With the 2016 Masters at Augusta National on the horizon, it would be hard to suggest that golf has ever been more thrillingly competitive. Fittingly, the big three of new world number-one, Jason Day, Jordan Spieth and Rory McIlroy are in a dead heat at the top of the betting market. However, there is upwards of half a dozen more who will really fancy their chances in South Georgia next week.
McIlroy showed glimpses of a return to form over the weekend and given Spieth’s recent wayward struggles, it may be that his great rivals feel they have a slight edge over the Texan. Last year, Spieth hit incredible form approaching the season’s first major and by the time he came through in the bizarre, Terry Gilliam-like setting of Chambers’ Bay, it appeared that he could sweep the season’s majors.
However, a slow-burning, Jason Day hit his stride in July and by the year’s end, he appeared virtually unbeatable. McIlroy’s year was oddly disjointed by the unfortunate five-a-side injury suffered prior to the British Open but, the last couple of months suggest that he’s nearing his form of old.
McIlroy’s chances though, rest firmly on his ability to right his relative putting woes which have seen some wonderful iron play go unrewarded. Alas, this is not some something new for the Down man and it must have been a great source of frustration to out play Day down the fairways and then see the blade let him down. McIlroy is far from a poor putter but the rest of his skill set is undeniably superior and the reality is that the majority of Major winners rank in the top-five putters in that given week.
If Spieth has been wayward and McIlroy vulnerable around the greens, Jason Day has been simply imperious in his last two outings. It is worth mentioning that for all the praise of Day, he still only beat McIlroy by one hole in the WGC World Matchplay Championship, but one always felt that Day enjoyed the lion’s share of control of their contest.
Spieth obviously took the field apart last year at Augusta National but it is worth remembering that his form was red-hot in the weeks preceding the tournament. It would seem therefore that Day is ploughing this particular furrow and the Australian clearly has a fondness for the course, already with three top five finishes to his name.
We’ll be having a more in-depth look at the outsiders in the tournament next week -as there is some fantastic value to be had down the field – but the obvious challengers at this point outside of the ‘Big Three’ are former champions, Bubba Watson and Adam Scott, and the newly crowned ‘best player yet to win a major’, Rickie Fowler.
Of those three, we’d be inclined to favour Watson – seeking his third Masters title – whose form mirrors that of 2014 when he also won early in the season. The presumption at this point, of course, is that all these players are going to hit their straps at the same time, which by and large, rarely happens.
Day has unquestioned form, while Soctt and Watson have also entered the winners’ circle recently. McIlroy, meanwhile, has shown plenty of glimpses of the right stuff, while Fowler may have had this one in his sights for quite some time.
The irony, thus, is that defending champion Spieth – in the week that he has been dethroned from world number-one – is being viewed, insofar as the defending champion can be, as something of an unknown quantity.
It’s virtually impossible to fathom a back-nine on Sunday evening where Spieth is not relevant, but his form has been patchy at best. Meanwhile, McIlroy is not at this point in his career fully comfortable with Augusta National.
With that in mind, we’re inclined at this point in time to side with the red-hot form player in Jason Day, though our old favourite, Brooks Koepka, who lived with him for long periods at the weekend, amy be one to watch.
Full preview to follow next week.
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