THIS week has been a reminder that, as the TV commentator Roger Maltbie put it: “Tiger Woods doesn’t just move the needle, he is the needle.” From the early whispers he might play, through the practice day excitement, and then into the tournament itself, the buzz has been electric. I’ve been asked about him by folk in coffee shops, wine bars and even at the counter in Marks & Spencers. Admittedly these people know what I do for a living, but normally they couldn’t care less.
My mother, on the other hand, remains more or less blissfully ignorant of the fuss. “Is this the green jacket thing?” she asked on Thursday when I popped round to see her and my dad. “He’s very popular, isn’t he?” she added, of Woods, and then fretted about Tommy Fleetwood making enough money to cover his expenses, a common concern of hers. I prefer not to allay her fears with a breakdown of the prize fund and Fleetwood’s career earnings – she’d be scandalised and lose all motherly concern for Tommy.
Back in the real world, Scottie Scheffler was sensational in the second round in totalling 8-under 136 for two rounds. The front nine was difficult in blustery conditions, but he closed with six birdies in his final 10 holes to open up a five-shot lead over 2011 winner Charl Schwarztel, first round leader Sungjae Im, 2019 Open champion Shane Lowry and Hideki Matsuyama, who is defending the green jacket this week.
Woods, meanwhile, responded brilliantly to a poor start in his second round and sits T19th on 1-over 145. He’s nine back of the lead, but just four shots back of that quartet in second and he’s hungry. “I’ve got a chance going into the weekend,” he insisted. “Tomorrow will be the golf course that Augusta National wants. It’s going to be quicker, dryer, faster, and it will be a great test. Hopefully I’ll have one of those light bulb moments, turn it on and get it done. If you are within five or six going into the back nine, anything can happen. I need to get myself there. That’s the key. I need to get myself there.”
Here’s the bad news for Woods (not that he’s likely to care). What makes the victory of Charl Schwartzel in 2011 so unusual? Well, he’s the only winner in the last 30 editions of the Masters who was not inside the top 10 with two rounds to play – and even then he was only T12th. In fact, 26 of the last 30 winners were tied sixth or better at this stage and all 30 were within six shots of the lead. Put together, that’s a pretty decent method to whittle down the field to create a halfway shortlist: it means everyone currently tied sixth or better (again).
On another level 😳
— PGA TOUR (@PGATOUR) April 8, 2022
“I find myself most liking the chances of two players in red-hot form and hunting a major championship breakthrough,” I wrote in the preview, adding: “And Cameron Smith narrowly gets the nod over Scottie Scheffler.” Smith recovered from a shoddy start to his second round and is tied sixth, but obviously having Scheffler on-side would be a much happier state of affairs.
Smith is far from our only hope going into the final 36 holes, however. Corey Conners is tied ninth and Shane Lowry was superb on Friday, carding a 69 to move into that share of second. He’s also leading the field for Strokes Gained Tee to Green, narrowly ahead of Scheffler. All in all, it could be really good but it’s still a very decent position to be in.
Schwartzel was very chipper about his form yesterday, but 13 of his 20 pre-Augusta scores were 74 or worse. Matsuyama is attempting to become just the fourth man to successfully defend his green jacket. Harold Varner III seems a lovely fellow, but can he really become just the third Masters debutant to win? Kevin Na is easily the biggest price of those on the shortlist. He does have four Masters top 15s but not one top 10, and he lacks even one major championship top five finish in 41 attempts.
That leaves two. Sungjae Im has maintained his Augusta trend of boom or bust this week. In just eight laps of the course he’s five times gone low (66-70-68-69 in 2020 and 67 in round one) and three times gone high (77-80 in 2021 and 74 in round two). His A game is very good, his B game a worry. Dustin Johnson missed the cut on defence of his title last year and is now seeking to become the tenth golfer to win twice in three years with a gap in the middle. Ahead of that lost weekend last year he finished top 10 five years in a row.
Ultimately, I’m happy with Smith and Lowry on-side to chase Scheffler, with Conners well able to land place spoils too.
Take on Thomas
Rather than add to the outright position I’m going to take on Justin Thomas in his two-ball with Christiaan Bezuidenhout. There’s absolutely no doubt that the American was superb in thrashing a weekend-saving 67 after a poor 72 on Thursday. But he did something similar last year, going 73-67 on that occasion and following it with a 75. Thomas is a wonderfully streaky player and well capable of backing up yesterday’s golf, but there’s a chance he won’t and the phlegmatic South African can trundle along to pinch the low score. Thomas is the rightful favourite, but 2/1 for Bezuidenhout is the call.