Time to set the alarm and gear up for some early mornings because it’s Masters time - the one time of the year that green jackets become fashionable.
The first major of the year at the pristine Augusta National course is always eagerly anticipated by golf fans and this year’s tournament looks an absolute cracker.
Here’s a quick guide to the 2019 Masters.
The world’s No.1 golfer hasn’t had a lot of luck at the Masters, with a tied fourth finish in 2016 his best result. He had to withdraw from the tournament in 2017 after falling down stairs at his rental house the day before the tournament started but bounced back last year when he finished 10th. He’s been in great form this season, winning the WGC event in Mexico and the European Tour’s Saudi Masters and has posted four other top 10 finishes. His length off the tee using his new TaylorMade M5 driver will be a big plus around Augusta and on current form, will be one of the favourites.
The white sand in the bunkers at Augusta National certainly pops against the verdant fairways. But it’s not actually sand, rather a fine quartz that is a mining by-product. Known as Spruce pine sand, it is transported from North Carolina – about 300km away - and its purity is why balls rarely plug in Augusta’s bunkers.
The Masters is the only major to be played at the same course every year, Augusta National. The course was designed by the legendary Alister MacKenzie in conjunction with Augusta founder and grand slam golfer Bobby Jones. It opened in 1933 with the first Masters tournament being played in 1934, but the event took a World War 2-enforced break from 1943-45 when the course was transformed into a turkey and cattle farm.
Even for a player of Jordan Spieth’s talent, golf is hard sometimes. The three-time major winner is in a career-worst slump at the moment, battling through a string of missed cuts this season and hasn’t finished better than 35th in a stroke play tournament. While he showed some signs of life in the WGC Matchplay, Spieth’s last win came in the 2017 British Open and his most recent top 10 finish came in last year’s British Open at Carnoustie. But Spieth has owned Augusta ever since he made his debut in 2014, when he finished second to Bubba Watson. He won wire-to-wire the following year and has since recorded finishes of second, 11th and third. The former world number one has an incredible scoring record around Augusta National, boasting a cumulative score of 39-under-par since his debut. This year’s Masters just might be when Jordan turns it around.
The Masters is basically built on tradition and one of those is the Pimento Cheese sandwich. Patrons, as the Augusta committee like to call their attendees, can buy one of the signature sandwiches for just US$1.50 but it seems to be an acquired taste even for cheese-loving Americans. Served on white bread with a thick spread filling consisting of extra sharp (ultra tangy) cheddar cheese, another cheese called Monterey Jack, cream cheese (yep, more cheese), mayonnaise and finally Pimentos, which are those red bits that are stuffed inside green olives.
The exact recipe for the Augusta Pimento cheese sandwich is a tightly held secret but in 2013, patrons complained that the sandwiches tasted different, leading to Pimentogate. The original recipe has now been reinstated.
With the par 4 fifth hole being lengthened from 455 to 495 yards Augusta will measure a total of 7475 yards for this year’s Masters. When a certain T Woods won his first Masters in 1997, the course was only 6925 yards long. While taming Augusta is all about hitting it to the right spots on the greens, length off the tee will help the cause no end. So keep an eye out for players such as Dustin Johnson, Tiger Woods, Rory McIlroy and Jon Rahm playing the new TaylorMade M5 driver, and Jason Day playing the TaylorMade M6 driver. Spotting the new Cobra F9 should be easy given its bumblebee colour scheme, especially in the gifted hands of Rickie Fowler. And the Callaway Epic Flash will be well represented in the bag of 2017 Masters winner Sergio Garcia (Sub Zero) and Marc Leishman. The PING G410 is bound to be bombed by dual-Masters winner Bubba Watson while the Mizuno ST190 will be in Keith Mitchell’s bag.
As always at the Masters, holing treacherous putts on Augusta's lightning quick greens is vital to a good score and some of the latest release putters will be weaving their magic this year. TaylorMade’s new Spider X will be popular, with Rory McIlroy a convert having won the Player’s Championship with it recently. The new Odyssey Stroke Lab range will also be out in force, with 2016 Masters champ Danny Willet particularly fond of the Tuttle – he won the European Tour’s 2018 DP World Championship with it in his bag.
As an invitational event the Masters has one of the smaller fields in golf, with around 90 players teeing it up each year. So how do you go about getting an invitation? The qualifying process is complex, but being inside the top 50 in the World Golf Rankings will guarantee an invitation as will winning any major in the last five years or finishing in the top four of the previous year’s majors. A top 12 finish in the previous year’s Masters will get you back for next year while former Masters winners receive a lifetime invitation to play. Winning one of a number of elite amateur tournaments around the world will get you in or receiving a special invitation is also an option – as Japan’s Shugo Imahira has this year. This year’s field will be around 85 players but there’s usually only about 30 players who will have a realistic chance of winning.
Shorts and a bib just doesn’t cut it for caddies at Augusta: they have to don white overalls (with their employer’s name on the back) and a green cap. The caddy uniform applies at Augusta even when the Masters isn’t being played and traces its origins back to when the club employed caddies from the local area and supplied them with the uniform that is now famous.
When Tiger Woods won in 1997, golf changed forever. His 12-stroke victory is still the biggest winning margin in Masters history and instantly ushered in the Tiger era of golf. Augusta National was made longer to ‘Tiger-proof’ the course but Tiger went on win again in 2001, 2002 and 2005 and finished runner-up in 2007 and 2008. While Tiger hasn’t won a major since the 2008 US Open, he seems to be over the back injury that plagued him for years. And when he finished second to Brooks Koepka in last year’s PGA Championship it seemed the Tiger of old was finally back, especially given the adulation he received on the 72nd hole. Tiger seems to be more accurate off the tee with his TaylorMade M5 driver and if he gets some of his famous clutch putting back into his game, you’d have to think he’ll be a threat at some stage this year.
You have to play brilliantly to win any major, but golf’s biggest names have saluted with regularity at the Masters. Names such as Woods, Mickelson, Ballesteros, Faldo, Nicklaus, Palmer, Player, Snead, Langer and Watson (both Tom and Bubba) have all been multiple winners of the tournament.
While distinct outsiders have won the tournament – the most recent would have to be Danny Willet’s 2016 win – look to golf’s elite to triumph this year.
Speaking of distinct outsiders, may we introduce to you Keith Mitchell. The name may not be familiar to even the most ardent of golf fans but Keith earned his first Masters start by winning the Honda Classic last month with a clutch birdie putt on the last. But his performance off the tee using a Mizuno ST190 driver also impressed in the final round of the Honda, when he averaged over 300 yards. If he can smash a few of those down the middle at Augusta he’ll be giving himself a good look at eagles and birdies. However, the last player to win on debut at the Masters was Fuzzy Zoeller in 1979. It appears Keith’s price of $201 in the Masters market looks fairly accurate.
One thing you’ll no doubt hear incessantly on TV coverage of this year’s Masters is the phrase ‘Amen Corner’. The 11th, 12th and 13th holes were coined as Augusta’s Amen Corner by a journalist way back in 1958 and it’s a name that seems to work well for such a drama-filled trio of holes. The 11th green is extremely narrow and is guarded by water short and left. And approach shots into the hole are almost always played off a sloping lie that often produces the unexpected – not ideal for firing into such a sphincter-tightening green. The 12th is the picture-postcard par 3 with Rae’s Creek (Augusta’s most famous water hazard) swallowing balls that are short, often trickling slowly into the hazard down a slope at the front of the green. And a strategically-placed bunker behind the green, which is wider than it is longer, swallows up tee shots that are long. Finally, the 13th is a short par 5 that is normally an easy two-shotter but manages to produce some big numbers if things go haywire. Rae’s Creek runs in front of the green, which slopes back-to-front. If players make it through Amen Corner with red figures, they’ll be picking up at least a couple of shots on the field.
Four Australians will tee it up this year - Adam Scott, Jason Day, Marc Leishman and Cameron Smith – and all are legitimate contenders. Adam Scott needs no introduction, having won the Masters in 2013 to break the Australian hoodoo at the tournament. Jason Day, who is playing the new TaylorMade M6 driver and P760 irons, is a major winner (2015 US PGA) and will be among the favourites should his body hold up; he withdrew from last month’s API championship with a back injury. Marc Leishman is playing the new Callaway Epic Flash driver and Callaway Apex Pro irons and was in it up to his eyeballs in last year’s Masters, eventually tying for fifth. Leish hit one of the greatest shots ever seen on the 15th hole, hooking a five iron some 40 yards through the air to find the green from 215 yards in the second round. Cameron Smith mounted a charge in the final round last year, shooting six-under-par to finish ninth and will no doubt draw confidence from that result.
When Patrick Reed won last year’s Masters it was a bit of a surprise on all fronts. Although Reed had earned the nickname of Captain America for his Ryder Cup heroics, not many pundits expected him to outduel Rory McIlroy in the final round. But he held off fan favourites Rickie Fowler, Jordan Spieth and McIlroy and will attempt to become the first back-to-back winner since Tiger Woods in 2001-02.
Interestingly, the reaction that Reed received after winning last year was subdued despite being an Augusta native - perhaps referencing his alleged cheating in his amateur days. And despite being estranged from his family for six years – Reed allegedly had his parents escorted from the course by security at the 2014 US Open – and having a Ryder Cup meltdown in Paris, Reed gladly wears the chip on his shoulder like a badge of honour to motivate his golf. Another win this year won’t surprise to the same degree as last year, but he’s in a form slump and has become desperate to the point of engaging David Leadbetter (aka Lead Poisoning) to get his swing back on track.