08 Apr 2021 | Professional golf | Feature stories |

Clayton: The Augusta formula

by Mike Clayton

McIlroy Masters image
Can Rory McIlroy finally win the Masters? Photo: Getty

Trying to pick the winner at Augusta seems to have become an annual quest, and the main topic of conversation. But it’s hardly akin to picking Rafael Nadal in Paris. Everyone is guessing. More often than not one of the best players in the world wins, but who picked Danny Willett, or Tommy Aaron or Herman Keiser? Heck, Tiger Woods has lost at least 15 times since he destroyed both the course and the field in 1997 and made Jack Nicklaus’ 1996 statement that Tiger would win more Masters than he and Arnold Palmer combined seem to be an understatement. Golf tournaments are hard to win. This isn’t clay court tennis where the best clay court player wins almost all the time. Too much can go wrong on a course where it’s difficult in the extreme to eliminate the mistakes the that winner is inevitably going to avoid. The winner isn’t going to three-putt very often, yet these are some of the most difficult greens in the world to avoid three-putting. For those of you tormented by playing Royal Melbourne’s greens on a fearsomely fast day, think of Augusta as something close to the same. On easier greens, putting well means making putts, but at courses with greens as treacherous as Royal Melbourne or Augusta, avoiding the three-putts is critical. Nor is he going to hit the ball in the water on the back nine par fives. It’s easier to avoid the water now the holes play so much shorter then either Bobby Jones or Alister MacKenzie envisaged, but it’s such a fine line between getting over and not quite making it. Over the years we have all seen long shots coming into the 15th green, landing barely a pace short of perfect and sliding all the way back into the pond. One fascination of Augusta has been the fate of players seemingly certain to win at some point. Tom Weiskopf had every 1970s kid’s dream swing. He bombed it off the tee, hit those beautiful, towering long irons and played his way into contention several times. Surely, he would win at least once? Instead, four times second was his fate. Greg Norman, who was eight times in the top five, was the exact same. Ernie Els too. Johnny Miller may not have been quite as long, but those early 1970s magical mid-irons were made for Augusta and the questions it was asking then. Could it be Rory McIlroy is the one from this era tormented by red clay of Georgia’s hills? He’s been a bit off his best lately, but the most admired swing of his generation cannot be so far off that he is without chance this year? It’s been six long seasons since he won consecutive major championships at Hoylake and Valhalla and anyone who watched him walk off the final green in Kentucky and suggested there wouldn’t be another for half a dozen years would have been laughed out of the state. Nicklaus himself predicted after that win, “Rory has an opportunity to win 15 or 20 majors.” The most interesting thing to those interested in such things is how the golf course plays. In November it was mushy and vulnerable to attack, something Dustin Johnson took full advantage off with his power and awesome skills with the clubs other than his driver. And, he seems to have a golf IQ higher than most. Haunting losses have tormented many others and whilst he has suffered at Pebble Beach Royal St Georges, Chambers Bay and Whistling Straits, those losses are seemingly shrugged off and he’s on to the next challenge. It’s not a talent everyone has and it’s likely not something learned. Not easily anyway. The greens are apparently harder and faster and any course where the concept is predicated on space from the tee needs greens demanding an uncommon level of precision to defend it against power. MacKenzie’s greens, most of which survive relatively intact to this day, (7, 9, 10 and 16 are much different) are one of the best sets of greens in the game and the one who avoids the three-putts will be in a good place.

Of course, to avoid the three-putts it helps to drive well and put the irons where the putting isn’t as complicated as it might be.

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