Depending on who you listen to, the favourite to win The Masters this year is either in his 20s, 30s or 40s. Rory, Tiger and Phil — last names not required. Until somebody knocks them off the marquee, the three biggest names in golf will be THE story in Augusta this week. Here is a case for each of them to be wearing the green jacket one week from today:
There is no second guessing in this swing. It asks no questions. It has no scar tissue. It has no bad memories. It just happens.
It starts with the low, wide backswing that gives it the room it needs for power. As it reaches the top, the hips stay quiet and balanced but the shoulders turn, and turn, and turn some more. The shoulders show no signs of stopping until the hips, ever so slightly, bump back toward the target, telling the rest of the swing that it’s ‘go time’. What happens next is a blur. All that coiled energy -- hips, shoulders and finally hands -- is unleashed on the ball.
That’s how a 160-pound, 22-year-old bombs drives past most of the top players.
Forget distance though, there is something more important in this swing.
Where’s the steering? Where’s the holding back? Where’s the fear? It isn’t there. But it should be. Shouldn’t it?
This is the swing that went missing when it was needed most; on the back nine at Augusta exactly one year ago next Sunday.
The coronation of golf’s next great player was called off while Rory was exploring parts of the golf course that no player had ever seen during a final round 80.
After the massacre, nobody knew quite what to expect.
“I’m very disappointed. You know, I was leading this golf tournament with nine holes to go, and I just unravelled,” Rory told reporters.
“It was a character building day, put it that way. I’ll come out stronger for it.”
Was it possible that this red-headed kid somehow managed to put it all in perspective in minutes, or was it just an act?
Later that day he took to social media, tweeting a photo of him and Charl Schwartzel -- the man who stole his green jacket -- hamming it up while sharing a flight out of Augusta on a private jet.
The message with the picture said, “Flying to Malaysia with Charl! Glad one of us has a green jacket on!!!”
Was this a display of immaturity or maturity? Was he showing the follies of youth or the strength of it?
The answers came quick. Rory lapped the field at the season’s next major, the U.S. Open at Congressional, setting a tournament scoring record at 16-under and winning by eight strokes.
As all great golfers learn, the swing and the man are one in the same. When players ask themselves if they can count on their swing, they are really asking if they can count on themselves.
Right now, Rory and his swing are young, brash and -- despite taking some serious blows -- without scars. He is the only one in the big three that can say that and that’s why he will be wearing his first green jacket next Sunday.
Tiger is not happy with his swing.
Wait a minute, is that possible? He won by five shots last week. He’s hitting fairways. He’s in control.
Fact is, Tiger is never happy with his swing.
Arnold Palmer had one coach, his dad. He had one swing, his trademark. Jack Nicklaus had one coach, Jack Grout. He would see him once or twice a year.
Tiger has had three coaches, four if you count his dad. He’s putting the finishing touches on his third major swing overhaul in 15 years. Why? Because in Tiger’s mind, if you’re not getting better you’re getting worse.
That belief has taken him to 14 major championships and 72 PGA Tour victories. It has carried him through tough times and criticism. And right now, it is carrying him to Augusta National full of confidence.
In Sean Foley, the analytical player has found the analytical coach. Tiger’s swing is more efficient than ever. The stance is narrower, the load on the left knee is less. The club never quite reaches parallel at the top of his backswing, as a result, more tee shots are finding the fairway.
Minutes after winning the Arnold Palmer Invitational, already Tiger was thinking about what’s next.
“I still need some work, and it’s going to be good to get a week off and work on a few things,” he said. “I enjoyed the progression we made this week.”
It has become quite popular over the past few years to say that Tiger’s mystique and intimidation is gone. In Tiger’s absence the talk was about the new generation of players. They’re fearless. They know he can be beat.
Northern Ireland’s Graeme McDowell is fully aboard the Rory McIlroy bandwagon.
“I think he’s the best player on the planet right now,” McDowell said of McIlroy after the Honda Classic. “He’s the best player I’ve ever seen tee-to-green, period. I didn’t have a chance to play with Tiger early-to-mid-2000s when Tiger was the man, but Rory McIlroy is the best player I’ve ever seen.”
Last week, McDowell got a chance to play against this year’s version of Tiger when the two were paired together in the final round at Bay Hill. After a few holes it looked like the early-to-mid-2000s.
Tiger, dressed to kill in black pants and a red shir,t played steady golf while watching the leaderboard melt away behind him.
This generation of players was supposed to be different. They tweet. They make music videos. The future of golf has arrived.
Tiger knows one thing after 15 years on Tour — talk is cheap.
The World No. 6 player is No. 1 this year on the PGA’s all-around ranking which is made up of Scoring Leaders, Putting Leaders, Eagle Leaders, Birdie Leaders, Sand Saves, Greens in Regulation, Driving Distance and Driving Accuracy.
There is no reason to think Tiger won’t be in contention at The Masters and there is little reason to think that the field won’t wilt under his gaze and that’s why he will be wearing his fifth green jacket next Sunday.
Sometimes a golf course and a golfer seem made for each other.
Perhaps it’s a course that sets up well for a particular ball flight, or a course that has plenty of room to miss off the tee. In this case, though, it’s much simpler than that.
Augusta National is an all-or-nothing course and Phil is an all-or-nothing player.
Sure, Augusta demands exquisite touch around the greens and favours high-trajectory left-to-right approach shots, but to win The Masters you have to be comfortable taking risks and willing to accept the consequences.
“Comfortable taking risks” might as well be Lefty’s epitaph. At times, playing it safe seems to cause him physical pain. While other players grit their teeth while trying to talk themselves into difficult shots, Phil often seems to be staring aimlessly at the sky waiting for his turn to hit.
Worry about a miss? Please. Why would Phil waste the mental energy? At Augusta, he has perfected living in the moment.
Hall of Fame player and current commentator Johnny Miller recently said that he doesn’t like the infamous par-3 12th hole at Augusta because luck can have a lot to do with success there with the tricky winds. Maybe that’s why he never won The Masters.
Accepting your fate is a must. Phil seems to find unlucky bounces or sudden gusts of wind interesting, even humorous.
Unlike most of the top players, Phil teed it up this weekend at the Shell Houston Open where he is the defending champ.
“For me personally, it gets me in a competitive frame of mind,” he said after Friday’s round. “I don’t like having a 10-day break between competitive rounds. Everybody has got to find out what’s best for them.”
Phil seems to have figured out what is best for him and this year is no different.
He got off to a terrible start so before the Pebble Beach Pro-Am he brought in swing coach Butch Harmon. They figured out that he was straightening up too much on his back swing and losing almost all of the flex in his left knee by the time he had the club at the top.
As a result, his balance was way off. By keeping the left knee flexed and stable on the backswing, he was able to get it heading toward his right knee on the downswing, keeping his base underneath him and allowing him to stay balanced throughout the swing.
The results were immediate. He put on a performance for the ages at Pebble Beach, winning the tournament by shooting a 64 on Sunday while paired in the final group with Tiger Woods.
In fact, Phil has turned the table on his career nemesis, getting the best of Tiger the past four times the two have been paired together.
You mix that with the peace of mind Phil seems to find at Augusta National and that’s why he will be wearing his fourth green jacket next Sunday.
Here are the Las Vegas betting odds for the top-18 favourites to take home the green jacket next weekend at Augusta:
Tiger Woods 9/2
Rory McIlroy 5/1
Phil Mickelson 10/1
Luke Donald 16/1
Lee Westwood 18/1
Justin Rose 30/1
Adam Scott 35/1
Charl Schwartzel 40/1
Keegan Bradley 40/1
Jason Day 40/1
Bubba Watson 50/1
Sergio Garcia 50/1
Dustin Johnson 55/1
Steve Stricker 55/1
Nick Watney 60/1
Hunter Mahan 60/1
Martin Kaymer 60/1
Webb Simpson 60/1
(A winning $1 bet on Rory McIlroy at 5/1 will take home $5 in winnings plus the $1 you originally bet for a total of $6 back in your wallet.)