Vousden on The Masters. Pick a winner

Thought for the Day
People often say that motivation doesn’t last. Neither does bathing – that’s why we recommend it daily

Spring about to be Sprung
Despite the unseasonably good weather in the UK last week, the golfing spring doesn’t really arrive until The Masters once again descends on Augusta in April. We have been watching Europe’s wannabes teeing it up under Middle East sunshine, while the PGA Tour, after events in California and Arizona, has been on its Florida swing, pursuing those same UV rays, so that the game’s elite have to worry more about factor 50 than umbrellas and rainsuits.

What is easy to forget is that the weather in Augusta’s corner of Georgia in April can be decidedly iffy, and as I write, the long-range forecast is suggesting thunderstorms on April 7, the day the tournament starts. I have certainly stood under the famous oak tree immediately outside the clubhouse sheltering from rain and shivering more than once. The greenkeeping staff have to be prepared for any eventuality – using undersoil heating to bring on the famous flowers after which each hole is named, or packing them in ice to slow their growth, in either case so that they look at their best during tournament week.

All of which will be of comparatively little concern to the competitors, many of whom probably don’t even notice the flowerbeds, unless a wayward shot forces them to play out of one of them. And if recent history is any measure, the person who gets a green jacket draped around their frame on Sunday evening will be winning their first major.

As a rough rule of thumb, down the years the four majors of a calendar season have been equally divided between two rookie winners, and two players picking up their second or subsequent grand slam titles. Since 2016, however, we have seen a plethora of virgin major winners, namely (in date reverse order): Jon Rahm, Hideki Matsuyama, Bryson DeChambeau, Shane Lowry, Gary Woodland, Francesco Molinari, Patrick Reed, Justin Thomas, Sergio Garcia, Jimmy Walker, Henrik Stenson, Danny Willett and Jason Day.

The three names missing from that list are Dustin Johnson and Collin Morikawa, who both have two majors to their names, and Brooks Koepka, who has four. So out of 17 major winners in the last five years, only three have managed it more than once – that’s a heck of a strike rate for first-timers.

Continuing this trend puts players like Scottie Scheffler, Sam Burns, Xander Shauffele, Viktor Hovland, Abraham Ancer, Max Homa, Cameron Smith, Joaquin Niemann and Paul Casey firmly in the frame simply because they have all been showing very good form in recent weeks. Of these, Casey and Shauffele always seem to play well in the season’s first major but the form horses are Scheffler, Burns and Hovland. Unfortunately for the first two, winning, which both have done recently, takes a lot of mental energy.

Only two golfers have ever managed to win the week before Augusta and then lift a green jacket – Phil Mickelson (more of whom later), who did it in 2006, and dear Sandy Lyle, who managed it in 1988. So if you want to play the odds, do not bet on whoever wins this week’s Valero Texas Open.

Mickelson, of course, will not be at Augusta National which, although it must hurt deeply, is not only appropriate but completely justified. He is taking a break of unspecified length from the game after his injudicious attempts to strongarm the PGA Tour over media rights, using the Saudi Arabian backed alternative tour as leverage. Rumour has it that he was strongly advised by Augusta National not to try and use his exempt status as a former winner to get into the starting line-up. When the golf club released the names of the exempt players, his was not among them, suggesting that the decision to stay away is not entirely his own.

As for Tiger – his name is still on that list but without any competitive outings in the last few weeks it is difficult to imagine he might turn up, and if he does, that he will compete at anything like a level that would be good enough.

The Masters is, for many reasons, quite different from any other tournament. The one thing it shares with the other majors, apart from ludicrous amounts of prize money and enormous kudos to the winner, is the impossibility of predicting who that might be.

Quote of the Week
Golf may be a sophisticated game. At least, it is usually played with the outward appearance of great dignity. It is, nevertheless, a game of considerable passion, either of the explosive type, or that which burns inwardly and sears the soul.
Bobby Jones

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