Wednesday, 7 March 2012

Georgia On My Mind

Despite the back injury beginning to heal, I've not been able to hit balls and practise. It has however given me the chance to ponder the first major of the year, The Masters at Augusta National. Fresh from picking Hunter Mahan ( to win the WGC Accenture Matchplay last month I'll ponder the choice of winner come late evening on April 8th.

To me, this event really symbolises the start of the new golfing year. The clocks have just gone forward, we can get out for a few holes after work and hopefully the warmer and drier weather is imminent. As an armchair fan, The Masters has always been must see. Although the coverage is strictly controlled by the committee at Augusta National, I grew up watching late into the night in the early 80's as the likes of Ballesteros, Faldo, Lyle and Woosnam won their coveted green jackets. I was always hoping for a Seve win and if not him then any European. These days my allegiance is firmly in the Lee Westwood camp, but again any British player, followed by any European player to win. I grew up listening to the silky smooth tone of Peter Alliss aided and abetted by Ken Brown out on the course. Last year, coverage was split between BBC and Sky and to be fair I preferred the way Sky did it .

Whether or not you think Sky and Murdoch are the devils spawn, there can be no argument that they have invested hugely in covering golf, both in the US and the European Tour and for me as an avid viewer, nay golfaholic, I love it. This year, their dedicated studio with the "shot centre" for analysing players swings and the technical side of the game has been fascinating. They have a good mix of presenters and experts and it will be my channel of choice to watch it.

One thing is unequivocal. The committee at Augusta know how to present a tournament and give a show. Whatever the conditions, it always looks fabulous. From the clubhouse and Butler Cabin out onto the par 3 course which hosts the traditional eve of play competition, and to the course itself, it's a feast on the eyes everywhere you look.

It's the only major to be played on the same course every year and so we all know the holes intimately. Amen Corner, that infamous graveyard of title dreams is known by golfers across the world. All the holes are named after plants and trees found on the course and all have their own identity and place in Masters folklore.

So who is going to win. Well for fifty four holes last year Rory McIlroy was an unstoppable force. until that infamous meltdown in the last round saw him crumble. However fresh from reaching the world number one spot and playing some imperious golf in recent weeks it is hard to look beyond him. Will there be demons lurking in his psyche somewhere should he be in contention again come the back nine. Possibly. However I also think he'll be a man on a mission to right the wrongs of the final round this time last year.

Will McIlroy finish the job off this year or crumble again?
If we move away from the favourite who else can put on the green jacket. Tiger Woods roared back into everyones thoughts with a sublime closing 62 at last weeks Honda Classic and he knows how to tame Augusta. Can his swing and current putting deficiencies stand up to the exacting test. The greens are notorious and getting out of position on them can make a player look rather foolish at times but it's all part of the charm of the event. Personally I can't see Woods finishing in the top five.

What about the other Brits? Well I think there will be a homegrown player in the mix at Amen Corner in the last round. I hope it's Westwood but I think his putting and short game will be the Achilles heel again and negate his longer game. I do think former world number one Luke Donald has a great chance and this could be a great opportunity to break his major duck and he is my pick of the British and indeed European contingent.

If I was going to pick a US winner, then I'd narrow it down to three. Keegan Bradley isn't everyones cup of tea with his lumbering pre-shot routine. He's won few friends with his constant spitting either but to be fair he did Tweet that he wasn't' aware it was such an issue and has vowed to tone it down. As a golfer though he is getting better and better and seems to have discovered something within himself and could feature strongly.

Good old lefty, Phil Mickleson has been in sporadic form this season but knows how to get the job done around Augusta. Who can forget that shot from the pine straw at the 13th where the odds were stacked against him but he produced a shot that carved its own niche in Masters history

Mickleson carves his name into Masters history
I think he'll revel in the atmosphere and is bound to pull a large and supportive crowd with him and I fancy him to have a good week. I've also got a sneaky feeling for Brandt Snedeker. A tidy golfer he is in decent form too and tied for 15th place last year so knows how to get it round. My only nagging doubt is his putting and he is 158th on tour for putts between five and ten feet which are usually what you have to save par a lot of the time. That said, I just have a feeling about him and fancy him each way for a top five spot.

Of the others, I'd like Garcia to have a good event. He's another who seems to have his golfing mojo back and playing with a smile and not a snarl. Charl Schwartzel is defending champion and anyone that can birdie the last four holes on Masters Sunday deserves his win irrespective of McIlroys car crash round, and he saw off the challenge of Jason Day who finished strongly himself by making birdie at 17 and 18. The young Australian could be back for more this year although sadly I don't think South African Schwartzel will be able to defend with much stoicism and will be a top ten finisher at best.

I'm salivating at the prospect already and we still have four weeks to go. It'll be interesting to see who plays well in the next few weeks and starts the week with bags of confidence. Of course, add in the unique challenge the course presents, the fact it is the first major of the year and that tradition and spectacle surrounding Augusta and it must be so hard for these players to treat it like a normal event, especially as you are invited to be there in the first place

Who will survive the atmosphere and tension on Sunday
I have a feeling this is going to be a special year. I don't know why but I think we're going to have an epic final round and my money is on a play-off this year. That'll rack up the tension a bit more. Whatever happens and whoever walks away with the title it means that the season is under way. Hopefully my back will be behaving itself again and I'll be able to get out of the blocks quickly with my own game and put that hard work over the Winter to good use. At Royal Ascot we have our own Masters. It's a 36 hole medal event and by invitation as well. To be invited you have to have won a monthly medal, stroke play or honours board event in the twelve months before the cut-off. I've qualified for the last three years although under-performed every time but I'm desperate to keep the run going.

I've definitely got Georgia on my mind now.

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