It’s tough to beat this week in sports.
The NCAA basketball finals. Opening Day for Major League Baseball. The Masters week. There is something for everyone, and even many casual or nongolfers will tune into The Masters this weekend. This golf tournament has become the biggest in the world.
For many golf operators in northern states, this week kicks off another season. There is something about the pristine beauty of Augusta (Georgia) National that motivates all of us associated with the sport of golf. Everybody will optimistically approach 2015, and we can thank The Masters for that.
As compelling as the telecast of the Masters is, golfers will have a hard time staying in front of the TV this week and not heading to the course to play or hit golf balls. I was a victim of that in 1986 when Jack Nicklaus became the oldest winner of the Masters at the age of 46. The finish that year was going to be a good one with Seve Ballesteros, Greg Norman and Bernhard Langer all in the mix. Nicklaus had played the first eight holes in even par, and it looked like he was a nonfactor.
Some of my buddies and I were watching the Masters at the Phil Harris Golf Course in Linton. We were itching to get out and play ourselves. So, we hit the links midafternoon only to miss one of the most historic finishes ever. Nicklaus would make a birdie on No. 9 and then fire a six-under-par 30 on the back nine to edge Norman and win his sixth Masters title.
The 2015 Masters story lines are numerous. Rory McIlroy will be trying to win his career Grand Slam. He has won the U.S. Open, the British Open and the PGA Championship. Only a Green Jacket at Augusta eludes the lad from Northern Ireland when it comes to major championship victories.
Bubba Watson will attempt to win back-to-back Masters. The last time this happened was in 2001-’02 when Tiger Woods did it. Nick Faldo (1989-90) and Jack Nicklaus (1965-66) are the only other players to win two consecutive Masters. With another victory, Watson would join the elite group of Faldo, Jimmy Demaret, Sam Snead, Gary Player and Phil Mickelson as three-time winners.
Lefties have won six of the past 12 Masters, starting with Mike Weir in 2003. Mickelson did it in 2004, 2006 and 2010, and then Bubba in 2012 and 2014. All three are right-to-left players, and today’s Augusta National demands that ball flight. A win this year would also mean Watson has won three of the past four Masters. Only Nicklaus has equaled that feat by winning in 1963, 1965 and 1966.
The hottest player on the PGA Tour right now is Jordan Spieth. In the past three weeks he has a victory, a runner-up and a sudden-death playoff loss on Sunday at the Shell Houston Open. A year ago at the Masters, Spieth had a two-shot lead early in the final round, but he fell to Watson and ultimately finished tied for second. Spieth just seems to improve every week.
Jimmy Walker has five PGA Tour victories in the past 18 months, a feat unmatched by any player, including McIlroy. Walker won as recently as two weeks ago at San Antonio. He has what it takes to win at Augusta. He has length and a great short game.
Of local interest, his caddy is Andy Sanders, whose father, Greg, graduated from Franklin Community High School.
There will be plenty of attention on Ben Crenshaw, who will playing in his final Masters. He won this event in 1984 and 1995. Crenshaw probably will make his final stroll up the 18th fairway at the Masters on Friday. Gentle Ben will be playing in his 44th Masters and has recorded a top-five finish on eight occasions.
Crenshaw, who is considered as one of the finest putters in the history of the game, won the ’95 Masters and never recorded a three-putt — a rare feat on Augusta’s tricky greens.
You can always count on some quirky drama at the Masters. Even though the course has gotten longer over the years, in 2014 Miguel Angel Jimenez and Bernhard Langer, both Seniors, finished in the Top 10. Two years ago during the second round, Woods hit a perfect third shot into the par-5 15th hole, only to have his ball hit the flagstick and bound backward into the lake in front of the green. He took an incorrect drop, which led to a controversial penalty being assessed the following day, forcing him out of contention with an 8 on the hole.
Speaking of Woods, he will be making another comeback this week. I have lost track of Tiger’s comebacks. It’s getting old from a legend who has all of a sudden become long in the tooth for a 39-year-old. Don’t expect anything out of Woods this week. His recent chipping woes set him up for failure with Augusta’s green side undulations and tight lies.
In a recent poll conducted by Geoff Shackelford of Golf Digest, 68 percent of the 1,000-plus who voted said that Woods would either miss the Masters cut, not finish the first two rounds or never even make it to the tee on Thursday. Woods has taken lots of time off to work on his game and get ready for the Masters. Sadly, I am afraid we will again see a man who is only a shadow of himself.
Conversely, the Masters won’t let us down this week. It always delivers lots of special moments filled with beautiful scenery. Whatever the story lines that are about to unfold, they will be historic and we will talk about them for years to come.
After all, this is the Masters.