A tradition unlike any other. The start of the golfing season, a symbol of hope, excitement, and awe. It’s that time of year again, The Masters at Augusta National is upon us. The first major championship of the season.
After the six major championships between September 2020 and July 2021, the 86th Masters tournament has taken what seems like an eternity to arrive. The week really begins for me when I download The Masters app.
As someone who is known as a relatively picky eater, I have to admit even I was salivating over Hideki Matsuyama’s Champions Dinner and I hope his fellow champions share the same enthusiasm for it as Jordan Spieth did.
The last two years have been difficult for everyone and the last two Masters tournaments have been missing that buzz but that excitement and sense of occasion returned in abundance on Monday when crowds that were 15 to 20 deep lined the fairways to see a certain Tiger Woods go about his business.
From an Irish point of view, it is great that we have four representatives flying the flag this week. Rory McIlroy, Shane Lowry, Pádraig Harrington and Seamus Power will all be bidding to don the most famous garment in golf come Sunday evening.
The hype around McIlroy’s latest bid to complete the career grand slam is sparse compared to the manic anticipation whenever he drives down Magnolia Lane.
It is easy to forget that this is McIlroy’s 8th attempt in a grand slam bid that is becoming more forgettable with each passing year. Never has the Holywood native arrived at Augusta National so under the radar after an underwhelming start to his season.
The four-time major champion missed the cut at the Masters last year for just the second time in his career and the first time since 2010 which was one of the low points of his ill-fated eight-month stint with Pete Cowan.
European fans will want to erase last September’s Ryder Cup from their memory after they suffered a drubbing at the hands of the USA but that week proved to be a turning point for McIlroy. After a disastrous opening two days that saw him dropped for a session for the first time in his career, he romped to a comprehensive singles win over Xander Schauffele before bursting into tears.
One year on, McIlroy is back with his lifelong coach Michael Bannon and after banishing most of the technical thoughts that weighed him down for much of 2021, he is hoping his trademark visual approach can serve him well this week after admittedly seeing an improvement in his game since Whistling Straits.
“I think at that point I was getting a little too caught up in technical thoughts about my golf swing and playing golf swing rather than playing golf,” he said. “I think when you get so tied up in technical thoughts, you don’t visualise as well, you don’t see the shot you want to hit. You don’t try to shape shots as much.
“You just basically the ball’s here, the target’s there. I’m going to get this from A to B and make this movement with my body and my golf club. There’s no real imagination or creativity to it, so just trying to put a little bit more of that back into my golf.
“I’ve played much better since then. I had the win in Vegas. I’ve been in contention to win a few times. So, yeah, it’s definitely been a marked improvement from then, and it’s something that I’m always trying to keep in my game.”
Approach play is indicative of Masters success with Augusta National holding a reputation as a ‘second shot’ golf course. Five of the last seven Masters champions have ranked in the top-5 in strokes gained approach which doesn’t necessarily bode well for McIlroy who has struggled from the fairway so far this season.
A quick start is crucial for the world number nine who is 34-over-par in the first round of majors since 2015 while he is third in the world in terms of scoring in rounds two to four (-60).
McIlroy has stressed the importance of keeping his discipline this week, especially with his irons:
“My game’s in good shape. I think it’s felt better than the results have maybe suggested the last few weeks. Like the big key here, you look at all the previous winners, especially over the last five to ten years, their iron play and their approach play have separated them from the field. That’s a really important part of your play this week.
“It beats you into going for flags that you shouldn’t go for. So, again, it’s about being very disciplined with your approach play, knowing that, if you hit a wedge to 20 or 30 feet, that’s okay. Middle of the greens, you hole a few putts, that’s what it’s about. It’s about hitting greens. It’s about playing to the fat part of the green, being somewhat conservative.
“I think that’s what wins you Masters. You see the highlights of people hitting heroic golf shots around here, but that’s just one golf shot. The rest of the time, they’re doing the right things and being patient and being disciplined, and that’s what wins you green jackets.”
Many are tipping Shane Lowry as the Irish favourite this week after an extremely consistent twelve months which includes a career-best T-21st last year.
In truth, it is surprising the Clara native hasn’t had a proper tilt at the Green Jacket as of yet but after an impressive Players Championship and a decent showing at the Match Play, the 35-year-old looks primed to contend this week.
A player known for turning up on the big occasion, Lowry also ranks 11th in strokes gained approach.
Pádraig Harrington tees it up at Augusta for the first time since 2015 courtesy of a T-4th finish at last year’s PGA Championship. The three-time major winner arrives in fine form after a runner-up finish on the Champions Tour last week.
“Yeah, I’ve played a lot of tournaments. The Ryder Cup has been between then and now. Yeah, it was great to get into the Masters with that PGA finish, and yeah, the last couple of weeks for sure, I’ve been thinking about here. I played a Champions Tour event last week and it would have been on my mind. But now I’m here.
“You know, it’s one of those weeks you always feel like there’s a lot to do. You just can’t cover everything, and you just have to accept that,” he said.
This time last year Seamus Power was ranked 463rd in the Official World Golf Rankings. Fast forward one PGA Tour win, and 422 places later the Waterford man is ranked 41st in the world and making his major championship debut this week.
The Tooraneena native will have plenty of home support and isn’t getting ahead of himself as he prepares for Thursday’s opening round as a player for the first time rather than as a patron.
“I honestly never played here before, so it’s going to be tough for me to predict much,” said Power. “I’m just glad to be a part of it, and we’ll see what happens.
“It’s definitely the greens. Everyone has seen, you can see the course on TV for the most part, but television doesn’t do justice to the slopes and the complexity of some of the greens.
That’s kind of the thing I’m trying to learn, hitting some putts, like oh, that’s not too bad. You think it’s two feet, and you look back up, and it could be eight, nine feet. It just breaks more than you might think.
“So it’s those little kind of things I’m trying to learn, I guess, as I go.”