Finally, the glorious gardens of Augusta are preened and ready for the year’s first major. The Masters, the most anticipated event of the golfing calendar, is upon us.
On few occasions has it been so hard to split the favourites. Rory McIlroy appeared to be waltzing his way to Georgia with insuperable form and a serene state of mind. Yet Dustin Johnson has claimed victory this year too and has contended in almost every event he’s entered.
Then there is the vast shadow of Tiger Woods. Can the 14-time major champion continue his iconic renaissance that saw him split a sea of supporters on the long walk to victory at the Tour Championship, or will that prove to be the last embers of his fading glory?
Here are our top-five contenders at Augusta.
Will Rory McIlroy ever win the elusive Masters to complete his Grand Slam? On the back of ending his trophy-drought at TPC Sawgrass in spectacular fashion, the Northern Irishman insists the greatest difference to his game has come by way of his mindset. “Do I have a desire to do it?” He said ahead of this week’s tournament. “Yes. Do I have a need to do it? No.”
McIlroy has found contentment in not totally consuming himself in the sport and that in turn has brought about one of his best spells of form in recent memory.
The 28-year-old has collected more ranking points than any other player since the turn of the year, is No 1 in strokes gained off the tee and from tee-to-green on the PGA Tour. That has amounted to a top-10 finish in every Tour event he has played in 2019, a remarkable feat.
In the past five years at Augusta, he has finished T8, 4, T10, T7, T5. This year, he has barely been placed better to go one further.
For a man of such great and consistent success, the only blemish to Dustin Johnson is the lack of majors to match his sheer talent. The until this week World No 1 has held that mantle for a total of 86 weeks, has won 27 events between the PGA and European Tours and to a large extent redefined the modern swing with his relentless power-hitting.
The struggle for the 34-year-old at The Masters has been shackling his strength around the always unforgiving Augusta. In 2015, 2016 and 2018 he came close with top-10 finishes, but his best success has always surfaced at the behemoth sibling, the US Open, where he clinched his sole major in 2016.
But, this season, Johnson has lessened the rare but damaging errors with five top-10 finishes in eight events, including victory at the WGC-Mexico Championship and on current form is as formidable a contender as anyone.
Is there anything left? That is the question that follows Tiger Woods’ every step. The return to glory at the Tour Championship was a seismic victory, one of the game’s most iconic in stature. Since, though, the 14-time champion has rarely come close to reliving it.
The Ryder Cup was a drear affair for the 43-year-old, suffering badly with burnout and a return of the dreaded back pain. But while he has rarely looked close to clinching an 81st title, he has still lurked there or thereabouts. At the six events he’s played in 2019, he has not finished outside the top-30. Top-10 finishes came at the WGC-Mexico and most recently at the WGC-Match Play.
Can Woods summon the energy for another hurrah? Another unthinkable achievement? Sensibilities would suggest he can’t, but he’s never lived by that book.
It’s been a struggle for Jordan Spieth. He was set to be the sport’s next golden boy, had usurped Rory McIlroy and looked raring to pull away as this generation’s standout talent. But since there has been a sad stunt of form.
At the Valero Open in his home state of Texas, the 25-year-old threatened to find his golf once again, sharing a joint lead at the halfway stage before a bleak third saw his hopes fall by the wayside.
But Augusta has always been Spieth’s playground. His victory in 2015 was sandwiched between two second-place finishes – the latter his famous and heart-wrenching collapse. Last year, despite not winning an event all season and wrestling with his swing, he still finished in third.
There are few players more affable than Spain’s hot-headed prodigy. The recently turned 24-year-old is perhaps the most precocious young talent in golf, but with what he has already achieved he can no longer be referred to as a prospect.
Two wins on the PGA Tour, three on the European, last year Rahm finished fourth at Augusta and the PGA Championship before vanquishing Woods in the Ryder Cup singles.
There can be no doubt that Rahm’s aggressive play is suited to Augusta, starting in the penultimate group last year. Whether he has yet developed the ability to tame his temperament remains to be seen. Certainly, though, for Rahm, it is simply a matter of time.
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