Date: April 06, 2016
Author: Mark Hayes

PREVIEW: Batting deep for a second green jacket

If not for world No.1 Jason Day, you could make a strong case that Adam Scott could win a second green jacket this week.

If not for the pair of them, you could make an argument that Marc Leishman represents great value as an “outsider”.

Then, as a country on an unprecedented roll, let’s throw in Cam Smith – an irresistible youngster who’s already shown his proclivity for the big moment.

And not to forget Steve Bowditch, who would readily admit his form isn’t at its zenith, but is capable of anything on his day.

So stands Australia’s challenge for the year’s first major – the 2016 Masters at the incomparable Augusta National Golf Club.

At five players, it’s not the nation’s greatest challenge by number.

But in terms of realistic chances to pack another green jacket Down Under, it might be our deepest in the storied event’s 80th staging.

Day will take the drive down Magnolia Lane as the hottest golfing property on the planet – a feat even more remarkable with the depth of young talent on the US PGA Tour.

Fresh from victories at the Arnold Palmer Invitational and World Match Play Championship, Day returns to a course he loves and maintains suits both his power game and deft putting stroke.

He has twice previously finished in the top three at Augusta, both times (2011 on debut and 2013) having shared the lead on the back nine of the final round.

But this time he’s coming in full of confidence born of a remarkable six victories in his past 13 starts on the US PGA Tour, dating back to last year’s Canadian Open.

Importantly, the streak takes in the US PGA Championship where he broke through the mental barrier that he would tell you had likely inhibited him when he had those previous shots at Masters immortality.

Scott, who buried Australia’s green jacket hoodoo three years ago, also comes to Georgia not far from the form of his life.

Finally free from chatter about his anchored putter, Scott, too, comes in having had back-to-back victories on the US PGA Tour’s “Florida Swing”.

Perhaps even better than that, though, the Queenslander is bringing with him a streak few have matched: in the past five years, he has finished in the top 10 of major championships no fewer than twice each year – and three times in 2013. Throw in four other top-15 finishes in that time and it’s hard to argue that he won’t be there again when the whips are cracking.

Leishman has had his share of drama in four trips to Augusta National.

In 2010 the Victorian was “beaten up” by a second-round 79 en route to a missed cut in what he then feared would be his only opportunity on the hallowed turf.

When he returned in 2013, not only did he hold his own, but with mid-iron in hand on the 15th fairway in the final round, it wasn’t until his second shot trickled back into the pond that Leishman’s title challenge faded into a tie for fourth with Tiger Woods.

The following year, the Warrnambool ace briefly led again in the second round after three opening birdies until a calamitous 10-over run in 12 holes sent him packing early again. Then last year, his grand plans were derailed before he started by his wife Audrey’s life-threatening health scare.

The course clearly suits his eye and he’s due a slice of luck among the Georgia pines.

Smith remains an unknown to many, even skirting much TV coverage until his near albatross on the 72nd hole in last year’s US Open propelled him all the way to fourth in his first major championship.

But the 22-year-old already has shown a penchant for performing in tough situations and that there’s not a situation in world golf that daunts him.

Bar the first staging of the Masters, only Fuzzy Zoeller in 1979 has ever won during a first appearance at Augusta National. And while few offer Smith a chance at matching that feat in such a formidable field, a practice round with 2013 champ Scott could be important for a youngster with undoubted magic in his hands.

Bowditch makes his second appearance at Augusta National having finished a more than respectable T26 on debut two years ago.

There’s no denying Bowditch, in on the back of his Byron Nelson Championship win last year, is not in peak form having missed three cuts in his past four events and finished last in the non-cut WGC Cadillac Championship in the other.

But writing him off here is doing the Queenslander a severe disservice. He has the combination of length and short game that should suit around Augusta where the penalties for wayward drives aren’t as harsh as other major championships.

Most will say it’s a long shot to see him in contention on Sunday, but Bowditch is a confidence player and if he can hang up a good number on Thursday, who’s to say where his ceiling lies.

Away from the Aussies, the beauty of this Masters is its plethora of legitimate contenders.

Defending champion Jordan Spieth hasn’t shot worse than even-par 72 in eight career Masters rounds and cannot be underestimated.

Nor can the immense power games of dual champion Bubba Watson, Rory McIlroy or Rickie Fowler.

And triple champion Phil Mickelson is never far from the action with five top-three finishes in his past six starts around Augusta National and, now at age 45, entering something of an era of unbridled love from Masters’ patrons who have a track record of inspiring “Lefty” to great deeds.

Regardless, it’s the storybook event of world golf – we can’t wait to watch this next chapter.