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.