This week heralds the year’s first golf major amidst the breath-taking majesty of the Atlanta course
By Phil Rice
Three-time Masters Champion Gary Player says of Augusta,”If there’s a golf course in heaven, I hope it’s like Augusta National. I just don’t want an early tee time!”
The magnificent Atlanta Course is held in awed reverence by all the golfing greats who have graced it’s fairways. The spectacular beauty of the azaleas and rhododendrons lining the manicured course have lured many a rookie into a false sense of well-being.
This course has real teeth and there is a catalogue of broken dreams, including those of such greats as Seve Ballesteros, Greg Norman and Arnold Palmer to name a few.
In 2011 Rory McIlroy was sailing along with a four shot lead with just nine holes to play, when disaster struck. Although he recovered to win the following major, the US Open, he has never been able to reestablish his swagger at Augusta. McIlroy approaches the Masters this year with the confidence of knowing that his game is in excellent nick, but with the wisdom of experience that nothing comes easy at Augusta.
The Masters is the only Major that has eluded his mantlepiece and he will not rest easy till he achieves that elusive goal. He is aware that each year that he fails to win the coveted green jacket, the pressure is raised by a further notch. The fact is that Augusta National can eat into the confidence of the most accomplished of players.
The par five 15th hole has provided agony and ecstacy in like portions over the years. Last year reigning champion Jordan Spieth inexplicably imploded on the hole when seemingly heading serenely towards a repeat victory. The back nine provides compulsive viewing for all sports enthusiasts no matter how late it extends into Sunday night.
Nothing can be taken for granted despite how well things appear to be going, as Speith and McIlroy will testify.
World number one Dustin Johnson is favourite for this year’s event despite having a poor record at the venue. He is the hottest property in world golf at present with successive victories behind him and a new-found confidence that has created an aura of invincibility. But there is nowhere like Augusta to burst the bubble of the most confident of players and there are a number of talented golfers who will be snapping at Johnson’s heels should he fail to live up to expectations.
Ireland are represented by McIlroy and Shane Lowry, both of whom can approach the event with realistic hopes of high finishes. Both of their games, at least theoretically, suit the demands of the course.
McIlroy has finished in the top ten for the past three years. In each case he has finished strongly but has left himself too much to do in the final round. He is likely to be in contention again this year. Lowry has one of the finest short games in world golf, a pre-requisite to succeed at Augusta. If he can improve the accuracy of his iron play he just might be in contention as he was at last year’s US Open.
It’s been a very long time since a ‘Masters rookie’ has prevailed at the event but Spain’s Jon Rahm might just reverse that trend. He is an outstanding prospect with an excellent temperament.
However McIlroy has kept a low profile approaching this year’s Masters and he may just turn on the magic that we all know he possesses, to provide compulsive viewing late into the night on Sunday.