As the 2017 Masters Tournament looms, it is only natural to look at which PGA Tour players are performing well and extrapolate their chances of winning at Augusta. In recent weeks, no one is playing better than world-number-one Dustin Johnson, who dominated a stacked field at the WGC Dell Technologies Match Play for his third win in as many tries.
Of course, as big as the Match Play is, the Masters it is not. The grandeur of the Masters, and the gravity of each individual shot, can wreak havoc on the steeliest of players. Johnson, though, is not just any player. His cool demeanor is precisely what it takes to win at Augusta. Never too high or too low, DJ takes each shot in languid stride. Three-straight PGA Tour victories is no fluke.
To even be in the WGC Match Play Championship, a player must be golfing at peak form, but Johnson never trailed in a single match. He showed no sign of nerves until midway through the championship match against young Spanish bomber Jon Rahm. Johnson played so well for eight holes, going 5-up at that point, it seemed they would be sizing the green jacket to fit his 6-foot-4-inch frame so it would look sharp when Danny Willett put it on him. When Johnson finally cracked, spraying drives and allowing the Spaniard to claw back to just 1-down on the 18th tee, the other 93 players in the current Masters field surely took notice, and heart. Johnson overcame his wayward drives because the match-play format is forgiving – Augusta is not.
Augusta National may yield to power, but it does not willingly suffer a bully. Tiger Woods may have dominated the course when the power game was an anomaly, but some crafty lengthening blunted the bomb-and-gouge approach. At the time, a vocal contingent of players and analysts voiced fears that the short-and-straight player would be eliminated from contention. Zach Johnson quelled those fears with his surgical, workman-like victory at Augusta in 2007.
2017 marks the 10th anniversary of Zach Johnson’s 2-stroke win at the 2007 Masters, which was a victory for all the three-quarter swingers of the world. He failed to reach a single par-5 in two that week, yet played them at 11-under to lead the field in par-5 scoring. Blustery conditions no doubt contributed to his victory, as high winds negated the advantage of the long ball and rewarded a lower, more controlled flight. One can only imagine how Bobby Jones would have smiled.
The 2007 Masters was also the last to be graced by the magical play of the late Seve Ballesteros. The swashbuckling Spaniard knew how to finesse Augusta, and he had two green jackets to prove it. Like in courtship, Ballesteros seemed to instinctively understand that the course must be wooed, not manhandled. A great course demands a golfer use every available tool, and not all of those are in the bag. One need not be an artist like Ballesteros to win at Augusta, but it doesn’t hurt.
Ballesteros’ wizardry has inspired generations of Spanish players, from Miguel “The Mechanic” Jimenez and Jose Maria Olazabel, to Sergio Garcia and, now, Jon Rahm. Rahm’s near comeback at the Match Play and Garcia’s recent good form are proof positive that the Spanish contingent will be in full force at the Masters this year.
Will this be the year Sergio wipes the slate clean? Or, will Dustin Johnson’s lethal combination of length, artistry and swagger be the winning combination like it was in 1980 and 1983 when Seve picked the lock? Perhaps an unheralded player is easing into peak form at precisely the right time like Zach Johnson in 2007, or maybe the key this year will be something no one saw coming. That’s the beauty of the Masters: She has a way of keeping us guessing, until she chooses her suitor.