Busy Dance Floor at Augusta
The hype is full throttle in the build to this season’s Masters, with Rory McIlroy choosing the unplugged version this year; Tiger Woods arriving totally plugged-in on the foot of some excellent performances in the Florida Swing in the preceding weeks; Phil Mickelson looking relaxed even in a button down shirt; Jordan Spieth returning to form just on cue and Ian James Pouter getting through to the Georgia course by sheer grit and valour winning in Houston by winning a playoff at the weekend. The returning champion Sergio Garcia landing pretty much under the radar. But with a few signs that he too means business this week.
Not unlike other years, Augusta National promises once again to throw up a few surprises.
For Rory it’s been a decade of trying with a few close calls and one where the tenth hole unravelled a round when it looked easier to just par the back nine all the way home. With that memory behind him now and some majors under his belt he now seeks the Grand Slam and his tenth appearance might just be the one. It would place him with some big names who also won it after a decade, Sam Snead and Ben Hogan. Or indeed, the more recently departed Arnold Palmer who achieved the Masters win in his twenty-eighth year – the age the Holywood golfer is these days. Conscious that the years are ticking by one gets the sense that McIlroy means business at this year’s Masters.
The signs of more focus come with the news that 2018 has no entourage either, his rented house this year not filled with buddies, nor is he renting the adjoining house to cater for the friends that want to join him for the week. The price of celebrity being squandered this time as he plans for that extra focus that just could help deliver the elusive Green Jacket. So maybe this year the man from Holywood will make his mark on the magnolia laded course.
Tiger may be out of the injury Woods and already has completed the most amazing of sporting comebacks. But he knows he’s vulnerable to the hype too and is in unfamiliar territory of fallibility these days. However, the fact that he is now playing seventy-two holes more often is not only a wonder of nature but a reflection of his gritty determination. Enough visible to suggest he could be a contender this week too. Although his swing is slightly different – given his back trouble – the raw power can still be seen at times on the tee box.
So, he will be hoping to continue at Augusta what he showed at the Valspar at Innis brook. Then again at the Arnold Palmer invitational at Bay Hill where he was undone by no little misfortune, seeing McElroy blitz his way through the final holes in style to secure the first win in the same number of years Woods has been injured. Now to see a more relaxed Woods these days is also good. It’s also very good for the game.
In December Golf Channel and NBC’s coverage of the Hero World Challenge and Tiger Woods’ return to competitive golf for the first time in 16 months delivered significant ratings increases for the networks: Most-watched Thursday Round 1 since The Open Round 1 in July: Most-watched Round 1 at this event on Golf Channel (2007-16); Excluding Ryder Cups and Presidents Cups, most-watched 4th quarter Round 1 in Golf Channel history (2006-16)
When NBC Sports released its audience numbers from the Valspar Championship, where Woods came very close to winning for the first time in five years, viewers turned on in record numbers. The Golf Channel PR department reporting that the final round at the Copperhead course drew a figure that is the highest non-major audience since the 2013 Players Championship. Which to surprisingly was won by Tiger Woods), and the highest non-Masters rating since the 2015 PGA Championship. So clearly golf still needs Tiger.
In the build to this week the sight of Phil Mickelson and Tiger practising together is a joy. With some of the those less attractive moments from their younger days falling by the wayside and consigned to history. The wisdom of age falling over both as they realise that the days inside the ropes are on the wane so enjoy it. As player at least. Which doesn’t mean that Mickelson isn’t coming to claim another green jacket at Wood’s expenses either. No bigger competitor at Augusta than Phil.
Mickelson said he bumped into Woods on Monday and the two set up the practice round ahead of the 82nd Masters. “It was good to be able to watch what he was doing and how he was hitting it,” Mickelson said of Woods. “I wanted to see him play.”
Spieth arrives from the Houston Open where he finished third, and maybe the favourite for many to win his second career green jacket. In his own words he feels there are two reasons- He’s been here before, and he’s feeling better than ever.
“I feel like my game is in the form that I’ve needed to be for major championships,” Spieth said. “Things are kind of clicking at the right time.” The familiarity of Augusta, where Spieth has competed four other times, is also a major reason for his comfort entering this week’s showcase.
“I’ve played it in very firm conditions, I’ve played it in soft conditions (and) either way played well,” he said. “The golf course, it fits my eye, the way you have to play off of different slopes … they require a lot more feel than just you’re in-a-dome, driving-range shots, and going back to when I started playing the game, I’ve been a ‘feel’ player.”
A first-time Masters winner in 2015, Spieth was named one of Time’s 100 most influential people the following year and then won the 2015 U.S. Open with a 5-under-par. A second-place finisher in that year’s PGA Championship, he has since logged wins at The Open Championship and seven other PGA Tour event
Ian Poulter looked to have blown his last chance to qualify for the year’s first major with an opening 73 in Houston. But after three rounds Poulter had played himself into contenion and then sinking a 19-foot birdie putt to force a playoff. By winning the first extra hole against American Beau Hossler Poulter found himself on his way to Georgia. Again, when it really mattered Poulter delivered. Hence his nickname “The Postman”.
No doubt the former Woburn Pro will enjoy his first trip to Augusta since 2016.
Poulter had reached the quarterfinals of the WGC Match Play and thought he had done enough to make the world’s top 50. But when he lost his quarterfinal 8&6 to American Kevin Kisner he was then informed he hadn’t made it. A huge blow to his season.
“To get this done today to get me to Augusta is amazing,” said Poulter, “My first strokeplay win in the States, and to do it with the Masters on the line is unbelievable.”It’s going to take a little while to sink in. I’m super excited.”