The Florida Swing points towards another epic Masters as the cast of contenders all start to find their form.
Heading into the Arnold Palmer Invitational there were certain question marks over the form of some of the biggest Major players in the game – Justin Rose, Henrik Stenson, Rickie Fowler and, to some extent, Rory McIlroy. Those questions were emphatically answered by McIlroy with his bulldozing victory which saw him close with five birdies in the last six holes. The four-time Major winner hadn’t won since September 2016 and was slow out of the blocks this year on US soil with two missed cuts and a tied T59 finish at the Honda Classic.
That is now ancient history and the victory at Bay Hill sees him joins the likes to Dustin Johnson, Jon Rahm, Justin Thomas, Sergio Garcia, Phil Mickleson, Bubba Watson, Tommy Fleetwood and Jason Day as winners so far
this year. Rose, Stenson and Fowler all got into contention and took something positive away from the week. Fowler finished disappointingly with a couple of late double bogeys to drop down the leaderboard, but he’ll be buoyed
by a decent performance after a relatively slow start to the season.
Accelerated to Victory
Rose had got into contention at the Valspar Championship but faded with a 72 and at Bay Hill he was paired with McIlroy in the final round. He played well, posting a final round 5-under-par, but had to watch as his Ryder Cup
colleague accelerated to victory. Rose isn’t a McIlroy type of swashbuckler. He’s methodical and mechanical, characteristics that almost served him well last year before he was denied by Garcia’s magic. Rose admitted that he hadn’t hit the ball as well all year as he did at Bay Hill and that bodes well for Augusta and puts him up there among the favourites (he has two runner-up finishes in the last three Masters and five top tens overall). Stenson, whose last victory came in August 2017 at the Wyndhan Championship, has had some solid displays this year – good final rounds in Abu Dhabi and Dubai pushed him into the top ten – and he finished fourth at Bay Hill after a disappointing final day on the greens saw him close with a 1-under-par 71.
“I haven’t felt comfortable with my swing and my long shots for some time, but it’s moving in the right direction,” he said. “I hit a lot of good shots, even though the confidence is not as high as some of the shots were. we’ll keep on working on that. It’s a good time of the year to start playing well.” With so many top stars finding their form, factor in Tiger Woods’ remarkable return to action, this could be one of the great Majors in recent memory.
Which big names arrive at Augusta National needing a quick fix?
The 2015 champion has one of the best records around Augusta and clearly loves the place. However, it’s not the kind of venue where you can show up and win without a red-hot short game, and so far this season Spieth’s game hasn’t been hitting the high notes. He was ranked 167th in Strokes Gained (Putting) on the PGA Tour after the Valspar Championship.
The smooth-swinging South African has the ability to turn it on, but it’s telling that the 35-year-old is yet to win
a title on American soil. He came close in 2012 (the first of four runner-up finishes in the Majors) but hasn’t contended at Augusta since. Missed the cut in the Dubai Desert Classic and is still to find his form Stateside.
The 2013 champion Adam has been in the doldrums out on the course for the last 12 months, recently dropping out of the top 50 in the world. An improved showing at the Valspar Championship helped, but he will need his notoriously balky putter to behave if he is to have any chance of a second Green Jacket.
A form horse at Augusta with three top-fives since 2012, the American has one top ten so far this year, at the Phoenix Open, and very little else to write home about. The former Players Champion and four-time Ryder Cup member is one of the most consistent players on Tour but needs to find his touch if he is to achieve his dream of becoming a Major winner.
All eyes on Rory
Rory McIlroy needs to win The Masters to secure the Grand Slam of all four Majors, and with each passing year it seems to get harder and harder as the scrutiny intensifies. His record at Augusta is good, with four top tens in his last four outings, but aside from his huge meltdown in 2011, when he was four shots ahead going into the final round but slumped to an 80, he hasn’t really got into the mix to win. On his day he’s a mercurial talent, capable of running away with tournaments – as shown at the Arnold Palmer Invitational last month. Before that stunning display he had been struggling on the greens, but some much-needed time with renowned putting guru Brad Faxon set him on the right path again. “He freed up my head more than my stroke,” said McIlroy, explaining that the session with Faxon was more about recapturing the art of putting rather than the technicalities. If he can show that level of touch at Augusta, he will be in with a chance of that last missing piece of the jigsaw.