One of the oldest and most oft-repeated phrases in the world of golf is the maxim that “The Masters does not begin until the second nine on Sunday.” For golf fans who follow the event closely, this doesn’t really hold true, but in the whole world of golf, there is still nothing quite like the second nine on Masters Sunday.
Of course, there are obvious reasons for this. Yes, there has been the drama of people like Sandy Lyle holing out from the bunker at 18 in 1988, Tiger Woods’ sheer dominance in 1997, and of course, Jack Nicklaus turning back time in 1986, but there’s also the television coverage aspect of it. For thousands of golf fans, the only golf they were able to watch from Augusta National was the back nine on Saturday and Sunday.
The holes became almost second nature to those fans who would watch the event. The tee shot over Rae’s Creek at number 12. The pond in front of the green on number 15. The twin-bunkers in the fairway at number 18. All of these shots were ingrained into our brains forever, and the knowledge that at the end of this familiar walk that a green jacket will be bestowed to the winner is a comforting thought in a world constantly in flux.
With all of those warm and fuzzy memories floating around in our minds, there is still the knowledge that real men are going to be battling it out for that coveted major championship. Whether it’s a battle-tested veteran like Phil Mickelson or a relative newcomer to the scene like Peter Hanson, there are a lot of different narratives that are going to play out on Masters Sunday. Which one of them will have a happy ending and a green jacket as its prize?
Here is a handicapping of the contenders for the jacket, going down the list in order of their appearance on the leaderboard:
Peter Hanson (-9)
The leader going into Sunday at Augusta always has a huge target on their back, and for someone with little experience at the course, that bullseye becomes even bigger. For Mr. Hanson, that burden is going to be huge, and it will be fascinating to see whether or not he can overcome the pressure of being the leader after 54 holes.
Hanson doesn’t seem to mind the big spotlight, and that could be an asset for him. He talked after Saturday’s round about how he would pretend that the roars for other players were for him, and that confidence seemed to add fuel to his game. He birdied the 15th, 17th, and 18th holes coming down the stretch, so that is a good omen for Sunday, but the pressure of a major championship’s final day is just that bit more intense.
Phil Mickelson (-8)
Mickelson seems to have a thing for playing well in Masters tournaments in even numbered years. He ended up winning his first green jacket in 2004, won again in 2006, finished in a tie for 5th place in 2008, and won again in 2010. This year, he started out poorly, ending up at +4 after only 10 holes of his opening round, but since then, he has not looked back.
He scorched the course on Saturday for a 66, and while that number alone may show that he’s a legit contender, there is an underlying reason for optimism. On the front nine, he shot away from pins and settled for two-putt pars more often than not. On the back nine, he attacked flags like crazy, including with an eagle putt bomb on the 13th.
Mickelson knows this course better than just about anyone in the field, and this course is one that rewards experience. That can explain why five golfers (Jack Nicklaus, Arnold Palmer, Woods, Mickelson, and Gary Player) have combined to win 20 of the 75 Masters contested before this year.
Louis Oosthuizen (-7)
Oosthuizen is already a major winner, but that success in the 2010 Open Championship hasn’t really translated to Augusta. He missed his last three cuts at the tournament, but this year has been different. He shot a 68 on Thursday, and while he only managed an even-par 72 on Friday, he looked poised and focused on Saturday. He fired a 69, and it could have even been a stroke better if he had holed his birdie putt on 18.
As it stands, Oosthuizen is someone to keep an eye on, not just because of the game he possesses, but because of his demeanor. He knows that the pressure is going to fall squarely on Hanson and Mickelson, so he could be in a prime position to lurk like Charl Schwartzel did last year and finish with a flourish to win.
Bubba Watson (-6)
Watson is an interesting case, because it would seem like a place like Augusta would fit his game perfectly. He is perhaps the best shaper of the golf ball on the entire Tour, so having to deal with Augusta’s propensity of encouraging draws (or fades for lefties) shouldn’t be a problem. Neither should the length of the course, as Bubba is capable of hitting the ball well over 300 yards on command.
Where Bubba is going to have to prove himself is around the greens. He has been hot and cold all week with his putter, especially from short distances. If he can tame the short stick tomorrow, he has the length and precision to go low, but that is a big IF in the putting department.
Matt Kuchar (-5)
Kuchar has been a big fan of Augusta ever since the first time he competed in The Masters in 1998. Then a student at Georgia Tech and the reigning US Amateur champion, Kuchar not only made the cut but also finished in the top-16 of the tournament, ensuring a spot the following year. He has been in the tourney off and on since then, but he always seems to step it up here.
What Kuchar has going for him is not only his calm demeanor on the course, but also the consistent way in which he plays the game. He doesn’t seem to ever try to push the envelope too much, and while Augusta is very much a “high risk, high reward” course, Kuchar still would rather card a par and try to take advantage of chances on par-5’s in order to win. It’s a recipe that a lot of winners have used, and Kuchar will try to add to that roster of success on Sunday.
Hunter Mahan (-4)
Mahan has never won a major, but that doesn’t change the fact that he has to be viewed with wary suspicion going into this final round. Mahan has already won twice this year, and he has a penchant from coming from behind in his victories. It would surprise no one if he pulled the same trick at Augusta and managed to slip on the green jacket tomorrow.
He has already made progress on that front, starting at even par Saturday and ending up shooting a 68. He made one bogey all day on Saturday, and that consistency is key to anyone looking to get back in the hunt.
Lee Westwood (-4)
Westwood hasn’t exactly had the most stellar of weeks, but there is still an outside chance that he could cause a ruckus on Sunday. Westwood is the number three ranked player in the world for a reason, and with his ability to hit the ball a long way and yet still maintain a soft touch around the greens, he seems built for success at Augusta.
Westwood’s problem is going to be to overcome the pressure surrounding him as an elite player without a major on his resume. That knowledge limited Mickelson to a great degree before he won (and at least he admits that it did), so it wouldn’t be surprising if it limits Westwood as well.
And Your Winner Will Be:
Pretty much everyone is going to pick Mickelson or Hanson to take this tournament down, but a more logical prediction would be to take someone that people aren’t really betting on. That’s who seems to be winning in the majors lately, so if we were going to go with that mentality, then your winner is going to be Mr. Oosthuzen. With so little pressure on him, and with such a seriously good golf game to his credit, Louis is probably going to win this tournament.
Regardless of who does win, it out to be a thrilling finish to the year’s first major.