The 2014 Masters offered perhaps the most intriguing first 63 holes in recent memory, as Bubba Watson claimed his second Green Jacket after a solid back nine saw off challenges from the intriguingly talented twenty year old Jordan Spieth and unheralded Swede Jonas Blixt.
Augusta National Committee members clearly aimed their sights at the elite field with tricky pin positions and hard greens rendering a scoring average over 74 at Augusta, the highest since the opening round of the 2008 tournament.
Bill Haas, who had never broken 70 at Augusta before, took the clubhouse lead on day one with 68, whilst former champions Scott and Bubba Watson lurked at three under alongside former open champion Louis Oosthuizen as the only players to break 70 on a treacherous opening day. Both Scott and Oosthuizen were building impressive rounds before they located Rae’s Creek on the imperious twelfth hole.
Meanwhile previous champions struggled and were made to squirm by Amen Corner. Phil Mickelson triple bogeyed the benign seventh and despite rallying with a long looping birdie on the tenth (historically Augusta’s hardest hole) his opening 76 couldn’t be rectified.
The Augusta greens were still remiss of any substantial water on a glorious Friday where the stroke average continued at two over par. This year’s Masters Tournament may be regarded more for who missed the weekend than those who made the cut. With Woods absent due to back surgery it was the first time both he and his great adversary Mickelson were both missing from a weekend at a major since 2009.
No champions from 2004 to 2011 hung around for Saturday or Sunday. Dustin Johnson, Graeme McDowell both heavily tipped, failed to deliver. Sergio Garcia, Luke Donald, Ernie Els and Jason Dufner, amongst other illustrious names were forced to wait for the winners circle until next week. However, 2003 champion Mike Weir reminded the Augusta patrons of his talent, sticking close to the leaders with a battling 72.
Once again it was Freddie Couples, further implanting his name into Augusta folklore with another inspiring display for the over 50s. Couples retains a stroke average of 69.5 in the first two rounds here since 2011, not bad for a 54 year old Champions Tour player, adored by the patrons for his 1992 victory.
Yet the most ironic moment came on Friday at the twelfth. Couples’ tee was caught by the swirling winds, typical of Amen Corner and his ball hit the steep bank and begun rolling towards Rae’s Creek, But the luckiest man in golf was gifted a reprieve, just as in the final round of 1992, Couples’ ball hung onto the slope and his challenge evading a watery end, the ironic cheers of the gallery amassed behind the tee box.
At the top Watson stormed off with a 67 to claim a three shot lead from recent tour winner John Senden. McIlroy, who appeared to be pushing putts at will, required a skilful hack out of the Azaleas on thirteen and a seven foot putt on 18 to make the cut at four over par.
McIlroy teed off early on Saturday with a marker and suffered the indignation of scoring one shot more than Jeff Knox, a member of the club who will surely dine out on that round for years to come.
Saturday was everything the patrons wished to see on moving day. Watson, who had never held an overnight lead in a major fell back into the field, whilst others jostled for position. Bubba, who until this week had only converted one of eight 36 hole leads, was leaking oil and surrendered possession of the lead with a 75.
Miguel Angel Jiminez, never seen far from a glass of Rioja or his favourite Ferrari, shot the low round of the day with a 66. Gary Woodland’s charge out the blocks came unstuck (like so many others) at Amen Corner. But the star of the day was undoubtedly Jordan Spieth. Such has been his meteoric rise that last year Spieth didn’t possess a PGA Tour card, but a win at the John Deere Classic and a PGA Tour Rookie of the Year Award later, the 20 year old was tied for the lead at the National with Watson at five under par posting a mature 70.
The in-form Kuchar also sneaked to four under (alongside Jonas Blixt) with a 68, whilst young and flamboyant American Rickie Fowler shot a dominant 67 to join the mix. Experienced campaigners Jim Furyk, Lee Westwood and Thomas Bjorn were also hot on the heels of the top four, with 15 players within five of the lead heading into Masters Sunday.
Nineteen of the previous 23 Masters winners have come from the final pairing; advantage Watson and Spieth. Another peculiar omen for the young Texan was that the record for the youngest champion at The Masters appears to be broken at seventeen year intervals, (Nicklaus 1963, Ballesteros 1980, Woods, 1997), was this the opportunity for another changing of the guard?
Early indications indicated we could be in for a classic, Fowler drained a birdie at the first before a long par save whilst Freddie Couples fought to keep his scorecard together on the front nine (to the delight of the crowd) before finally fading after the turn. Watson looked rattled after bogeying the third and Spieth held the lead alone.
The tricky par three fourth and sixth saw matching birdies from the leading duo, Spieth’s two on the fourth resulted from a fabulous bunker shot. However, slowly the challengers began to fade away down Magnolia Lane.
Nicklaus confirmed the greens had been watered at 8am but none of the chasing pack could seriously challenge the final pairing. Westwood missed too many putts, Fowler and Kuchar wasted their chances with 74 and Jiminez’s 70 fell short. Sadly, this year’s Sunday was remiss of see-saw battles down the stretch, witnessed in the last three editions, two of which required playoffs to be settled.
Despite trading birdies on the front nine, Spieth found trouble through the turn and the wind caught his tee on the twelfth, and when he found Rae’s Creek and Bubba Watson compounded the error by hitting a mammoth 350 yard drive over the pines at the thirteenth (leaving just a wedge into a par five and a symptomatic birdie) Spieth was doomed, three behind and hindered by some errant driving.
Watson kept his composure down the stretch, parring out after the thirteenth as his playing partner and Jonas Blixt were forced to share second.
So Watson donned another of the famous blazers, appearing to have booked his ticket for the Ryder Cup this autumn. With the golf season now in full swing Augusta raised some fascinating questions. Just how far can Spieth go? Will Woods be fit for the US Open? Is Lefty on the wane? All questions shall be answered in the upcoming months as the majors hop from Augusta to Pinehurst, where another of golf most prestigious titles shall be contested.
Image courtesy of Golfweek