Well, Bernard – what better way to start off your Masters preview: Who do you think is going to win?
Well, Dustin Johnson is obviously odds-on favourite. He’s won the last three times he’s played. He won in Riviera – one of the toughest courses in the world, he won in Mexico and he won the World Match Play.
That means he’s the first to win all four World Golf Championships, a nice piece of history for him – and he’s bang in form coming into The Masters. He’s strong under pressure too, he can handle most things.
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Will the surface play a big part?
Usually the person who wins in Augusta is the person who has the best week on the greens. Going back to Dustin Johnson, that’s not typically his strength – the green – because he doesn’t really need to be an outstanding putter like Jordan Spieth. DJ hits it so long and finds so many fairways that it tends to compensate.
But here, he will need to putt well on these fast, tricky greens. If he has a good week with the putter, it’s hard to see anyone beating him. At the WGC, he made some great clutch putts. Plus, he’s also made enormous strides in his wedge play, which is another crucial aid in The Masters.
What do you need to win The Masters?
It’s all about the mental pressure on the final back 9. Last year, as everyone knows, Jordan Spieth had a 5-shot lead going into the 11th hole. Now it’s a fairly straightforward hole, the 11th. 150 yards, par 3, over water. And all of a sudden, quadruple bogey. The back 9 on the Sunday can affect any player.
You have to understand, it’s such an iconic event in America. American golfers have been brought up watching it every year on television. For me, it’s become the Number One golfing event in the world. So, with that, there comes a lot of pressure – in particular on the American side.
Do Europeans find it easier to avoid the pressure, then?
European players, traditionally, consider The Open to be the biggest tournament. That means there’s a little less pressure – they can go along and enjoy the spectacle more than their American counterparts. Now, don’t get me wrong – they want to win it just as much. But that slight mental relaxation can make the world of difference on the back 9, as last year proved.
There’s 25 European players this year, which may be the biggest ever concentration. With a field that’s only 94-odd players in total, that’s a massive percentage. There’s every chance that one of them could do what Danny Willett did, especially if an American golfer feels the pressure in the final round.
Which European? Well, I really like the look of John Rahm, he’s on fire this year. What a talent at only 22 – long hitter, strong putter and nerves of steel. Determined to follow in the Spanish footsteps of Seve and Olazábal, he’s got a wise head on young shoulders.
Plus, he knows the American scene – he went to Arizona State University and spent a whole year at Number One on the World Amateur Golf Rankings. It’s not unheard of to win The Masters on your debut either, just ask Fuzzy Zoeller!
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What about Rory?
Rory McIlroy is always a strong favourite – and why not, he’s a huge talent. My only concern is pressure, just as we mentioned before. After 2011, The Masters will always be the one that got away for Rory. The pressure got to Rory, just as it got to Spieth.
He needs The Masters to complete his career Grand Slam as well, something only five other players have done in history. Until he slips on that Green Jacket, he’ll always feel the extra pressure, and believe me – you don’t need any more than there already is around The Masters.
I have to say though, I know Rory can handle it. He’s a four-time Major champion, and made of stern stuff. His game seems to be bubbling under nicely too after coming back from that rib fracture. His planning has been meticulous, and I just hope he’s got it right.
If you had one piece of advice for the players there, what would it be?
Watch out for the water. The problem with Augusta is, there’s no water on the front 9 – it lulls you into a false sense of security. You get to the back 9 and you’re suddenly surrounded by it, desperately trying to get round Amen Corner. There’s water on the left at the 11th, water in front of the green at 12 and the creek runs right up 13 to the green. It makes or breaks a round, really, those three holes.
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Any other players that have caught your eye?
I was looking forward to seeing Jason Day. My heart goes out to him after that terrible news. I don’t know if he will play, and it will surely have an effect even if he does.
Otherwise, there’s Jordan Spieth. I mean, he’s obviously looking for a little bit of redemption after last year – there’ll be some scars there. But he’s a two-time major champion, so he should be able to cope with the extra burden.
The reason Jordan always does well at The Masters – second in 2014, then a winner and then leading before it all went wrong – is because he’s a super putter, and with such difficult greens, it gives him an edge.
You’ve also got Justin Thomas who’s come through, but he seems to have gone off the boil in the last couple of weeks after his fine start to the season. Rickie Fowler won the Honda not so long ago, great putter and good driver – expect him to be in the running.
Phil Mickelson, of course, always rises to the occasion at Augusta. Three-time Masters champion, and even at 46, you really can’t write him off as the course seems to suit him extremely well. Henrik Stenson wants to add to his majors as well, but he’s lacking some severe form. Who else? I fancy Justin Rose to potentially go well. Tyrell Hatton could play a surprise part too – 15th in the world and a top golfer.
There doesn’t seem to be a lot of talk about Danny Willett, even as defending champion?
To be honest, I feel that winning The Masters has been a little bit of a burden for Danny Willett. It’s a great thing to have won, grabbing his chance magnificently when Spieth faltered, and I’m sure he wouldn’t swap it for the world. But over the course of the year and especially during the Ryder Cup, being The Masters champion has looked to me like it’s weighed heavily.
Once you win a major, you’re instantly expected to win every week. Players like Tiger Woods managed it with consummate ease for over a decade and lived up to his billing. I can understand why Danny Willet might find that sudden extra expectation wearing.
In some ways, though, Danny Willett might be looking forward to this year’s Masters to be back on top. He’ll be hosting the Champion’s Dinner, he’ll be defending champion and he’ll have the honour of passing over the jacket if he doesn’t win. It will be good for him.
Speaking of Tiger Woods, he’s clearly the elephant in the room.
When Tiger Woods turns up to any event, he’s always the main talking point. Every TV station and press interview will be about him – but it will be for the wrong reasons. They won’t be talking about his golf, they’ll be talking about whether he’s fit enough to play four rounds. I expected him to play, but that’s no longer the case – which surprised me. He holds strong memories about Augusta. It’s a course that suits him – wide off the tee and he can still putt well and could have made the cut. If anything, it shows how severe the injury must be.
Should he have played? For me, no.
This is where we’ve gotten to. We can only talk about, at best, Tiger Woods making the cut. It is inconceivable to think that he could have gotten into contention. He’s hardly played for the last 16 months! His comeback has been a disaster so far. There was meant to be four tournaments in the warm up, he ultimately flew to Dubai for the second and left with back spasms. If that was a Masters preview, it wasn’t a good one – and now he’s out altogether. He’s a golfing icon, and it would have been an unnecessary distraction to watch him struggle amongst such a strong field.
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So, is that it?
No, I think he’s determined to keep going for a while yet. In his heart of hearts, I think he feels he’s still got something to offer.
He wants a Jack Nicklaus (1986) moment.
He does, but I don’t think it will happen. I think we can also finally stop talking about Tiger Woods beating Jack Nicklaus’ record of 18 majors – I can’t see that happening, he’s still four short at the moment. It’s a shame that we’re not able to talk about his score, the way he’s playing or even his coaches – it’s just “is he fit enough to play?”
Finally, I have to ask. What part of The Masters do you look forward to most every year?
Well, for me, The Masters heralds the start of our British season. We’re coming out of the winter months and looking forward to all the year’s golf ahead. You turn on the TV and see all the rhododendrons and famous Azaleas at Augusta, Magnolia Drive. It’s magical. It’s unique, a tournament almost handmade for television – particularly as it always stays in the same place.
Then there’s Jack Nicklaus and Gary Player coming to the tee as honorary starts – I’m sure there’ll be a quiet moment for Arnold, some emotion that he’s not there for the first time.
Watching the players putting on the greens is my favourite part, I think. I’ve played in The Masters and I know how fast and undulating those greens are. It wears you out by the end of the week. There’s no gimme’s, the ball never cosies up to the hole and the two-footers are never certain. Seeing how players deal with that, mentally, over four rounds – that’s the best part for me. The challenge.