Here on Planet Earth, defending a Masters title is a difficult task. How do I know this? Because it’s happened exactly three times in history, by men named Jack Nicklaus, Nick Faldo, and Tiger Woods two of the greatest golfers in world history, and…Nick Faldo. Who is also pretty damn good, and who needed come-from-behind play-off wins in his back-to-back years of 1989 and ’90.
Arnold Palmer never did it. Sam Snead and Ben Hogan never did it, and they basically won every Green Jacket at Augusta in the early ’50s. Gene Sarazen never did it. Phil Mickelson never did it.
I could keep going, but you get the point — nobody else, good or bad, has ever accomplished what I consider one of the most difficult feats in professional sports — winning consecutive US Masters’ titles.
This is the challenge facing Jordan Spieth , last year’s winner, who posted a record-tying -18 for his first Major victory. So, can he do it? If you had asked me after his ridiculous win in January at the Tournament of Champions (he shot -30 over four days, which isn’t even a real golf score), I would have said:
Yes, he can win the Masters again. In fact, I guarantee he’s going to win the Masters again, and he’s going to do it by 14 strokes.
But then, as it does, reality intruded. It turns out that Spieth is not quite Superman—a sad fact we began to realise after he ran himself ragged collecting pay-checks in Abu Dhabi and Singapore, only to come home exhausted as he faced into one of the most stressful years of his young life.
Since that January sojourn, he’s been terrible. And by terrible, I mean that he’s been an above-average professional golfer who has made lots of money and is clearly one of the best in the world.
But he hasn’t been Spieth. A 26th-place finish at Pebble preceded a rare missed cut at Riviera preceded four straight top-20 finishes, including odd moments where he threw his caddie under the bus at the Valspar and was actually slicing balls at the range at the WGC—Match Play. By his extremely high standards, it’s been kind of ugly.
And look, this is why it’s tough to sustain momentum in a very competitive, very loaded sport. It seems like ancient history now, but in 2014 we were all talking about whether Rory McIlroy could eventually overtake Tiger Woods, or maybe even Jack Nicklaus, for career Major titles.
His Open Championship/PGA Championship run made him look invincible, but we know now that these bursts of excellence are exactly that – bursts. Sustaining that level of play is something close to impossible.
The question we have to ask ourselves is, who is in the midst of that burst right now? And our answer, at Augusta, is Jason Day. Or Adam Scott. or Bubba Watson . It is not, unfortunately, Jordan Spieth. His day came, and went, and is coming again. But we’re not quite there yet.
So who will win the Masters?
It is my firm belief that all three of Jason Day , Adam Scott & Bubba Watson will win the 2016 Masters.
Now, I know what you’re going to say:
Shane, that’s impossible, only one player wins each tournament.
Sure, I hear you, and you’re technically right. But consider the evidence – Jason Day is winning everything in sight, including Bay Hill and the Match Play in the last two weeks. He’s on a Tiger-esque run, he proved to himself that he can win a major at least year’s PGA, and he’s out to avenge all those close calls at Augusta. There’s no way he’s losing.
Bubba Watson thrives on courses where he’s had prior success, and if Augusta National hadn’t been built long before Bubba was born, I would have assumed they constructed the course with his game in mind. Also, he’s in great form, having won at Riviera and finished second at Doral against the best players in the world. He won in 2012, he won in 2014, and the pattern will continue as he dons the Green Jacket in 2016.
Adam Scott is rejuvenated. He doesn’t need the long putter, it turns out, and his tee-to-green game is astounding. In his last 25 rounds, he’s shot higher than 70 exactly twice, which would make him the hottest player in the world, if that world didn’t include Jason Day. When we talk about courses-for-horses.
Augusta suits him almost as well as it suited Bubba. Plus, he’s hungry—he knows one major isn’t good enough for a player with his resume. Scott is absolutely going to win.
I can’t split them, but if I had to nail one to avoid getting into a lift with Donald Trump, I’d go for Jason Day.
Best of the rest
It feels like Oosthuizen has finished second at 19 straight Major championships. While I know that’s not technically true, you can’t argue that the man has come agonizingly close in many. And the strange thing is, he’s not choking it away. He’s playing brilliant golf on Sundays, only to come up just short. He’s due. He’s the definition of due, and his long game fits Augusta nicely. I think he may have even sacrificed a big show at Houston last weekend just to get to Georgia early and get his practice rounds in.
Here’s your dark horse. In the made-up category of “this guy is so hot that I can’t fathom how he hasn’t won a tournament this year,” Bello is the top dog. He’s put up terrific results in the WGCs (11th at the Cadillac, 3rd at the Match Play), he comes here fresh off a fourth-placed finish in Houston. And he went 2-2 at Qatar and Dubai this year. It’s his maiden voyage at Augusta, but if he can get past the jitters, he’s capable of crashing the party.
The paperback version of Shane Ryan’s book, Slaying the Tiger, about life inside the ropes on the PGA Tour,comes out Tuesday. You can find it here.