14 Nov 2020 | Professional golf | Feature stories |

CLAYTON: an eye on the Masters

by Mike Clayton

Bryson DeChambeau Augusta practice image
Bryson DeChambeau practises with caddie Jim Tucker at Augusta on Tuesday. Photo: Getty

The great blessing of Adam Scott’s 2013 victory is that Australians no longer have to wonder when one of ours is going to win at Augusta National. Given many came close, why it took 79 years is something of a mystery for a couple of reasons.

The first was we all grew up playing many tournaments at Royal Melbourne, a course designed by Alister MacKenzie, the man who five years later applied Melbourne’s principles to Bobby Jones’ dream course in Augusta.

The second is how Greg Norman, a man with the perfect game for both Royal Melbourne and Augusta, could never quite get across the finishing line. To Australians, Norman’s struggle, his torment, was a source of both fascination, frustration and disappointing Monday morning trips to school or the office.

Of course, the great conundrum of the Masters is that Norman, Ernie Els, Tom Weiskopf and Johnny Miller, all brilliant players with ideal games to answer MacKenzie’s questions, never managed to earn a place in the champions’ locker room.

All four – as is Scott – were masters of the towering long iron, a shot of such enormous advantage at the par fives and holes including the long, downhill par-three fourth hole and the difficult par-four 10th playing down the steep hill away from the clubhouse.

One of the great modern-era players, Rory McIlroy, is a man who always looks as though his very best golf is good enough to win any tournament he enters. He plays as elegantly as Scott and Weiskopf, drives the ball seemingly forever in the fashion of the best current-day pros, and he has more than proved his mettle on the game’s greatest stages.

The only exception is Augusta National and the Masters is the championship standing between him and joining Jack Nicklaus, Gene Sarazen, Gary Player, Tiger Woods and Ben Hogan in winning all four of golf’s professional major championships.

It seems the fascination this year is what the US Open champion, Bryson DeChambeau is going to do to the golf course. He threatens to use a driver the same length as LPGA star Brooke Henderson has used masterfully for many years.

In fairness, Henderson grips down a few inches on the 48-inch shaft, but DeChambeau reasons the extra length will help him to break the magical 200mph ‘ball speed’ reading. Those sort of speeds propel the ball at least 350 yards in the air and from there one assumes his wedges will be all he has left into the greens.

The 1988 champion, Sandy Lyle, played an early week practice round with the American and reported he was on the 15th green with a drive and a nine iron and the 13th with a 3 wood (it’s easier to hook a 3 wood and a right to left shape fits that fairway like hand to glove) and a seven iron.

As crazy as those numbers are, the most staggering, the most frightening, of Lyle’s report was DeChambeau reaching the uphill, par-five eighth hole with a driver and a seven iron. It was always the most difficult of the long holes to reach and the great champions of the past were almost always reaching for a club with a headcover on it.

But DeChambeau rounded out the par fives by reaching the second with an eight iron.

Of course, you still have to get the ball into the hole but his realistic par is 68 and a good week with the driver won’t leave much to do with the rest of his clubs. By the sounds of it, he could leave every iron up to a five in the car and save his caddy the added weight.

He is an important player because as freakish as his length is, history tells us players of his length won’t be outliers in a generation but rather, the norm. How the game at the top level reacts to this coming reality is perhaps its biggest question.

For Australians our chances this year probably rest best with Scott and Jason Day. Both played well enough last week in Houston to suggest their games are in good shape and likely much will depend on how well they can play on Thursday. Marc Leishman hasn’t been at his best recently but Cameron Smith was fourth in California his last time out and he is always an under-rated possibility.

Australia’s final entrant is the 2019 U.S Mid-Amateur champion, a title suggesting middle-age but Lukas Michel is not yet 27 and anticipating something so many of his amateur contemporaries might only dream about.

Waiting for this Masters to come around postponed his plan to turn pro by almost eighteen months but he’s taken full advantage by satisfying his passion for golf course architecture and playing his way to The Masters via many of America’s greatest courses.

Presumably he will be more than a little nervous but playing with the quiet and gentlemanly veteran Larry Mize (he perhaps the author of Norman’s greatest torment) will be somewhat calming as will the absence of big crowds.

Still, as Mat Goggin once said of his final day pairing with Tom Watson at the 2009 British Open, the one when Watson made his mystical run at the championship, ‘For me it was a matter of surviving the first hour.’

The old cliché of the tournament not starting until the back nine on Sunday is true for the remaining contenders but the importance of surviving that first tense hour on Thursday is not to be underestimated.

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