Augusta: There has been the inevitable rush to quantify the loss of Tiger Woods to the 78th Masters. Betting will be down by 20 per cent, says one report, while another claims it will cost the US TV networks more than two million in viewing figures.
And so it goes on. Ticket prices on the black market have dropped by eight per cent. Last-minute accommodation offers are down by 10 per cent. Who knows, even the cocktail waitresses might be out of pocket. Tips tend to be more generous following an euphoric day of legend watching.
Yes, in financial and lustre terms, Woods’s absence following his back surgery will be keenly felt. But on the course? Probably not. As Curtis Strange, the two-time Major winner noted: “I didn’t think Tiger was going to be a big part of the picture anyway come the weekend.”
The truth is, even before Woods’s publicists posted that statement on his website we had the most open Masters in decades. That was largely because Woods had endured the worst opening to a campaign in 17 years as a professional. He was not even the bookmakers’ favourite.
Instead they installed Rory McIlroy at the top of market and barely clipped the Ulsterman when the withdrawal was announced. Money talks and it was already screaming in bemusement.
The scenario seems less like the Augusta National and more like the Grand National in which outsiders will have a very live chance.
That is not only Woods’s fault or that of his herniated disc. Of the world’s top 10 only the No. 10, Zach Johnson, has won a strokeplay tournament on the PGA Tour. Jason Day won the WGC Matchplay and, with a runner-up finish and a third place in his two Masters appearances, would seem the obvious choice. But the Australian has been out with an injured thumb.
Elsewhere among the elite, Phil Mickelson has been suffering first with his back and more recently with a pulled muscle in his side, while England’s Justin Rose spent the first few months out with a shoulder injury. Adam Scott and McIlroy both blew leads at the Arnold Palmer Invitational and the Honda Classic respectively, while Henrik Stenson has looked a shadow of the player who stormed through at the end of last year.
And all the time, there have been upsets. Matt Every and Russell Henley were the duo who capitalised on the capitulation on Scott and McIlroy and their low profiles sum up the 2014 season thus far as do the likes of Steven Bowditch and John Senden, two anonymous Australian winners. So much parity, so little clarity.
Yet unpredictability can be exciting and the rise of so many under-25s has set the pulse soaring. Jordan Spieth (20), Harris English (24), Patrick Reed (24), Hideki Matsuyama (22) and Victor Dubuisson (23) are just five of the new generation following in the lead of McIlroy to storm the top 50.
Is it incomprehensible to think that one of this quintet could prevail? Not according to Spieth. But then, in the last year has gone from having no playing privileges whatsoever to winning, finishing top 10 on the money list and booking a spot in the US Presidents Cup team.
“I don’t think it’s out of the question to win,” Spieth said. “If my game stacks up and I catch the right breaks, then sure. I don’t see why not.”
However, given the difficult nature of the course, one may rule out the chances of a rookie like Matt Fitzpatrick. Incidentally, Matt, the young US amateur champion from Sheffield, was forced into a late change of caddie before his Masters debut after the green jackets barred his original choice of bagman because of his footwear.
In a bizarre tale, Lorne Duncan was told by officials that he could not wear his usual sandals because it was against the club rules. Duncan suffers from a foot problem and had a furious row with the tournament director.
Luke Donald has all but written off the hopes of the record number (23) of Masters first-timers. History backs up his argument. Apart from the first two Masters, Fuzzy Zoeller is the only newcomer to have left Georgia with the green-jacket and that was back in 1979.
If golf is turning into a power game then knowledge is still the predominant power at Augusta. It is why the likes of Phil Mickelson, with three green jackets from the last decade, and course specialists such as Angel Cabrera, the 2009 champion who was second to Scott last year, and Lee Westwood, who has only been out of the top dozen once in the last six years, are in the habit of leaving poor form at the bottom of Magnolia Drive.
That inspires optimism of another big-name winner to follow up on Scott’s emotional triumph. There is one member of the top 10 who has shown the requisite form this season — Sergio García. But despite his putter at last consenting and a series of results which boasts two victories in the last seven starts, Garcia does not summon confidence. His lament under the tree at Augusta two years ago — “I haven’t got what it takes” — yells of a deep insecurity which could always stop him.
So who will be the man, the heavyweight to afford the 2014 Masters its quality status? Step forward the man who this week said the game needs the heroes to step up. McIlroy is close to his best and at the very least he should achieve his first top 10 at Augusta. Quite frankly, it is ridiculous that McIlroy’s best finish at Augusta is a tie for 15th. And that came when he shot that infamous final-day 80 to concede a four-shot lead.
“Golf in general is just very wide open at the moment, and I think a few guys need to sort of put their hands up and try to be the dominant player in this game because that’s what people like to see,” McIlroy said last week. “I hope it’s me.”
And so should every golfing purist. McIlroy is one of the few with the star power to dare provoke the question “Tiger who?” He is exactly what Augusta deserves. Not to mention their cocktail waitresses.