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The Time for Talk and Speculation is over...

April 7, 2016 by Stuart Barber

Now let the action commence. After calm, sunny and perfect conditions for some days, today dawns windy with rain threatened. The action began at 08.20 local time with Jim Herman of the USA and Steven Bowditch of Australia leading the way. The final trio of the 89 players competing, Germany's Martin Kaymer, Bill Haas from USA and Northern Ireland's Rory McIlroy will tee off at 2.01 precisely. At least McIlroy will set off with a pretty good idea of what he has to beat.

Augusta is the Masters and the Masters is Augusta and don't ever think different. The BBC was once threatened with the withdrawal of its credentials when one of their commentators was seen to be using a mobile phone outside the Media Centre!

That Augusta National has banned drones this year, having won an unprecedented exemption from Georgia state law, should come as little surprise. The club once bulldozed an entire street of houses just so that it could extend its car park.

Despite being by some distance the youngest of the world's golfing majors Augusta has created a mystique peculiar and particular to The Masters . It does not arise from history, given that the Masters, founded as recently as 1934, is the youngest of the four major championships. It does not even stem from the name ‘Masters', which Bobby Jones, the tournament's founding father, allegedly found too hoity-toity. It is owed instead to Augusta's powerful and remarkably effective protection of its own myths and traditions.

The Par Three competition is a good example. As Wednesday's competition reported in today's Telegraph “ There is a syrupy misapprehension that this annual ritual is some cherished part of Augusta folklore, a delightful excuse for players to truss up their young children in white boiler suits and jaunty green caps. In reality, it is nothing of the kind .” For nigh on 20 years Tiger Woods didn't play in it until last year decided to rebrand himself as a family man. Rory McIlroy, mobbed at every turn 12 months ago after he decided to put Niall Horan of One Direction on the bag, even dared this week to describe it as a “distraction”.

Host broadcasters ESPN, afraid of causing any offence to the powers that be, did not dream of questioning it. It was, in the treacly words of one pundit, “what golf and family should be all about”.

Gary Player tweeted “ What a thrill @TheMasters to become the oldest at 80 years young to ace in Par 3 contest.”

That about sums up the self created aura of Augusta as reinforced at the press conference given by the current Augusta National Golf Club and Masters Tournament Chairman Billy Payne. Towards the end of his pretty long address to the assembled journalists he said

“On possibly inviting more players and having a larger field: “I think unlike certainly any other major but most other golf tournaments, what limits the number of participants here is the number of daylight hours. This early in the spring, we just simply don't have the capability, even if we wanted to, to go far beyond where we are now.

“I think we do a good job of attracting international players to the Masters. We are very proud of that. But an overall change that would guarantee a larger field every year, I don't think is something that we could possibly pursue.”

But Augusta and the Master has always been “smoke and mirrors”, and where anything untoward is touched up to suit a narrative of preconceived perfection. A favourite story, which I believe to be true, concerns and I quote “ Sam Snead, who used to join Jack Nicklaus and Arnold Palmer on the first tee for the ceremonial opening drives on a Thursday morning. Snead, then in his late Eighties, shanked his shot so badly that it flew into the gallery, braining a member of the crowd. “Yeah, Slammin' Sam!” went the cry, as if it had sailed straight down the middle. The poor patron, blood pouring from his temple, was spirited away, never to be heard from again.”

That's Augusta in April for you, perhaps all just too perfect just too tinselly and perfect, as Ben Bloom's blog in the Telegraph writes “ I'm torn. Yeah, it's nice to give a nod back to some genuine legends of the sport but it's just so... American. Why does all sport have to be so genuine and wholesome? Get a bit of British cynicism involved and cart the old duffers off to watch it on the telly. I fear that may have upset a few people. Ah well, our golf correspondent James Corrigan is with me: as he tweets Not sure which is more vomit worthy. The Par Three competition... or the ceremonial drive “

I doubt any of that will win much approval from the powers that be – but never mind – “That's life”

Enough of all that what about the players who, after all, are the principal reason that “The Masters”, the first of the season's majors attracts such attention.

Rory McIlroy is looking to join the exclusive band of players who have won all four major titles by winning the Masters at Augusta National this week. But the Northern Irishman summed it up perfectly when he said he felt less "exposed" at this year's Masters than he did in 2015, when his quest for the career grand slam and the return of Tiger Woods dominated the build-up.

Twelve months on, McIlroy is making his second attempt to join Gene Sarazen, Ben Hogan, Gary Player, Jack Nicklaus and Woods in winning all four major titles, while Woods remains sidelined following three back operations in the space of 19 months.

Jack Nicklaus is convinced Rory will win the Masters but added “He needs to do it soon or the expectation of victory will create real pressure for him”

Defending champion Jordan Spieth is looking to become only the fourth player after Nicklaus, Nick Faldo and Woods to successfully defend the green jacket following his record-breaking performance last year.

And new world number one Jason Day can make it three tournament wins - and two majors - in succession after his triumph in the US PGA Championship last season and victories in the Arnold Palmer Invitational and WGC-Dell Match Play last month.

Former Masters champions Adam Scott, Bubba Watson and Charl Schwartzel have all won on the PGA Tour in 2016, while Rickie Fowler's victory in Abu Dhabi in January means McIlroy is the only member of the world's top five without a win this year.

"My game feels good," insisted McIlroy, who took three days off last week following his semi-final defeat in defence of his Match Play title before getting down to work with coach Michael Bannon at home in Florida.

"It's all about going out there over the next four days and executing the shots the way I need to and being mentally strong. But I feel good. I probably feel a little bit more subdued going in this time because I haven't had the win this year, but I feel like my game is right there."

McIlroy may be the last man out in the opening round on Thursday, but has stressed the need to make a fast start, with opening rounds of 71 last year leaving him an incredible 12 shots behind Spieth.

Don't forget Rickie Fowler who has now proved how much of a world class player he is. In fact the top players in the World are now so technically proficient that anyone of them, given the will and determination, can be the winner come Sunday night.

McIlroy believes he will "definitely" win the Masters at one stage in his career, but concedes there is no time like the present given the increasing competition and has adopted a new approach which includes laying up on the par-five second.

"It's not as if we haven't had our share of world-class golfers," Ryder Cup captain Clarke said. "Why they haven't succeeded here, I have no idea”.

"Rory should feature every year. His game is made for this course. And look at Justin Rose. His Masters record is sensational. But, on the other hand, this is the place where Sergio [Garcia] thinks he can never win."

Former champion Tom Watson, who is making his final Masters appearance this week, believes McIlroy certainly can win, especially if confronted by a sterner test than 12 months ago.

"He's my pick this week," Watson said. "Rory can emasculate a golf course. He hits the ball high and so far. And I can tell you the golf course is different this year than it was last year. The greens are faster... on Tuesday they had a real sheen to them."

As Billy Payne said in his Presidential address “This may be Tom's last year but he plays his golf so well that just maybe he'll surprise us all on Sunday night”.

Now wouldn't that just be something!

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