One of the most anticipated Masters in our lifetime is upon us, and it has the potential to be the greatest ever. A Tiger Woods victory would be an all-time script, and one of the most talked about moments in the history of sports. A Rory McIlroy victory would make him only the sixth player to win all four of golf’s majors, joining Woods, Jack Nicklaus, Ben Hogan, Gary Player, and Gene Sarazen to achieve the career grand slam. A Phil Mickelson victory would make Lefty the oldest player to win The Masters, replacing the Graying Bear who won in 1982 by scorching the back-nine for his sixth green jacket at the age of 46. This year’s Masters field will be the smallest in 21 years with just 87 players. With so many in red-hot form, we’re looking at the most intriguing and exciting fields in years. Here are five things you need to know about the 82nd edition of The Masters.
Inside the Field
It’s been more than 1,000 days since Tiger Woods last played competitive rounds at Augusta, but his recent level of play and knowledge of the course makes it likely he’s going to put on a show. Dustin Johnson is in strong form this year, and on an upward trajectory at Augusta with a T6 in 2015 and a T3 in 2016. Rory McIlroy’s finished in the top-10 in his last four appearances, and after his recent win at the Arnold Palmer Invitational many are sizing him up for the green jacket. Jordan Spieth has corrected the putting woes that have plagued him most of this season, and with a victory and two runner-up finishes here in four years Jordan’s second green jacket is more a matter of when rather than if. Justin Thomas only has two full years of major championship experience, but sits on the cusp of the No. 1 World Ranking and bombing it around Pink Dogwood and Yellow Jasmine makes him a perfect fit for Augusta.
Augusta’s Greens not the Main Story
You’ve heard it time and time again: Intricate Augusta greens will buckle your knees and knock your wind out with a sledgehammer. That’s not to say, however, that you have to putt well here to win. Yes, the putting surfaces are slippery and undulating, but because the greens are so pure, more putts are made inside of seven feet than in any other tournament during the year. That means the premium at Augusta is on approach and more specifically Proximity to Hole. Driving the ball long and high helps get you closer and in the right spots, and nine of the last 14 Masters champions ranked in the top-ten during their respective seasons in Strokes Gained: Tee to Green. The closer you are on approach, however, the more likely you’ll be in contention to claim the green jacket. Last year each of the top-10 finishers gained more strokes on approach than in any other strokes gained category.
Quest for the 60s
In 81 Masters played to date, 6,467 players have teed it up and no one has ever shot four rounds in the 60s in the same Masters. That’s a drought longer than the Arizona Cardinals 69 years since their last championship, the Cleveland Indians 68 years since winning a World Series title, and the Toronto Maple Leafs 67 years since hoisting the Stanley Cup. Outside of the CJ Cup at Nine Bridges, every event on the PGA Tour calendar has surrendered four sub-70 rounds. So why is this feat so difficult to achieve? For starters, final round collapses are just as common as comebacks on Masters Sunday. Players have had a chance to conquer this Mount Everest 12 times in Masters history, and each time they failed, sometimes spectacularly. Because few players make the cut (top 50 and ties), attention on the lead groups is magnified unlike anything in golf, and 10,000 patrons lining the first fairway is something you can never prepare for.
Throughout Masters coverage this week you’ll see players crossing the iconic Hogan Bridge – which leads to Augusta’s 12th tee, and the Nelson Bridge – which takes players from the 13th tee to the fairway. The Hogan and Nelson bridges were both dedicated on the same day, April 2, 1958. The Hogan Bridge commemorates Ben Hogan’s record-setting low score of 274 in 1953. The Nelson Bridge honors Byron Nelson’s spectacular play on Amen Corner when he picked up six strokes on Hole Nos. 12 and 13 and went on to win the 1937 Masters. The Sarazen Bridge, however, was the first bridge at Augusta to be dedicated. Crossing the pond in front of the 15th green, this bridge pays tribute to Gene Sarazen’s hole-out in two on the par-5 15th hole. Sarazen used a 4-wood from 235 yards out which helped him force a playoff and eventually win the second Masters Tournament.
The Masters Doesn’t Begin until the Back-Nine on Sunday
Hole 13 at Augusta National
Naming collections of holes has become a fad of sorts on Tour. However, Amen Corner isn’t merely a nickname for Augusta’s famous trio of holes (Nos. 11 to 13). These holes play a significant role in the outcome of The Masters every year, and no single hole may be more important than the 13th. This par-5, 510-yard classic risk-reward hole has created the greatest disparity of scores over the last 25 years. This, of course, means heading down the stretch No. 13 can propel a player up the leaderboard or bulldoze their hopes right there on the spot. No. 12 is another crucial hole, and it can be maddening to gauge the swirling winds on this 155 yard par-3. When clouds are moving one way, the flag is blowing the opposite way, and trees are flapping in yet another direction, it can be downright perplexing. Rae’s Creek is in front of the shallow green, but hitting over the putting surface into two bunkers behind it is equally disastrous.
The last time The Masters had fewer players in the field, Tiger won his first Masters by 12 shots in 1997. Not to suggest a correlation and I don’t see Woods winning, but it’s still worth mentioning. Jordan Spieth, Henrik Stenson, and Ian Poulter are hitting their irons lights out right now, and Augusta is clearly a second shot course. I don’t expect any of these three to emerge victorious, but it would be surprising if they all didn’t finish in the top-10. In the smallest field in three decades with names like Rory, Jordan, Phil, Sergio, Justin, Justin (again), Bubba, and others all playing inspired golf, a big name has to win this year though, right? Most of these players will be charging up the leaderboard on Sunday, but Bryson DeChambeau will be the one in Butler Cabin wearing his new green jacket and answering Jim Nantz’s fist-bitingly earnest questions. “Does this all seem like a dream for you Bryson?” You heard it here first.