There was a time when people found it hard to imagine anyone other than Brooks Koepka winning a major championship. Before that, Jordan Speith – remember him? – was the man who couldn’t lose.
Rory McIlroy knocked off four majors in the space of three years, a dazzling burst of genius from the young Irishman that was predicted to be the start of years of dominance. Six years later, the Mclroy “era” is a remembrance of a different age, before Donald Trump was gripped by the insane notion that he was destined to become the leader of the free world.
Meanwhile, Rory still has four major championships to his name. The pride of Holywood has come close on a couple of occasions but not close enough to sate golf’s ravenous appetite for awesome.
Fortunately, there’s a new epoch on the tee and it goes by the name of Bryson DeChambeau, winner of the 2020 US Open at Winged Foot by a country mile and the big-hitting behemoth who is destined to – well, you know the drill.
Big Bryson’s march on Mount Rushmore continues this week at Augusta National, where he will tee off as the favourite to win the second major championship of 2020. Not a ball has been struck in anger but he has already won the social media war, posting videos of the launch monitor numbers that testify to his mind-numbing power. A 365-yard carry with a driver? No problem. Two hundred miles per hour ball speed? There you go.
Beginning with the 2020 Masters Tournament, the low 50 players and ties will qualify for the final 36 holes. This is the first change to the cut since 2013.
— The Masters (@TheMasters) November 9, 2020
His pre-tournament practice rounds have become the stuff of legend – his tee shot on the first left him just 65 yards short of the green; he reduced the par-five second to a driver and eight-iron and hit a three-wood over the green on the par-four third. There was plenty more as Bryson laid waste to the ‘National’ with the hairy-arsed finesse of a lumberjack coming home to find his wife in bed with a poet.
The only thing missing from these practice round adventures has been a score. Ah, the meddlesome Green Jackets’ and their pesky insistence on keeping score. If it weren’t for golf’s singular tradition of counting up the strokes before naming a champion, DeChambeau would already be done and dusted.
But it does, and this is where we must pause to consider if this is the forgone conclusion that many would have us believe.
This is not to say the muscle-bound Yank is an undeserving favourite. He could scarcely be anything else after Winged Foot, where he reduced the opposition and the golf course’s fearsome reputation to a pile of sawdust. Little has changed since then – except the scale of the hype.
Yet Augusta National is different. Where Winged Foot invited a brutal approach – bomb and gouge, as it is colloquially known, Augusta National presents a more sophisticated challenge. The long hitters have always enjoyed an advantage at Masters but only when their brute force has been allied with a surgeon’s touch.
Screeds have been written about McIlroy’s alleged “mental block” at the Masters in the aftermath of his 2011 collapse when his real problem may well be a more prosaic one. While he’s a magnificent driver of the ball and strikes his irons better than anyone, he’s an middle-of-pack talent with a wedge in his hand. It’s a telling deficiency around a lay-out like Augusta National.
— The Masters (@TheMasters) November 1, 2020
DeChambeau will enjoy the advantages of power this week. But like McIlroy he has short-comings in areas of his game that Augusta National threatens to expose. Statistically, he has been a poor putter at Masters – the worst in this week’s field, for those keeping score. There’s no doubt part of this is because he relies heavily on the topographical crutch of the detailed greens-reading books that are used at every other PGA Tour event, but not at Augusta National, where the Green Jackets have banned them.
Dechambeau has always struggled, too, with the tight lies here. He’s an average chipper of the ball at the best of times. At Winged Foot, great chippers of the ball were forced to slash and hope out of the thick rough around the green. At the Masters, they have the opportunity to showcase their skill and separate themselves from the merely average. Disadvantage Bryson.
Not that this will fatally undermine DeChambeau’s charge, only that the challenge he faces is more complicated than he might have us believe. The man to beat, maybe. But unbeatable? Definitely not.
Four to Bring Down Bryson
My pick. The world No. 1 has been in great form these past few months, not missing a beat after his bout with COVID. He was contending until the end at Houston last weekend, a perfect rehearsal for this week’s main event. His record at Augusta National in recent years (four top-10s in the last four years) is reminiscent of the Mickelson’s before the left-hander finally won his first Green Jacket in 2004. Phil looked inevitable back then, just as DJ does now.
After five years of hope and hype in equal measure, McIlroy arrives in Augusta with about as much fanfare as a two-string fiddle. Bryson has grabbed all the attention, which means the Irishman will be left to do his own thing in peace. His recent form is decent without being great but it is far disqualifying. Parenthood brings perspective, the knowledge there is more to life than winning a career Grand Slam. Perhaps this thought will offer the freedom he needs to finally bring it home.
The weather forecast is set for rain and more rain, which means the course will be a slog. Length off the tee will be an advantage but so, too, will be mid-iron consistency. Schauffele isn’t super-long but he isn’t Luke Donald either. If he finds himself 20 yards behind Bryson off the tee he can always make up for it by hitting his six-iron closer than the big man can stuff his wedge. He finished second to Tiger last year on only his second appearance. He has the measure of both the place and the moment.
By far the most entertainingly, self-critical player in the modern game. But beyond the comedy routine, he has developed into a world-class player. Like Schauffele he is long enough, and blessed with a wonderful mid-to-long iron game that will serve him well in the forecasted conditions. He has made the switch from the European to the PGA Tour with an ease that is seldom seen. That speaks to his inner belief. He won’t be intimidated by Bryson or anyone else.
More on the US Masters 2020
- 5 factors that will decide the Masters winner this week
- Paddy’s complete guide to an unusual week at Augusta
- Four fab punts at Augusta