Hideki Matsuyama can become the first player from Japan to win a major championship in the US Masters at Augusta this week. Jon Rahm can establish himself as the next golfing superstar from Spain by contending. Lee Westwood and Tommy Fleetwood are at different ends of the experience scale but both can make the payout places while Russell Henley can build on the momentum from winning the Houston Open on Sunday when he putt the lights out in the final round.
The Masters Tournament is the only one of the four major championships played on the same course every year. However, Augusta National has evolved to keep up with improvements in equipment and to make it Tiger proof. Woods in his heyday overpowered the course so modifications were made with that one player in mind. Woods is not ready to play this week so can’t win a fifth Green Jacket which would put him one behind the record set by Jack Nicklaus.
Despite having major championship status the Masters is actually an invitational event. The committee work to qualifying criteria but there is nothing to stop them excluding any player. There would be an uproar if any of the top 50 players in the world rankings did not get the invite but in theory anyone can be excluded. There is a limited field of 94 players scheduled to compete and the top 44 and ties make the cut.
Another rarity associated with the Masters is that any former champion can ask for a spot. There is an upper age limit for the British Open which makes sense. Some of the oldies on the start sheet are Sandy Lyle, Ian Woosnam and Bernhard Langer who still believes he can win. He was in the last but one group for the final round last year and still looks as fit as a whippet. Langer looks nailed on to the top senior.
An enduring tradition is the presentation of the Green Jacket by the previous year’s winner. When Jordan Spieth did the honours for Danny Willett in 2016 he almost tripped up which was quite appropriate when you consider how he wasted his chance to win a second Masters. The mental scars may prevent another challenge from Spieth while Willett is for now a shadow of the golfer who won the tournament last year. Dustin Johnson is almost the complete player but putting could be is weakness.
Augusta is all about keeping out of trouble as one poor shot can be compounded and can lead to a double bogey and worse. The fairways are wide open and the rough is not too penal so driving distance is more important than accuracy. The course’s main defence is the treacherous greens which are a test of putting ability and nerve. Accurate iron play has its place in the identikit of winners but the greens present the biggest challenge. They are fiendish and undulating and require commitment.
Rory McIlroy craves the Masters title more than any other as it is the only major he has not won. Only five players have completed the career Grand Slam and only Nicklaus and Woods have done it at an earlier age. The pressure down the stretch will be intense for McIlroy if he is in contention but that is the true test of the best players in the world. If McIlroy wins the Masters he deserves to be sitting at the very top table of the game. He will win the Masters one year but possibly not this time. His season has again been affected by injury and mentally he could just come up short.
Matsuyama is trying to produce his own piece of history by becoming the first Japanese born player to win one of the four most prestigious prizes in the sport. In 2011 he was the low amateur in the Masters and has made the top 10 in the last two years. Matsuyama has won four times around the world since October, including at world championship level. He has the right game for Augusta and won’t fail through lack of nerve on the greens. The player from Japan looks more suited to the course than other players prominent in the betting so can get the job done.
Rahm was the leading amateur last season and top amateur in the US Open. In his first full year as a pro he has already won the US PGA Tour. He chased Johnson all the way in the final of the world match play with some tremendous putting and bravery and those attributes are crucial for good scoring at Augusta. Rahm is ready to join the greats of Spanish golf and his day will soon come but winning the Masters this year could be a trip too far but he can get in the mix.
Westwood is the only player in the history of the game to finish in the top three in all four majors without winning one. He was right there last year but couldn’t quite take advantage of Spieth’s woes and Willett outstayed him. However, Westwood showed he could still compete at this level in terms of ability and temperament. He can contend again on a course that suits him and the payout places are the least that can be expected for Westwood.
Fleetwood is one of many English players moving up the rankings and England could put together a half decent Ryder Cup team. He won the Abu Dhabi Championship in January when Johnson was a shot off the pace in second place. That’s tremendous form and a massive confidence booster. Henley got one of those by winning the Houston Open and his brilliant putting can give him a chance this week.
Winning the Masters is the dream for most professionals and several will fancy their chances this week. However, the main selection is Matsuyama who has the course form, current form, skills’ profile and temperament to put Japan on the major championships map.