I FELL in love with the Masters at the age of eight, when I first set eyes on that magnificent Augusta course on the television, and it’s every bit as good as it looks on TV.
It’s also full of vivid memories. My favourite is probably eagling the second hole twice in my first Masters. I made a six in the first round and a seven in the second and then eagled it the last two days.
But I’ll also always remember going there for the first time, driving up Magnolia Lane, being in the clubhouse surrounded by pictures, then walking out on the first tee and looking up the fairway that I’d seen on TV a thousand times. To actually be there was surreal.
All eyes turn towards Augusta again this week, where the world’s best will do battle, and there are several men in with a strong shout.
Starting with the best, you’d have to pick Phil Mickelson as favourite after last week’s incredible performance to win the Houston Open.
Probably 60 or 70 per cent of players would hate to win the week before a Major, but he did the same in 2006, by 13 shots, and then won the Masters the following week. He’ll be revelling in the situation at the moment.
Mickelson knows his way around Augusta, has only once been out of the top 10 in his last 12 starts there, and has won it three times. I wasn’t sure about him a week ago but great players a have a knack of gearing themselves up for the Majors, and this is one course that suits him more than any other does.
It also suits Tiger Woods. His form has been a little better in the last month, although he is now hitting the odd good shot rather than the odd bad one. Yet at the odds on offer he is huge value – he didn’t play great last year but finished fourth.
Lee Westwood’s score of 275 last year would have been good enough to win 17 of the last 20 Masters, but Mickelson went mad, going eagle, eagle, birdie in the third round when Westwood was five clear, and finished with 67 and then another 67. You could almost say the course owes Lee one. He knows his way around the place, the only danger is he is not as masterful with the sand wedge around the green as Mickelson. Tee to green he’s as good as anyone and he’s a very solid putter, he just needs to hole a couple of chips and it’ll be great.
Luke Donald is in the form of his life. Generally it’s a long hitter’s course but short hitters like Mark O’Meara and Zach Johnson have won, and he’s certainly longer than those two.
Justin Rose’s form is fantastic, he played great last week and has been in contention at the Masters before. He’s played a few times now and you need that experience before you can win it.
Paul Casey’s form hasn’t been fantastic but he’s got a huge game, is an excellent chipper and putter, and I’d put him in the reckoning. Rory McIlroy too, just because of his game, and Ian Poulter, who led after 36 holes last year and whose supreme confidence and putting puts him in with a shout. And of course Graeme McDowell, the US Open champion.
Of the other Americans, I like Nick Watney and Dustin Johnson. Bubba Watson has the length, but a lot of holes at Augusta are tree-lined, so he won’t be able to hit his big hooks or slices, and that could be a drawback. As an outsider I quite like Gary Woodland, a rookie from the Nationwide Tour who won two weeks ago and has as good a swing as I’ve seen in a long, long time.