It is the first, and perhaps finest, golf major of the calendar year, and few would argue that the iconic Augusta National course has served up some of the sport’s most unforgettable moments down the years. It is the perfect setting for the ultimate test of skill and intestinal fortitude.
The winner will lift the trophy, pick up a handsome paycheque and slip into the famous Green Jacket, which has adorned the greatest golfers that have ever graced the tee box. And, of course, a legacy that will ensure their name goes down in history from now until eternity.
So, no pressure then.
It takes a special kind of character to triumph at Augusta, with the last trio of champions ranging from the understated Northerner (Danny Willett), the flamboyant motormouth (Bubba Watson) and one of the finest young talents in the business (Jordan Spieth). Ironically, Spieth could have won all three of those editions of the tournament.
With all this in mind, what does it take to win this magnificent event?
Oh Danny Boy
It’s fair to say that Danny Willett’s Masters win in 2016 was something of a shock; to him, to pundits – he started the day five shots behind 54-hole leader Jordan Spieth, and to punters; the Englishman was available at 150/1 prior to a ball being hit and still 40/1 heading into the final 18 holes.
His triumph was secured in the most bizarre fashion, as not for the first time a nailed-on winner came unglued with the trophy presentation looming.
In fairness, Willett had done his bit by serving up a bogey-free final round of 67, but even he could not have dreamed of what was to unfold.
Spieth bogeyed the 10th and 11th before twice splashing down at the Par 3 twelfth to record a seven, and see his lead disappear in an instant. Birdies at 13 and 15 steadied the ship, but another dropped shot at 17 confirmed it: Danny Willett was to become the first British winner of the Masters since Nick Faldo in 1996.
So how did he do it?
Profile of a Masters Champion
Typically, Augusta is not a place to be playing catch-up. Spieth won wire-to-wire here in 2015, while Bubba Watson sat one off the pace after the first round 12 months earlier before trying on the Green Jacket for size. In 2012, the top four after round one – Lee Westwood, Louis Oosthuizen, Peter Hanson and Bubba – would all go on to finish inside the top six.
But Willett tore up that script good and proper. He was some five shots behind Spieth after the opening 18, and that deficit had only closed by one heading into Sunday. In tough conditions, it was the fast finishers who enjoyed the greater paydays: the English trio of Paul Casey, Lee Westwood and Matt Fitzpatrick all climbing into the top ten with closing rounds of 67, 69 and 67 respectively.
That feels like an anomaly though, and if you are planning on picking out a winner in-play, look to those who hit the front early.
What else do those looking to tame Augusta need to be able to do?
Go Long – Tom Fazio’s overhaul of the course in 2002 led to many holes being lengthened and tightened. The total yardage of Augusta is now a meaty 7,435 yards, so if you can’t go long off the tee then you might as well stay at home.
Screwball Scramble – As part of Fazio’s redesign thicker rough was implemented and allowed to grow over the edges of the fairways, meaning that the landing areas were tightened. That makes finding fairways off the tee difficult – Willett only found two-thirds in his winning effort – and as such scrambling from the rough, and getting up and down, is essential. You can find many interesting stats regarding Scrambling on the PGA Tour website and elsewhere.
Read the Greens – Some players enjoy this stretch, others hate it. That’s apparent from the number of repeat offenders at Augusta – for better or worse – and the key reason are its greens: small, undulating and lightning fast. If you can’t get an accurate read on the dancefloor then you won’t be slipping into the Green Jacket.
Hold Your Nerve – Willett had the advantage of posting what would become an unassailable clubhouse lead, so he would not have known that he was going to become a Masters champion as he made his way to the eighteenth green. Even so, to even be in contention requires huge bottle, and clearly with five wins on the European Tour the Yorkshireman has plenty of Sheffield steel to call upon.
When shortlisting potential Masters winners in 2017, make sure your picks have entered the winners’ circle on more than one occasion.
Repeat Business – Spieth, Phil Mickelson, Adam Scott and Angel Cabrera had all posted a previous top-ten finish at Augusta prior to their triumph, while other victors including Bubba Watson, Zach Johnson and Tiger Woods had posted a top-ten subsequent to their lifting of the famous trophy.
The upshot? Augusta is a ‘horses for courses’ venue, where the same faces tend to get in the frame each year; Willett apart, naturally.
A Man for All Occasions – Conditions at Augusta tend to vary wildly from year to year. In 2016 the wind was viciously up, hence Willett’s winning mark of just -5, and yet just 12 months earlier Spieth has threatened the course record on his way to -18 in rather more benign climes.
The weather can change pretty quickly in Georgia, so make sure your chosen players are comfortable in all kinds of conditions.