It’s hard to believe the Green Jackets of Augusta National are going ahead with their annual invitational given the apparent inevitability of what lies ahead. It has already been written in the stars – and on social media, in the papers, and anywhere else that allows anyone with an interest in golf to publicity air an opinion. Jordan Spieth will win the 2021 Masters. Don’t just take it to the bookies, take it to the bank.
The American’s victory at the Valero Texas Open on Sunday was one of the most popular PGA Tour wins in years. Understandably so, Spieth is a hugely likeable figure. He is also a savant in the brutal art of self-examination, of which he has famously done plenty in the years and months since he last won a golf tournament, the 2017 Open Championship at Royal Birkdale.
His journey since then has been compelling, albeit at times harder to watch than the Keeping Up With the Kardashians boxed set. Oh, how we have loved him, even though he left us all dizzy and perplexed.
How could someone so good at golf – Spieth had won three legs of the Grand Slam within five years of turning pro, remember – suddenly be so utterly crap?
The answer is both complicated and simple. The genetic imprint of his golf swing is far from classical, requiring a series perfectly-timed “match-ups” on his downswing to counteract the ideocracies of his backswing. Perfect timing isn’t easy in the most relaxed of settings. Try it in the fulcrum of a major championship and, well, even the sturdiest mentality will crumble.
Spieth’s three dark years of the soul has taught us this – golf is designed to torture and humiliate. Even the best are destined to suffer to a great or lesser degree. Tiger did. Hogan did. Even Bobby Jones did.
It was the American’s destiny to suffer and in a very public way. Yet, through it all, he didn’t whine or complain. He didn’t fire his coach or his caddy, the way that others in his position have done in the past.
He didn’t dodge a question or suggest the responsibility for three years of rotten golf belonged to anyone but himself. He dug in, and now he has dug himself out. No wonder Sunday’s outcome unleashed a torrent of good wishes. No wonder the world is lining up around the block to declare him the presumptive winner at Augusta and he is now the betting favourite.
And don’t expect the odds to lengthen before Thursday’s opening round because why would they? The American is the man in form. Sunday’s win was preceded by four top 10 finishes in six tournaments. He also has a brilliant record at the Masters – recording a couple of runner-up finishes and a third place to go with his win in 2015. He clearly loves the place and knows how to handle its subtleties.
No wonder its standing room only on the Spieth bandwagon. Jump on board if you like, but be warned there is seldom safety in numbers – or current form – at Augusta National.
Look back at the recent editions and it’s clear the Masters has never been overly kind to favourites, at least not since the Tiger was in its prime and regularly delivered what was expected. But, when the great man prevailed in 2019 he wasn’t strongly fancied in the pre-tournament betting.
Sergio was barely mentioned in 2017. Reed, Watson, Mickelson, Spieth have all won well at Augusta in recent times but none of them were considered stick-ons. Only Dustin Johnson at last November’s Masters delivered an expected victory.
Still, Augusta favourites almost always contend. On that basis, Spieth should be lurking somewhere on the leaderboard on Sunday afternoon. But, when he gets there, he should expect to find himself facing some serious competition.
If it wasn’t already true before Tiger’s terrible road accident earlier in the year, it is now. Golf has entered a new era of competitive uncertainty. The sport is no longer dominated by an alpha dog. There are eight, or nine, or even 10 big beasts now vying for dominance.
It wasn’t so long ago that Brooks Koepka looked like he would never lose another major. DJ put a stop to that, then along came Bryson. Justin Thomas has at times looked like he had the ability to win majors whenever the mood took him.
JT won the Players a couple of weeks ago and found himself the man to beat at the Masters. He still is. But so, too, are Bryson and DJ, Brooks and Jordan, Xander and Collin, Jon Rahm and Tony Finau, and, of course, Rory McIlroy.
Ironically, there is little support for the notion that this might be the Irishman’s moment. He is out of form and winless for more than a year. He has confessed to being lost in the technical maze of his god-given gift to swing a club, so much so that he has employed the talented Pete Cowen as his new swing ‘guru’.
It is hardly a promising backdrop to his latest tilt at the career Grand Slam and a McIlory win would be a Masters surprise to rank alongside Tiger in 2019 and Sergio two years before that. In other words, he is my pick to win the 2021 Masters.
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