It’s about time Europe.
There was a spell in the 1980s and 1990s when the Green Jacket racked up air miles galore as it repeatedly flew Concorde back across the Atlantic.
Seve blazed the trail and won it twice, as did Bernhard Langer and Nick Faldo. Sandy Lyle got in on the act in 1988 and the Masters committee even found a Green Jacket small enough for Ian Woosnam in 1991.
When Jose Maria Olazabal, in emotional scenes following a long-term injury, became their latest two-time winner in 1999, Europeans had won the Masters 11 times in a golden 20-year period.
But since then…. Nothing. Zilch. Nada. A big fat goose egg.
It’s time for a change.
If the bookmakers are correct, that barren spell ends this year. Rory McIlroy is the clear favourite to win while Henrik Stenson also finds himself in the top six in the betting.
There are other threats too.
Mike Glasscott, as usual, will assess all the runners and riders on Tuesday but, as you’ve probably guessed, this Masters preview will focus on the European challenge.
There are 27 Europeans competing at Augusta National this year (approximately just over a quarter of the field) although two, Paul Casey and Sandy Lyle, are no longer active European Tour members so aren’t available for the European Tour Fantasy Game. A further 10 players (non-Europeans) qualify for the ET Fantasy Game. That high-profile bunch includes Patrick Reed, who took out a European Tour membership in January.
We’ll assess all of them shortly but first….
Winners And Winning Score
2014 Bubba Watson (-8)
2013 Adam Scott (-9)
2012 Bubba Watson (-10)
2011 Charl Schwartzel (-14)
2010 Phil Mickelson (-16)
2009 Angel Cabrera (-12)
2008 Trevor Immelman (-8)
2007 Zach Johnson (+1)
2006 Phil Mickelson (-7)
2005 Tiger Woods (-12)
6 of the last 12 winners have been left-handed
4 of the last 7 winners have been Internationals
7 of the last 10 winners were in their 30s
7 of the last 10 winners had posted a top 10 at Augusta National previously
The Course – Augusta National
Thousands of articles have been written about Augusta National and I’ve been lucky enough to attend the last four Masters to see the majestic par 72 in all its glory. On first view, I realised why long hitters were so suited to it and why those with a certain magic in their wrists did so well. I’ve read hundreds of player transcripts down the years but some of the best words of explanation came from two-time champ Bubba Watson in his media conference last month. “You look at the trees, it's not like there are a lot of branches down below. So there are gaps that you can pull off shots, kind of like I pulled off on 15 last year under the limbs over the water. The one on 13, Phil Mickelson hits it out of the pine straw in between two trees (2010). When you build a golf course with high rough, you're chipping out, and that's taking away creativity and that's taking away some people's strength. So when you go to Augusta, there are high trees with no limbs and not really much rough. There is a little bit of rough but then there is mostly pine straw, which is better than rough. So if you hit in the pine straw, you can still maneuver the ball out and make solid contact to hit creative shots.”
The famous Fuzzy stat
There are probably undiscovered tribes in the Amazon jungle who know that Fuzzy Zoeller (1979) was the last player to win the Masters on debut. So here’s a slight modification. No first-timer has won the Masters since the greens were switched from Bermuda grass to bentgrass in 1981. Bentgrass grows thinner and upright and can be mown shorter - hence faster, truer and scarier greens for newcomers. In an article for the official 2013 Masters program, Tom Watson told journalist Dave Shedloski, “You ever see the old films of Palmer? You remember seeing him putt? He’s just whacking it, and the ball kind of stops. Now it’s going this fast and it keeps rolling, keeps rolling, keeps rolling.” Phil Mickelson adds, “I don’t think you’re able to really read the greens at Augusta because you look at a putt and see such wildly different lines. I think the best way is just to experience it and try to use memory.” In other words experience is vital. Counter argument: Debutants Jordan Spieth and Jonas Blixt finished joint second last year. Counter counter argument: They didn’t win.
The leading European challengers
Leading the Masters by four after 54 holes and shooting a final-round 80 will leave mental scars with anyone and it’s pretty obvious that Augusta National gets inside Rory’s head. Since that infamous blowout in 2011 he’s never quite convinced and the course teased McIlroy again last year, making him play with (and lose to!) marker Jeff Knox in round three after he squeezed into the weekend. Rory rallied to finish T8 which exorcised a few demons but the focus is very much on him and no World No.1 has won the Masters since Tiger in 2002.
Stenson has wagered a losing battle with Augusta National over the years and 2014’s T14 was his best finish in nine attempts. Is his short game sharp enough? Does he have enough ‘X’ factor for this unique venue? At least current form will fill him with confidence after a run of 4-4-2 on the Florida Swing.
The halfway leader on his second appearance in 2007 and three times he’s held a share of the first-round lead (2004, 2007 and 2008). But Rose hasn’t quite kicked on from all those early signs of promise and although he’s made the top 25 in all his last five visits, it’s not since 2007 when teeing off at the 71st hole just a shot off the lead that he’s challenged for the title. Recent form is a concern too although a par instead of a triple bogey at the 18th in Houston on Sunday would have seen him finish T11 rather than T37.
He hits it long and has as much short-game magic as you could wish for but Sergio’s body of work at Augusta National has to rank as disappointing. In 16 starts he’s managed just a single top five and two other top 10s while he’s missed five cuts. Several times he’s also given the impression that he can’t win at Augusta even though there seems no reason why he couldn’t follow in the footsteps of compatriots Seve and Ollie. His current form (31-31-37) will have done little to boost his fragile confidence.
Now, this is a player who fancies himself to challenge at Augusta National and rightly so. Here’s a stat: Westwood has finished higher than Rory in each of the last five Masters. That run kicked off with a second place to the inspired Mickelson (that shot through the trees on 13) in 2010 and his finishes since read 11-3-8-7. Despite a missed cut in Houston, his form has been solid and he’s a must for the 10-pick European Tour Fantasy team.
Casey’s game is a great fit for Augusta National and it showed with a sixth on debut and three other top 20s in his next four starts. He struggled after that but will be pumped about a Masters return having not played there since 2012. On current form, he also looks one of the best-equipped Europeans after a play-off loss at Riveria, a third at the Honda Classic and a ninth in Houston at the weekend.
Missed cuts on his first four starts in the Masters prompted the German to change his swing. The attempts to get comfortable with the draw he felt was needed to succeed at Augusta National messed him up completely and the plan was abandoned. A more relaxed Kaymer has cashed on his last three Masters visits but he’s never shot in the 60s in 18 rounds and missed cuts in Texas (82-80!) and Houston (70-74) suggest this isn’t the week to be a fan of the US Open champ.
A great short-game and oodles of confidence have served Poulter well at Augusta National and he’s made the weekend nine times in 10 appearances. A T20 last year was his sixth top 25 although perhaps a lack of length ultimately stops him slugging it out with the big hitters over all four days. His form on the PGA Tour has been better than usual this year so a third top 10 here could beckon.
French sports stars are often described as mercurial and Dubuisson is certainly doing his best to enhance that image. He keeps pulling out of events, shrugs when asked what the rest of his PGA Tour schedule might be this year and baffled everyone by shooting 78-66 on the weekend in Houston to finish T17. He missed the cut on debut at last year’s Masters but made the top 10 in the final two majors of 2014 so don’t rule out anything this week.
Donald feels this is the major that he has the best chance of winning. That can be taken several ways, a harsh view being that he’s so poor in the other three that he’s bound to latch onto a couple of bright performances here. They include a third on debut and a fourth in 2011 but, in general, he has to be razor-sharp with his short game and putt like a god to contend.
An ankle injury that caused him to withdraw from the Texas Open has cleared up but it’s still hard to make a convincing case for G-Mac this week. He’s missed five of seven cuts at Augusta National, is troubled by the tee-shots and has frequently been bamboozled by the greens. In addition he’s had nothing better than a T56 in four PGA Tour starts this year. Wait until the other three majors – they’re all on links courses.
Part of the confidence-build that helped the Welshman hit the winning shot in the Ryder Cup came via a top 15 here last year while, despite missing the cut, Donaldson also fired a hole-in-one at the 6th on debut in 2013 so he’s already tasted some Augusta magic. He’s tailed off since a T6 at the Honda but don’t discard him too easily this week.
The Next Rung
First-timers can shine at Augusta National and the Irishman could easily rise to the occasion. He’s a wonderful chipper of the ball and he’s had some encouraging results on his early outings on the PGA Tour this season.
In his pomp, Harrington said he could definitely win a Green Jacket and the triple major winner posted top 7s in 2002, 2007 and 2008. He also added a T8 in 2012. He represents a conundrum this week. Do we trust the revitalised Harrington who ended a seven-year PGA Tour drought by winning last month’s Honda Classic or are his results since (T49-MC-T67) a fairer indication of what to expect? Given his love of majors, side with the positive.
The Swede was a brilliant T2 on his Masters debut last year. On the one hand, it seemed freaky given that no-one gave him any chance and yet, on the other, there was some logic. Blixt had finished fourth in the previous August’s US PGA Championship and won on the PGA Tour in both 2012 and 2013. A T25 in Houston at the weekend suggests he’s licking his lips at a return to Augusta National.
Fred Couples is the poster-boy for the veteran challenge at the Masters each year but Jimenez has a strong case too. The 51-year-old Spaniard was a superb fourth last year, has made his last nine cuts at Augusta National and can boast six top 12s since 2000. Already a winner on the Champions Tour this year while he was T7 on his penultimate European Tour start.
The current Race to Dubai leader (due mainly to the huge purse – relative to the other events – that he won in December’s Nedbank Challenge) will probably view playing all four rounds as a successful week given that this is his first look at Augusta National. He missed the cut in Houston but showed promise on the Florida Swing (T12 Cadillac, T29 Bay Hill).
The debuting Dutchman shot a 67 in round four at Augusta National last year – pretty special given that a Masters vet such as Matt Kuchar has never managed anything better than a 68. That helped Luiten finish T26 but he’ll have to go some to match it given missed cuts in his last two events (Valspar and Houston).
If only the Masters had been played in mid-February. If that was the case, the Austrian would be making his Augusta National debut on the back of a run of 6-3-4-2 on the European Tour. He’s cooled since so, again, making the cut would be a positive week.
It’s hard to get a handle on Bjorn. He’s had some real highs during his lengthy career but never really done much at Augusta National. Therefore his first Masters top 10 last year came as a surprise. His last four starts on the European Tour – MC-25-MC-24 – don’t exactly help us decide whether we should be doubting Thomas.
With a Ryder Cup on home Scottish soil on the horizon and the thrill of a Masters debut to enjoy, it perhaps wasn’t a surprise to see Gallacher walk tall last year and finish a creditable T34. He actually only shot one over-par round but that was a Saturday 81. Since his traditional big finish in Dubai (3rd this year when bidding for a third straight win), he’s been quiet.
The Finn has waited 14 years to get back to Augusta National following his missed cut (72-79) on his only start in 2001. Twice a winner on the European Tour last year, he was a decent T23 in the WGC-Cadillac last month but his short hitting and missed cut (by a distance) in Houston point to an uphill struggle.
Clarke has had a few enjoyable moments at Augusta National – T8 on debut, R1 leader in 2003, T4 after 54 holes in 2006 – but his last nine rounds there read 76-73-74-74-81-73-71-83-77. Europe’s next Ryder Cup captain did at least manage a T15 at the Tshwane Open on his last start but it’s hard to envisage him challenging this week.
The man who famously beat the putting yips to conquer Augusta National in both 1986 and 1993 continues to defy logic at the year’s opening major. Despite being too long in the tooth and too short off the tee he somehow finished fourth last year and that followed a T25 in 2013. Keeping his competitive juices flowing on the Champions Tour clearly helps although he hasn’t been as dominant so far in 2015 (9-WD-26-5).
Jose Maria Olazabal
If a 56-year-old Bernhard Langer can come fourth (2014), maybe fellow double Masters winner Olazabal (only 49!) can challenge this year. Ollie has made his last two cuts (T34 2014, T50 2013) and, encouragingly, posted a T9 on his last European Tour start in Morocco two weeks ago. This year’s surprise vet?
Fair play to the Scot, he made the weekend in both 2014 (T44) and 2013 (T54) and has cashed in five of his last eight Masters starts.
Woosie has made just one of his last 13 Masters cuts (T44 in 2008). He’ll enjoy the Dinner.
The non-European, European Tour challengers
The doubters say Reed’s inability to hit a fade will hurt him on numerous approach shots even though his draw is ideal off the tee. The ‘evidence’ lies in his MC on debut last year when hitting just 58% of greens. Pro-Reed backers ignore that by pointing to the raging fire in his belly and clutch shots under pressure that make him a multiple winner. Recent form: T17-T2-T23-T7.
If Oosthuizen can get to the start line in good health (that’s a big ‘if’ by the way), you’d have to give him a shot at actually winning. After surprisingly missing his first three Masters cuts, the South African famously rode a final-round albatross at the 2nd hole in 2012 to reach a play-off where he lost to Bubba. Also T25 last year, the 2010 Open champion posted recent top 10s at the WGC-Cadillac and Bay Hill.
Bombs it off the tee, knows how to win, can get hot with the putter…. Koepka could be a challenger at Augusta National for years to come. It’s a big ask for February’s Phoenix Open winner to do it on debut though, especially as he had to withdraw from Arnie’s event at Bay Hill with a rib injury.
Never, ever, rule out ‘El Pato’ at Augusta National. He hits it miles, has magic in his short game and the surroundings and occasion bring out a competitive streak that is used to lying dormant in regular Tour events. Cabrera won the Green Jacket in 2009, lost a thrilling play-off to Adam Scott in 2013 and has four other top 10s. He’s missed his last two PGA Tour cuts. Whatever.
A brilliant winner of the Masters in 2011 when closing with four straight birdies to wrestle the Green Jacket away from Adam Scott. But he’s been underwhelming since then (50-25-MC) and also lacklustre on the PGA Tour in 2015. By no means an automatic pick for the European Tour Fantasy game.
The ‘Big Easy’ was a perennial challenger at the Masters in the last decade with a run of 2-6-5-6-2 from 2000 to 2004. Perhaps being edged out by Phil Mickelson in 2004 did for him as Els hasn’t had a top 10 since and suffered a fourth missed cut in seven years 12 months ago. A T13 at Bay Hill at least gives him a shot of confidence.
Grace won three times in six starts either side of Christmas but has found the going much tougher on the PGA Tour (54-62-30). There are hints that he could do well at Augusta National though. The South African was T18 on his first crack in 2013 and shot a 69 in round two last year. A shame that it followed an opening 84.
The veteran Thai has managed just one top 25 in 23 major starts and his seven completed rounds at Augusta National have produced scores between 73 and 78. Enough said.
Got hot with wins in Malaysia and his home Indian Open in February but it’s still hard to find a slot for him in the 10-pick European Tour Fantasy game. This is Lahiri’s Masters debut and he’s missed the cut twice in three starts in the majors.
If anyone has the credentials to be this year’s surprise veteran challenger, it’s Singh. The 2000 Masters winner boasts five other top 10s and has also cracked the top 40 in each of the last three years at Augusta National. Add that to recent strong displays on the PGA Tour (12th Riviera, 10th Valspar) and he’s a surprise package waiting to happen.
Who’s On The Team?
Rory will be trying to become the first World No.1 without a Green Jacket to win the Masters since Fred Couples in 1992 so has history against him.
I certainly have my doubts – Augusta still niggles away at him and he hasn’t had his best for a few months – so don’t want to put money on McIlroy at short odds. That said, he’s impossible to leave out of a European Tour Fantasy Game where 10 picks are available.
Paul Casey could be the strongest of the European challengers given his mix of current form and positive Augusta history although, as stated, he's not available to pick. Bettors can get him around 66/1 or higher.
Lee Westwood is ‘Mr Consistent’ at The Masters and is an each-way bet at 50/1 and a no-brain fantasy pick too.
I also have a sneaky feeling for Victor Dubuisson. He’s a risky play but is fearless and has the required je ne sais quoi to be a player at Augusta National.
As for the non-Europeans who can be selected in the ET game, course specialist Angel Cabrera leaps off the page.
I’ll reveal my full 10-man list in Tuesday’s Playing The Tips feature.
One To Fade
Martin Kaymer may have started making cuts at Augusta in the last few years but he’s not comfortable there and his recent form is poor too.