David Howell – Major season is finally here

Augusta National, The Masters, means spring is in full swing putting has improved in the last six months, so everything is going and the Major golfing season is upon us once more. Our TV screens will be filled with colour and most of us will be watching avidly, with a little jealousy coursing through our veins. Who doesn’t wish to be at Augusta if you’re a golf fan?

I have been lucky enough to play in three Masters Tournaments. Each was a total thrill but my abiding memory was watching the fans on the Monday seeing Augusta for the frst time. My coach put it succinctly: “It was like watching people entering St Paul’s Cathedral, who look totally in awe. They can’t quite believe they are actually there.”

Augusta is the same for the players to some degree. Even the stars of the game are delighted to be there. They act slightly differently; they’re more humble than most weeks, feeling a little more like a guest than a star, which is nice, quite frankly. Augusta National has done an amazing job over the years in building up this aura of wonderment and it all goes into the mix of making it a very special week indeed.

So what of this year’s contenders? Who could spring a surprise? Traditional theory says a rookie won’t win, Fuzzy Zoeller being the last to don the Green Jacket back in 1979. But I don’t buy into this any more. Jordan Speith almost broke this spell, showing that whilst experience is a good thing, it doesn’t outstrip good golf. But having the mental capacity to really challenge at the death is a trait that few players possess. Speith has it in bucketloads and this year we might just find out if any of the new crop of guys have the star mentality to match him.

Augusta Specialist

Speith is my favourite for Masters glory for various reasons – he’s played well this year, won at Pebble Beach in a canter and is an Augusta specialist. His meltdown last year was incomprehensible to some, but I saw it slightly differently. He wasn’t hitting the ball all that well and when the pressure really grew, it showed. But I reckon he is now more in control of his game and he’s the man to beat.

Rory McIlroy is an interesting contender. Fresh after coming back from injury he had a slim chance to win at Bay Hill, where he fell just short, but momentum is shifting in his favour. Augusta looked made for him when he built that huge lead back in 2011 and lost it. Ever since, I have felt that his ability to judge a situation of whether to attack or defend has held him back but that is changing. His putting has improved in the last six months, so everything is going nicely for him. As World No.2 he is slightly under the radar due to the brilliance of Dustin Johnson, but if Rory plays like we know he can, it could well be his year.

Wonderful ball striker

Speaking of Dustin – I never get the feeling that Augusta really suits either him or World No.5 Henrik Stenson. Henrik is a wonderful ball striker and I predict a strong showing but not enough to go all the way.

As for Dustin, I’d say he’ll go close. He’s World No.1 and that brings the ultimate confidence that goes with it. He won in Mexico on a course that didn’t play to his strengths, and consolidated his place at the top, so all in all you would be a brave man to suggest he won’t be in the hunt.

Three others to mention: Justin Rose, Tyrrell Hatton and Jon Rahm. Rose is probably the best player from tee to green and has been working on his putting with Phil Kenyon. He’s come close a few times at Augusta and I get the impression he feels he will win it one day. I rate his chances as very good.

After the heroics from Danny Willett last year another European who is on good form, Tyrrell Hatton, is now in the top 15 in the world but with only one win. He’s been incredibly consistent in the last two years. He is flying up the rankings, and enjoying the ride, fully focused with great belief in himself. At Bay Hill, he just about led the putting stats, so everything is going for him. As a rookie, Augusta is not that tricky to learn, although he is prone to losing his head, which can be fatal at Augusta.

Finally, Jon Rahm looks like he’s set for the big time. For years we felt that Sergio Garcia would become the next Spanish winner of The Masters and although I wouldn’t write that off, Rahm, much like Hatton, is flying at the moment. He has no experience but also no scars from Augusta, which might give him the edge.

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