Rory McIlroy could be embarking on the biggest week of his career because if he wins the US Masters he will complete the career Grand Slam. Only five players in the history of the sport have won all four majors at least once and McIlroy is playing some of his best golf. However, his quest to make golfing history could be thwarted by a Ryder Cup colleague because Justin Rose has all the tools to win the first major championship of the year at Augusta National in Georgia.
The Masters Tournament is the only major that is played on the same course each year. The other majors rotate around a number of courses which means any course will only stage a major every five years at least. St Andrews is the host course for the Open most often and there are eight other tracks on the rota. The US Open and USPGA Championship are taken to more courses which means the Masters is unique because it returns to Augusta every April.
The winner of the Masters receives a handsome trophy but more importantly the famous green jacket that is presented to him by the previous year’s winner. Patrick Reed will be handing over the garment on Sunday evening and there is a good chance the recipient will be from the UK and Ireland. The Masters is an invitational event with qualifying criteria for the highest players in the world rankings. There is a small field which includes former winners who are ceremonial players.
Augusta National has evolved over the years and there are regular tweaks to present a slightly different challenge each spring. Since Tiger Woods starting winning the Masters fairways have been narrowed, some rough introduced and tees moved back. The four par 5s still provide the best birdie opportunities so the 13th and 15th holes can be pivotal in the context of the final outcome. The other holes are tough which means picking up shots on the long holes is key.
The course’s great defence is its lightening-fast, undulating greens which provide a severe test of nerve and putting. With only slight rough the longer hitters have a definite advantage especially if they are high ball hitters who can achieve softer landings on the greens that the low ball strikers. The ultimate key to Augusta is to keep out of trouble. It is possible on this demanding course to run up big numbers. One false shot can be compounded by further mistakes leading to double bogey or worse. Experience is important but debutants can do well with a hot putter.
The average winning score over the last 10 years is 12 under and in that spell there have been four Playoffs. Only Zach Johnson has won with an over par score this century (1 over in 2007) and the biggest winning margin since 2009 was four strokes (Jordan Spieth in 2015). Since 2000 11 winners were US born so eight champions were from overseas. Rose and Spieth have both been runners up or tied second twice since 2014. Bubba Watson is the most recent multiple winner (2012 and 2014). Tiger Woods won the fourth and last green jacket in 2005 and Phil Mickelson has won three, between 2004 and 2010.
Rose won the US Open in 2013 which is his only major title to date. He is comfortable on and off the course and has a game suited to Augusta. Rose also has the temperament to handle the extreme pressure of contending in a major over the back nine in the final round. The Masters is now the title McIlroy craves above all others because completing the career Grand Slam is a huge achievement. However, he may have to wait at least one more year to join the elite group who have won all the majors because Rose is the selection to win the 2019 Masters Tournament.