In a week’s time, the world’s very best players will be in Augusta, Georgia to do battle over one of golf’s most iconic courses for the first Major title of the 2015 season. Northern Ireland’s Rory McIlroy will be looking to complete the career “Grand Slam” with a victory in the U.S. Masters at Augusta National.
For many golfers in the UK, The Masters heralds the start of a new playing season. TV pictures of lush green fairways, blooming azaleas, blue skies and towering pines spur keen amateurs up and down the country to retrieve their clubs from under the stairs and head back for the fairways.
The course at the U.S. Masters
The course at Augusta is as familiar to armchair golf fans as Centre Court is to tennis nuts or Silverstone to petrol heads. The layout provides a succession of highly memorable and stunning golf holes: some offering opportunities to pick up shots, others featuring perilous hazards that could spell disaster. And the great thing is, the viewer is fully aware of each of them.
On the front nine, there are birdie or eagle chances at the par-5s, the 2nd and 8th. Louis Oosthuizen went one better at the 2nd in 2012, scoring an albatross two. Then, there’s the short par-4 3rd where Charl Schwartzel holed out for an eagle two, en-route to victory in 2011. And there’s the testing 9th where Greg Norman’s ball zipped back off the green in 1996 as he steadily capitulated to an unstoppable Nick Faldo.
Famous shots on the back nine of the U.S. Masters
But, it’s the back nine where things get really interesting and we start to think about some of the most famous shots in golf’s history:
The dog-leg 10th turns through the trees from right to left. It was from those trees, on the right hand side, that Bubba Watson played a seemingly impossible shot in 2012. He hooked a wedge, turning it some 80 yards in the air to find the green and break the spirit of his playoff opponent Louis Oosthuizen.
Then there’s the 11th where Larry Mize chipped in to win a playoff against Greg Norman in 1987, and the gorgeous par-3 12th where Tom Weiskopf one made a 10-over-par 13.
On the par-5 13th, players must turn the ball right to left from the tee and then avoid Rae’s Creek in front of the green with their approach. From the pine straw, under the trees on the right, Phil Mickelson played one of the great Masters shots in 2010. From 207 yards out, he struck a clean long iron between the trees, over the stream and to within feet of the pin.
The 15th has seen plenty of drama – Gene Sarazen holed out for an albatross two way back in 1935 – “the shot heard around the world,” Seve’s hopes drowned in the water in front of the green in 1986 as Jack Nicklaus strode on to his final Major victory. Then, the par-3 16th, and who could forget Tiger Woods’ incredible chip-in back in 2005? The ball took an age to roll down the slope to the cup, paused on the lip and dropped in.
Big names at the 2015 U.S. Masters
It’s uncertain whether Tiger will tee it up at this year’s tournament. The four-time former champion hasn’t played since he withdrew from the Farmers Insurance Open in February. He stated then his game was not at a level where he could be competitive. He’s not required to announce if he’s playing until the tournament begins on April 9th and it’s unlikely we’ll know for certain much before then.
This week Tiger has fallen out of the top-100 on the Official World Golf Ranking for the first time since 1996. Incredibly though, despite his dire recent form, injury concerns and the uncertainty about his participation, the best price one can currently get on Tiger with the British bookies is around 50-1. That’s one to steer clear of.
Hot favourite is World Number 1 Rory McIlroy, who’s hovering around the 5-1 mark. McIlroy won the last two Majors of 2014 and has won already this year in Dubai. He has Open, U.S. Open and USPGA titles to his name and he needs a Masters crown to complete the set.
McIlroy’s most recent form hasn’t been quite so sparkling, but he’s made no secret of the fact he’s putting a great deal of focus on to donning a “Green Jacket” for the first time next week. In 2011 he led going into the final round at Augusta but suffered a Sunday meltdown that had him in tears on the back nine and saw him close with an 80 to drop into 15th place. His best finish at Augusta was an eighth last year. He’s highly likely to do better than that this season and, if he can find form with the putter, he could be tough to beat.
Jordan Spieth will be highly fancied for the week. He’s still only 21 but he’s just climbed to a career-high of fourth in the World. He was second last week in the Valero Texas Open and was tied second at Augusta last year. He has ambitions to challenge McIlroy as World Number 1 and he will be thinking of nothing less than victory in The U.S. Masters this time out.
Then, of course, there’s defending U.S. Masters champion Bubba Watson. His game is ideally suited to the course at Augusta, as evidenced by the fact he’s won twice there in the last three seasons. He can shape the ball both ways and has a superb touch around the greens. He was third in the recent WGC-Cadillac Championship so is clearly on form.
U.S. Masters – Par 3 contest
Masters week will get underway for most TV fans with the par-3 competition hosted on Wednesday afternoon. Held over the short course around Ike’s and DeSoto Springs ponds, it’s a great chance for spectators to see current favourites mixing it with legends of the game, enjoying the experience with close friends and family.
There have been 73 aces during the 55 par-3 contests that have taken place since 1960 and, with favourable pin positions gathering balls towards the flag, there’s highly likely to be one or two more this year. Some of the more superstitious of the fancied players might just purposefully miss a few putts in the par-3 contest. A supposed “jinx” has grown over the years that the winner of the par-3 event has never gone on to win the main tournament. Many players dismiss this as hokum, others can be a little less willing to tempt fate!
Whatever happens in the curtain-raising event on Wednesday afternoon, The Masters proper is bound to be full of thrills and spills, as it is every year. Look for improbable birdies, astonishing escapes and, perhaps, the odd meltdown. Augusta always delivers a phenomenal spectacle, showcasing the best players on the planet across a golfing stage that looks almost too perfect to be true.
And a prediction? Rory to win by two from Jordan Spieth with Japan’s Hideki Matsuyama in third place…
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