AUGUSTA, Ga. (KMOX) — No doubt by now you have read all the experts who have generated the short list of candidates to pick up a Masters win and some of the more confident have narrowed their selections to one. I’m not that bright or confident. If I could pick major winners in advance I would have been at the lottery window in Red Bud a week ago. But if you haven’t filled out your names in the pool, allow me to offer some considerations.
If you haven’t noticed, the intelligentsia in the major golf media haven’t met a front-runner they couldn’t “discover.” It’s not that long ago that the big guys in print and on the air were handicapping whether Woods would ever win again, much less a major. Too much personal turmoil; too many surgeries; old beyond his years; the new kids weren’t afraid anymore.
But all it took was a weekend at Bay Hill and the new swing that was once Foley’s Folley was now vintage Tiger. The drought was over and it was time to put an end to the major void as well. Let me suggest the relevant date this week isn’t his last major win, the magnificent one leg miracle at Torrey Pines in 2008. The number is 2005. That’s the last time Tiger slipped into a green dinner jacket and the champions Sunday night dinner with the members.
The question isn’t why hasn’t Tiger won a major in nearly four years. It’s why has this once perceived Masters dominance been so long in remission. The 2005 Woods was still the unstoppable force. That Tiger hadn’t experienced the pain and suffering of surgery, scandal and scorn. That Tiger was still going to win Masters in multiples never to be matched.
So what happened? Augusta National happened. The plan to reinvent the historic layout began in the late ‘90’s with the arrival of Tiger and reached maturity in the middle of the new century’s first decade. The experts will point to the length pumped into the course, but I will contend without the subtle addition of a first cut, a five o’clock shadow of rough, the length would have been easily accommodated by Woods and the other bomb and gouge generation.
Woods, who by that time had seen his driving become unpredictable, now faced the impossible task of getting the approaches to the correct angles on the greens to both score and survive. The tournament that once seemed the easiest of the majors to ‘master’ was now his hardest.
So this week the new Tiger had better have spent the last ten days making significant strides from the happy win at Arnold’s place, because his Bay Hill performance may not be enough for Augusta. Sean Foley may have given him his length back, but his accuracy off the tee is still suspect. Tiger “stung” his way though Bay Hill and let the challengers fall away as they have so often. You cannot “sting” Augusta National. The driver has to have a leading role.
Tiger also needs to accomplish an even greater transformation. By his own admission he hasn’t yardaged yet his scoring clubs. His length at the top end of the bag is as much his enemy as his friend. You cannot play beyond the cup at Augusta and expect to win or even contend. I would suggest that a player could hit 72 greens in regulation at the Masters, and if he wasn’t in the right position on the greens, he wouldn’t even finish in the top ten.
Tiger wisely shunned the dangerous hole locations on Sunday at Bay Hill for the smarter safer areas on the greens. His final nine 37 actually lengthened his lead. That works at Bay Hill, not at Augusta. We’ve been “Charled” once and we could be again. Fred Ridley and the committee who dials in the horsepower on Sunday at the Masters has shown an ability to lift the restrictor plates with manageable hole locations, and they can orchestrate any kind of finish they desire. If Tiger is to end his Masters dry spell he needs to put up as much red as he puts on Sundays.
Okay, so I was on the Rory bandwagon a couple of years before he danced for 54 at last years Masters and skated for 72 at Congressional. The kid has already blown Tiger away on the likeability scale, and yes he was “Pebble-like” at Congressional. Just keep this in mind. At the moment Rory McIlroy is tied with Rich Beem for career majors. His future is unlimited, but it is still his “future.”
For this year, and the Irish crown Prince, I come back to the Augusta greens. Last year for three days he put on the greatest display of distance control from the fairways at Augusta that I had ever seen in a quarter century. Genuine birdie putts were available in bunches and tap in pars were the rule. His unraveling on Sunday started with the short game and metastasized to the rest of his package of skills. I still consider young Rory a work in progress on and around the greens, and if he can’t summon up the same artistry from the fairways he flashed for three days, Ireland may have to wait another year or two for that national golf slam.
The Rest of the Litter
Historically, here is where the game has come to reside when it comes to major championship golf. The last fifteen majors have been collected by fifteen different players, and twelve of the fifteen have been first time major winners. To quote a golfing President, we have learned to “spread the wealth around” when it comes to winning majors. Ben, Byron and Sam have been replaced by Charl, Keegan and Trevor. I would contend that if you ride in first class, you could sit next to a recent golf major winner and never know who he was. The LPGA has their Yani. The PGA Tour has Louis and Martin. So if you want to know who will win this year’s Masters find that person in Red Bud. My only hope is the winning putt comes with a club not attached to the sternum or the belly.
Dan Reardon is Golf Editor at KMOX (1120 AM) in St. Louis. He can be heard throughout the week on “America’s Sports Voice.”