Masters on the Horizon
Published: Tuesday, February 25, 2014
Updated: Tuesday, February 25, 2014 00:02
In the midst of last week’s chaotic weather that buried most of the East Coast in snow, the Augusta National Golf Club announced that weather damage had forced them to cut down the famed Eisenhower Tree on the left side of the 17th fairway.
The famous tree acquired its name after it ruined one too many of former President Eisenhower’s rounds at Augusta, where he was a longtime member. The president famously stormed into a members’ meeting and insisted that the tree be cut down. In response, then-club President Clifford Roberts immediately adjourned the meeting before Ike could rally his troops. This was one campaign the general would not win. He would only be vindicated five decades later, when Mother Nature ultimately got the best of the 150-year-old tree.
This anecdote is a convenient reminder that the Masters Tournament is only six weeks away, which means that it is time to start thinking about golf’s first major and the sport’s grandest stage. So, in honor of the Eisenhower Tree, here is our not-at-all-premature first take on the 2014 Masters.
Who are the early favorites?
Playing well immediately before the Masters doesn’t always translate into success at Augusta. This tournament in particular seems to reward familiarity with the course more than momentum, but it certainly helps to have both — like Jason Day. Day won this past weekend’s World Match Play Championship and held the lead on the 16th tee at last year’s Masters. His string of bogeys on the final three holes opened the door for the memorable Adam Scott-Ángel Cabrera playoff. Day has all of the tools indicative of an Augusta contender: experience with the course, a good-looking swing and strong motivation to outperform last year’s disappointing collapse.
Right on Day’s heels is Jimmy Walker, who is having an incredible season so far with three wins already. If one is looking for pure form, Walker is easily the hottest golfer on the PGA Tour. However, he has never played at Augusta before, and the Masters is notoriously unkind to first-timers. That said, he is probably the best bet to win in his first Masters since Fuzzy Zoeller did in in 1979.
One of our favorite dark horses is the Swede, Henrik Stenson. He vaulted himself to third in the world rankings with his superb performance in the latter half of 2013. He has a fairly poor record at Augusta, but he has never entered the tournament in his best form.
This time around, Stenson looks to have settled into his swing, and his game is remarkably consistent so far this season. He plays more of a precision game than the bomb-and-chase style we typically see from Augusta winners, so if he were to don the green jacket on Sunday, look for a Zach Johnson-esque sort of performance, where he makes almost every putt.
Who is the best player never to win one?
The lead up to Augusta always invites renewed conversation about which golfer deserves the biggest backhanded compliment in the sport: best player never to win a major. Without a doubt, the answer here is Lee Westwood.
Even without a major victory to his name, the Englishman has managed to play the best championship golf in the world over the past couple of seasons. In the last four years, Westwood has amassed eight top-10s and five top-threes in his 16 major appearences. None of those performances was more anguishing than watching Phil Mickelson roar past him Sunday at last year’s Open Championship. Westwood’s best finish at Augusta was second place in 2010 when, incidentally, Mickelson roared past him on the final day.
Westwood has the length, precision and overall game to win each of the four majors but has yet to put together a complete 72 holes in one of golf’s four crown jewels. His record is solid at Augusta, but he will be 41 this year and his chances are dwindling. Names like Stenson, Matt Kuchar and Luke Donald are also on this list, but none of them has the same number of close calls to merit golf’s most dubious honorific as much as Westwood. Frankly, it is hard to imagine a golfer who will have more pressure on his shoulders — except, perhaps, Tiger Woods.
So what about Tiger?
There is a reason that Tiger Woods is the perennial Masters favorite. He has comfort (four Masters wins) and momentum (the best player on tour again last year). It would be foolish to count him out.
And yet, even if Tiger comes in as the favorite (which he probably will), it is no longer as clear-cut as it was in the past. The era of Tiger Woods is over; his absolute, relentless domination of every leaderboard is no longer a given. It used to be the case that if Tiger were within three strokes of the lead, the tournament was already over. No longer. The tour is filled with young, ambitious golfers with huge drives and vicious short games. They grew up watching Tiger on TV, not watching him steal trophies out from under them. Woods revolutionized golf, but they are the heirs of that revolution, not the victims. Today’s younger golfers spend their tournaments playing Tiger’s game — not sweating it. The pure intimidation that Tiger used to inspire is absent from today’s tour.
But Woods is still the best player in the world. He will still contend for — and probably win — a couple of majors. We don’t think that Augusta will be one of them, but we would be thrilled to be proven wrong.
Drew Cunningham and Ethan Chess are seniors in the College. The Third Half appears Tuesdays.