Sergio Garcia almost won the US PGA Championship as a teenager in 1999. He played a famous shot partly from behind a tree and scampered down the fairway in youthful exuberance. It seemed to mark the start of a new rivalry in golf as the man that beat him down the stretch that day was Tiger Woods.
Garcia eventually finished just one shot behind the man who has gone on to win 14 major championships. At the time Garcia seemed certain to begin winning majors in his twenties but astoundingly in the context of that week in 1999 he has yet to win one of the four biggest prizes in golf well into his fourth decade.
However, at the US Masters this week the player formerly known as El Nino can reach golfing maturity by winning his first major. The enthusiasm of youth has at times been replaced by introspection as Garcia struggles with his disappointments at major championship level.
There are certain similarities between Garcia and Ronnie O’Sullivan in snooker. Both men fall out of love with their sport from time to time but then return refreshed. The one massive difference is that The Rocket can take a year off from competitive snooker and still win the world championship. Garcia has yet to do the same in the context of his career and winning majors.
In the Open Championship at Carnoustie in 2007 Garcia led from the first round and needed a par at the last to win that elusive first major. He missed a ten foot putt that lipped out which led to a play-of with Padraig Harrington. At one of the extra holes a Garcia shot hit the flag and ricocheted away from the pin. Harrington won that play-off.
Since that championship there has been an air of ‘the world's against me’ with Garcia. However, all the demons of the last seven years can be forgotten at Augusta this week. In the past his putting has let him down at the business end of majors. His claw grip may look unattractive but he is getting the ball in the hole which is the objective.
In the Racing Post preview for the Masters each player’s Augusta form is highlighted. The paper points out that Garcia has played in 15 Masters with a fourth place finish in 2004 his best effort. He has missed four cuts but not since 2008 and he has made the top dozen in the last two years. There is a hint at the mentality of Garcia by stating that he is content in his personal life and that has been reflected in his attitude on the course.
Garcia’s game is coming together well for Augusta and crucially his putting technique is proving effective. Over the last two years he has played well in the Masters so he combines course form, current form and a good skills’ profile for this week’s challenge. Sergio is my main tip for the 2014 US Masters.
Rory McIlroy had an “annus horriblis” in 2013 but is another player that now seems more relaxed both on and off the course. The pundits are not talking about his equipment change and the gossip columnists know he is now committed to his girlfriend, the tennis player Caroline Wozniacki. Some of the damaging business wrangles have been resolved and it's matters on the course that dominate the column inches about Rory.
In 2011 McIlroy went into the final round of the Masters leading by four shots. He recorded an 80, his worst score in professional golf and finished 15th. Nine weeks later he won the US Open by eight shots. He has the resilience and confidence in his ability to play at his best after setbacks. A Masters win would be a perfect response to his critics who said it was a mistake to change his golf clubs.
At last year’s Open Championship McIlroy hinted at some serious mental pressures on the course. The year also featured a withdrawal midway through a tournament on the US PGA Tour, one thing that a professional golfer should avoid. Jack Nicklaus amongst others was critical and the situation was not helped with a claim that McIlroy had a toothache despite being seen chomping on a sandwich earlier in the day.
The former world number one feels his game is in good order but the lack of wins has not reflected the level of his form. He won in Australia at the end of last year but his last win on the US Tour was the BMW Championship in September 2012. McIlroy’s skills’ profile is similar to that of the last two winners of the Masters, Bubba Watson and Adam Scott, and given even an average week on the greens he must figure.
The two Johnsons of Dustin and Zach are my other tips. The former is one of just four players in the field in the top 50 in the US and European Tour statistics for the key skills areas of driving distance, greens in regulation, putting and scrambling. The Dustin variety has made four from four cuts in the Masters without contending but his attributes suggest winning a Green Jacket is well within his capabilities.
Zach Johnson won the Masters in 2007 with a score of one over. He rarely went for the par 5s in two but excellent wedge play meant he recorded enough birdies to compensate for the bogeys in difficult conditions. The average winning score over the last six years is 11 under which might count against the older Johnson. He won three times between September and January and was sixth in his latest tournament.
Luke Donald has underperformed in the majors in the context of his status as a former world number one. He is now arriving at Augusta somewhat under the radar and his lack of power could be a disadvantage. Donald has modified his swing with positive results and although winning the Masters may be beyond him he could end the week as top English player. However, the Green Jacket can be on Sergio’s back.
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