Masters 2012: Setting the Augusta sceneMarch, 2012
Our countdown to the year's first Major starts here. Which Rory will we see at Augusta National this year?
IT has been rather overlooked ever since but when it came to the final few holes on Masters Sunday last year it was not about any of Tiger Woods, Phil Mickelson, Rory McIlroy, Lee Westwood or Luke Donald.
True, some of the above had played their part but the last three men standing, matching each other birdie for birdie in what was the most thrilling finish for years, were Jason Day, Adam Scott and the eventual champion Charl Schwartzel.
Being neither American nor European, nor a headline-maker off the course, Schwartzel has been the least heralded recipient of the Green Jacket since, well, another quiet, sweet-swinging South African, Trevor Immelman.
The 27-year-old did not do it the easy way, if there is such a thing, finishing with four consecutive birdies to win by two from the Australian pair.
Schwartzel’s closing 66 included a chip-in birdie at the 1st and an eagle two at the 3rd, when he holed a pitch.
Also inside the top seven were two more southern hemisphere stars, Geoff Ogilvy and the 2009 champion Angel Cabrera, who hardly seems to bother with tournaments that are not Majors these days.
Between them, these five made an astonishing 17 birdies over the back nine on that fateful final day, which is quite something when you consider that only the top 10 finished better than five under par for the week, so it was not as though the whole field was tearing up Augusta National.
In fact, for three quarters of the week, only one man was tearing it up and that was McIlroy.
Rightly or wrongly, just like Paul Lawrie has had to endure the reputation of being the Open champion that Jean Van de Velde should have been, so the 2011 Masters will always be remembered for the Northern Irishman’s shocking demise.
The abiding memory is of the then 22-year-old trying to hack out from a part of the course that no-one even knew existed, specifically a spot some 50 yards left and short of the 10th fairway.
Certainly the most embarrassing, and perhaps the most damaging, aspect was that he had to go and play it.
Had his hook finished out of bounds, he would at least have been able to start the hole again, mentally as well as physically, rather than hack his way down the hole, zig-zagging from left to right to left again before eventually tapping in for a sorry seven.
The four-putt from nowhere on 12 and the tear he wiped away on his shirt… for a proud man, there is nothing worse than being pitied. Then there was the four-putt from nowhere on 12, and the tear he wiped away on his shirt as he walked, stunned, to the 13th tee.
For a proud man, there is nothing worse than being pitied. And the golfing world that had watched in awed admiration as he took apart Augusta with rounds of 65, 69 and 70 for a four-shot lead suddenly felt McIlroy was just like them.
After all, which club player has not suffered their own meltdown in a big event and wished the world would swallow us up?
Poor McIlroy had a mere 50 yards of privacy as he walked back to the 13th tee, then had to turn and face the cameras. It was no real surprise when his drive dived left of Rae’s Creek into the trees.
For the record, he finished in a tie for 15th, alongside, among others, Immelman, who had begun the day 11 shots behind and finished a good three hours earlier.
It was a turn of events that would be terminal to his hopes of becoming a Major champion, some said. While even his biggest fans did not expect him to go to the US Open just two months later and take apart the field. It was a sensational performance.
The question now is whether the Northern Irishman will display at Augusta any of the vulnerability we expected to see evidence of at Congressional.
He would hardly be human if he did not. Then again, perhaps his brain works differently to most and the player we see will be the one who looked in a different class to his rivals for the first three days.
It was not merely that he had opened up a four-shot lead after 54 holes, it was the way he had done it. His putting had been quite modest to that point.
With those trademark long, towering high draws from the tee, and vertically descending iron shots, Augusta was at his mercy.
It is not hard to imagine a similar story this time around and for years to come – but then Jack Nicklaus predicted Tiger would be unbeatable at Augusta after his first win – 15 years ago – and while the former World No 1 has contended virtually every year since, it was 2005 when he last slipped on the Green Jacket.
Similarly, it is hard to credit that Ernie Els has never won the Masters, another with a game, in his prime, that might have been made for Augusta.
That said, all the signs so far are that we are simply reading too much into one bad round and McIlroy will arrive at the year’s opening Major with a swagger.
He has grown up in front of our eyes and so far there is little to suggest he is doing anything other than maturing into the world-class player that has seemed his destiny since long before he even turned professional.
Watching him bounce along besides Tiger in Abu Dhabi in January, sharing jokes and nudging his playing partner as they strode down the fairways, was revealing in itself.
McIlroy is infectious, and while his relationship with Westwood is not as warm these days, he remains popular with most of his peers.
It seems the split from Chubby Chandler’s stable was symbolic. We will probably never know the real reasons, complex or simple, but perhaps the decision can best be seen as boy becoming man, someone who wants to make his own decisions.
He has now earned the right, at just 23, to design a schedule based exclusively around the Majors. That puts him in a select group – nearly every player in the top 50 will say as much, but few really mean it.
It can work in one of two ways. Either he acquires the knack, like Tiger, of peaking at just the right time.
Or, like almost everyone else, he will arrive at the Majors slightly undercooked and struggle to cope with the self-imposed pressure after anything less than a fast start.
This is true at the Masters more than any other Major. It is not just the fans who look forward to Augusta for weeks, and not just the fans who start dreaming of Amen Corner and azaleas pretty much as soon as the Christmas decorations are taken down.
More players approach this Major with the highest of hopes than any other, and it is those who cope with that best who thrive.
For many years, it was an art Mickelson had perfected. He has arrived at Augusta in form ranging from the inspired to the alarming, yet routinely ends up winning or at least contending. He has won three times and posted a further 10 top-10s in the last 17 years.
Just when he looked set to be unfancied this year, he won at Pebble Beach. Perhaps it was the imminence of Augusta which inspired him to a first victory since the Houston Open last April.
Apart from Tiger, he is the man you’d least like to find breathing down your neck on the final day.
If not McIlroy, where else can European challenge? Just about anywhere.
There are so many capable of contending, and top of the list has to be Donald, who enjoyed his best Masters in 2011.
And yet. Just at the point of being in genuine contention in 2011, many people’s idea of the world’s most precise mid-iron player stood on the 12th tee and caught his 8 iron heavy.
The ball ended up in Rae’s Creek, a double ensued and his chances were realistically over. After a decade of access to all four Majors it remains the case he has never seriously threatened to win one. Against which, he is evidently a better player now than he was a year ago.
And do not be taken in by the rubbish about him not hitting the ball far enough to compete at Augusta – he has all the tools to do well here. It would be a surprise not to see him contend.
But it would be a bigger surprise were he to finish above either Tiger or Rory – let alone both. ◆