The Masters preview with Skeeter McGillicuddy
The 2019 renewal kicks off this week with wall-to -wall coverage from the range on Monday through to the back nine on Sunday. For all the fanfare the opening major looks less competitive that some WGC’s and certainly the two Open majors. It’s still rammed with the best of the best and a lot of them are in good form. Not all of course.
Quality players win at Augusta even if at the time this comes as a surprise. Curiously the top eight players in he market this year have a ten year record that is surprising but also perhaps indicative that maybe its “their” time this year. I refer to the market-leading group of Rory, Dustbin, Tiger, Rose, Thomas, Rahm, Rickie and Molinari. These eight players have played the Masters 54 times in the last ten years – failing to complete the 80 appearance set through a combination of injury, not being on the scene at the time, or not qualifying – for zero wins. There have been 19 top tens and three runners up finishes. I’m not sure this is an exceptional set of results, merely presenting it as an observation, and you’ll have noticed this excludes Jordan.
The winners over this period: Jordan, Bubba (twice), Milky, Scott, Sergio, Patrick, Schwartzel, Willett and Cabrera, are, were, class players all of them, even if some of their triumphs come under the surprise category.
The field, already restricted to 86 (as we speak) is littered with players who have no chance playing testimonial golf, a few amateurs, and those who appear to be ill suited for the purpose. So finding the winner should be easy yes?
The problem is all those winners looked obvious post event. Take Patrick – and for context we’ll reference Kaymer. Kaymer ruined his game in pursuit of a draw to compete at Augusta. I wrote off Patrick’s chances last year on the basis he couldn’t hit Kaymer’s stock shot, a fade. So much for that theory. Reed developed a crazy whirly fake cum fade and the rest is history.
The field lacks numbers and with the eligibility criteria, depth. Experience is key so it’s said and this is backed up to an extent with few first time winners. That didn’t stop us putting up Xander last year.
At Augusta you have to move it both ways and putt. You can get away with the odd wayward tee shot in the absence of rough but keep hitting in the pine straw and you won’t contend.
With all this in mind in the search for the winner the two really interesting players are Rory and Jordan. Rory’s record is getting better all the time with 5 top tens on the trot. His current form is phenomenal and I read nothing into his loss to Tiger last week other than his putter went cold for one day. That is the lottery of match play and why trying to establish the leading players globally is all about stoke play. Rory’s driving is scary good and he will be coming into these fast greens with much shorter clubs than most. Remember Rory’s 2nd into the par five 2nd on Sunday last year? No one took that route and yes he missed the putt (which kind of took the wind out of his sails) but the fact is he’ll be coming in high unlike, say, Matthew Fitzpatrick, with all the attendant advantages. Plus his putting is much more solid this year. On the face of it 56th in stokes gained putting looks weak. Context, coming as it does with, 1st in strokes gained off the tee, 1st, strokes gained tee to green and 1st, strokes gained overall, lend this a whole new light. If he were double-figures I’d be on. Regardless I’ll be cheering.
Jordan is the supreme modern day Augusta specialist. Having played 200+ rounds he knows the place inside out and his implosion when Willett won aside – still finishing 2nd mind – his worst finish in five attempts is 11th. I’ve previously advocated being on Rory and Jordan at 20/1 but even with his better showing at the Texas Open I’d be concerned that his greatest weapon, the putter, is misbehaving. The best putter I’ve ever seen his long game is worrying enough but coupled with what looks like a loss of confidence from 5 ft in I’d be reluctant to put much faith in him winning. I can see his being there in the mix though and maybe a back (at 23) to lay strategy is the route.
Foolish it may seem to focus solely on these two but there is something compelling about them and their games entering this week.
Not to detract from the rest of the aforementioned main contenders but their credentials, while impressive in some cases, don’t make me think – yes – I must be on. If I had to run with one of them it’d be Rickie.
Tony Finau 1pt win at 50 BF
Xander Schauffele 1pt win at 55 BF
Tyrrell Hatton 1pt win at 260 BF
Tony Finau heads our list only because he’s the shortest price. Last week I wrote that he never wins. This week I suspect he can. On debut last year he made a name for himself with his ankle snap in the par three event and then went on to finish an impressive 10th. Leave aside his early exit from the match play and his week-to-week form is hardly awful. Ranked 15th in the world with a season scoring average of 68.86 Finau has the game for Augusta being long and hitting plenty of greens. He makes 4.5 birdies a round and only lets his game down with moderate play around the greens and a middling putter. No doubt finding his feet last year he opened with a 68, muddled it round on Friday and Saturday, and came home hard on the steel on Sunday for 66. Not many players shoot 7 under on their debuts at August and not many can boast a 50% strike rate shooting under 70. Spurious as these “stats” may appear I’m more inclined to think he just has the game to thrive at Augusta. He’s only won once on tour but you don’t get to 15th in the OWGR’s without consistent performances. He looks, much like our next candidate, a value proposition against those ahead of him in the market.
Xander Schauffele comes back to Augusta off the back of a debut 50th when we were on. Last year was more about his undoubted talent being able to shine and buck the first up challenge. Going off at 100/1 he never got to grips with the place opening with a 71 and then a killer 78 on the Friday. Surprise – player shoots +6 at Augusta. Rory is 23 under for his last 20 rounds including two 77’s. Augusta can eat you. Since last year Schauffele has gone on to great heights and showed a big time temperament at the majors. Long, with the ability to hit it in high, and not afraid to go low, he’s ranked 10th on the OWGR’s and 3rd in the Fed Ex with two wins already this season. Statistically the man appears to have no weaknesses with an across the board main category positive rank including 21st in putting and 4th in strokes gained overall. Like Finau he’d hardly come across as a surprise winner with the underlying strengths so evident in his game.
Tyrrell Hatton represents a stark departure from the logic around previous two selections…but bear with me. Hatton has all sorts of demons but so what? Bubba, Sergio – the game is littered with the unhinged who win. Granted Hatton’s form is nothing to write home about coming of a shocking 81 at the Valspar after an opening 69…and yet….and yet. Lets consider his two appearances at Augusta. He opened his account in 2017 with an 80 followed by a 78 and a flight out of Georgia. Back for more in 2018 he posted 74,75,73 and 70. This boy is getting the hang of the place! Hatton’s form is ordinary to say the least. He looks out of sorts and has missed four of his last eight cuts. I’m not clinging to the progressive nature of his six rounds at the venue other than to point out he may have genuinely learnt how to play the place. Where I’m hanging my hat is his putting – or rather his potential for great putting. For a man who once led the PGA Tour in the category he’s gone spectacularly backwards this season languishing as he does in 143rd place in the strokes gained putting category. Anyone who has seen him play has witnessed the volcanic nature of his game and that extends to his putting. It’s a leap of faith that he’ll find both his tee to green game and his stroke at Augusta but that leap comes with odds of 259/1.