or bout with vertigo, or illness, or lost a little focus, or something that just prevented him from breaking through. Nobody was closer in the majors, but he finally broke through in 2015, but not at Augusta. He’s the hottest on the planet coming in and I like him for a top-3 but not a jacket.
If golf was played on a 15 hole course and majors were 60 holes not 72, Sergio Garcia would be challenging Jack and Tiger for all time supremacy. Maybe Sergio needs a golf shirt with an XXXXL size collar to have a chance. Sorry Sergio, no chance. I’m also losing faith in Dustin (more talent than anyone) Johnson. Seems he runs with a bit of Sergio fever at crunch time. I’m not picking him in a major until he wins one.
So who’s left? It’s Zach Johnson vs. Bubba Watson. David vs Goliath. Bubba is hitting the ball great and leads the tour in the all important GIR statistic. But unlike normal Bubba, his putting is mediocre and his scrambling is horrible and you’ve gotta have touch and guts around these greens to win.
So your 2016 Masters Champion will be touch and guts Zach Johnson, with Jason Day finishing second and Bubba coming in third. For those of you looking for a dark horse in your Calcutta, Charl Schwartzel is an ex-champion, has had a nice quiet but solid start to his season and will be cheap! Look for him to contend.
Augusta National, like no other venue tests a player’s patience, persistence, and concentration. To win The Masters, players need to contend for 63 holes then charge on the back nine on Sunday. More important than shooting a very low round is avoiding a bad day. A deep dive into the tournament archives reveals that over the last 60 years, avoiding one bad number has been the key to Masters victory.
Jack Nicklaus is arguably the greatest Masters player of all time. From 1959 through 1993, Jack had only three rounds of 77 or worse in 125 played; just incredible consistency. He won with two 74s on the card in 1963 and a 76 in the second round in 1966. But when players card a 77, it’s basically over. In the last 62 years, only Nick Faldo in 1989 has won the tournament after recording a 77 for one of his four rounds. Go back to Sam Snead in 1952, for the next round of 77, to find another champion. So as we don our green jackets and settle into marathon coverage with our pimento cheese sandwiches, know that as soon as your favorite shoots 5-over for the day, he’s cooked. Just ask Greg Norman (1996) how that works.
For 2015, let’s see who can avoid the big number and who’s primed to win it. Get your Calcutta ready.
Group 1:“Masters Champions.” (Adam Scott, Bubba Watson, Phil Mickelson, Tiger Woods) Adam Scott has shot three 77s or worse in 48 Masters rounds, but none since 2008. Good recent consistency, ball striking is in excellent form, but his putting is horrible after switching from the broomstick. Might make the cut, but you gotta roll the rock. He will not contend. Defending champion Bubba Watson is in excellent form. Bombs it off the tee, short game is razor sharp, 2/24 at 77 or worse with rounds in 2011 and 2013 respectively, and he’s controlling his emotions. Great value play at 10/1 odds. Three time champion, Phil Mickelson has played 84 Masters rounds and fired only two at 77 or worse; amazing consistency for the proverbial roller coaster rider. But Lefty will hit 45 years old in June and hasn’t been in good form over the past two Masters. Scores are going up with age. Maybe he makes the cut. Tiger Woods; no chance. Just listed as a courtesy.
Group 2:“Other Major Winners.” (Rory McIlroy, Martin Kaymer, Justin Rose) Rory McIlroy brings the Air 3-Iron show to Georgia and is a bit off mentally. Game is suited for Augusta with his high ball flight, but five of 22 Masters rounds are at 77 or worse; with one each in the last five tournaments. Enough talent to finish top-10 in his sleep, but I want to see him get over the psychological dumpster on this track before I ride him. Martin Kaymer has only one 77 out of 20 rounds but has never finished higher than 31st. You need to be a great chipper to win at Augusta. Kaymer is not and is more comfortable putting from off the green. I don’t like the fit. He will make the cut but bide his time waiting to defend at the U.S. Open. Justin Rose has only three bad rounds out of 36 and has never missed a Masters cut. Last five years have all been top-25 finishes. Is moving in the right direction and is more seasoned with pressure since his U.S. Open victory. Will be in the top-10.
Group 3: “First Major?” (Matt Kuchar, Dustin Johnson, Sergio Garcia, Ricky Fowler, Henrik Stenson, Jordan Spieth, Patrick Reed, Jason Day) Matt Kuchar has the best shot in this cast. His short game and putting could be best on tour and the ex-Georgia Tech Yellow Jacket is very comfortable on the grounds. Could be his year but he already feels overdue. Dustin Johnson is playing great but doesn’t have the short game to win here. Sergio Garcia has a long record of futility at Augusta. Six bad rounds out of 54 were mostly early in his career, but he’s got that choke mentality on the back nine on Sunday and that’s where The Masters is won. Ricky Fowler tied for fifth last year and has not missed a cut in his four appearances. With only one bad round in 16, I look for a top-10. Henrik Stenson is the world’s #2 player, but as Judge Smails said in Caddyshack, “Some people just don’t belong.”
Henrik hasn’t belonged at Augusta because the course is in his head. He’s got three rounds in the 80s and five at 77 or worse out of 30. Awesome ball striker but historically poor around the greens, despite some improvement this year. Despite the angst, he’ll rebound and post a top-20. I keep asking myself when Jordan Spieth will win a major. He’s always in contention, but burns a little hot at times and must control his temper in this event. He’s not the straightest ball striker but that won’t hurt him at Augusta. Missing 3-5 foot putts will, and I’m not sure he’s sold on this looking at the hole part time putting method. If he figures it out, could win it. Patrick Reed is not one of the top five players in the world but is in the top 10. Awesome in match play format but has a very short Masters history. Needs more seasoning and will not contend this year. Jason Day was my pick last year and continues to disappoint. Always gets close and seems to make back-to-back bogeys at the wrong time. Flights it high like Rory and is suited for the venue, but struggles to control his distances on short irons. Miss with too many wedges here and you can’t win it. Look for another top-10.
Winner: Bubba Watson to repeat and weep.
Runner Up: Jordan Spieth cools his jets and gets closer than ever
Third: Rory McIlroy keeps all his clubs in the bag, breaks the bad number streak, but no career slam this year
Got some gems to share from this year’s coverage of THE PLAYERS Championship. Normally during the majors and big tournaments, I try to avoid over-saturating my brain with the available round the clock coverage but for some reason I’ve been compelled this week, and am picking up some great stuff.
Nugget One: If you watched “Live from THE PLAYERS” on Golf Channel early Saturday, you watched Zach Johnson warming up on the putting green using an alignment stick to ensure his upper body and hands were working together. You need a putter that you can hook the stick on top of the club and anchor the other end to your sternum. My Ping Answer worked perfectly (see photos). As you rock your shoulders, make sure the stick stays anchored and the putter shaft does not cross under the stick. This ensures you’ve maintained a solid lead wrist and have not broken down with a handsy stroke. It’s easy to do and is an awesome simple concept. Has anyone tried this?
Nugget Two: Same episode of “Live. . .” Kelly Tilghman was discussing an interview she did with Jordan Spieth during a segment when the preeminent talking heads were trying to figure out Spieth’s secret sauce of success.
Supposedly when Tilghman asked Spieth if he would take millions of dollars to make an equipment change and risk introducing a distraction to what had made him successful to date (ala Rory McIlroy), he emphatically said, “No.”
Spieth’s sensibilities and game management are spot on and is why fans are being drawn to him. Listen during Sunday’s coverage and you’ll hear the cheers of “Spieeeeeeeth,” reverberating through the TPC. This guy has guts, an awesome short game, commits to his game plan, and shows some personality. Sure he gets hot after a bad shot, but he gets it out and doesn’t let it burn for more than 30 seconds. It’s refreshing to see him fist bumping the fans and showing some up and down emotion. Too often our coverage is punctuated with the totally stoic faces of the grinders, like Jason Dufner, or the sunken-eyed look of a Tiger Woods, who can’t seem to enjoy golf even when he’s winning. Count me as a big Spieth fan.
Nugget Three: There is a changing dichotomy in professional golf as we settle into a period of non-domination. There are so many good players who excel in short bursts but can’t seem to sustain long term. Since the end of the Tiger Major Era, which I’ll identify as the post-2008 U.S. Open period, there have been 23 majors contested and only Rory McIlroy and Bubba Watson have demonstrated the ability to win multiple times (two each). While domination by a single player is better for television ratings and growing the game globally, those days are over. Many pundits think we are entering a popping of the golf bubble that was inflated by the influx of Tiger Woods’ supporters. Do you think that’s the case? What’s that wooshing sound I hear?
The golfing gods and the USGA have left us with a truly tantalizing mix of events and pairings in advance of the 2012 U.S. Open at Olympic Club in San Francisco. As in all U.S. Opens, the premium will be on driving accuracy and putting (specifically in the 5-10 foot range) so let’s get to the analysis:
On everyone’s mind is Tiger Woods. Can the two-time winner in 2012 sustain his newly regained momentum on what arguably could be considered a home field advantage? You’ll recall Tiger played his collegiate golf at Stanford and is a California native so this a home game. Olympic will favor the straightest of hitters and Tiger has found the go-to stinger shot that will get him in the fairway. He leads the tour in total driving and is incredibly 24th in driving accuracy. Ball striking consistency is becoming less of an issue, but on course adjustments seem to allude him because he’s still plagued by mechanical corrections and thinking issues when his swing is off. Tiger’s putting is coming around as well, and he’s ranked 8th from 5-10 feet. He’s not all the way back but is a serious contender.
Phil “Check your cell phone” Mickelson is also a California native and is partial to west coast courses. Is the mental fatigue over? If the cell phones were a true distraction at Memorial they won’t be at Olympic because the USGA doesn’t allow them in. I didn’t like the way that whole Memorial thing played out.
Does Bubba Watson have his mojo back? We’ll give him a pass at Memorial to bang the rust off his layoff. His record in the U.S. Open is spotty with his best finish being a tie for fifth in 2007 at Oakmont. The key for Bubba is keeping it in the fairway and exhibiting enough coolness under fire. Last year at Congressional, he lost his composure after some bad breaks. Bubba, Tiger, and Phil are paired together in the first two rounds. Clearly the USGA loves the Tiger-Phil matchup with the butt kicking Phil administered to Tiger at Pebble Beach creating a wonderful story line, but the throng that’s going to follow this threesome will be huge and the distractions aplenty. This pairing will make for great theater but doesn’t help any of the three.
Luke Donald has the KPIs (18th in putting from 5-10 feet and 8th in driving accuracy) but he still hasn’t won a big one. You need to meld killer instinct with the patience of Job to with this tournament and I’m not sure we can call Donald a killer.
Rory McIlroy is in good form in Memphis the week before and seems to have taken his issues with preparation more seriously. If he can drive it straight enough, he’ll contend on talent alone. Definitely has the guts and killer instinct.
Lee Westwood has half the package (driving ability) but just doesn’t putt well enough to win an Open. Whether it’s nerve or touch, something has always been the issue with Lee’s flatstick and that’s a non-starter. Lee, Rory, and Luke are also paired in the first two rounds and they’ve got to love this arrangement, as all the distractions and hoopla will be with the Big-3 American pairing. Look for Luke and Rory to be in contention after Friday’s round.
Matt Kuchar mysteriously did not play Memorial this year. I don’t like that trend because in the last two years he played Memorial two weeks before the U.S. Open and played well in both tournaments. If you believe in trends, this is not a good one.
Dark horse contender: Jim Furyk. The cagey veteran is playing super consistent over his last eight events with a tie for 26th at Wells Fargo being his worst finish. He’s presently 3rd in driving accuracy and 3rd in scoring average. With a past U.S. Open championship on his resume, Furyk knows how to get it done and will contend.
Did Tiger deserve the win at the 2012 Memorial on Sunday? Absolutely. His final round 67 punctuated by a stellar chip-in birdie on #16 was worthy of all the hysterics and histrionics, but the confluence of bad play and unexcused absences from the world’s best certainly contributed. Consider:
Phil Mickelson shot an opening round 79 and promptly withdrew sighting mental fatigue. Was Lefty truly in need of a break after playing three straight weeks and then vacationing with his wife in Italy?
Rory McIlroy missed his third straight cut with a second round 79 and is making huge blunders leading to huge numbers on his scorecard. I’m convinced something is going on outside his golf game that’s distracting and is the genesis for the poor form.
Rickie Fowler, arguably the hottest golfer in the last month, shot 84 in the final round while paired with Tiger. Are you kidding me?
Bubba Watson is still rusty from his one month layoff to recover from burnout, and missed the cut.
Zach Johnson, winner last week at Colonial was mysteriously missing from the field. There was an unsubstantiated rumor that he had been suspended for some sort of substance abuse issue. Seems unlikely, but where was he?
How about Jason Dufner who was also missing from the field. Memorial is an invitational (non full field event) but was the two-time winner this year invited?
Not trying to discount Tiger’s achievement, and he certainly has kept himself out of the news over the last few weeks, which is hard to do, but what happened to the world’s best this week?
Bad news from the Tour as Bubba has made it official and pulled out of next week’s PLAYERS Championship 😦 Sighting reasons that sound like burnout (need family time, need to take a month off from the game), it’s upsetting to hard core fans when the most popular players pull out of the best events. Dustin Johnson pulled out as well sighting ongoing problems with his back. But the trend of high profile post-major burnout continues, which makes you wonder, is anyone managing these guys? Rory McIlroy won the U.S. Open last year and basked so long in his popularity that didn’t play until a month later at the British Open and was hopelessly out of form.
I suspect the pressure to respond to the media after a major win, and the self imposed social networking obligations are taking a heavy toll on these players, with mental downtime at a premium. Call me nuts, but if I won the Masters, spending the next few weeks tweeting my every thought and responding to all the media inquiries would run me ragged. Remember how many talk shows Bubba did? Just incredible.
In the everyday course of life, don’t you get burned out from too much connectivity? I do, and when I hit the golf course, I make sure to unplug, go dark, and enjoy some serious disconnect. Now you or I will never have the”problem” of winning The Masters, but what would you have done different if you were Bubba?
I’ve been to a lot of professional golf tournaments but this was my first major and what an eye opener. The place was packed because of the delayed start (2nd round finish in the morning) and 3rd round play didn’t put any golfers on the back nine until after noon and all the fans went with them early.
Some differences with regular tour events: It was difficult to see where players stood, since every scoreboard was manually operated. Regular PGA Tour events are replete with automated scoreboards showing real time updates. Also, the size of the massive tent city erected to support the event was impressive and made the regular tour events pale in comparison. One pleasant surprise was the food and drink concessions. Prices seemed reasonable and the staff from the Prom company manning the refreshment stations were fast, courteous, helpful, and above all, competent. Lines moved very quickly.
Despite the packed conditions in the morning, we managed to find some excellent viewing spots with our favorite being on the hill to the right of #7 tee, where you can simultaneously take in the play on #6 green and the 7th hole. Also caught Bubba Watson throwing a club in frustration after backing a wedge approach off #9 green. Despite his disappointment, the crowd was showing the love to Bubba, as he was decked out in camouflage slacks to show support for the troops.
The golf course appeared to be playing softer than normal due to the overnight rains and several in the field took advantage with scores in the 60s. We spent a good hour on the hill behind #10 green watching a usually tough par-3 hole play very benign with most players attacking the flag for close birdie attempts and routine pars. Fan favorite Phil Mickelson was not as fortunate and chopped his way to a 77, going seven-over on the back nine alone. Maybe next year Phil.
Finally, as of Saturday night this one looks like it’s in the bag for Rory McIlroy as he enjoys an 8-shot lead going into Sunday. I think the time is now for him to exercise those demons and put the final round 80 at Augusta out of his mind. We’ll see tomorrow!
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