Masters Preview Day — Pairings and Picks.

Soon to be Brimming With Some Hot Calligraphy.

Breaking news out of Augusta:  Dustin Johnson has withdrawn from the 2012 Masters, meaning we’ll have to wait at least one more year for Johnson to complete the “Buckle Slam” a feat previously accomplished by only Greg Norman.  Hopefully’s DJ’s back will recover in time for him to shoot 78 on a Sunday at a Major later in the year.

The biggest news on Tuesday at the Masters, barely edging the traditional Tiger/Fred practice round, is the announcement of the pairings.  Wednesday is Par-3 Day, but today is the best day to digest the field and begin speculating.  Here’s a complete list of the pairings.  I’m not going to share them all, because honestly, you should be spending a decent part of your afternoon at the Masters website all week.  The Green Jackets showed some restraint this year.  I don’t see one epic threesome in the whole lot.  If they put two big names together, they really showed threw in a random with the third.  For a brief moment Sunday evening, I had visions of Tiger/Phil/Rory, but I guess the committee is hoping some version of that plays out over the weekend.  Some groups…

8:45 AM: Adam Scott, Bo Van Pelt, Martin Kaymer.  The 1st group of legitimate contenders of the day.  A lot of people like Van Pelt as a sleeper, Scott had a chance to win last year, and Kaymer has never come close to figuring out Augusta National.

8:56 AM: Steve Stricker, Stewart Cink, Paddy Harrington.  The most boring pairing of all-time.

9:18 AM:  Jason Day, Bill Haas, Kyle Stanley.  A lot of people like Stanley to eventually win a Masters with his length and work ethic.  Jason Day nearly won last year, but hasn’t been on his best form since the Presidents Cup.

10:24 AM:  Charl Schwartzel, Keegan Bradley, Kelly Kraft (A).  The defending champion in the traditional pairing with the U.S. Amateur Champion and they’re joined by Keegan Bradley making his Augusta debut.  Experts love the potential of Bradley’s towering ball flight at Augusta.  Schwartzel still has the flawless swing, but not the results since last year’s Masters.

10:35 AM: Tiger Woods, Miguel Angel Jimenez and Sang Moon Bae.  There’s going to be way too much “Mechanic” on my TV on Friday afternoon.

10:46 AM: Luke Donald, F.  Molinari, Nick Watney.  The world number one needs a good result in a major.  Perhaps no one has ascended to #1 with a poorer record in the majors than Luke Donald.  Nick Watney has been a disappointment so far this year, but seems to have a good knack for Augusta.

12:58 PM:  Lee Westwood, Vijay Singh, Jim Furyk.  A feature pairing from 2001.  Lee Westwood running out of chances to avoid being Colin Montgomerie Part II.

1:42 PM:  Rory McIlroy, Bubba Watson, Angel Cabrera.  Perhaps the best group of the day.  Three distinct styles will be fun to watch.  Bubba’s GIR rate should serve him well at Augusta, but he’s yet to completely figure it out, Rory has to return to the site of last year’s implosion with the added pressure of being a co-favorite.

1:53 PM:  Phil Mickelson, Hunter Mahan, Peter Hanson.  Last group going.  Real nice pairing for Mickelson who likes to go late on day one.  He gets buddy and last week’s winner Mahan to tag along the first two days.  If those two can feed off each other, I wouldn’t be surprised to see them paired again late on Saturday.

***

Ok, that’s a quick look at the field.  Now some random stuff before getting to the big news, the definitive and jinx-laden Top-10.

1.  The course is being described as “lush.”  There’s some chance for rain Thursday/Friday and then the air is supposed to dry out.  I’d expect low scores to start and then a leveling off for the weekend.  Also, because of the warm spring, the azaleas have already bloomed.  Bummer.

2.  The Original Big-3 (Nicklaus/Palmer/Player) kick off the tournament with a ceremonial tee-ball.  The new Big-3 (Tiger/Phil/Rory) are runaway favorites to win this event.  Tiger is 5:1, Rory 6:1, and Phil 12:1.  Phil is clearly the best bet there.  Biggest long shot in the field?  Ben Crenshaw is 5,000:1.  The question about all this hype surrounding Tiger, Phil and Rory is, what if they all flame out?  Will this be the most disappointing Masters ever?  I think it has that potential.  Endings like the one last year can be great, but that’s not what the public wants this time around.

3.  Speaking of last year’s ending, it was another close call for the Australians.  The Aussies have a particularly tortured history at this event, thanks in large part to Greg Norman.  Last year a breakthrough looked inevitable until Schwartzel birdied the last four holes.  Could the streak end this year?  Adam Scott is probably the best bet, but he hardly has the reputation as a closer.  I think the drought lasts at least another year.

4.  I like Hideki Matsuyama to repeat as low amateur.  A lot of attention will be on Kraft and Patrick Cantlay, but Matsuyama finished 27th last year and is already a winner on the Japanese tour.  He won a 2nd consecutive Asian Amateur to make the field and could once again out-perform Ryo Ishikawa.  Ishikawa had the flair and hype, but Matsuyama looks like the better bet long-term.

Quick Hits:

  1. Low Lefty: Phil Mickelson
  2. Low American Under 30: Keegan Bradley
  3. High American Under 30: Rickie Fowler
  4. Low Euro: Lee Westwood
  5. High Euro Under 50: Darren Clarke
  6. Low Score For the Week: 65.
  7. High Score For the Week: 83.
  8. Will There Be A Hole-in-One on 16: YES!
  9. Will There Be a Playoff:  NO!
  10. Will Jim Nantz Make an Easter Pun:  YES!

***

Ok, enough of that.  Let’s get down to brass tacks.  Here’s a shot in the dark at the Top-10:

  1. Phil Mickelson (-11)
  2. Lee Westwood (-9)
  3. Justin Rose (-7)
  4. Tiger Woods (-7)
  5. Robert Karlsson  (-6)
  6. Keegan Bradley (-6)
  7. Rory McIlroy (-5)
  8. Robert Garrigus (-5)
  9. Sergio Garcia(-4)
  10. Bo Van Pelt (-4)

Masters Preview Day — Would I Have Been A Jack Fan?

The Local Caddie Celebration is Something the Masters Has Lost.

Since tomorrow is mail bag day, today is going to have to serve as the big Masters Preview Day.  The pairings come out this afternoon and later we’ll feature those, go through some odds & ends and make a selection.  The bottom line is, if you don’t like golf, or if in a more troubling turn of events you don’t like the Masters…See you Tomorrow!  To kick things off, a look at Jack Nicklaus and fandom. 

In the last two years, Jack Nicklaus has solidified his status as the greatest golfer of all-time.  Tiger’s pursuit of his record 18 Majors took a blow, but more than that with what happened to Tiger off the course a lot of people will now never let him surpass Jack in their minds.  I consider myself a late-arriving Nicklaus fan.  This is going to sound funny, but the first I ever heard of the ’86 Masters was when Mike Schmidt was talking about it in his 500th home run video.  That’s the truth.  I knew who Nicklaus was, but I didn’t know the significance of ’86.  My memories of Nicklaus actually playing golf are limited to his Senior Tour domination, his occasional runs at Augusta after ’86 (His t-8th at 58 in 1998 comes to mind), and his farewell tour.  Because golf is so aware of its history, I’ve been able to absorb the details of Jack’s prime after the fact.  I could now tell you how the ’86 Masters played out shot-by-shot.  

Watching Jack’s career in retrospect, it is simple to just appreciate the greatness.  The success, the poise, the fearlessness under pressure, the sportsmanship can all be viewed through an unadulterated lens.  It’s not shaped by the media coverage of the day, I don’t have strong allegiances to any of Jack’s rivals, so it’s simple to just take the greatness for what it was.  There’s no Jack fatigue, no Jack bitterness.  But, what if I had been a teenager during Jack’s prime?  Would I feel the same way about his career?  

I have an almost perfect track record of not rooting for the best in a certain sport.  Michael Jordan?  Eh.  Gretzky?  No Thanks.  Tiger Woods?  Negative.  Now, a lot of this can be attributed to team loyalty, but my distaste of athletes who win too much has spread into the individual sports.  The most dominant player I ever rooted for actively in their prime was probably Pete Sampras.  Would Jack have won me over like Sampras, or would I have been the often disappointed Tom Weiskopf fan?  The various factors…

The Palmer Issue:  Most people who don’t like Jack can trace it back to his supplanting of Arnold Palmer at the top of the game.  If you were a Palmer fan, there’s a chance you never really warmed up to Nicklaus.  I know people who still think Arnold Palmer is the working class hero and Jack Nicklaus is the spoiled country club kid.  Of course, Palmer’s been flying his own plane around for about 50 years, but it’s hard to change that first impression.  I’ve never quite gotten into Palmer so I going to trust that instinct and say I wouldn’t have been a Palmer guy.  

Jack’s Game:  I am very appreciative of certain styles of play and very dismissive of others.  If you take a look at the golfers I’ve liked through the years, they’ve all been superior ball-strikers.  Jack was without a doubt a great ball-striker, but two of his chief rivals (Trevino and Watson) were considered among of the best strikers of all-time.  I also like to see the occasional flaw (see Fred’s short-putting woes) and that’s harder to find in Jack’s game.  At the beginning of his career, Jack was considered a poor pitcher and chipper of the ball but this was a skill he only had to utilize about three times a round.  I’d say Jack’s game wouldn’t exclude me from rooting for him, but it doesn’t make it a lock either.  

The Other Options:  You’ve got to root for someone.  Well, that’s not entirely true.  I’ve spent many recent golf tournaments rooting against players or rooting for an implosion.  I’m old and hardened now, though.  For the sake of this exercise I am actively looking for a player to pull for.  So, if not Jack, then who?  The Candidates:

Billy Casper:  Casper won 3 Majors, 51 Tour Events and is probably the most underrated player of all-time.  I like underachieving more than underrated.  Pass on Casper.  

Gary Player:  Player was perhaps the games first truly great global player.  But, I can’t stand Gary Player.  I can’t imagine it would have been any different had I first encountered him in the 60s.  

Lee Trevino:  Trevino was colorful, entertaining and as I mentioned a great ball-striker.  But, there’s no way I could ever really root for a guy that hits a low cut.  Sorry, Lee.  

Johnny Miller:  Miller had one of the most concentrated runs of greatness in the history of the game.  In 1974 and 1975 Miller won 12 tournaments.  His two majors came on the opposite ends of this great run.  Miller was one of the best iron players ever and reminds me a bit of David Duval, who I am a fan of.  A possibility.  

Tom Watson:  Watson in nine years Nicklaus’ junior and by the time he picked up his first win in 1974, Jack already had 12 Majors.  For the next decade+, they’d have a great rivalry, Watson secured 8 majors to Jack’s 6 over that span and often won at Jack’s expense.  Watson’s pristine ball-striking made him a British Open legend, and his first prime was cut short by a horrible case of the yips.  Endearing.  

The Final Verdict:  

I think this might have come down to a matter of timing.  If I had gotten in early enough on Nicklaus that I wouldn’t feel like a front-runner I think I would have been on board.  If I was born in 1957, I think Jack’s my man.  If it had been ’67, I think Watson might have lured me away.