Masters 2016: It's just around the corner....we set the scene
Roll the clock back 12 months and we thought we had it all sorted for this year’s Masters. Rory McIlroy would always be the favourite for Augusta from now until eternity. He hits the ball too far, too well and too high not to be.
He’s already ticked off the other three Majors so what better way than to exact revenge for what happened five years ago when he disintegrated over the back nine on Sunday. Twelve months ago the same back nine is where he finally found his touch, a 32 inward half elevating him into his best position of fourth at Augusta.
Jordan Spieth came along and won, and then won again at Chambers Bay and nearly did the unthinkable at St Andrews. Having been led to believe that young Rory would knock off at least a couple of Majors a year Spieth was doing exactly that. McIlroy’s damaged ankle ligaments meant he was unable to even tee it up in Scotland.
But the Northern Irishman was back to witness Jason Day clean up at Whistling Straits with a phenomenal display to hold off Spieth. All of a sudden we had a Big 3.
Spieth opened up the year by winning, just as he had done five times in 2015, but this was by eight shots. He appeared to be even more dominant than before. It hadn’t all been a fluke.
And then they kept coming. Rickie Fowler, complete with high tops, prevailed in Abu Dhabi and we all began to sniff around for his course form in Georgia – T38 T27 T38 T5 and T12, not bad.
Next up was Bubba at Riviera and the trend of slipping on the Green Jacket in the even years seemed a near certainty, particularly when he backed it up with a second place at Doral.
The following week saw the re-emergence of Adam Who? Scott’s swing looked as smooth and silky as ever and the putter a normal length. His predicted demise with the arrival of the anchor ban hadn’t materialised, far from it and, after a winless run of nearly two years, he made it back-to-back victories at Doral. The Big 6 might not have quite the same ring to it but who could really split any of them?
Except, going on recent form and the world rankings, we now can. Day, like Scott, claimed successive wins, first at Bay Hill and then at the WGC-Match Play. Day one saw the Aussie taking a standing count with back problems late in his match with Graeme McDowell, day five saw him hoist another trophy.
And so the 28-year-old will likely start the Masters as the clear favourite which, given that the last time a World No 1 won here was in 2002 (Tiger was No 2 behind Vijay in 2005), isn’t the best guarantee of anything.
No Aussie had ever won the Masters before Scott three years ago, now they have a brilliant chance of doubling that tally. Marc Leishman might even topple the pair of them.
All the usual sub plots don’t get a look in. We now know that Tiger won’t play. The most golf any of us have seen of the Great One this year is a 9-iron on a simulator.
“I’ve been hitting balls and training daily, but I’m not physically ready. I’ve said all along that this time I need to be cautious and do what’s best for my long-term health and career,” the 40-year-old said.
“Unfortunately, playing Augusta wouldn’t be the right decision. I’m absolutely making progress, and I’m really happy with how far I’ve come, but I still have no timetable to return to competitive golf.”
Three-time winner Phil Mickelson has three top 5s this season and, should he make it a fourth Green Jacket, then he would surpass Jack as the oldest winner. Why not? In the plus column he was second last year and he knows and plays the course probably better than anyone in the field, and is obviously in pretty good touch.
On the negative column his last win came at Muirfield in 2013, and he turns 47 in three months.
What price a European champion? In amongst all the biennial Ryder Cup dominance and hullabaloo no European has won here since 1999. Since then we have produced four US Open champions, five Open champions and even four PGA winners but Augusta, where we dominated so brilliantly in the 80s and 90s, has brought a drought. The usual suspects, Justin Rose and Henrik Stenson, head the chase, two of 25 hopefuls from this continent.
Or are we barking up the wrong tree and is it time for another South African? Charl Schwartzel has won on both Tours this year, Louis Oosthuizen, a winner in Perth, almost did the same before losing in the final of the Match Play.
Is a Big 8 pushing things too far?