Wednesday, April 10, 2013

Fantasy Golf: The Masters Preview

A friend of mine walked up to me at a party* on Saturday night and said, "your head must be spinning . . . this is a huge week coming up." He was right. I've been a hardcore follower of professional golf for over 20 years and can't remember anxiously anticipating a tournament as much as the 2013 Masters. At some point, I'm going to have to take a look back at how I've spent the last 20 years but, for now, I've got no choice but to go with it so let's take a spin through the storylines and try to come-up with some cheesy New York Post style headlines starting with the back page stuff and working our way to the cover. (Warning: I was slightly impaired when I made the final edit on this so judge accordingly).

First Times the Charm

"I'm telling you John, it's
gonna be the Godfather II
of dance movies."
Before Ernie Els' British Open win last year, we had a run of nine straight majors won by first timers. Part of that can be attributed to Tiger pulling the greatest career prime meltdown since Bobby Fischer or John Travolta but it had more to do with the overall rising tide of talent on tour as those nine winners weren't schlubs. Every one of them was a Ryder Cup/President's Cup caliber player and they were all deserving winners. So are we ready for another one at Augusta? Seven years ago I would have said no because chalk used to rule at the Masters but the last six winners include four guys who've only won one major - Bubba Watson, Charl Schwartzel, Trevor Immelman and Zach Johnson (with the Immelman/Johnson wins coming in 2007-08 a/k/a golf's dark ages when Padraig Freakin' Harrington won three majors).

Half of my top ten for 2013 have never won a major and no one would be too surprised if any of these guys who already have a Masters top five to their credit walked with a green jacket this year: Adam Scott (2nd), Matt Kuchar (3rd), Justin Rose (5th), Lee Westwood (2nd) or Sergio Garcia (4th) .** Out of those five, I'd give Scott and Kuchar the best chance as no European player has won at Augusta since Jose Maria Olazabal in 1999. (That is a completely irrelevant fact but it's the kind of thing you always see in these golf preview pieces and I really had no other way to wrap-up this section so . . . um . . . suck it).

Whither the Bubba?

I have no idea if I used "whither" correctly there but you get the picture. Despite his defending champion status, Bubba Watson is a 35-1 shot to win this year which puts him 12th in the odds rankings. He seemed to have gotten over his Masters hangover last year by the Tour Championship where he finished 5th but his only top five in 2013 is a tie for 4th at the limited field Hyundai. Maybe a return to Augusta will fan the fire but there would appear to be a lot of guys who want it more right now. Not to mention, Bubba never met a microphone or TV camera he didn't like and there are always plenty of those distractions to go around for last year's winner. Look for Bubba to spend Saturday and Sunday cruising up and down Washington Road in the General Lee pretending like he's not trying to draw attention to himself.

 McIlroyally Unpredictable

With all of that being said, I still need
a little more distance from this image
before I can pick Rory at Augusta.
Remember last year when Rory missed the cut at the U.S. Open and then tied for 60th at the British Open and many were writing him off as a total head case? Then he tied for 5th at the Bridgestone and followed that by shooting 67-66 on the weekend at Kiawah to blow away the PGA Championship field by 8 strokes and everyone said "well he is indisputably the best player in the world." Then he solidified that status with two wins during the FedEx Cup. This was followed by winter when golf fans tend to go into a memory erasing hibernation.

So when Rory had the audacity to accept $200,000,000 from Nike to play their clubs and then took some time to adjust to them while Tiger was winning three tournaments, all of the sudden his two blowout majors and the two wins at the end of last season were long since forgotten. Well guess who just shot 66 in San Antonio on Sunday and would have won if Martin Laird hadn't pulled a 63 out of his ass? (No, not Sonja Henie). That's right, the man who is still the undisputed best player in the world per the FGR Rankings. Just don't pick him this week (see photo).
 
The Tiger in the Room

Some are calling this Masters the biggest tournament of Tiger's career and, despite the fact that I'm not sure I agree with them, I can certainly see what's motivating them to say it. There have been 18 majors won by 16 different players since Tiger won his last one at the 2008 U.S. Open and he hasn't won at Augusta since 2005, finishing 6th or better from 2006-2011 before falling to 40th last year. But now he appears to have his dominating game back along with its accompanying swagger. The problem with golf is that when you cross swagger with expectation, you usually end-up with a melange of frustration and disappointment. If you're someone who plays the game, you'll recognize this from those 9 out of 10 times where you think you're bringing your "A" game to a great course or to a competitive environment and your desire to succeed disables your ability to execute (please tell me this doesn't just happen to me).***

My point (to the extent I have one) is that those six wins over the past year plus have Tiger feeling great about his game as they should because they were all solid but he wasn't craving any of those titles. He would have been just as happy with a win at this year's Honda Classic as he would have with the win at the Farmers (maybe even more happy because he's never won the Honda Classic). To say that he is craving a win at the 2013 Masters is an understatement. Augusta is where it all really started for him with his record breaking win back in 1997 and every reasonable right minded golf fan acknowledges that it stands alone as golf's greatest title. Every year he doesn't win is another precious green jacket lost and that is absolutely on his mind. When you add what I believe is the toughest Masters field in history, it's just too much to ask. There's a 75% chance Tiger wins a major in 2013, it just won't be this one.

Not to mention, I think this whole
Lindsey Vonn thing may have
just re-energized Elin's curse.
The Masters Top 10

1. Phil Mickelson
2. Tiger Woods
3. Adam Scott
4. Rory McIlroy
5. Matt Kuchar
6. Justin Rose
7. Keegan Bradley
8. Charl Schwartzel
9. Lee Westwood
10. Sergio Garcia

Why Mickelson? Well in the words of John Blutarsky, "(belch) . . . Why not?" But for one really errant tee shot and a bad bounce, he probably would have won last year. Since 2004, he's won three green jackets and has three other top five finishes at Augusta. This season he had a dominating win in Phoenix where he lipped-out for a 59 and he tied for 3rd at the WGC Cadillac. His most recent two competitive rounds were 67-68 in Houston and since then he has been off the radar and I'm going to assume that he has been devoting all of this attention to winning this week. Oh yeah, no one would love to stick it to Tiger more than Phil and a fourth green jacket would put them in a three-way tie for second most all time with Arnold Palmer behind Jack Nicklaus' six which would irk Tiger to no end. That form of motivation speaks to me so I'm envisioning Mickelson in Butler Cabin.

Endnotes

* I do in fact have friends and, as the FGW's spouse, I get invited to a fair amount of parties. However, most of the personal invitations I receive are to smaller gatherings of thick-skinned guys where the definition of "socializing" is binge drinking for 5-6 hours while trading verbal barbs. It's kind of like a Rutgers basketball practice without all of the physical contact, homophobic references and impromptu dodgeball games.

** Well maybe Sergio would be a surprise. By the way, Sergio has apparently paid his dues because I was sitting around talking with a bunch of golf junkies a few weeks ago and we all agreed that he was no longer detestable and for Sergio, "no longer detestable" means he's come a long way.

*** The reverse of this explains why you often play your best rounds when you feel like you're gestating an alien or you're convinced that your game is in the crapper. Who knew a simple sport of whacking a ball into a hole would become such a colossal mind-fuck?