FIVE months on from the last Masters tournament and we’re back at Augusta National, but don’t expect more of the same. Last November Dustin Johnson claimed victory with a record-breaking score, runner-up Cameron Smith became the first man to card four rounds in the 60s, and Bryson DeChambeau spent the early part of the week boasting that his par on the course was 67.
The big-hitting American ended up looking like a bit of a fool when he failed to live up to his bold words, but the die was cast. The committee does not like the course being ripped to pieces or players suggesting they can tame the challenge. As a consequence, this week it will play firm and fast so, weather-permitting, it will be a brutal test that will provide plenty of drama and volatility. Here are three golfers who can thrive in those conditions.
Each Way – Xander Schauffele 25/1
I quite like the fact that the 27-year-old Californian arrives at Augusta flying under the radar a little. In truth, he’s never been a player who garners the attention of others, but a couple of tame performances in late March have permitted his price to ease a little and make him well-worthy of a closer look if for no other reason that in a mere 14 major championship starts he has landed six finishes that would have earned a place pay out with seven places.
Dig a little deeper and his Augusta record looks ready to ripen. Two years ago he finished tied second and last year he was T17th, both times he ranked in the top 11 for hitting Greens in Regulation and in 2019 he lead the Putting Averages. Moreover, I’ve had him in the notebook ever since he left the course in his second start and immediately said: “I’m not one bit sad. I told my caddie on the last hole that we just proved to ourselves that we can win on this property.” He’s a two-time runner-up this year and finished top 20 in all three majors last year. He’s got a great chance this week.
— The Masters (@TheMasters) April 5, 2021
Each Way – Patrick Cantlay 20/1
In his last two visits to Augusta Cantlay has really begun to get to grips with the challenge. In 2019 he closed with rounds of 64-68 that had him briefly in the lead on the back nine Sunday before he finished tied ninth. A year later a second round 66 had him just one back of the halfway lead before the logged T17th. In the first of those performances, and also on his course debut back in 2012, he ranked fifth for Putting Average, proving that the lightning quick greens hold no fear for him – and his victory in the 2019 Memorial Tournament on Muirfield Village’s speedy putting surfaces also backs this up.
This year he’s logged second at The American Express (when putting superbly), third at the AT&T Pebble Beach Pro-Am and T15th in the Genesis Invitational. He was also brilliant in his first two matches at the WGC Dell Match Play before losing the third and the play-off that followed. That won’t have broken his heart, but it might have jammed the bit between his teeth because he didn’t really get what he deserved for the quality of his golf. He’s got the tools for the Augusta test and is bubbling towards a first major win.
Each Way – Patrick Reed 33/1
The first two picks are seeking a breakthrough at major championship level, but the team is completed with a man who is instead in search of a second Green Jacket. Patrick Reed is also a man who spent last year going really close to landing victory in all three majors, landing T13th at both the PGA Championship and US Open (he also led at halfway in the latter), then adding T10th at the Masters. He also has a win this year and it was dominant too – a five stroke dismissal of the field in the Farmers Insurance Open at Torrey Pines. A few weeks later he added a solid tied ninth in the WGC Workday Championship at The Concession.
What all three selections share is a knowledge of playing the course in April. A couple of weeks ago Justin Thomas noted that an unusual number of rookies made the top 30 last November, aided by the slower conditions. A related factor was that many veterans of Augusta found themselves playing to spots which would ordinarily have release, but failed to on softer turf. That aspect will now be flipped. I’m happy to be wary of those who debuted in November and content to side with those who can call on memories of Augusta in April.