It is the first week of April and the azaleas are blooming, which can only mean one thing: The Masters is here! It is the week all sports fan circle on their calendars and feign illness/injury so they can spend Thursday-Sunday on the couch.
It is the week that inspired the lyrics, “Augusta, your dogwoods and pines, they play on my mind like a song. Augusta, it’s you that I love, and it’s you I will miss when I’m gone.” It is the week every young athlete dreams of winning. It’s… Masters week!
Since 1934, Bobby Jones’ dream tournament has been conducted nearly every April, with Augusta National Golf Club, the most iconic location in golf, as the backdrop. It is considered, with no dissenting opinions, to be the ultimate test of Championship Golf.
Professional sports may not have a greater symbol of athletic success than the green jacket, awarded to the Masters Champion every year. It is a legacy-creating and a legacy-changing event. An exclusive field of 94 elite golfers from more than 20 countries who met the rigorous qualifications for a Masters invite will exhaust every muscle fiber of their body, as well as every neural pathway of their nervous system in an attempt to stand atop the Sunday leaderboard and reach the pinnacle of sports achievement.
Perhaps more than most years, this year’s Masters field is replete with succulent storylines. There’s the quest of redemption for Jordan Spieth, who has been humbly dealing with the fallout from his 2016 Sunday collapse for a year. In just three career attempts, Spieth has never finished below second place. There’s Rory McIlroy, the 27-year-old superstar from Northern Ireland who is just a green jacket short of an astounding career Grand Slam, something that has only been achieved by five men in golf’s long, rich history. And there’s Danny Willett, the Englishman who won last year’s Masters with a brilliant final-round 67. He has not been quite the same golfer since his major breakthrough.
Will Augusta bring about a recrudescence of elite play for Willett? And can anyone on the planet stop world #1 Dustin Johnson, a man who has absolutely left the rest of the golf world in his dust over the past month? The man they call DJ has dominated his last three events, two of those being stacked-field WGC tournaments.
This will be his first Masters since he finally became a major winner at last year’s U.S. Open, which took an enormous amount of pressure off his shoulders. The sky may be the limit for him. There’s also Phil Mickelson, Jason Day, Lee Westwood, Rickie Fowler, Sergio Garcia, etc. etc.
You can’t take a whack with a rogue four-iron without nailing a player whose victory would make an incredible story.
Thursday cannot get here quickly enough.
Believe it or not, The Masters has not always been called The Masters, at least not officially. Tournament co-founder Clifford Roberts wanted that name to be attached to the tournament right off the bat, but he was overruled by the legendary Bobby Jones, a paragon of humility, thought the name sounded boastful and pretentious. As a result, the initial tournaments were given the prosaic name, Augusta National Invitation Tournament, but after five years, the tournament had become such a resounding success that Jones finally relented and allowed the event to officially be called The Masters.
The Masters began as an idea in the mind of Bobby Jones, who had achieved basically everything that could be achieved in golf. He wanted to build his own course, and hold his own tournament. He wanted to create the ultimate golf experience. After Jones made the decision to build the course in Augusta, Georgia, he and Roberts found an old tree nursery that they felt would be the perfect place. Augusta National was created at that very spot, with help from renowned golf architect Alister MacKenzie.
The inaugural Masters teed off in 1934, with Horton Smith becoming the first champion. What helped the Masters really take off, however, was Gene Sarazen’s double-eagle on 15 on Sunday in 1935, known today as “the shot heard around the world”. Sarazen would go on to win that Masters in a playoff, and it soon built a reputation for being high-end tournament worthy of the best of the best.
Over the years, the course and tournament format have been frequently updated, and many traditions were adopted. One such tradition, the green jacket, was originally just for club members, but the decision was made to make each year’s tournament winner an honorary Augusta member, and award them their own green jacket. Other traditions include medals for winners and runner-ups, honorary tournament starters, and the Champion’s dinner, a feast hosted (and paid for) by the previous year’s winner.
Tournament winners have included many of the all-time greats, including Sarazen, Ben Hogan, Byron Nelson, Sam Snead, Arnold Palmer, Jack Nicklaus, Gary Player, Tom Watson, and Tiger Woods, among many others. Nicklaus holds the tournament record with six green jackets, followed by Palmer and Woods with four apiece. Woods’ first Masters win (1997) was by an unfathomable 12 strokes, a tournament record. Jimmy Demaret, Snead, Player, Nick Faldo, and Phil Mickelson are three-time winners, while Horton Smith, Nelson, Hogan, Tom Watson, Seve Ballesteros, Bernhard Langer, Ben Crenshaw, Jose Maria Olazabal, and Bubba Watson have won twice. The winner is famously given a lifetime Masters exemption.
Name: Augusta National Golf Club
Where: Augusta, Georgia
Distance: 7435 yards
Architect: Alister MacKenzie, Bobby Jones
Winning Share: $1,800,000
FedEx Cup Points: 600
The defending champion of The Masters is Danny Willett – the Englishman who was immaculate on Sunday, shooting a bogey-free five-under 67.
Jordan Speith, the previous year’s winner, led after three rounds, and took a five-shot advantage onto the back-nine of the final round, but Amen Corner was a nightmare for him, as he went bogey-bogey on 10 and 11, and then THE disaster: a quadruple-bogey 7 on the par-3 12th, where he hit two balls in the water. Suddenly, Spieth had gone from leading by five, to trailing by three.
Over the closing holes, Spieth and Lee Westwood got close to Willett, but couldn’t quite catch him. Willett finished at -5, while Spieth and Westwood shared second place at -2. It was Willett’s first career major victory.
Other Recent Champions
2015: Jordan Spieth
2014: Bubba Watson
2013: Adam Scott
2012: Bubba Watson
2011: Charl Schwartzel
NOTE: Past champions are subject to change, based on viewer emails.
Lowest Final Score: 270 (-18) – Tiger Woods (1997), Jordan Spieth (2015)
Low Round: 63 – Nick Price (1986), Greg Norman (1996)
Most Starts: 52 – Gary Player
Round 1: 3-7:30 PM – ESPN
Round 2: 3-7:30 PM – ESPN
Round 3: 3-7:00 PM – CBS
Round 4: 2-7:00 PM – CBS
Note: Do yourself a favor and go to www.masters.com. It may be the most impressive website ever created for a single sporting event, and we are not getting paid to say that.
The familiar tune that plays in the background of tournament commercials and lead-ins actually has words to it:
“Augusta” by Dave Loggins
Well, it’s springtime in the valley on Magnolia Lane
It’s the Augusta National and master of the game
Who’ll wear that green coat on Sunday afternoon?
Who’ll walk the 18th fairway singing this tune?
Augusta, your dogwoods and pines
They play on my mind like a song
Augusta, it’s you that I love
And it’s you that I’ll miss when I’m gone.
It’s Watson, Byron Nelson, Demaret, Player and Snead
It’s Amen Corner and it’s Ben Hogan’s perfect swing
It’s Sarazen’s double-eagle at the 15 in ‘35
And the spirit of Clifford Roberts that keeps it alive
Augusta, your dogwoods and pines
They play on my mind like a song
Augusta, it’s you that I love
And it’s you that I’ll miss when I’m gone.
It’s the legions of Arnie’s Army and the Golden Bear’s throngs
And the wooden-shafted legend of Bobby Jones.
1.Redemption For Jordan Spieth
Jordan Spieth seems to have a penchant for Augusta, evidenced by his incredible first three career results there: T2, WIN, T2. He held the lead at times in all three, and has been in the final group on all three Sundays. For a course that has a reputation for being nearly unplayable for inexperienced golfers (players with fewer than fours years of experience have rarely contended), it cannot be overstated how impressive he has been right off the bat.
In last year’s Masters, everything was set for another celebration of Spieth. At the turn, he held a five-stroke lead, and had been the leader after an unbelievable seven straight rounds. Having won the previous year, he looked ready to cruise to a convincing victory.
Then #12 happened.
Fast-forward a few hours later, and Spieth is involved in the green jacket ceremony, but only because tradition dictates that the previous year’s winner places the green jacket onto the shoulders of the new winner.
Bogeys on 10 and 11 looked like minor blips on the radar: it’s Augusta, everyone drops a few. Spieth then sent his tee shot on the par-3 12th careening into the water. Then, after taking a drop, the unthinkable happened: he hit that shot into the water too. Spieth had to get up-and-down from a bunker just to escape Amen Corner’s second hole with a quadruple-bogey 7. A five stroke lead quickly turned into a three stroke deficit, one Spieth was unable to make up, despite his best efforts from 13-18.
Spieth has had to answer questions about that one-hole disaster for a year. He says he has moved on from it, but it seems impossible that such a large-scale and public collapse could be put completely behind someone, even if that someone is as mentally strong as Spieth. He was surprisingly irrelevant for the rest of the major season, and there is no way to know for sure if residual Augusta trauma played into that any. He does seem exceptionally motivated to not let #12 become a career-defining mistake.
Spieth has played very well in 2017, winning the AT&T Pebble Beach Pro-Am and taking third in two other tournaments. He was a surprising missed cut at last week’s Shell Houston Open, but for the most part, he has looked like 2015 Jordan Spieth, the one who captured two majors and was a runaway choice for player of the year.
2. Where’s Willett?
It is unfortunate that the 2016 Masters became better-known more about how Spieth lost it than how Willett won it. Willett was phenomenal on Sunday, and his bogey-free 67 was tied for the second lowest round of the week. Only Spieth’s first-round 66 was better. A three-stroke victory, there is no doubt that Willett was a worthy Masters champion.
Since last year’s Masters, Spieth has been constantly under the microscope, and with each subsequent result, it was questioned whether he was truly past what had happened on Sunday. In the midst of that, Willett really did seem different after the Masters, quietly struggling over the past 12 months.
Following his win at Augusta, Willett has not finished better than T37 in any PGA Tour event, and he’s been very inconsistent in Europe as well, mixing a second and a third with four missed cuts and a number of very poor finishes. Additionally, he’s been terrible in his last three WGC events, finishing 75th at the WGC-HSBC Champions, and 69th at the WGC-Mexico, playing those two tournaments in a combined +25. At the WGC-Match Play, he was blasted in his first two matches, losing 4&2 to K.T. Kim and 6&5 to Bill Haas.
As the defending champion, Willett is definitely one to watch at Augusta, but if he is going to contend, he will need to play much better than he has lately.
3. The Unstoppable Dustin Johnson
Dustin Johnson playing well is not a new thing; he has at least one win in each of his ten seasons on Tour, but the 32-year-old reigning PGA Tour Player of the Year has been a different level of dominant as of late.
One week after finishing solo-third at the AT&T Pebble Beach Pro-Am in February, Johnson vaulted to #1 in the world rankings for the first time with a victory at the Genesis Open. He has played two more tournaments since, winning both the WGC-Mexico and the WGC-Dell Match Play, precipitously increasing his hold on the #1 world spot. The man who lead the PGA Tour in 2016 with 15 top-10 finishes, four more than the next closest, already has five in just seven 2017 season events.
For a long time, the story on DJ was that he comes up short on the major stage. As of a year ago, he had contended at many majors, but had never won, with a number of spectacular Sunday collapses marring an otherwise amazing career resume.
All of that changed last June when he overcame a final round rules controversy to win the U.S. Open. With the pressure of never having won a major finally lifted, the question has now become “how many will he win?” Currently playing the best golf of his career, the prospect of DJ finally getting the most out of his immense talent is downright scary to a major field.
This will be Dustin’s 8th attempt at a green jacket, with his last two attempts being his best: a T6 in 2015 and a T4 in 2016. The time may never be better for him to join the Masters’ Fraternity of Champions.
4. McIlroy’s Quest for the Career Grand Slam
The list of golfers who have achieved the career grand slam contains just five names: Gene Sarazen, Ben Hogan, Gary Player, Jack Nicklaus, and Tiger Woods. With a victory on Sunday at Augusta, Rory McIlroy would become the sixth name on that very exclusive list.
Just 27 years old, Rory has four career major victories: two at the PGA Championship, and one apiece at the U.S. Open and the Open Championship.
Rory very nearly completed the career slam several years ago. At the 2011 Masters, he famously blew a four-shot final round lead, when he collapsed on the back nine and hacked his way to a very disappointing final-round 80. Resilient as he is, Rory won the very next major – capturing the U.S. Open by an incredible eight strokes.
Since the 2011 Masters nightmare, he has three top-10s in the event, but has not seriously contended.
In recent years, he has developed a strange habit of mixing one very poor round with three good-to-great rounds. In 2013, it was a third round 79 that overshadowed the -5 he played the other three rounds in. In 2014 it was a 77 in round 3 while playing the each of the other three rounds under par. Last year, it was again the third round that did Rory in, as a 77 was six strokes worse than any of his three other rounds.
His best is probably better than anyone else’s best, but his issues with consistency have prevented his still-young career from being even more decorated.
Currently ranked #2 in the world, Rory looks to have shaken off the rust from a rib injury that cost him some time earlier in the year. He finished T7 at last month’s WGC-Mexico, and a T4 at the Arnold Palmer Invitational, two events with exceptionally strong fields.
This is coming off a 2016 where he was largely disappointing in the majors, but was incredible late in the year, winning two FedEx Cup playoff events: the Deutsche Bank Championship and the Tour Championship, the latter which won him the $10 million FedEx Cup. He was also one of Europe’s best players at the Ryder Cup, albeit in a losing effort.
In the prime of his career, it would be surprising if Rory is not in the mix this week.
5. Westwood’s Last Stand?
Over the past eight years, these are Lee Westwood’s finishes at The Masters:
That is an impressive set of results for a man who does not yet have a green jacket. Of course, Westwood has not just saved his close calls for The Masters; he has consistently been agonizingly close in all four majors, with 18 top-10s in majors without a win. In 9 of those 18, he finished in the top three.
Now 43 years old, Westwood is quickly running out of chances to snatch that elusive major victory. Each year he does not win, the pressure mounts on him more and more, and his overall play has declined in recent years, not unsurprising for a player in his 40s.
Westwood was terrible at last week’s Shell Houston Open, posting a first round 77 and missing the cut, but has been mostly solid otherwise in the current season, playing three excellent rounds at the WGC-Mexico (marred by a fourth round 78), and going 2-1-0 at the WGC-Match Play, although one of those wins was due to his opponent, Jason Day, withdrawing the day before.
The 2016 season was up-and-down for Westwood. There was the T2 at Augusta and his first 54 holes at last summer’s U.S. Open. On the other side of that, though, he shot a final-round 80 at Oakmont, and was an absolute disaster at the Ryder Cup.
Very few players in the field have more Masters experience than Westwood, as this will be his 18th attempt at a green jacket. With every year he finishes 2nd or worse, he gets closer to the reality that he may never win one of these.
His legacy probably needs a major, whether it is Masters, or one of the other three. If he is ever going to happen for him, it needs to be soon.
Other Notables in the Field
Day recently made waves when he withdrew from his first match at the WGC-Match Play in order to be with his mother, who was being treated for lung cancer. He is going to make a go of it at Augusta, but in addition to negative emotions stemming from his personal situation, he has been off his game in 2017.
Attempting to come back from a back injury that forced him to withdraw from the Tour Championship in September, Day has just one top 10 in six events. He finished T10 at last year’s Masters, with a high finish of T2 in 2011.
The 29-year-old was the world #1 before Dustin Johnson took it from him last month, and he has since dropped to #3.
Ranked #5 in the world, Stenson has played surprisingly poor golf as of late, missing the cut at both the Arnold Palmer Invitational and last week’s Shell Houston Open. He is coming off what was, hands-down, his best year of golf – capturing his first major (The Open Championship) in an all-time epic performance; winning the European Tour’s year-long Race to Dubai; and nabbing the silver medal at The Olympics.
Stenson, who turns 41 on Wednesday, has never contended in the Masters, but has finished in the top-20 in five of his 11 starts at Augusta National. His best finish was a T14 in 2014.
Fowler has been tremendous in the new season, as a missed cut at the Farmer’s Insurance Open is his only finish outside of the top 16 in 7 events.
He won the Honda Classic in February, was T4 at the Waste Management Phoenix Open, and was T3 at last week’s Shell Houston Open. It has been a nice bounce back from a 2016 season that was considered to be disappointing.
Now in his 8th year on tour, the 28-year-old Fowler is facing enormous pressure to finally break through and win a major. His best Masters result was a T5 in 2014, a season where he finished in the top five of all four majors.
The Masters winner in 2012 and 2014, Watson has had a quiet 2017 after finishing strongly in 2016. At 38 years old, still has time to pick up Green Jacket #3, but he will need to play much better than he has the last couple of years at Augusta, finishing T38 in 2015 and T37 last year.
Impressively, Bubba ranks 4th on Tour in strokes gained: tee-to-green, a stat he ranks near the top of every year, but his short game has been ghastly; he currently ranks 206th in stokes gained: around-the-green, and 209th in total putting.
Despite those short games struggles, Bubba can never be counted out at Augusta.
Winning The Masters in 2004, 2006, and 2010, Phil is just one green jacket short of tying Arnold Palmer and Tiger Woods for second most all-time. Despite being in the midst of a three year PGA Tour winless drought, Mickelson has looked incredible at times over the past year, showing that even at 46 years old, he can compete anywhere.
He looked especially crisp at the recent WGC-Match Play, dominating group play and the Round of 16 before a narrow loss to Bill Haas in the elite 8. He is struggling with accuracy off the tee, ranking 190th on Tour in driving accuracy percentage, but as usual, his short game has been phenomenal.
In the past three Masters, he has a T2 sandwiched between two missed-cuts. With Tiger sitting out, Phil is likely to have the most crowd support of anyone in the field.
Credit: The Masters, Getty Images