Wednesday, April 4, 2012

The Masters Preview

My passion for the game of golf was born in the unlikely location of a small strip mall on a commercial highway south of Baltimore, Maryland.  That is where a local businessman thought it would be a good idea to open a golf store (despite the fact that it wasn't near any golf courses) and where I would start my thankfully brief career in retail (the store went out of business in less than 3 years).  There's not a lot to do in a golf store outside of Baltimore, especially in January and February when we'd be lucky to see two customers in a day and maybe swap a red golf bag that someone got for Christmas for a blue one.  We'd spend most of the morning talking about whether we were going to get chili dogs from the 7-11 on one side of us or a cheesesteak from the greasy Italian carry-out place on the other side.  After lunch, we'd have a putting contest around the store* until it was time to total up the one receipt, turn out the lights and go home.      

The other thing we did to pass the time was watch golf related videos of which we had the following five:

"We'll be right with you sir
. . . after this scene is over."
(1) Caddyshack which surprisingly never got old though it did get a little awkward when customers would walk in during the sex scene involving Danny Noonan and Lacey Underall.  I suppose we could have fast forwarded it but the remote was broken and the VCR was a good ten feet from the stools we would sit on all day like Cliff and Norm.  

(2) Jack Nicklaus' Golf My Way which was a two hour instructional video narrated almost exclusively by Jack himself. It is somewhat outdated now but I think they still blare it at embassies where hostages have been taken because if anything is going to take away your will to live, it's the sound of Jack Nicklaus's high pitched voice droning on and on about his own golf swing.

(3) Some random Peter Kostis instructional video in which he states with complete sincerity something to the effect of, "I could play on tour but I would be about the 50th best player out there so I teach instead." This quote was made more comical when we learned that Kostis would apparently walk around at tournaments with a golf glove hanging-out of his back pocket and the pros would ask him, "hey Peter, what'd you shoot today?"

(4) A video of the final round of what I think was the Sony Open in Hawaii. We watched it dozens of times but I can't remember who won because all we cared about was one part where Paul Azinger was addressing his ball and it moved at which point he looked at Brad Faxon and said, "Bradley, my ball just rolled in the bunker." That line became our go to for just about anything whether it made sense or not. "Did you unpack the new Taylor Made drivers?" . . . "Bradley, my ball just rolled in the bunker." (Hilarity ensues).

"WOOSY!!!"
(5) A video of the final round of the 1991 Masters (hey now it looks like we're getting to the point). The 1991 Masters has been somewhat forgotten which I don't really understand considering it had one of the most dramatic Sunday back nines ever. It had pretty much come down to Tom Watson, Jose Maria Olazabal and Ian Woosnam who was then the best player in the world (yes, Ian Woosnam was once considered the best player in the world). Tom Watson put his ball in the water on 12 and made a double to fall several strokes back but then eagled 13 and 15 to tie for the lead. Unfortunately, he made a mess of 18, carded a 6 and lost by 2. Olazabal, who would win the Masters in '94 and '99, was also tied for the lead when he played 18 a group ahead of Watson and Woosnam but he made bogey. This opened the door for Woosnam to drain a five footer for par to win the tournament and strike one of the most underrated victory poses in golf history.

My point to the extent that I have one is that watching that final round never got old and everyone who walked into the store would pause and watch** because, if you love golf, the Masters has a holy quality that elevates it way above all other tournaments and, for that matter, above all other sporting events with the possible exception of the Super Bowl. And that's in an ordinary year. This year feels different because it is different. The best players in the world are not merely showing-up for a tournament as much as they are converging on Augusta like the gangs at the start of The Warriors.

You don't need to be an expert to figure out this week's top 10 list (and there is only one list this week because we're not holding anyone back).  It's just a matter of how you want to arrange the top three and who you want to put in the 9th and 10th spots.  What stands out is how many of these guys have won tournaments this year or have been close multiple times.  There may never have been a year when so many top players are coming to Augusta on a roll:

Shake it off Rory.  You're
not that kid anymore.
1. Rory McIlroy: He'll have a lot of pressure on him after butchering the final round last year but the same was true when he teed it up at the U.S. Open where he proved that he has the kind of game that works when he's playing for vengeance . . . kind of like someone else we know.

2. Tiger Woods: Very hard not to put him at the top of the list considering he hasn't finished worse than 6th at Augusta since 2004 but he had a couple of nasty pull hooks when he won at Bay Hill and those suckers are evil little demons that tend to show-up out of nowhere.  Feels weird to say this but I don't think he has the firepower to keep up with McIroy's "A" game.  

3. Phil Mickelson: I had Phil locked into the second spot until Tiger's win. You know it's a loaded field when a guy who has two green jackets and has ten top 10 finishes in the last eleven years only draws the third best odds at 11-1.

4. Justin Rose: You could put any of the next six players in this spot.  Rose is coming in a bit under the radar but he's playing as well as anyone this year.  (Man, writing nice things about good players is booorrrrinng).

At least this trophy wasn't presented
by a guy in a Donald Duck suit.
5. Luke Donald: I went to a Masters Calcutta dinner last night to do some research (which is my excuse for the tardiness of this week's picks***). Multiple people took the time to tell me I was wrong about Luke Donald and how much they liked his chances this week. I will say that I'm coming around on him to the point where he could be near the top of this list for the U.S. Open but he needs to show me more than a win at a tournament that Ernie Els gift wraps for him before I can take him seriously at Augusta.

6. Keegan Bradley: He tied for 4th last week for his 3rd top ten of the season. The only downside is that he has never played the Masters before but, while a lack of experience may hurt him around the greens, it's not going to stop him from hitting 350 yard bombs and reaching all of the par fives in two.

7. Hunter Mahan: He's played the Masters four times with mixed results (8th, 10th and two missed cuts) but he's got a ton of confidence coming off his second win of the year.  I can see him winning a major within the next two years but not this one.

8. Lee Westwood: Westwood has become the forgotten man considering he has six top 3 finishes in the last sixteen majors and is still ranked third in the world but when you keep getting that close and coming up short, people stop taking you seriously. Just ask Colin Montgomerie.

9. Charl Schwartzel: Schwartzel looked like he was about to enter the best golfer in the world conversation at the start of the season but then he shot a 76 in the first round of the Transitions and apparently Dr. Evil walked off with his mojo.  He's too solid a player not to find it again.

10. Charles Howell, III: I was going to put Adam Scott in this spot but he hasn't given us much to judge him by this year having only played three times in the U.S.  Besides, I have to pick at least one semi-dark horse.  Howell has the power game to keep up and has become a solid putter. Not to mention, he was born in Augusta which has to count for something.  (It actually doesn't have to count for anything but you can't mention Charles Howell, III and the Masters without including the fact that he was born in Augusta. I think it's a law in Georgia).

". . . so I got that goin' for me, which is nice."
Last week's Report Card: B

1. Aaron Baddeley - MC
2. Steve Stricker - T36
3. Johnson Wagner - T29
4. Hunter Mahan - 1st
5. John Senden - T18

That's the last time I put a player at the top of my list just because I find a picture of his hot wife (no it's not).  At least I had the winner in the mix and my overall pick of Keegan Bradley finished 4th . . .  

Endnotes 

* We had to stop the chipping contests when they turned into flop shot contests and light bulbs started getting smashed.  Then there was the matter of the customer who walked in undetected and we didn't see until he almost took a skulled lob wedge to the forehead. That's about the same time we put a bell on the door.

** Occasionally a customer would look at the TV and ask, "is this live?" and we'd have to resist the urge to throw him out of the store.

*** Note to self.  "Do most of the writing BEFORE you go out until 2:00 a.m. on a Tuesday. Oh the humanity."