Another week on the 2016 PGA Tour, another win by a former Masters champion. On Sunday in Tampa it was the turn of 2011 Augusta National winner Charl Schwartzel, who beat Billy Haas in a play-off to win the Valspar Championship.
With that, the South African joined Bubba Watson and Adam Scott in the PGA Tour recent winner’s circle. He also added his name to the very short but high-class list of those who will be heavily fancied when the annual Georgia spring Classic rolls around in less than three week’s time.
All three are winners at Augusta National, a lay-out that places particular emphasis on experience and local knowledge. (Not for nothing is Fuzzy Zoeller the only “rookie” to win a Green Jacket in the modern era.)
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Yet if recent history provides a hint of what might lie ahead at the major championships, current form is an even more reliable guide. Jordan Spieth’s run-up to his victory last year was a pretty nifty first place, second, second. Likewise, the previous year Bubba Watson’s last five events before the his Masters victory included a win, two seconds and a top 10 finish.
It wouldn’t require much persuasion to accept a threeball of Bubba, Scotty and Charl against the field at Augusta. However, the more prudent amongst us might wait at least until the conclusion of this week’s Arnold Palmer Invitational before making our final US Masters selections.
Arnie has surpassed himself this week in assembling the field. It really is a thoroughbred collection, featuring Rory McIlroy and Jason Day , as well as the aforementioned Scott. Throw in Justin Rose and at least a dozen of intriguing up-and-comers and you have what promises to be an unmissable four days of PGA Tour golf.
Palmer’s beloved Bay Hill course isn’t exactly a subtle challenge, especially if the wind blows. It favours long-hitters, which makes it all the more strange that Matt Every will arrive this week seeking to win the event for the third successive year. The American was once a college stud and is now a decent PGA player but it requires a bold leap of imagination to think his kind of modest lightning will strike a third time.
Let’s assume instead that the Bay Hill leaderboard reverts to type come Sunday afternoon, in which case expect to find Watson and Scott lurking.
Jason Day , the world No 3, has had a curiously somnambulant start to the season but if he is in the mood to start rounding into form for Augusta, there is no better time than now. Long and straight and cussed always works at Bay Hill. And the Aussie is all three.
Balls of steel
Just as curious has been McIlroy’s run of near-misses during an extended run of early season appearances in the States. A familiar pattern has emerged, in which he looks like a world-beater for three days before fading on the fourth. First at Riviera, and then at Doral. And you thought only the postman didn’t deliver on Sunday.
Still, brilliance is brilliance, even if it sometimes takes a day off. When his ball-striking has been ‘on’ (nearly always) and his putting has been sound (not often enough) McIlroy has proved himself to be the best player in the world on any given day.
But 72 holes presents more than a physical challenge. There is a mental element to these tournaments, especially at a place like Bay Hill. Does the Irishman have that tournament-sharpened steely edge to his make-up right now? We will find out this week because as surely as Arnie is the King, Rory will find himself in contention come the weekend.
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So far, so obvious. There are no apologies required for sticking with the thoroughbred class, although there is also no harm in highlighting a few of the lesser-known names who might feature this week, the likes of Patrick Rodgers , Thomas Pieters . and the amateur Bryson DeChambeau .
Rodgers hasn’t had much of a start to his PGA Tour season – he’s missed his last three cuts – but he has long been seen as one of the most promising young Americans and rightly so.
He is tall and athletic, drives the ball a country mile, as Bay Hill demands, and need only tighten up his short game before he becomes a more familiar name to the more casual observer of professional golf.
Pieters is of similar stature and pedigree to Rodgers – an American college golf star (he won the NCAA championship a few years back) who hits the ball a mile and has made a fine transition into paid ranks.
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The Belgian Pieters has proved himself already by winning on the European Tour. This week marks his first PGA Tour appearance on American soil but having already spent four years in the States he will be well used to the circus that comes with golf over there.
DeChambeau, the last of the youthful threesome, is the reigning US amateur champion. Nominally he still an amateur (he will join the paid ranks after competing at the US Masters) but he’s been living the life of a pro for the last eight months.
He played three European Tour events in the Middle East this season and made the cut in all three, even leading after an opening day 64 in Abu Dhabi. Reality arrived after that and he ended the week in 54th place but he traveled back to America secure in the knowledge he can compete consistently at the highest level.
Narrow the Field
The gap between the pro and amateur ranks has never looked narrower after the rapid ascent through ranks by the just-out-college players like Jordan Spieth and Justin Thomas. Then we had Georgia student Lee McCoy’s fourth place finish at the Valspar on Sunday. But if you think McCoy looked good, wait until you see the quirky, confident genius that is DeChambeau.
The kid knows he is good and so does everyone else, which is why the sponsors are already backing the trucks up to his agent’s door. The only question facing them, and those of us looking a bit of fun and excitement (not to mention value) this week at Bay Hill, is this – how big will the truck need to be?
You can follow all-round good guy and former author, caddy and Guardian golf correspondent, Lawrence Donegan on Twitter here