John Duggan's Masters Preview
After a winter of weather that has most of us weary by now, sport has been the colour in the sky. A Six Nations Grand Slam, 17 Irish winners at Cheltenham, another Munster miracle only last weekend. Now, the event that ignites the sporting summer is upon us - the Masters at Augusta, golf's first major championship of the year, which starts at 1.30pm Irish time on Thursday.
In a world dominated by technology and the pervasive nature of social media, not all of it benign, the Masters evokes deep memories and as an event in itself, is almost of another era, frozen in time, but with a slightly different cast and plot every 12 months.
What are the memories? For me it was pulling hard on the the curtain cords as a youngster on a Saturday night in April. Being allowed to stay up late. Myles Dungan's jumpers on RTE. A small television set in the corner of the room. A comfy armchair. Dad. Larry Mize chipping in and going bananas. Strange names like Mark Calcavecchia. Switching to BBC when RTE's ad breaks came on. Peter Alliss' avuncular, but authoritative commentary.
Nick Faldo holing that winning putt in 1989 and looking to the skies. Ian Woosnam's fist pump. Fred Couples escaping on the bank of the par 3 12th in 1992, en route to victory. Greg Norman's near misses and his 1996 meltdown.
All of these moments are a memory stick in my mind and they all occurred before Tiger Woods won the Masters by 12 shots in 1997, a week which changed golf, but also altered the trajectory of sport forever.
21 years later and Woods returns to Georgia at the age of 42, bidding for a fifth green jacket and a 15th major title. He describes his existence now as 'night and day' following his recovery from serious back issues which required spinal fusion surgery.
In his own words, his back was 'fried', so it's not hyperbole to proclaim it a miracle he can even play again at this level, let alone compete.
It would be one of the great redemptive sports stories if Woods won on Sunday following well documented off course problems.
His recent form has been impressive and I found it interesting that he says he hasn't felt as good physically in 7 or 8 years, bearing in mind he won 5 times in 2013. Woods' presence is the biggest story of the week. He will be the pied piper of golf again for the opening two rounds.
There is only one Irishman in the field, Rory McIlroy, who is attempting to win the career Grand Slam at the fourth attempt. McIlroy's game has always looked tailored to the demands of Augusta, given his high ball flight, approach play and swashbuckling nature.
It's a theatre which suits his swagger, but he hasn't contended to win since his final day troubles in 2011, when he turned a 4 shot lead into an 80. That said, he has posted 4 successive top 10 finishes here in recent years, so one cannot say he's been scarred by one close shave.
It's McIlroy's 10th appearance at Augusta and the 28 year old enters the tournament off a recent victory at the Arnold Palmer Invitational.
There are so many potential winners, which is good because if you take the amateurs, rookies and former champions past their sell by date out of the equation, one is left with around 60 potential visitors to the Butler's Cabin on Sunday.
Justin Thomas is the form horse with a 1st, 2nd and 4th in his last three appearances. The U.S. PGA Champion has yet to break 70 at Augusta. Jordan Spieth has led for half of the 16 rounds he has played at Augusta. Think about that! He returned to form in Houston last week and is sure to gain a positive feel up Magnolia Lane.
Dustin Johnson is not the world number one for nothing, but does he have the imagination? Justin Rose lost in a play off last year. 47 year old Phil Mickelson has three green jackets in the locker and recently won in Mexico. Bubba Watson has won the Masters twice and has a pair of first places on the US Tour in 2018. Jason Day shot 64 here as a rookie and is showing a return to the sort of form that made him the best in the world. The course unquestionably suits Paul Casey's eye and he has the track record to support that.
Jon Rahm is a future world beater, possibly sooner than we think. Rickie Fowler is the best player without a major, or if you talk to someone else, that tag belongs to Hideki Matsuyama. Sergio Garcia has no pressure on his shoulders as the defending champion. One could go on and on.
So what makes the Masters so special? Everything is more green, more peaceful. The organisers protect the prestige of their event and their club, they're in charge.
That means no running for the 'patrons' as the fans are called and no mobile phones. It means only champions can use the locker room or attend the champions dinner. It means television companies don't rule the roost.
It's on the organisers' terms. How refreshing is that in 2018? The course is more hilly and undulating than the television pictures show, but the benefit of viewing every year is that we get to know the individuality of the holes - the 11th, 12th and 13th which constitute 'Amen Corner'. The short 3rd and 16th. The risk and reward 15th with Rae's Creek lurking to swallow wayward balls. The long 18th with the white sandy bunker to be negotiated. The lightning quick greens, akin to your dining room table.
What is certain is that golf has become one of the most dramatic sports to have beamed into your living room.
The leader board changes like a railway station timetable, as the excitement builds to a crescendo of a Sunday when talented sportsmen are challenged in the cauldron of a competitive arena where everything is on the line. Some are Chariots of Fire, some are chumps. Rationality can fall asunder.
Augusta brought the best out of Woods in 2001 when he won the 'Tiger Slam'; it was the hallowed ground for Mickelson's magical major breakthrough in 2004. Augusta was the amphitheatre for Bubba Watson's brilliance from the pine straw, for Adam Scott to become the first Australian winner of the tournament and for Garcia to finally banish his demons.
It's also the venue which has made us cover our eyes as McIlroy and Spieth embarrassingly went off the rails in full view, and we have also seen unheralded names melt under the bright lights.
I am really heartened by the global nature of golf's appeal, illustrated by this week's field. China's Haotong Li, Chile's Joaquin Niemann, Sweden's Alex Noren, South Africa's Louis Oosthuizen, India's Shubhankar Sharma. It's great.
So, who do I believe will contend?
I think Rory McIlroy will complete the career Grand Slam. I noticed Jack Nicklaus describing him as the favourite and I believe that's accurate.
When he's on, McIlroy is the most talented golfer in the world since physical problems began to debilitate Woods. That's my rounded view over time. McIlroy has always been a confidence player who can go on streaks of winning tournaments.
He is healthy and seems content in his personal life. The recent work he did with legendary putter Brad Faxon has paid dividends and he has the long game to dominate the 4 par 5 holes.
If he can be sensible about when to attack and when to leave well alone, he can manoeuvre himself into a position to challenge on Sunday. Time and time again I have learnt, sometimes the hard way, that natural talent is the key determinant to success in golf. At 12/1, McIlroy is a win bet recommendation.
I have three each way selections in this field of 87.
Patrick Reed is going the right way. Like Ian Poulter, he has been a stellar player at the Ryder Cup, but unlike Poulter, American Reed is much younger. The 27 year old has five PGA Tour wins to his name and enters the event following 3 Top 10 finishes in succession on the circuit. His game is suited to Augusta and despite an ordinary course record, a recent equipment change in his favour may ensure odds of 50/1 look generous on Sunday evening.
Patrick Cantlay is a player we are going to be hearing a lot of and he is a classic sleeper pick this week. For over a year, the 26 year old was the best amateur in the world. He then endured 3 years of back trouble and saw both his caddie and best friend die at the hands of a hit and run driver. He has showed admirable resilience to return to the US Tour, to win and to rise from nowhere to 35th in the world. A breakthrough is coming and while he might not win, he is worth considering for first round leader and in the outright market at 66/1.
And finally, Russell Henley makes appeal. He posted a 65 in the final round at Houston last weekend. This 28 year old has won three times on the PGA Tour, including a defeat of McIlroy at the Honda Classic. A marksman with the putter, this local native has trended 21st and tied 11th on his last two Masters appearances. Horses for courses and experience are a factor here. He is worth a small interest at 100/1.
A final word. It's not about a flutter, it's about enjoying the drama. Enjoy your Masters experience.