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It’s almost that time of year again for golf fans; the phoney war of the early season – in spite of the World Golf Championship events – is over, the tournaments which define each campaign and the game in general are just about to start.
As always, it is the greatest golfing event on the planet which kicks it off, the US Masters.
For all the claims of the Open Championship to being the pre-eminent major - and I am not here to argue otherwise - it is Augusta which stands above all others in terms of hype and in its ability to draw in the casual fan who believes Royal Birkdale is where the Queen goes to live in winter and that Pebble Beach is near the promenade in Blackpool. It is the event which signals the golf season has begun in earnest and the riddle of Augusta, with its aesthetic beauty and unseen dangers lurking everywhere, captures the sporting imagination like no other.
While for many years it was the case that Tiger Woods would rock up in Georgia as the hot favourite to claim the coveted Green Jacket, the 14-time major winner is almost certainly never returning to the famous log cabin to claim the most sought-after wool and polyester garment in sport and his current injuries mean he will not even take part this week.
Two years ago, when the likelihood of Woods returning to his position of dominating the sport had moved from unlikely to improbable, Rory McIlroy, hot favourite to pick up his third major at the Masters, commented before the start of the tournament that “golf's in a funny place at the minute.....there are not so many dominating the sport like in the past with Tiger, Vijay (Singh) and Phil (Mickelson). I'd like to establish myself as that sort of player and someone's got to step up.”
While the Northern Irishman failed to fully “step up” and win at Augusta that week, with a second round 77 blowing him out of contention and despite rounds of 71 and 69 at the weekend moving him up to finish in eighth spot, it was another young gun who “stepped up”, with Jordan Spieth coming from nowhere to almost win his debut Masters. The Texan finished tied for second place, just three shots behind Bubba Watson, who was clinching his second Green Jacket in three years.
While that second place was the highlight of a stunning breakthrough season for Spieth, it was McIlroy who ended the campaign as the best on the planet, blitzing the fields at the Open Championship and US PGA with a stunning exhibition of driving and approach play. McIlroy finished that year as World Number One and with his third and fourth major titles sitting on his mantelpiece.
Last year the build-up to Augusta centred on whether McIlroy could become only the sixth player to have won all four majors; on Sunday evening all the talk was about Spieth’s brilliant victory, tying Woods’ record for the lowest score at the event and becoming the second youngest, after the same man, to win a Green Jacket.
Spieth followed it up with a nail-biting one-stroke win at the US Open, becoming the youngest winner of that competition since Bobby Jones way back in 1923. With McIlroy unable to defend his Open Championship due to injury, all the hype heading into the oldest of the majors was whether Spieth could win his third on-the-spin to set up a shot at the holy grail of golf, the Grand Slam of all four major wins in one season.
In the event, Spieth missed out on a play-off by one stroke, with Zach Johnson edging out Louis Oosthuizen after a four-hole play-off. Also missing out on the playoff by a single shot was Jason Day, the Australian leaving a putt to make the extra holes a couple of inches short. The then-27-year-old took this on the chin and having long been on the cusp of making his major breakthrough, he made it at the next event in some style, winning the US PGA at Whistling Straits by a record 20-under-par score, three clear of Spieth in second place.
Having held the World Number One spot for a year until August 2015, aside from briefly regaining it twice the next month, McIlroy has had to watch as Spieth and Day have fought for the title of world’s best player, both players having stints at the summit before being usurped by the other.
Day will have the honour of being number one when he tees up on Thursday but here is a stat which may give cause for concern among his supporters: of the last 10 Masters, none were won by the world number one. Aside from Woods, that trend stretches back much longer.
Fans of Spieth need not be too happy at that fact as there is one which he will have to overcome too: none of the last 10 winners managed to successfully defend the title. Indeed, only Jack Nicklaus, Nick Faldo and Woods have ever won back-to-back Masters
Do these little nuggets point to McIlroy as the potential favourite? Well, the last European winner was in 1999 so that trend is pointing in a different direction too.
While these kind of trends are usually helpful in whittling down a list of contenders and deciphering if there is value to be had in some players’ betting odds, it must be recognised that Day, Spieth and McIlroy are considered the Big Three for a good reason; they are truly special players who will in all likelihood go down in history as among the best to ever swing a club.
The three - Day cementing his spot when he finally clinched a major - have set themselves apart from the chasing pack and at times since the summer of 2014 have been absolutely outstanding. McIlroy played majestically to clinch back-to-back majors – and a WGC – in 2014 before Spieth almost topped it by winning the first two and coming so close in the third last year. Just when it looked like Spieth might establish himself as the leading figure in the sport, Day makes good on his huge promise by delivering a record-breaking win in the final major.
The Big Three have won five of the last six majors, each has played superlative golf for sustained periods during that time and all have either won or come very close so far this term – they are justified favourites.
However, previous winners Bubba Watson and Adam Scott have both won in recent weeks while Rickie Fowler, looking for that first major which may nudge him into a Big Four, has entered the winners’ enclosure too. Dustin Johnson, Justin Rose, Louis Oosthuizen have all come close in recent years while three-time champion Phil Mickelson can never be written off at his favourite course.
But it is the Big Three who they have to somehow beat and tomorrow we’ll take a closer look at all the fancied runners and riders and see if we can tip who will be adding that garish Green Jacket to their wardrobe come Sunday.
Setanta Ireland will be there at Augusta National with LIVE coverage of all four days from The Masters.