Date: April 04, 2018
Author: Mike Clayton

Clayton: Line of legends ensures immortality

Commentators have suggested this week’s Masters tournament is the most anticipated in years, but one wonders why this is any more significant than any other.

It’s always a championship around which there is great anticipation because the club’s marketing of its own event is genius and it’s a chance for players to make history and define careers, just as Sergio Garcia did last year.

For Rory McIlroy, one of the more likely winners, conquering Augusta would make him the sixth man to win the career grand slam. It’s hardly the lightest burden.

Sixty years ago, Arnold Palmer filled the void left by the ageing trio of Ben Hogan, Sam Snead and decade-long retired Byron Nelson when he won the first of his four Masters and announced himself as the next star of the game. Jack Nicklaus came not long after, winning as a 23-year-old in 1963. 

Then the 1980s and 1990s and along came Nick Faldo, Severiano Ballesteros, Bernhard Langer, Jose-Maria Olazabal, Sandy Lyle and Ian Woosnam all of whom, in their own way, signalled the rise of Europe as a golfing power and the wisdom of the decision in the late 1970s by the professional tours outside of the American continent to adopt the bigger American ball.

Does anybody think this extraordinary group of players would have been as successful playing the smaller, and easier to use, ‘British’ ball in Europe and having to switch when they flew across the Atlantic?

Then came 1997 and the amazing Tiger Woods performance – a level of power golf few could have imagined. That he played no more than a 7-iron into any par fours was a sign of things to come and since the club has both elongated and narrowed the course in an attempt to adapt it to a generation of players fixated on power, the advantages it brings and it’s ready availability through new electronic technology and the combination of modern ball and driver.

So it is to the power players we look as possible winners this week. The Augusta fairways are wide – not as wide as Alister MacKenzie or Bobby Jones planned, but wide enough to make driving with some freedom a part of the test.

MacKenzie himself abhorred the use of rough to border narrow fairways, enjoying rather the freedom of play when players were allowed some space. The recent spate of tree planting has reduced the space and is not something we’d imagine MacKenzie nor Jones would approve. It was Jones, himself, who once said to the British broadcaster Alistair Cooke as he looked down Augusta’s 10th fairway, “I don’t see any need for a tree on a golf course”.

With his fiercely undulating greens, MacKenzie built in the demand for precise iron shots played from the preferred part of the fairway, a place the players are left to work out for themselves. Modelled on the principles of St Andrews, this was democratic golf and it’s the best form of the game.

MacKenzie was an admirer of the great Walter Hagen, the most entertaining player of his generation and, while he didn’t know it, he was designing his masterpieces at Augusta and Royal Melbourne for Ballesteros and Woods, players of unsurpassed imagination and skills.

Woods, while surely not the favourite this week, is the player whose performance is most awaited. In barely more than a month he has shown his game is far from crippled as many thought as they watched him spend the last couple of years fighting an aching back, the chipping yips and the wildest driver any great player has ever had to worry about.

In stark contrast to Woods’ erratic driving are great drivers and favourites, Justin Thomas, Bubba Watson, Dustin Johnson, Justin Rose and McIlroy.

In the end, everyone is guessing and the interest is always in how the week unfolds. The brilliance of the course is the run of famous holes after the turn where wild swings of fortune have made the Masters the most compelling of championships and the promise is this will be one of the best.