Wednesday, 9 April 2014

The Masters - An Armchair Fan

The Masters. For any golf fan those two words are iconic. They evoke so many images from green jackets, blooms in full colour and a golf course without a single blade of grass daring to be out of place. Throw in the best golfers in the world, a course that's as familiar to the viewer as it is to the players and the small matter of it being the first major of 2014 and everything is set up, as it is every year for the best show in town to begin.

My own love affair with all things Augusta started around 1980. I was a fourteen years old, playing out of Wimbledon Common Golf Club, working in the shop as an assistant whenever possible and loving all things golf. My hero was Seve. He was the reason I took the game up and my inspiration. Whenever I was on the course, being young and fearless I'd always take the "Seve option" and go for the impossible. Of course in my case it rarely came off but inside my own head I was Seve. Of course, staying up late on that Sunday night to see him win only fuelled the fires more. Everything about the Masters was perfect. I wanted more. 

Amen Corner was and still is a tournament within a tournament especially in the white hot heat on Sunday afternoon with the title on the line. It begins on the 11th known as "White Dogwood" and is a par four of 505 yards. Players drive to the top of the hill before one of the most daunting approaches in golf. An ominous pond lies in wait to the left of the green, with its closely shaved bank ensuring anything pulled left will find a watery grave. Many players will bail out right but that just leaves a treacherous downhill chip back towards the water. 

The 12th is arguably the most famous short hole in golf. Known as "Golden Bell" the green is only twenty feet deep and the wind is notoriously hard to read. When it's swirling the water at the front sees a lot of action and the correct yardage is paramount. Go long to avoid the water leaves a chip off the pine straw back towards the pond. In my opinion if you offered anyone four pars here, not one player would argue and would bite your hand off.

The final hole of the triumvirate makes a full house and is a par five called "Azalea". This hole marks the start of the stretch where scores can really be made at Augusts and a number of wins can be traced back to the scores made between the 13th and 17th. It's a short par five by modern standards and is another tee shot requiring a right to left draw off the tee with many players opting for a 3 wood to put the ball in the right place. Every player will be able to reach in two but with an uneven stance for the second shot, Rae's Creek is always in their mind. That said, I expect to see more eagles than double bogies but under pressure on Sunday anything other than a perfect execution will have a huge impact on the destiny of the title. 

The 13th At Augusta. A reachable par five but beware of Rae's Creek
For many years the armchair viewer only had one choice. The BBC had the sole rights and we were treated to the buttery tones of the doyen of golf commentary, Peter Alliss. His whimsical style guided the viewer from hole to hole aided by his sidekick Ken Brown who would report from the course. Ken would give the audience an understanding on what the player had left and the shot required. Peter Alliss then painted words onto the canvass. There were also the "Ken On The Course" segue which showed how tricky the course was and perhaps more interestingly the topography. It may appear flat, especially in the days before high definition TV and the like but Augusta is actually a rolling course and these contours can make a huge difference to the shot a player chooses. Just another piece of the jigsaw to be put into place. 

Seve was back as winner in 1983. I was made up. However for European golf, the golden period started in 1988 with Sandy Lyle winning, hitting that iconic shot from the bunker on the left hand side of the last which flew past the flag and inch by inch began to roll back towards the cup. He holed out and then performed that little jig of joy. Faldo (three times) Olazabel (twice) Woosnam and Langer all won in a golden period for the European Tour. Since then and Olazabel's last win in 1999 there hasn't been a European winner. This seems strange given the dominance in the Ryder Cup and the fact there have been home grown winners in all the other majors. I hope this changes soon.

Seve receiving his 1983 green jacket from Craig Stadler who had won the year before
I'd love to see a European winner again this year. Westwood to break his duck? Maybe but will the putter behave. Rose is already a major winner and has a decent record. Can he step up? McIlroy is a two time major champion and seems to be getting back to the very top of his game. Will the pressure of being favourite be too much? What of others? Garcia is playing well and seems to have slain his putting demons. What about Scott the Aussie retaining. Possible but unlikely. The home crowds love an American winner. With Woods out who will be their big hopes. Mickleson loves the place but his driving may be too erratic. Bubba has the power and can move the ball but I don't think he's got the form. In truth you can make a case for any number of players from across the globe and that is one of the Master's greatest strengths. It has all the ingredients to make the outcome uncertain until the last putt drops. 

In the old days it was the BBC that brought the viewer all the pictures. These days, the new kids on the block are Sky Sports. They now have the rights to all four days and as they have done with many other sports they have brought a fresh hi-tech approach to their presentation. They certainly leave no stone unturned, have a huge number of commentators and on course experts as well as a host of guests in their studio. 

I know this fresh approach doesn't sit easily with some and for many Peter Alliss will always be the voice of golf but for me, I like Sky's fresh approach. Ewen Murray their chief commentator has a huge knowledge of the game and his Scottish brogue brings a calm authority to proceedings. Alliss will dabble with the palette before painting the full picture. Ewen Murray will give the viewer the words to the pictures in a more direct approach, but the experience is none the worse for this. Both masters of their trade, both so different in their manner. The great thing for the armchair fan is that for the final two rounds there is still the choice between the BBC and Sky. Pick your favourite and enjoy.

Everyone has their own favourite hole. For me, it is the sixteenth on Masters Sunday. A short par three, the severity of the hole is dictated by the flag position. When it is on the lower tier, close to the water as it will be on Sunday, the player has to be pinpoint accurate. The ideal shot is some twenty yards right and allowing the slope to feed the ball back towards the hole. With the finishing line almost in site, an expectant crowd ringing the green, the majesty of the hole floods the screen watching at home. 

The 16th hole. My personal favourite. Short but no pushover
I don't know what it is about Augusta. It may be the simple fact it's the only major course that's played at the same place every year. It may be the way the Augusta committee set the course up in picture perfect condition. Even the flowers seem to bloom to command. It may be the fact that it gives the chance for players to make a score, but it can punish in the blink of an eye. Remember McIlroy at the 10th? One thing is absolutely certain. The long suffering wife has no chance of getting hold of the remote over the next four days as I absorb each and every shot from the most picture perfect golf course. As for my winner, I've an inkling Garcia may just evoke memories of Seve. If not, I fancy Jason Day to make it another Australian victory. There again what do I know? I'll be there though watching every twist and turn and I'm sure I'm not going to be the only one. Enjoy!

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