Date: April 03, 2017
Author: Mike Clayton

CLAYTON: Course, and champs, for the ages

The Masters, assuming it doesn’t rain or a playoff runs out of light – as it no doubt will one year – finishes this year on 9 April.

It’s fitting because it would have been the 60th birthday of the champion of 1980 and 1983, Severiano Ballesteros. He left us far too early, but such was his genius that those who saw the great Spaniard play at his best were left with memories for a lifetime.

Augusta National has changed so much since another genius – Alister MacKenzie – laid the holes out with Bobby Jones in the early years of the Great Depression. Money was so limited, MacKenzie died pleading for payment for his services, but many years later we remain entranced by the test the Scot set and the type of golf he wanted both the members and best players in the world to play.

Ballesteros epitomised the golf Mackenzie admired, playing with freedom, flair and imagination mixed with great touch and nerve. The winner this week will need a decent dose of them all.

MacKenzie rewarded power by giving the powerful drivers space to play into from the tee (he abhorred the use of long rough as a hazard) and by building several greens where those with an ability to hit those big, beautiful, high, long irons were hugely advantaged. The water-fronted par fives on the back nine are the two best examples and it was the men who played those shots so effortlessly – Sam Snead, Jack Nicklaus, Fred Couples, Greg Norman, Tiger Woods, Adam Scott, Watson’s (Bubba, Tom and Seve) – who had so much success at Augusta.

It didn’t mean those with varying skills couldn’t win if they mastered the wedge, the putter and had the discipline it took to play their own way. Billy Casper, Gary Player and later Zach Johnson all proved MacKenzie’s course was somewhat democratic in that it gave them all a chance.

It was just that the powerful had a better chance.

This season the most physically gifted athlete in the sport is dominating the US PGA Tour and Dustin Johnson plays with a nonchalant power reminding us of Woods' decimation of the course 20 years ago. Woods' 12-shot win is as significant an anniversary as Ballesteros’ and it heralded a new era, one where previously unimagined driving distance would come to dominate the tour.

The 2006 U.S Open Geoff Ogilvy said recently: "You go onto the range now and all the new players out there are fixated on how far they hit it. They are there with their Trackman and a finely tuned knowledge and understanding of the numbers – launch angles, smash factor, ball speed, club speed – and all the clubs are perfectly matched in order to maximise their distance."

None of it would have surprised MacKenzie, who wrote in the early 1930s, "there is no limit to science".

Dustin Johnson plays unusually with his clubface pointing at the sky at the top of his backswing and a left wrist arched over, but like all great players who used the configuration they learned not to hook the ball too much because if they did, they’d hook it off the charts left. Lee Trevino played that way, but he was no fan of Augusta because the resulting flight with his long clubs was low – perfect at The Open on the British links but not so effective at Augusta. Johnson in contrast has no trouble getting his longer clubs into the air – not that he needs them too often, so far does he drive.

Australia has only five players, but three have the experience and the game to do very well. Perth's Curtis Luck won the US Amateur and for him his first experience of being at Augusta will, said Ogilvy, "be like being a kid in the candy store". Luck played well in the Emirates Australian Open at Royal Sydney and for him making the cut would be something to celebrate.

Adam Scott missed the cut last week in Houston, but it won’t bother him too much and, as Ogilvy pointed out: "Adam has many times won after he has missed a cut because he always knows it’s never far away."

Jason Day is clearly without form as he deals with his mother’s illness, but like Scott it’s a few inspired swings, shots and good holes away from putting himself right into the middle of it on the final evening.

Veteran Rod Pampling is back for his fourth shot at the Masters after a 10-year absence at Augusta thanks to an amazing result that many errantly thought was past him late last year. The Queenslander was once a big hitter, but it's a mark of how far the game has changed that his length will proclude him from winning at age 47, even on a course he loves dearly.

The one with the best form is Marc Leishman who won Arnold Palmer’s tournament in Orlando a few weeks ago. Leishman partnered Scott in the final round when Adam won in 2013 and the Warrnambool man was right in it until he found the water at the 15th and made a bogey. He is perhaps the most under-rated player in the game and not without a chance.

This is, of course, the first Masters since 1955 without Palmer in attendance. Woods isn’t playing, the victim of a back injury and who can forget Ballesteros?

The winner will need elements of the games of all three, but this Masters will be remembered as much for those three great champions as the man who triumphs on Sunday night.