The Masters Are Buzzing at Augusta


Counting down the miles towards Augusta on the Interstate 20, Andy Sullivan summed up his feelings with one word: “Buzzing.”

The Masters in Augusta stirs emotions like no other tournament, especially for players like the genial Midlander, who was making a first trip with his sat nav set to Magnolia Lane.

Simply making the field is a badge of substantial honour. Of the four majors that dominate the golfing calendar, the Masters is the most exclusive.

Not just in terms of its verdant setting and the ultra-select club that runs the tournament, but in the number of players eligible to play.

Unlike the 156-man fields that assemble for the Open, US Open and PGA Championship, the qualification criteria for the Masters limits numbers usually to fewer than 100 players.

This year, in the absence of the injured Tiger Woods, Jim Furyk, Fred Couples and Jose Maria Olazabal – and with Korea’s Sang-moon Bae doing his national service – there will be only 89 competitors.

Masters winners earn lifetime exemption, while the rest of the field effectively comprises PGA Tour champions, the leading 50 players in the world rankings, high finishers in majors and top amateur winners.

Not only are we dealing with fewer golfers, but many of those teeing off today can be eliminated from the reckoning before they have struck a ball in anger.

With apologies to Sullivan, history tells us we can strike off the 20 players making their Augusta debuts this year. Only Fuzzy Zoeller, in 1979, and the inaugural winner Horton Smith have donned a Green Jacket in their first appearance.

Augusta has to be learned to be tamed.
How will the teasing winds of Amen Corner answer a player’s prayers in that crucial stretch that encompasses the 11th green, 12th hole and 13th tee?

When to aim at flags? Where are the release points that will funnel a ball to the hole-side? Attack or defend? Crucial questions that tend to only be answered with experience.

“Patience” was the word respected coach Pete Cowen used to sum up what is required. “At Augusta there’s going to be some holes that just give you a slap round the ear,” he told BBC Sport.

“The guy that wins is probably the one that’s going to make the fewest mistakes on or around the greens.”
Debutants also have to overcome the ‘wow factor’ that comes with soaking up the unique atmosphere of the place.
Last week Sullivan headed down the I20 for the journey he had been anticipating since his gilded Augusta invitation fell through his letterbox at Christmas.

“I’ve seen Augusta on the road signs a couple of times already – I’m literally counting down the miles,” he told BBC Sport as he was being driven down this freeway to golfing destiny.

“As soon as I arrive I’ll be putting on my spikes and heading straight out there. I just can’t wait.”
The 29-year-old, who has three European Tour victories, enjoys the big time and is not the sort of character to be daunted by this golfing cathedral.

He is easily talented enough to figure on leaderboards this week, as could fellow debutants Justin Thomas, Kevin Kisner, David Lingmerth, Emiliano Grillo and Rafael Cabrero Bello.

US-based Scot Russell Knox may still be waiting for his first top-20 finish this year – but Augusta may inspire the temperament that landed him the WGC title in Shanghai at the end of last year.

But in terms of predicting the winner, it feels safe to discount the debutants. After all, even a talent as prodigious as Jordan Spieth couldn’t quite manage the feat two years ago.

And even though Leicester City top the Premier League, we can strike off the 2,500-1 shots such as former champion Sandy Lyle and his fellow 58-year-old Ian Woosnam, who will be marking the 25th anniversary of his 1991 victory.
But the Masters is well known for its multiple winners, indeed the most prolific – six-time champion Jack Nicklaus – this year celebrates the 30th anniversary of his iconic 1986 triumph.

Of the former winners in action there are probably only half-a-dozen contenders: Spieth, Bubba Watson, Adam Scott, Charl Schwartzel, Phil Mickelson and Zach Johnson.

Rory McIlroy has a game made for Augusta but has yet to prove he can eliminate ruinous runs like his outward 40 in the second round of last year’s tournament.

The Northern Irishman’s Masters results are improving. He was 15 under par for the concluding 45 holes to finish a career-best fourth in 2015.

Yet the traits of his year to date suggest he is still prone to mistakes that cancel out those birdies that never seem in short supply. The moment he eliminates such errors at Augusta will be the time he completes the career Grand Slam.

It might happen this week but that would mean bucking the trend of his winless year. Several opportunities for victories have been squandered.

World number one Jason Day has been more ruthless. In his last outing he beat McIlroy in the semi-finals of the WGC Match-play en route to his second title in as many weeks.

The Australian had won at Bay Hill and, after wrapping up his knockout success in Texas, hunkered down to hone his final Masters preparations. He arrives at Augusta as the reigning PGA champion, bidding for consecutive major victories.

The qualities that enabled Day to make his breakthrough at the highest level at Whistling Straits last August are also among the most important requisites at Augusta.
A winner of six tournaments in the past year, Day has reaped the benefits of greater accuracy in his approach play. Instead of aiming at flags on ranges, he started practising hitting into greens to take account of how the ball reacts when it lands.

From 100 to 150 yards he had been no better than average but now ranks among the top 10 in strokes gained in this crucial category. Precise approach play allied to a secure putting touch are the key ingredients here.
Day is the justifiable favourite but his recent successes have inspired fellow Australian Scott, who won here in 2013 and twice in Florida in March. Scott is reunited with caddie Steve Williams, who is seeking the 15th major title of his carrying career.

Another who can’t be ignored is Watson, the champion in 2012 and 2014. Sequentially this should be a Bubba hat-trick year, and Cowen makes the left-hander the man to beat.

“You couldn’t find a course more suited to Bubba Watson,” he said. “So he would be your favourite almost all of the time. He’s won twice, likes the course, he seems to have more patience.

“You can see him a lot of other weeks; he doesn’t have the patience, but he does around Augusta.”
The world number four has played sparingly but was champion and runner-up in his past two strokeplay events. He cannot be ignored.

Neither can defending champion Spieth, who has not hit the heights of 2015 this year but is desperate not to relinquish his Green Jacket just yet. This is only his third Masters and he has yet to finish outside the top two.
So Spieth, Day, McIlroy, Watson and Scott – players of golfing excellence and character – lead a cast list for what promises to be a vintage Masters.
Sullivan isn’t alone when he says he is buzzing.