5 things to look out for at the 2023 Masters

Special 5 things to look out for at the 2023 Masters
The 2023 Masters will only be Tiger Woods’ fourth competitive appearance since last year. (Getty Images via AFP)
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Updated 04 April 2023

5 things to look out for at the 2023 Masters

5 things to look out for at the 2023 Masters
  • Tiger’s return and Rory McIlroy’s latest tilt among the major storylines at Augusta National Golf Club

AUGUSTA: The second week of April is sacrosanct in the calendar of every golfer. As the azaleas and the dogwoods reach their full bloom around the hallowed turf of Augusta National Golf Club, it signals the start of spring in the US as well as the start of the Major season.

The Alister MacKenzie-designed course, with inputs from Bobby Jones — one of the most cerebral and celebrated golfers in the history of the game — poses the most devious questions to the elite field that has gathered for the 87th Masters. As is often said, it is a tradition like no other, and as it has done over the years, it will ordain the worthiest, the most prepared and the most resilient golfer come Sunday.

With prize money going through the roof on the PGA Tour and LIV Tour, the Masters champion may not walk away with the biggest cheque in the sport, but then you cannot put a dollar value on the presence of a Green Jacket in the wardrobe.

There are various compelling storylines heading into the Masters this week, but here are five that should keep you glued to your devices.

The return of Tiger

There is this phenomenon at Augusta National called the “The Masters’ Roar.” It is a collective exultation of nearly 50,000 patrons, which funnels through the pine trees and reverberates around the golf course.

There is “The Masters’ Roar,” and then there is its elevated version — “The Tiger Roar.” Whatever the four-time champion Tiger Woods does, it just amplifies the decibel level.

As Tiger sighting becomes rare these days — following his accident and multiple surgeries on his back and knees — the Masters will only be his fourth competitive appearance since last year, where he heroically made the cut in his return to action 14 months after the accident in Los Angeles.

Woods has never missed a cut at the Masters, and while winning and recreating history like the way he did in 2019 might be a stretch, he is playing well and his immense knowledge of the course and the famous “Tiger mentality” will be of great help.

McIlroy’s quest continues

If his reaction after holing out his bunker shot on the 72nd last year to finish runner-up is any indication, we might be in for a mother of all celebrations if McIlroy finally manages to get into the Green Jacket this year.

It has been a long wait for the Northern Irishman, who came agonizingly close to making the Masters his first major victory in 2011 before the heart-breaking meltdown on the back nine. The four-time Major champion has won all the other Majors. There have been several close calls at Augusta National since then and several low rounds.

The second place last year once again reinforces the belief that he has the golf course figured out. All it needs now is four solid rounds.

The LIV Golf conundrum

A crisis has been averted with the Masters deciding to honor spots earned by every LIV Golf member. And it is a sizable number — 18 players out of the 89-strong field ply their trade in the new Saudi Arabia-funded tour.

Among them are past Masters champions Phil Mickelson, Dustin Johnson, Charl Schwartzel, Bubba Watson, Sergio Garcia and Patrick Reed, as well as the reigning Open champion Cam Smith. It is good to have the Major championships rising above the squabbles of two tours, and in return, the LIV players do bring in a lot of history and character into the arena.

What remains to be seen is how they perform over the next four days. Some of the LIV stars, like Brooks Koepka, Mito Pereira, Reed and Joaquin Niemann are playing good golf right now.

Scheffler and Rahm’s form

What is absolutely incredible for the 87th Masters is the current form of the top three players in the world. World No. 1 and defending champion Scottie Scheffler has won two big titles on the PGA Tour in the last seven weeks, while No. 3 Jon Rahm won thrice in the first seven weeks of 2023.

In between all this, McIlroy made a winning start to his year at the Hero Dubai Desert Classic, and has sustained his brilliance despite the missed cut at the Players Championship. He even beat Scheffler in the third-place playoff of the WGC-Dell Match Play.

The new 13th hole

The closing hole of Augusta National’s famous Amen Corner, the par-5 13th now measures 545 yards (498 meters) after Augusta National added 35 yards (32 meters) by adding a new back tree. What it does is reduce the chances of players cutting across the dogleg and hitting mid- and short-irons into the green for their second shots.

Some players have felt that the hole would become a bit boring as the added length might stop them from going for the green in two. However, 2015 champion Jordan Spieth has an interesting take on it.

“I disagree that it’s less exciting. You’re going to get more water balls because guys are hitting 7-iron to the middle of the green. You want to see someone hit it from further away or a harder shot, and some balls going into the water,” he explained.

Amateur Attieh creates history for Saudi Arabia in professional golf

Amateur Attieh creates history for Saudi Arabia in professional golf
Updated 24 February 2024

Amateur Attieh creates history for Saudi Arabia in professional golf

Amateur Attieh creates history for Saudi Arabia in professional golf

MUSCAT: Khalid Walid Attieh made history for Saudi Arabia on Friday when he became the first amateur player from the country to make the cut in an elite professional tournament.

The 28-year-old from Riyadh shot a commendable round of one-under par 71 in the second round of the $2 million International Series Oman after an opening 73, and his two-day effort of even-par 144 was enough to qualify for the weekend in the Asian Tour event.

Playing in the last group of the day, Attieh finished with a bogey in near darkness, but that could not dampen his spirit.

“It is a very proud moment for me and a very proud moment for my country,” said Attieh, who qualified for the tournament that features 21 LIV Golf stars by winning last week’s Oman Masters.

“Saudi Arabia has done so much in golf over the past few years and we players have benefitted immensely from it. The best way I can acknowledge and thank Golf Saudi for all the support is by performing well for my country. And that’s why this is extremely satisfying.”

Attieh started the day from the 10th tee and quickly picked up a shot on the par-five 12th hole. However, he gave up that advantage on the other par-five on the back nine, the 16th. That hole was playing one of the toughest throughout the day.

On his back nine, the Saudi National Team member made a birdie on the par-five third and then made a stunning 25-footer downhill putt for his third birdie on the par-three eighth hole. On the ninth, Attieh was slightly distracted by his playing partner taking a long time after a wayward drive, and in failing daylight, he three-putted for a bogey from a long range.

The University of South California graduate, who has his own software business in Saudi Arabia, said: “I’ve been playing well over the last few months. And finally, I got some things rolling my way today and put in a good round, which honestly could have been even lower.

“But I am very happy with my score today. To be able to qualify for the event last week by winning the Oman Masters was very satisfying, but this is even better. I hope to keep the momentum and hopefully, more good rounds are coming on the weekend.”

Attieh, who made a comeback to golf after taking nearly two years off to complete his studies and then focus on setting up his business, said he plans to turn professional soon.

“I also had a small back injury, and I wanted to complete my studies. I started playing again about eight or nine months ago, and I found that I was playing just as good, if not better after my big break. So, I decided to get serious and worked hard on my game. Started working with a mental coach to get stronger mentally, and all of it seems to be paying dividends,” said Attieh.

“I’m very much looking forward to keep on raising the bar for myself and the flag for Saudi. I plan to turn pro soon, maybe by the end of summer this year. I want to try out the Qualifying Schools in both (the) Asian (Tour) and the DP World Tour. It should be (an) exciting few months ahead.”

Saudi golfer Faisal Salhab has impressive opening round at $2m International Series Oman

Saudi golfer Faisal Salhab has impressive opening round at $2m International Series Oman
Updated 23 February 2024

Saudi golfer Faisal Salhab has impressive opening round at $2m International Series Oman

Saudi golfer Faisal Salhab has impressive opening round at $2m International Series Oman
  • Fellow Saudis Othman Almulla, Saud Al-Sharif also enjoy solid starts in Muscat

Muscat: On a tricky Al-Mouj Golf Club course in the opening round of the $2 million International Series Oman, Saudi Arabia’s Faisal Salhab got off the mark with a solid 1-under par 71 round.

There were two annoying bogeys – one of them a three-putt on the par-3 eighth green that tested everyone in the field with its severity – but Salhab also hit 15 out of 18 greens in regulation and missed only two fairways all day.

Saud Al-Sharif and Othman Almulla, the other two Saudi professionals in the field, had impressive starts too.

Al-Sharif was 1-under par for his round through 15 holes, before a double bogey on the seventh hole pushed him to 1-over par. Almulla started with three bogeys in his first four holes, but came back to make 12 straight pars before an unfortunate triple bogey on the difficult 16th hole saw him finish at 6-over par.

After signing his card, Salhab, 27, flashing his trademark wide smile, predicted that 2024 would be a year of change for Saudi professional golfers.

He said: “It’s so good to see that the things I’ve been working hard for in the offseason with my coach (Jamie McConnell), with other members of the team like my psychologist (Andrea Debellis), Saudi Golf, and the other pros, is showing early results.

“This was a good start, but hopefully, a lot more to come this year. I honestly think this could be a breakthrough year for us Saudi professional golfers. We have been given this incredible opportunity to play the International Series events and on the Asian Tour, and we are on the verge of showing positive results. We have all had good spells and we only need to string it together for a longer period.

“The mentality is back to trying to win — trying to do well. We do not want to try making cuts anymore. These last couple of years have shown us that we have the game. I’ve seen it playing against these guys. They’re excellent players. But we’re very good as well, and we need to believe that more.

“We’re getting that mentality this year of not having any fear — become a kid again. We’ve been dreaming all our lives of playing with these guys. Now that we are here, why are we being timid? It’s completely wrong.

“So, this is a year of what can we do, rather than putting ceilings on ourselves,” Salhab added.

That fearlessness was very evident during Salhab’s round, when he bounced back with a birdie on the 17th hole after making a couple of unforced errors to wind up with a bogey on the previous hole.

He said: “I hit a good drive and then a 3-wood to about 40 yards. The chip went over the green, and then I did not have a great return chip before my par putt from 10-12 feet lipped out.

“But that’s where I think I showed good attitude and some of the talks that I had with Andrea paid off. I spoke to my caddie and told him, ‘let’s forget about the bogey. We’re good enough to birdie any hole here.’ I just hit a couple of good shots after that and made a 15-foot birdie putt.”

Salhab has had better rounds as a professional – his best was a 4-under par 68 in Indonesia last year. But he was pleased with his 71 in Muscat, especially because Al-Mouj was decidedly playing tougher.

“Hundred percent this was better. Even though the scorecard would say the round in Indonesia was better by three shots.

“This was solid. I kept hitting good shots and finding fairways and I stuck to my processes. I was happy with how I thought on the golf course and how I kept pushing myself.

“I just need to keep doing this. I need to keep working hard and believe in myself,” Salhab added.

Thailand’s Patty Tavatanakit keeps her cool to take victory at Aramco Saudi Ladies International in Riyadh

Thailand’s Patty Tavatanakit keeps her cool to take victory at Aramco Saudi Ladies International in Riyadh
Updated 18 February 2024

Thailand’s Patty Tavatanakit keeps her cool to take victory at Aramco Saudi Ladies International in Riyadh

Thailand’s Patty Tavatanakit keeps her cool to take victory at Aramco Saudi Ladies International in Riyadh
  • Thai star’s win made sure she took home the top prize of $750,000 from the record-breaking $5 million prize purse

LONDON: Thailand’s Patty Tavatanakit capped off a perfect four days at the Aramco Saudi Ladies International in Riyadh, scoring seven-under-par on the final day to claim a first victory since her Major win as a rookie at the 2021 ANA Inspiration.

The Thai star’s win made sure she took home the top prize of $750,000 from the record-breaking $5 million prize purse — the largest on the Ladies European Tour outside of the Majors and still the only professional golf tournament to match the prize fund of the men’s equivalent.

Tavatanakit shrugged off any question of being chased down on the final day at Riyadh Golf Club as she sunk an eagle put on the fifth hole to propel her clear of her rivals Esther Henseleit and Charley Hull early on.

After that ANA Inspiration win in 2021, the journey back to the top of the leaderboard has been a hard one for the Thai sensation, and she has spoken frankly about her mental health challenges.

“It’s been really difficult, but those struggles gave me a lot of strength,” Tavatanakit said. “I learned a lot, and I grew a lot from it as well. Looking back, I’m grateful for all the moments, and I wouldn’t change a thing.”

She continued: “You go down (mentally), and you’re down there to go up one day, and that’s kind of true with golf and life. I’m definitely getting the highs this week, and then we’ll see what the future holds.

“But today, I went out there like I came to play golf, and I had a lot of fun today. Regardless of the outcome, I told myself to enjoy it, and I really did.”

Heinseleit of Germany followed up her blistering 65 on Day 3 with a solid three-under-par on the final day, which secured her second place and a check for $450,000.

There was a late charge for Japan’s Minami Katsu, the eight-time LPGA tour of Japan winner who recorded her first professional win at the age of just 15 in 2014.

Katsu followed up a front nine of four-under-par, with a run of four birdies to begin her back nine, before finishing seven-under-par after a bogey on the 16th hole.

Meanwhile, England’s Hull was unable to capitalize on her 68 on Day 3, but a respectable two-under-par was enough to lock in a tied third-placed finish.

Patrick Cantlay leads by 2 at Riviera as he goes for a hometown win

Patrick Cantlay leads by 2 at Riviera as he goes for a hometown win
Updated 18 February 2024

Patrick Cantlay leads by 2 at Riviera as he goes for a hometown win

Patrick Cantlay leads by 2 at Riviera as he goes for a hometown win
  • Cantlay was solid as ever in the Genesis Invitational until a soft bogey cut his lead in half
  • The final group is Cantlay and Schauffele, a pair of Californians who are now neighbors in Florida

LOS ANGELES: Patrick Cantlay and Xander Schauffele first competed at cards on the long flight to Australia for the Presidents Cup. They became partners in team events, roommates on the road, close friends who take vacations together with their wives, and more practice rounds than they can count.

Sunday at Riviera will have some familiarity to it with one exception: They have never competed against each other with $4 million on the line.

Cantlay was solid as ever Saturday in the Genesis Invitational until a soft bogey toward the end of the round that effectively cut his lead in half. He was leading by four shots most of the back nine until his mistake on the par-5 17th and strong finishes by Schauffele and Will Zalatoris.

Cantlay settled for a 1-under 70, giving him a two-shot lead over Schauffele and Zalatoris, who each birdied the 16th and 17th holes for 65s.

For a tournament in which host Tiger Woods withdrew with the flu and Jordan Spieth was disqualified for signing an incorrect card amidst his own stomach issues, the final round of this signature event has some appeal.

Zalatoris missed most of last year after back surgery, and now he has a chance to show he’s all the way back. “Being in contention, that’s how you find out where you’re at,” he said.

The final group is Cantlay and Schauffele, a pair of Californians who are now neighbors in Florida. They don’t do everything together, it just seems that way.

“We play most practice rounds together and we play a lot at home. It won’t be anything out of the usual,” Cantlay said.

They have been in the final group twice and it’s a draw — Cantlay got the best of him at the BMW Championship in 2022 at Wilmington Country Club, while Schauffele won earlier that summer at the Travelers Championship.

This will be their 21st time playing together on the PGA Tour, to go along with 13 times they have been partners in the Ryder Cup and Presidents Cup, and 12 rounds they played together as partners in the Zurich Classic of New Orleans, winning in 2022.

Cantlay, a UCLA alum who grew up 30 miles down the coast at Virginia Country Club, was at 14-under 199.

The Genesis Invitational has a $20 million purse like other signature events, but it awards $4 million (up from $3.6 million) as a player-hosted event. Woods might not be around to present the trophy, confirming on X he had influenza, the cause of him withdrawing Friday.

“When we play on Mondays and Tuesdays we’re trying to beat each other,” Schauffele said. “I think the only time we’re really rooting hard for each other is when we’re playing team events. I’m rooting for myself harder than anyone else and same goes for him. But of course I’d like to see him do well, but when we’re in the final group together it’s pretty obvious what we’re trying to do.”

Cantlay finally missed a putt inside 10 feet, this one for par on the third hole, but was otherwise solid on an overcast afternoon at Riviera. He saved a tough par on the 10th when his chip rolled off the green and added birdies at the 11th and 13th.

“I played solid golf today,” Cantlay said. “I didn’t make any long putts or anything. Didn’t really give myself too many chances, but all in all a solid day and in good position for tomorrow.”

But he lost a little of his cushion, particularly on the par-5 17th, the second-easiest hole at Riviera that yielded only two bogeys among the 51 players who reached the weekend.

Cantlay found a fairway bunker to the right off the tee, blasted out to wedge range and his shot to a front pin came off the green. He chipped weakly to 15 feet and missed the par putt.

Schauffele opened with a 15-foot eagle putt on the par-5 first and was relatively quiet until taking care of the par 5s on the back and adding birdies at the short par-4 10th and a tee shot to 7 feet on the par-3 16th.

Zalatoris, who missed most of last year recovering from back surgery, already has one highlight this week with his hole-in-one Friday on the 14th that resulted in a car for him and his caddie. He zoomed into contention with five birdies over his 10 holes for a 65.

Luke List (68) was three shots behind, while Harris English (65) and Jason Day (69) were another shot back going into the final round.

No one else was closer than five.

Cantlay is trying to join Max Homa (2021) and John Merrick (2013) as players from the greater Los Angeles area trying to win what amounts to a hometown event. Cantlay won the Zozo Championship at Sherwood in Thousand Oaks, about 35 miles to the north, when the tournament was moved to California during the pandemic.

But Riviera is special.

“Being from southern California, it’s one of the tournaments on the list that I’d like to win the most,” Cantlay said.

Floods fail to dampen Hull’s performance at Aramco Saudi Ladies International

Floods fail to dampen Hull’s performance at Aramco Saudi Ladies International
Updated 17 February 2024

Floods fail to dampen Hull’s performance at Aramco Saudi Ladies International

Floods fail to dampen Hull’s performance at Aramco Saudi Ladies International
  • Englishwoman shoots 4-under-par 68 to move into 3rd despite sleepless night
  • Thailand’s Tavatanakit tops leaderboard, as Henseleit moves into second

RIYADH: Englishwoman Charley Hull moved back into contention in the Aramco Saudi Ladies International Presented by PIF with a 4-under-par 68 on Saturday, despite her hotel room flooding during the night.
The world No. 8 ended the day in a share of third on 7 under for the tournament.
But it was not all plain sailing for the Solheim Cup heavyweight after heavy rains and thunderstorms disrupted her sleep and morning preparations.
“I had to have plumbers in from 1 a.m. until 3:30 a.m. in the morning,” she said. “After that I didn’t really fancy getting up to do too much of a workout, but I’m certainly much more awake now after that round.”
Hull recently introduced a new fitness regime as she chases her first major.
Thailand’s Patty Tavatanakit completed a calm and composed round of 3 under to maintain her position at the top of the leaderboard at 11 under, three strokes clear of Germany’s Esther Henseleit.
Now in a prime position to secure her first win since the 2021 ANA Championship, the Thai star was clear on what she had to do.
“You’re thinking about it, so what are you going to do about those thoughts? Tomorrow, all I want to do is make the right choices for each and every shot. Whatever it is that I’m going to face, I’m up for it,” she said.
Henseleit jumped into second place on the leaderboard with a blistering round of 7 under, outplaying her compatriot Alexandra Forsterling, who shot five under to end the day in a share of 15th.
Heinseleit thanked her coach, and fiance, Reece Phillips for his role in her ongoing development.
“He’s been helping me a lot with my swing over the last three years and it looks completely different now,” she said. “We have a good system now out there and it’s good to have someone like that on the bag.”
Former event champion Emily Pedersen shot 6 under on Saturday to move into a tie for third with Hull. The Danish No. 1 said she was hoping to make the most of the opportunity she had created.
“It was special for me to win (in Saudi Arabia) five years ago, so it would mean a lot to win again and, obviously, that’s what I’m here for,” she said.
Another former event winner, Georgia Hall, shot 3 under on Saturday to end the day in a tie for seventh place.
With plenty of big names still in the running for the largest prize fund of any Ladies European Tour event outside the majors everything looks set for a grandstand finish on Sunday.