Firstly, I must start this week’s blog with belated birthday greetings to Peter Alliss, the most entertaining, informative and articulate broadcaster with whom I’ve ever worked. We all raised a glass of something nice to you out here in South Africa, Peter. Looking forward to seeing you during the season.
So here we are in March…….. and that means that NEXT MONTH the Masters will be rolling round again. Having being hors de combat for more than half of the almost five weeks I’ve been here in South Africa (old back injury), I’ve had plenty of opportunity to ruminate on the sofa while indulging in a surfeit of Six Nations rugby and golf watching.
Dustin Johnson has just swept the field aside in the World Golf Championship event in Mexico with no more difficulty or effort, it seems, than if he were swatting a troublesome fly. He gets a few weeks a year when he is simply unplayable and no one can live with him. He’s now back to second in the world rankings, a smidgeon behind Justin Rose and thoughts of the Masters are bubbling to the surface of all the players’ minds.But brilliant as he is, how can DJ ensure he peaks at exactly the right time for the first major of the year? This fickle, will o’ the wisp sport refuses to be mastered for anything other than fleeting moments, if at all. Remember last year? Johnson was world No 1 and playing the best golf of his life. He had won three straight PGA Tour events going in to the Masters and was odds-on favourite to add to his, so far, paltry haul of one major title. Then, on the Wednesday evening, he slipped on the stairs in his house, landing on his lower back – and that was that. He withdrew moments before his Thursday afternoon tee time. His almost perfect preparation ruined in the blink of an eye. So, I wonder what he’s thinking now? Is he setting out to complete what he started last year or will there be an uncomfortable, niggling feeling at the back of his mind that perhaps, with six weeks to go, he has peaked too early?
Runner-up in Mexico was Rory McIlroy. The Ulsterman, now living in the States and committing to play most of his golf there, is almost five years removed from his last major win, the 2014 Open Championship. That major drought was unthinkable back then for the multi-talented young man with the jaunty swagger and all the shots. There were fleeting thoughts that here may be the player to challenge Tiger’s haul of majors.
The Masters has assumed monumental importance for Rory. It is the missing piece in his quest to join Gene Sarazen, Ben Hogan, Gary Player, Jack Nicklaus and Tiger Woods, owners of the Career Grand Slam. They are the only men to have won all four of golf’s modern majors at any time during their careers. That is a very, very elite club. This will be Rory’s fifth go at completing his own CGS, his fifth time at having the spotlight on him regardless of current form and yet again the endless discussions will take place about his collapse in 2011 when he squandered a four-shot lead with nine holes to go. We will hear how the course suits his game and his high ball flight, but how the greens will expose the relative weaknesses in his putting.
And until he finally does slip on that green jacket he will continue to endure the longest, slowest, inexorable build-up to any major. Beginning this year, the Open Championship becomes the final of the big four to be played – meaning a nine-month lead in to Augusta each year. Can Rory go inside to that place from which peak performance springs and deliver his heart’s desire?
Augusta is a known opponent. It is the only major played each year on the same course and although its current length makes it a bombers’ paradise it also has the most exacting short game examination imaginable. Most players know their own weaknesses and at the time of year when thoughts turn to Magnolia Lane the golfing demons can grow and multiply in your mind if you’re not careful.
Watch the players carefully in these last six weeks before the 2019 majors commence. Watch Justin Thomas. He coughed up a 54-hole lead the other week in the Genesis Open and was out of sorts with himself for the first couple of rounds in Mexico, describing himself as “irritable”. He turned that irritability into a closing 62. Justin Rose, a master of preparation, peaked perfectly to win the gold medal at the Rio Olympics. He is scheduling meticulously to ensure the balance between rest and competition.
And what about Jordan Spieth. He’s endured putting woes and long game trials, but of all the modern players he seems to hold the key to the secrets of the Augusta National golf course. Champion in 2015, tied second a year later, he fell to a lowly tied 11th the following year before giving the leaders a fright last April with a rampaging closing 64 which saw him finish third.
Some of the players are hoping they have the mentality for the examination, the guile required to taste victory. Spieth knows he has.
And so does Tiger.