The coming week is one of the most eagerly anticipated on the golf calendar. It is Masters time and all things Augusta dominate our minds. It also happens to be the first birthday of our BBC golf podcast The Cut, which began with Andrew Cotter and I clutching our microphones while standing under the famous tree outside the Augusta National clubhouse twelve months ago. There we interviewed a string of players as they made their way through the media throng that gathers on the build up days to the first men’s major of the year. Matt Fitzpatrick and Tommy Fleetwood were among those who joined us in that debut pod.
It was during that initial edition I suggested the 2018 Masters could be won by Tiger Woods. The producers sold the show on that line - which would have been fine if he had claimed a fifth green jacket rather than finishing in a share of 32nd place. It seems amazing to think that Woods’ appearance at Augusta was his first in three years and this time he comes to the Masters with a tour victory and high finishes in the two most recent majors behind him. But I am not going back down the route of backing the great man again. Yes he could win the 2019 Masters, of course he could, but there do seem stronger candidates. And, let’s face it, predicting an Augusta champion is never easy. Seven of the last eight victors have been first-time major winners. Those who had on their betting slips Patrick Reed, Sergio Garcia, Danny Willett and even Jordan Spieth back in 2015 were truly inspired punters. Think also of Charl Schwartzel, Angel Cabrera, Trevor Immelman and Mike Weir.
In recent years the pre-tournament chat was dominated by names such as; Rory McIlroy, Dustin Johnson, Justin Rose, Justin Thomas and Rickie Fowler. All five still have empty hangers waiting for a green jacket. It made me wonder what makes a Masters champion. The popular belief is that a high draw beats a fade (unless you are a lefty), a magical short game is a pre-requisite and supreme ball-striking is vital. And it is the third of those qualities that is perhaps the most overlooked, so a tweet from the respected Golf Channel analyst Brandel Chamblee might prove particularly noteworthy. The former PGA Tour player revealed the significance of performance from tee to green at Augusta. Six of the last seven championshave been in the top seven for strokes gained in this category. Indeed Bubba Watson in 2012 and Adam Scott the following year were the leaders from tee to green and in 2017 Garcia was third in this statistic.
Inevitably I went straight to the Tour’s stats page to see who is leading the way this year and lo and behold McIlroy is the man. The Northern Irishman has been superb this year and his brilliant Players Championship win at Sawgrass last month was an important breakthrough. McIlroy had been winless for the previous twelve months and the near misses were piling up. So is he finally ready to break his Masters duck and become only the sixth man to complete the career grand slam? His long game fits the bill. He hits it high and far and now we have the stats to prove it. But Augusta remains a huge all-round test, not just of the long and short games.
Patience is another key commodity. It has to be there in terms of course management and the risks a player is prepared to take on. Too often Rory has been guilty of going for the wrong option at the wrong time. This is his last major before he turns thirty. At Sawgrass he won with a gutsy and mature display rather than the ebullient, indomitable verve of youth which brought so much of his early success. He looks better equipped to realise and embrace the notion that The Masters is a grind for the first three days and that even in the final round you do not have to slam the accelerator too early. McIlroy faded badly in the final pairing with champion Patrick Reed last year. It was a jarring and scarring experience but there were big lessons to learn and I suspect they may now have sunk in. So, along with Dustin Johnson (fourth in the tee to green stats) I make McIlroy my favourite this year. Tommy Fleetwood also figures prominently in that long game category and possesses the surest of touches around the greens - there is a lot about his profile that fits the Augusta bill. Don’t discount Francesco Molinari either. His mental strength allied to unerring accuracy mean that Italy might end up celebrating its first green jacket. World number two Rose, with two runner up finishes in the last four years, is another prime candidate.
From the American contingent Thomas is a big threat but Spieth needs a rapid upturn from his worrying form of late. And of course there is that man Woods, four times a champion and only once outside the top six from 2005 through to 2011. He will revel in the hype and there will be loads of it, especially after finishing sixth at the Open and runner up at the US PGA. That was back in August and much has happened since, including his Tour Championship triumph. I’m not going to tip him, but he is an encouraging eighth on the tee to green stats - just saying! Whatever happens, though, we will have loads to discuss on the podcast and to describe on our BBC 5Live radio commentaries. I simply cannot wait.