Russell Henley played steady all week and posted a Sunday 65 to win at the Shell Houston Open, his third PGA Tour victory. Now we hit what many golfers have been anticipating for a while, The Masters. This is considered by many as the unofficial start of spring and while avid golf fans live for this weekend, even non-golf enthusiasts know about this epic tournament and what it means. Its beautiful simplicity is what makes it the greatest golf tournament in the world.
Famed Augusta National plays host to its 81st Masters. Back in the day, hitting the ball a mile would be the greatest asset a player could have. And even though the yardage has increased from 6,985 yards in 2001 to 7,435 yards today, bombing it is no longer the edge. Ball striking is now a big factor as hitting greens in the right spots can lead to easier putts. Only three times in the last 15 years has the winner finished outside the top 26 in driving accuracy, and only twice have they finished out of the top 10 in greens in regulation.
Unless you have seen Augusta National in person, you cannot appreciate the enormous elevation changes which means getting a flat lie is a rarity. Basically, it is a ‘second shot’ course which means the approaches are important just to get into position. Hitting an approach shot to the wrong place in some cases means not even being able to go after the pin, whether it be a chip shot or putt. That brings big scores into play so the thought process of shots is just as important as the physical part of the game.
Even though the course is much longer, it does not take the small hitters out of play as we have seen many contend and even win recently. Because the course has been tightened, it actually brings every player to an almost even playing field and that is what the goal has been since redesigns started taking place. The setup has made the goal pretty simple actually – hit fairways and then hit the correct side of the green and there is a good chance of being on the first page of the leaderboard on Sunday.
The most shocking fact is that the European contingent has struggled at Augusta. Granted, it is a totally different experience but with the huge amount of world class players, a European had not won since 1999 (Jose Maria Olazabal) until last year when Danny Willett was the surprising winner. In total, the green jacket has been given to only seven European players (Nick Faldo three times, Jose Maria Olazabal two times, Seve Ballesteros two times, Bernhard Langer two times, Ian Woosnam, Sandy Lyle and Willett).
Americans dominated here early on with Gary Player being the only non-American to win through the first 43 years and he actually did it three times. Since then, it has been up for grabs as over the last 37 years, Americans have won the green jacket 19 times (nearly half of those by just three players) with the rest of the world not far behind with 18 wins. Past history plays a big part as you will see names near the top that you rarely see in other events as successful players here are usually successful a few times.
How do first time participants fare at Augusta? Not very well as a Masters rookie has not won here since Fuzzy Zoeller in 1979. There have been numerous close calls along the way but experience, even if it is just a little, has prevailed. Last year was not the debut for Willett as he finished T38 in 2015. This year, there are 19 players making their Masters debut which was the same as last year. The most notable is Jon Rahm who at this point last year was not even a professional and now is No. 12 in the world.
It will not be four days of perfect golf conditions this year. While rain showers could affect the Par-Three Contest on Wednesday, the rain is expected to move out by the time the tournament gets into full swing on Thursday, leaving cloudy and windy conditions for the first two rounds of the tournament. Winds are expected to be between 15-20 MPH on Thursday and Friday with gusts reaching 30 MPH. Sunny skies and less wind are expected for the weekend.
Dustin Johnson, winner of his last three starts, is the favorite at +560 followed by Rory McIlroy at +690 and Jordan Spieth at +725. Jason Day will be playing this week after his WD from the WGC-Dell Match Play and is listed at +1,625. Hideki Matsuyama and Rickie Fowler are next at +2,000 followed by Jon Rahm and Justin Rose at +2,360. Phil Mickelson at +2,625 and Henrik Stenson at +2,875 round out the top ten.