Thursday 14 December 2017

Experience often the critical factor in passing golf's toughest exam

McIlroy and Spieth have had horror moments at Augusta - but with one major difference

Jordan Spieth approaches the 18th green on Masters Sunday last year. Photo: Getty Images
Jordan Spieth approaches the 18th green on Masters Sunday last year. Photo: Getty Images

Dermot Gilleece

It is a unique distinction of the US Masters, that we remember its losers so well. This can be attributed largely to Augusta National's unmatched capacity for crushing disappointment, as certain leading candidates in this week's line-up will readily testify.

Deep into Sunday afternoon just 12 months ago, Jordan Spieth had a second successive title in his grasp, only to see it slip with curious calmness into Rae's Creek while a crippling seven was being recorded at the short 12th. Five years previously, Rory McIlroy's dénouement effectively came on the relatively benign 10th where he, too, ran up a seven with victory in sight.

Since Tiger Woods became fallible - he has withdrawn from this week's event on the grounds of not being "tournament ready" - these happenings have caused us to temper our expectations of favourites such as world number-one, Dustin Johnson, even after his seriously impressive win in last week's Dell Matchplay. Augusta can be a cruel leveller, especially when potential winners start creating mental images of fetching apparel in Kelly green.

Either way, it will be different this week: its beloved King has moved on to a gentler realm. Arnold Palmer's death last September prompted memories of his frail figure on the first tee at last year's Masters, where he lacked the strength to join Jack Nicklaus and Gary Player in the honorary starters' roles they had filled since 2012.

Instead, we had the sight of Nicklaus helping his long-time friend and rival onto a golf buggy while a smiling Palmer lifted his left arm for a typical thumbs-up. "Both Gary and I felt that it was more about Arnold today than anyone else," said the Bear, "and that's just fine."

Those images, and his death five months later, brought me back to the 2000 Masters when, as a delightful way of celebrating Millennium year, Augusta had Palmer, Nicklaus and Player together as golf's ultimate three-ball. While the winners of 13 Masters put on a wonderful show, wave upon wave of cheering spectators greeted their progress around gloriously familiar terrain.

Later, the trio's enduring respect for each other was highlighted by a charming little gesture from Palmer. As he and Player departed the interview area, leaving Nicklaus to supply greater detail of his creditable 74, the King playfully ruffled the Bear's hair. Then he carefully smoothed it again, while the pair exchanged only the warmest of smiles.

Earlier, while the older duo spoke emotionally of this special day, Nicklaus provided a wonderful insight into his enduring competitiveness. "It was nice, and the gallery was terrific," he acknowledged. "They're always nice. But you know, I'm the funny duck. I suppose I come here to play golf." And to prove it, three months past his 60th birthday, he made the cut for the last time.

With England's Danny Willett defending the title, Ireland will have only McIlroy and Shane Lowry, compared with four or even five representatives in the recent past. Still, as the Masters approaches a climax next Sunday afternoon, an appropriate selection of members' green jackets in various sizes could be awaiting either man in the Butler Cabin, just like every year.

For instance, a size 44 awaited Greg Norman on as many as five occasions, most notably in 1996 when he held a six-stroke lead over Nick Faldo after 54 holes. Scott Hoch would have needed a 42, when he, too, lost to Faldo back in 1989. And though he might also need a 42 these days, McIlroy would probably have fit comfortably into a 40 back in 2011. Spieth, meanwhile, could have turned last year to the jacket he earned in 2015.

In this context, it is especially poignant to recall the words of Norman, 21 years ago, when a coveted prize that had been tantalisingly close remained hanging in the Butler Cabin. "God! I'd like to be putting on that jacket today, but I'm not," he lamented. "But my life is going to continue. I'm not a loser; I just lost today."

The fact is that Augusta National can eat into the confidence of the most accomplished of players. What other explanation could there be for the wretched 13 which 1973 Open champion, Tom Weiskopf, suffered on the short 12th in 1980. Even the great Ben Hogan succumbed in 1946 when, needing a 10-foot birdie putt on the 72nd green for the title, he three-putted to concede victory to Herman Keiser.

Though the length of the various holes has increased significantly over the years, shot values remain largely the same, courtesy of the modern golf-ball. Which means that the long 15th, which Nicklaus reduced to a drive and eight-iron when it measured 500 yards in 1965, still offers essentially the same challenge at 530 yards.

"Of all that the course demands, the third shot to the 15th is probably one of the most difficult in the world," claimed David Feherty. Pádraig Harrington would certainly have agreed, after enduring considerable grief there in 2007. Feherty believes that players feel pushed into gambling on a second-shot from the top of the hill, rather than face a 75- or 80-yard third shot off a downhill lie into a shallow, sliver of a green. With the shot going in low, there's the risk it will skip through the back, from where a return pitch could find water.

Small wonder that this hole is often pivotal in deciding the title. Yet it should offer McIlroy a crucial advantage in his pursuit of the career Grand Slam. Indeed his high, penetrating ball-flight fits the overall challenge perfectly, not least the 15th which is comfortably reachable for him with a drive and mid-iron.

"I still get asked about the back nine in 2011," he said. "It's just something you have to deal with. It's something that happened. It's not going to go away. It's there and it always will be."

Faced with similar problems, Spieth will not have welcomed last Friday's 77 in Houston. "Of course I sympathise with Jordan," said McIlroy. "The guy had a chance to win the green jacket last year and I didn't [McIlroy was tied 10th]. But he can console himself by opening up his wardrobe and seeing one hanging there. Which makes it a little bit different."

McIlroy added: "No matter what happens this year, those questions will still linger a little bit." Undoubtedly. But it is something Spieth can cope with, buoyed by the confidence he derives from a putting touch which delivered remarkable finishes of tied second, first and tied second, over the last three years.

That's the essential difference between McIlroy and the young American around Augusta National. Valuable as marvellous length and accuracy off the tee unquestionably are, the Holywood star has managed only a best finish of fourth (behind Spieth in 2015) in eight Masters starts.

Which emphasises the enormous benefit of a productive blade on the most demanding greens in tournament golf. And after missing the cut in 2015 and being tied 39th last year, it's an area where Lowry needs to show significant improvement if he is to do himself justice in this particular Major.

We know from the 2015 season that Spieth possesses the mental strength to dominate in all circumstances. That, I believe, makes him the player to beat. Last year's stumble may prove to be just that - a timely reminder that only through experience can a player feel truly comfortable about marching through Georgia.

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