As any student of Masters mythology will tell you, there is only one guaranteed way to incur the wrath of the ghostly Augusta National Golf Club committee which meets in Heaven every year before the tournament starts.
They’ll decide what the winning score should be and who should be allowed to shoot it and beware all ye’ golfers who are foolish enough to enter the annual Par Three contest with competitive intent because, in case you don’t know, the winner of this Wednesday afternoon hit-and-giggle has never gone on to win the tournament that starts the following day. The Masters’ Curse, the believers call it.
But wait, what’s this? A new “curse”, born in an era in which the status of world’s No 1 ranked player has become an ever more coveted title. Jason Day is rightly proud to be the world’s best player (statistically speaking) but perhaps this might wipe at least a little of the shine from his smile: not since 2002 has the world No 1 at the start of the Masters gone on to win the tournament.
Tiger Woods (absent this year) was at the top of the rankings then and finished top of the Augusta National leaderboard, too. Since then, only Tiger has come close to burying this new curse on the block. He was world No 2 (to Vijay Singh) when he beat Chris DiMarco in a play-off to win in 2005.
The pro-Jason Day camp will no doubt point out that superstition is no match for a player who hits the ball far and high (as Augusta National demands) and who hasn’t seen a downhill, 20-foot breaker in the last month he didn’t like. Day has form here too – a second and a third-place finish. He has also won on his last two appearances, at Bay Hill and the World Matchplay, both of which boasted top-flight fields.
It’s hard to deny such a strong case but before we throw in our lot with the in-form player it might well be worth pondering that only two players have ever won at Augusta National having won their previous two tournaments: Tiger Woods and Jack Nicklaus. The Australian is a great player but is that exalted club-of-two ready to welcome another member who has yet to fully play his way on to the pantheon reserved for generational talents?
None of this is to say Jason Day won’t contend this week. He will. But the Masters does not give itself over too easily to the bold demands of current form and perceived wisdom. To his credit, the Aussie knows this, as does reigning champion Jordan Spieth who said in Houston a few days ago.
I think this year’s Masters might be the hardest one to win in quite a while.
Hard to win. Harder to predict, with so many players in the running. Shall we just pencil in Bubba Watson for a top five right now and be done with it? Probably. The same might be said for Spieth, although a wager on the reigning champion will require bravery from backers and better putting from the man himself. Phil Mickelson is another Masters’ specialist and with a new swing coach in tow he has been playing some of his best golf in awhile.
We could make a case at least another half dozen, former winner Adam Scott and Rickie Fowler prime amongst them, but the most unpredictable Masters in recent memory provokes both excitement and boldness, which leads us two names, one of them obvious, the other strangely undervalued in all this pre-tournament chatter.
Rory McIlroy . You may have heard of him, a 26-year-old kid from Ireland with a game that might have been designed with the Augusta National in mind; a pre-natural talent who doesn’t so much hit golf shots as paint pictures in the sky.
The world No 3 is beyond question the most talented player in the world and if he is affronted to find himself ranked beneath Day he can at least take comfort in knowing that the No 1 spot stands as a burden in recent Masters history.
He has also taken the precaution of not entering the Par Three Contest. And if that isn’t enough, there is also his recent form – short of breathtaking but with enough promise to suggest that he will peak at the right time.
As ever with the Irishman and the Masters, it is all about his mistakes. Can be somehow limit himself to a very few, none of them significant? If so, then look no further. We have a winner.
If not, there might also be a few others ready and willing to end a European losing streak stretching back to 1999.
Lee Westwood and Ian Poulter have faded into the ranks of major championship long-shots but not so Justin Rose and new dad Danny Willett . But does the former putt well enough? Has the latter accumulated enough local knowledge?
Doubtful, although piecing their games together, the two Englishman would be the archetype of a potential Masters winner – solid hitting, brilliant putter, been round the Augusta National block enough times to know what it takes.
Which brings us to Brandt Snedeker , the world’s No 17. A fair price for a player who has won on the PGA Tour this year, who has tightened up his swing under coach Butch Harmon (a man who only attaches his name to thoroughbreds) and who has a couple of top-10s at Augusta on his record?
On second thoughts, replace that question mark with an exclamation mark! Let us not ask why Snedeker is so under-appreciated, let us instead say thank you very much for the generosity and fill our boots while we can.
Lawrence Donegan is a former caddy, golf correspondent of the Guardian & author of Four Iron In the Soul. You can follow Lawrence on Twitter here