06 Apr 2022 | Professional golf |

Clayton: Augusta finds its relevance again

by Mike Clayton

Tiger Woods Augusta 22 image
Tiger Woods in good spirits at Augusta National on Tuesday. Photo: Getty

There is only one story at Augusta this year. Tiger Woods is playing golf again, something most thought unlikely given his Ben Hogan-rivalling car crash more than a year ago.

Not even Hogan’s mangled body took as long to recover and have him back on the golf course.

Woods is never going to reveal either the real state of his leg or his expectations this week but Woods being Woods, we can assume he’s not there to play a ceremonial role.

As always, we wonder who might be the most likely winner but such is the state of the current game not one player emerges as the most likely. The No. 1 player in the world is Scotty Scheffler but the sitting atop the rankings has not always meant said player is the best player in the game. It means he is the man playing the golf of the moment and the young American’s form justifies his ranking.

Jack Nicklaus was the best player in the game from - probably - 1965 until the very early 80s, but there were years where, if there had been a world ranking, he would not have been the No. 1. Lee Trevino would have been the man in 1971, Tom Weiskopf in 1973, Johnny Miller in 1974 and Tom Watson in 1977. What they all knew, however, was that Nicklaus was the man to beat.

In this post-Woods era, we wonder who that player is. Rory McIlroy looked as though he was going to be the man when he won his third and fourth major championships in the second half of 2014. That he has not won another since is beyond belief. Then Brooks Koepka won a quartet of majors in a rush at the end of the last decade but since he’s been injured and not played quite as well.

Justin Thomas has ‘only’ one major trophy, but he looks to be playing the best golf (despite what the rankings say) and we wonder if this is the week.

Of the Australians two to me are fascinating.

Cameron Smith is in the top 10 in the world and winning The Players Championship is an acknowledgment you have beaten the best field in the game. From the beginning Adam Scott had the look, the style and the technique of an obviously gifted player but Smith took much longer to make it clear he was one of uncommon ability. The signs have always been there but arguably it’s taken almost the full decade since his 2013 Australian Amateur win to prove his game is of the highest class.

His win at Commonwealth in 2013 was a bit of a microcosm of his career since. Geoff Drakeford was the better-known local star and the gallery assumed he would easily beat the less obviously talented Smith and when the Queenslander lost the 14th hole in the morning to go five down, it only confirmed the obvious.

Except Smith won 3&2 by grinding his much longer hitting opponent into the dirt with persistent golf, the quality of which was only revealed if you really analysed what he had achieved.

The other is an obvious looking star in the mould of early 2000s Scott. Min Woo Lee with his beautifully flashy swing and a touch of rare and indefinable charisma always looks brilliant.

He’s also frustratingly inconsistent although consistency is an overrated element of what it takes to make a lot of money as a modern pro. When Lee plays his best, he makes very big checques, but his four strokeplay tournaments in America this year have all seen him at the movies, the beach or the practice range on the weekend.

He is though, a player you can’t take your eyes off, and Augusta might be his stage.

As far as the golf course goes the chronicle of the 11th hole says a lot about the current state of the game. The tee is stretched still further back from last year, all the way to 460 metres (a full 105 metres longer than Alister MacKenzie’s hole played in 1935) yet it remains a par 4 for the best players in the game.

The era of anything shorter than 460 metres being anything other than a par 4 is past – at least until the ball is properly regulated.

More importantly the silly copse of introduced pine trees down the right are thankfully now removed and the original intent of the hole restored.

The two are of course connected. There’s an assumption wider, more spacious golf makes for easier golf when it’s usually not the case. Over the years MacKenzie’s masterpieces at Augusta and Royal Melbourne (ours thankfully better preserved) have proved space makes for fascinating golf but Augusta’s early response to the distance explosion of the 21st century was to plant trees in an attempt to make the golf more difficult and defend the honour of the golf course.

Hopefully the tree removal from the 11th is an acknowledgement of a piece of flawed logic and a signal to the wider world Alister MacKenzie’s concept of what golf should look like is as relevant now as it was a century ago.

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