The 80th Masters: A new age, when green and young is a perfect mix

By Gerry Dulac
Published on

PITTSBURGH -- With a trio of young, talented players at the top of the world rankings, each looking to further what already has been their indelible footprint in golf history, the 80th Masters is serving up more juicy story lines than a Tom Clancy novel. And that's even before Adam Scott, Bubba Watson, Phil Mickelson and Rickie Fowler enter the discussion.

Jason Day, Jordan Spieth and Rory McIlroy, the top three players in the world ranking, have created a pre-Masters buzz palpable enough to shear the bloom from the azaleas. And each has his own very significant agenda heading into the first major of the season.

Day is seeking to continue a torrid stretch in which he has won his past two events and six of his past 13 starts on the PGA Tour, dating to last season. Spieth is trying to become only the fourth player to win back-to-back green jackets and add a third major at the tender age of 22. And McIlroy needs a Masters victory to complete the career grand slam, all before he turns 27 next month.

"It's going to be a lot of fun to see," said former two-time U.S. Open champion Curtis Strange, an analyst for ESPN. "I think it's fantastic."

Of course, there are no such things as slam dunks at the Masters. Twenty years ago, Greg Norman, one of the best players in the world, looked like just that -- a size-the-green-jacket winner who carried a six-shot lead into the final round. But disaster befell the Great White Shark, who shot a final-round 78 and was bypassed by Nick Faldo, who won the final of his three Masters titles. The collapse was so agonizing for everybody, including the participants, that even the staid and stiff Faldo hugged Norman on the 72nd green.

There are no guarantees for Day, Spieth or McIlroy, who have combined to win five of the past six majors. Or, for that matter, Watson and Mickelson, who have won five of the past 12 Masters. Or Scott, the 2013 Masters champion who went through Florida a month ago with two victories and a second-place finish in three starts.

But if recent history is any indication, there's a good chance the person who is wearing the green jacket Sunday will come from that core of players.

Consider this from Golf Channel analyst Brandel Chamblee: Since Vijay Singh won in 2000, 11 of the past 16 winners have come from the top 10 of the Official World Golf Ranking. And that despite the Masters having the smallest field of any major championship, usually under 100 players.

"So you can really start to eliminate players here more clearly than you can any other major championship, and it does boil down to a dozen or so players that really have a great chance of winning this event," Chamblee said on a conference call last week. "So from that particular standpoint, all eyes are on the stars right from the get-go."

Chamblee noted that the Masters rarely produces a winner who comes from behind or even rebounds from a poor start. In the past 19 years, he said, the eventual winner after the first round has been, on average, in eighth place; after 36 holes has been in third place, on average; and no worse than second place, on average, after three rounds.

"There are not a lot of big comebacks here. There are hardly any comebacks," Chamblee said. "The best players in the world start out 6 feet tall and finish 10 feet tall here."

Nobody stood taller a year ago than Spieth, who missed a 5-foot par putt on the 72nd hole to miss breaking the tournament scoring record of 18-under 270 set by Tiger Woods in 1997. As it were, he won by four shots, became the first wire-to-wire winner in 39 years, established a 54-hole scoring record and made 28 birdies in four days, bettering by three the previous record of 25 set by Mickelson in 2001. All at the age of 21.

"We had a correct formula last year," Spieth said last week before the start of the Houston Open. "I think that we can just kind of use that again, and I don't think I have to guard against much because I don't think it will feel much different. Might just feel a little bit more comfortable, possibly, but who knows? I'll let you know when I'm there."

But unlike a year ago when he came to Augusta National riding a wave in which he had a win and two runner-up finishes in his three previous starts, Spieth is not carrying the same juice.

Spieth won the Tournament of Champions in Hawaii in January by eight strokes, posting a score of 30-under 258 that was one shot shy of the tournament record held by Ernie Els. It was his fourth victory in his past 12 starts on the PGA Tour and sixth since the start of the 2015 season, a stretch that included two majors -- the Masters and U.S. Open.

It was such a dominating performance that it seemed almost too impossible to fathom -- could Spieth have another year like 2015, when he won five times and finished second on four other occasions? Or even greater?

But then he embarked on a whirlwind world tour that saw him travel to play in tournaments in South Korea, China, Australia, Bahamas, Abu Dhabi and Singapore, in addition to Hawaii, an event that top players such as Woods and Mickelson often have skipped over the years. And even though he wasn't playing his best because of jet lag, Spieth never finished worse than seventh in any of those overseas events. He was runner-up at the Singapore Open, finishing a shot behind winner Song Young-han.

Since then, Spieth has missed one cut -- he opened with a career-worst 79 at the Northern Trust Open -- and never finished better than 17th in a stroke event. Six of his past 14 rounds have been 73 or higher, heading into the Houston Open. Last year, Spieth had a total of only nine rounds of at least 73 (none higher than 75) in 25 events.

That prompted Day, who has moved past Spieth into the world's No. 1 ranking, to express concern Spieth's commitments are spreading him too thin and it could be affecting his game. Spieth has said he will never travel like that again.

"I think it was good that he did this in his career because he learned from it," Strange said on a conference call last week with two-time U.S. Open champion and fellow ESPN analyst Andy North. "It's always easy for those who have gone through it to second-guess somebody's scheduling or why they played here or there. You know, he's doing what he thinks is right. For somebody who did travel and burn out a little bit from the travel overseas, I think he did do a little bit too much, but I think it was good that he did it this early in his career because he learned from it. He learned that it does wear you out, and the most important thing to be ready for is the official calendar year of tournament golf.

Then Strange added, "I think he's probably a little tired, but as the year progresses, there's nothing wrong with his game. I sense he's just not making the putts that he made last year."

There are no guarantees, after all.

Five things to watch

1. A Spieth repeat?

Only three players -- Jack Nicklaus, Nick Faldo and Tiger Woods -- have managed back-to-back victories in Masters history. Jordan Spieth, who finished second in 2014, equaled Woods' tournament scoring record a year ago with a score of 18-under 270 and could do it again. "Just the idea that he could be just the fourth man at the age of 22, the fourth man, to have won back-to-back Masters and done it at 22 years of age is mind-boggling," Golf Channel analyst Brandel Chamblee said.

2. Can McIlroy roar to the Slam?

The Masters is the one major title that has eluded the world's No. 3 player, whose back-nine meltdown in 2011 cost him a green jacket. McIlroy, though, could be rounding into form after third and fourth-place finishes, respectively, in his past two World Golf Championships events.

3. Will it be a great Day for Jason?

The reigning PGA champion has won his past two starts -- the Arnold Palmer Invitational and WGC-Match Play -- and six of his past 13 events on the PGA Tour, vaulting him to No. 1 in the world rankings.

4. Can Bubba make it three in five years?

Watson has two victories and a runner-up finish in his past seven starts on the PGA Tour. That makes him a strong candidate to add a third green jacket to ones he won in 2012 and 2014.

5. Winning major tricky for Rickie

Fowler is getting closer to that first major title. He won The Players Championship in 2015 and has five top-8 finishes in his past seven starts, including a playoff loss in Phoenix.

This article was written by Gerry Dulac from Pittsburgh Post-Gazette and was legally licensed through the NewsCred publisher network.