With the whole golf world abuzz about the Masters, I wanted to get my picks on the record before things get going next week.
With March Madness coming to an end, I think it is necessary to draw the distinction between golf and most other sports. In March Madness, everyone loves a Cinderella story and certainly roots for that story for as long as it endures in the Tourney. The same is true in most other sports. If there is a David vs. Goliath, unless you are from the Goliath’s city, you are rooting for David—who doesn’t root for the Jamaican bobsled team? However, I don’t think the same is true in golf. Despite what Bill Murray says in Caddyshack, golf fans tend to root for the big names. Now, this is explainable and makes sense at the beginning of a tournament week—you are not going to start out rooting for a 200/1 shot because more likely than not the person is going to be on his way home on Friday. Perhaps a bit harder to explain is the fact that fans will continue to root for the big names even when it is a duel between the big name and a “Cinderella kid.” Tiger vs. Chris DiMarco, Tiger vs. Y.E. Yang, Tiger vs. Rocco Mediate, Tiger vs. Rich Beem, Spieth vs. Danny Willet, Phil vs. Lucas Glover, Phil vs. Geoff Ogilvy, Phil v. David Toms. Give me the guy who only needs to be identified with his first name (Ok, maybe Rocco is a one-name type of guy too).
I think the reason is that greatness in golf is measured by a career, not a single tournament. In other sports, a single season/championship can go down in history and be forever remembered. So, you can root for the Cinderella without risking that in 10 years you will forget it ever happened. The Arizona Diamondbacks only won a single championship, but people will remember them taking down the Yankees with one of the best one-two punches in a starting rotation you have ever seen. By contrast, in golf, I always feel a bit of a letdown when a middle of the road golfer wins. For example, in recent Masters past—Danny Willet, Charl Schwartzel, and Trevor Immelman. Of course, in some instances this can serve as a launching pad to someone’s career and you will look back and realize as much, such as with Zach Johnson. However, when it is a one-and-done like Ben Curtis was at the Open Championship, it feels like something that history will just gloss over. If, instead, a Day, DJ, Spieth, Rory, Scott, Phil, or Bubba won, it would add to the conversation of history. Rory—grand slam and five majors by 27. Bubba—a lefty that owns Augusta. Phil—the best Augusta player after Jack? Spieth—a person who just has an innate ability to win at Augusta? Scott—a two time Masters champ building a potential Hall of Fame resume. DJ—the person who has the potential to claim the throne of the generation’s best.
The only exception to this general trend in golf is if a true Cinderella story wound up winning. Not someone near the bottom of the top 125 in the world, but more of a Tin Cup character. Justin Rose in the 1998 Open Championship. Beau Hossler at the 2012 US Open. And, not only does the person have to be a true upset, but I think being young has something to do with it too—the notion that this may be the beginning of greatness. Ben Curtis came out of left field at the 2003 Open, but nobody had the sense that he was about to erupt onto the scene.
So, it is unsurprising to me that that I find myself rooting for the main storylines this week. In my mind, there are three-(1) can DJ continue his hot streak; (2) can Spieth get his redemption; and (3) will Rory complete his slam.
A DJ win would give rise to talk of potential for one of the greatest seasons ever—he would already have four consecutive wins (two at WGC events) and a major. Obviously he would have to add to that resume for a historic season, but, if he were to win, one more major and two other wins would do it. And people would start thinking about the fact that this guy is just shy of 33 years old with seven years of his prime in front of him. He might be staring down the barrel of being labeled an all-time great in the next 5 years. However, with all this going for him, golfers just don't win tournament after tournament. There is a long list of people who have won three tournaments in a row. People who have won four or more in a row—Tiger (three times), Hogan (twice), Jack Burke, and Byron Nelson. There is a threshold there that is simply hard to cross, especially when the fourth one is the most coveted tournament in golf.
If Spieth takes it, people would have to think that he simply has the keys to Augusta. If he were to win, it should have been three wins in his first four appearances (with his first appearance being a T2). He will be coming back here in his prime for the next two decades or so and there is no reason he could not run up a total number of wins that would rival Jack, Arnie, and Tiger. Putting Augusta aside, it would be 10 wins and 3 majors by 23. Impressive stuff. But, what was amazing when watching his run in 2015 was his ability to make putts seemingly at will. This year, he is 44th in total putting. Ultimately, the likelihood of someone having the stamina to win/should have won three Masters in a row seems improbable.
So, though I will be rooting for Spieth, my pick has to be with Rory. His rib injury has made him well rested on the season. Despite the injury, he is not coming in rusty. In fact, he is coming in with a solid 2017 resume--a T7 at the WGC in Mexico and a T4 at the Arnold Palmer. I have always felt that Rory is not as streaky as others. He has such a solid all-around game that he is unlikely to be far off the hunt. Tiger took this to the next level in his ability to always be in contention. While Rory is certainly well below Tiger in this respect, I think he is the closet that exists in the game. But, when Rory is hot and at his best, I think he is unbeatable. Tiger said he would hang it up when he played a tournament, knew he played his best, and still lost. If Rory plays his best, he is better than the rest. Also in his corner are the storylines. You would expect that the perennial conversation entering Augusta would be whether Rory finishes off his grand slam. This year, given the buzz around Spieth and DJ (and Tiger's absence), Rory gets to fly under the radar a bit. Of course, the winds of golf talk quickly change. If he were to win, the conversation will turn to where Rory currently stands among the all-time greats with 5 majors and a career grand slam by age 27.
Lastly, as to a dark horse, I have to like Charl Schwartzel (80-1). Though he did not make it out of the group play at the WGC match play, he did play solidly. And if you flip back to the FedEx playoffs last year, he had a T4 and T10 in the last two events. The guy just has solid game and obviously knows how to win at Augusta. Not only does he know how to win, there is less pressure to do so once you have your jacket. And wouldn't it be fitting to have the South African connection with Schwartzel winning and Els playing his final masters? It would harken back to Spieth and Crenshaw in 2015.
That brings me to who I would choose to win if I were a golfing god. ERNIE! It was so fun watching him win the Open in 2012 and winning here would surpass that. The previous generation had Jack, Arnie, and Player. You will forever associate the three of them with the opening shot at the Masters. I feel like this golfing generation was equally defined by Ernie, Tiger, and Phil. The latter are deeply embedded in Augusta’s history—a Masters will never go by where Tiger’s chip in on 16 or Phil’s shot off the pine needles on 15 is not replayed. A win for Ernie at 47 would be epic and would entrench him in Augusta lore as well. I want an emotional walk for Ernie up Augusta's 18th, but not for another 20 years or so.