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Arizona Golf Courses – Bill Huffman’s Huff’s Stuff Blog – The Masters

One of These 5 Guys Will Win Masters – Unlike other professional sports that take an entire season to build to a crescendo, golf’s big moment always comes prematurely with the annual showcase called the Masters.

Alternate Text BoxOn the game’s biggest stage, Augusta National, contested between the best players in the world — most notably Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson in the modern era — golf’s magical moment occurs in early April rather than in the fall at the FedEx Cup, as the PGA Tour would have us believe.

Proof of this comes in many forms, like recently when Golf Digest asked readers in an on-line survey this question: “You have a choice of watching only one of the following sporting events. Which one do you choose?’’

The choices were Masters Sunday, the Super Bowl, U.S. Open Sunday, British Open Sunday, Game 7 of the Stanley Cup, Game 7 of the World Series, Game 7 of the NBA Finals, the Kentucky Derby, the Summer Olympics, Daytona 500 and Indianapolis 500, which is the exact order that all of the above finished. Not surprisingly, Masters Sunday was the runaway leader with 66.4 percent of the vote while the Super Bowl came in a distant second at 11.1 percent. The U.S. Open, generally regarded as the Masters only competition, got a 7.1 percent. (Yeah, it was that lop-sided!)

On the other side of that “biggest moment’’ equation, Golf World asked 81 PGA Tour pros to fill out their ratings on the 52 courses they play annually over the past three years using a sliding scale of 1 (worst) to 10 (best). Not surprisingly, Augusta National was a runaway No. 1, meaning the guys who play for pay look forward to the Masters in the same way that the fans do.

Why is this so besides obvious things like the Augusta National is the only golf course that hosts the same major championship every year, and traditions like its one-and-only green jacket?

Actually, I think I can boil it down to one word — drama. That’s right, nobody gives us the never-ending theater quite like the annual chase through the dogwoods and azaleas.

That is especially true in the modern era of the Masters, or ever since Jack Nicklaus captured his record sixth green jacket in 1986 with a charge over the back nine of that fabled golf course that even the Golden Bear labeled “my greatest victory ever.’’ And that’s saying something when you have 18 majors, or four more than the next-best guy on that list, Woods.

But that’s the Masters, as those golden moments seem to just keep coming even without the Bear’s presence these days. Like last year, when Northern Ireland’s Rory McIlroy choked away a four-shot lead on the final day with a fat 80, while little known South African Charl Schwartzel became the first champion in 78 years to birdie the final four holes for the green jacket.

Chances are McIlroy will bounce back this year, but who knows? As the old saying around Augusta National goes: “You don’t win the Masters; the Masters wins you.’’ Just ask Greg Norman, the poster boy for past Masters disasters, or as he came to be known, golf’s “Hamlet.’’ Nobody was more talented than Norman in the Australian’s younger years. Yet when it came to this major it was “not to be.’’

Like in 1987, when the Shark tried to come back from his runner-up finish to the Bear the year prior only to be hypnotized by local hero Larry Mize, who chipped in for birdie on the second hole of sudden death to make him a bridesmaid for a second time. Oh, if only that was the end of Norman’s misery, but no. Ten years later, the Great White One took a six-shot lead into the final round of the 1996 Masters only to be beached by Nick Faldo, who picked up his third green jacket in the process.

But that’s the thing about the Masters, nothing is ever a certainty no matter how certain it appears to be. Ask Ahwatukee’s Mark Calcavecchia, who in 1988 already was finished and tied with Sandy Lyle when the Scotsman hit his drive into the fairway bunker on the 18th hole. Now as everyone knows, it’s very difficult to save par from that ominous hazard that dots the last big challenge at Augusta National. But Lyle ended up making birdie when his 7-iron hit the green and spun 30 feet back down the hill to within eight feet of the cup.

“I was in the (Butler) cabin getting ready for a playoff, but they had brought me in there with intentions of fitting me for a (green) jacket,’’ Calc recalled of his sudden change of Masters fate. “I remember there was a TV in there, and I happened to catch his shot out of the fairway bunker on 18.

“Immediately, his eyeballs got three times their normal size, and I knew he had hit a career shot. . . . I had a feeling for some reason he was going to make it.’’

Tom Lehman felt the pain on five occasions, when he finished as the runner-up twice to go with three thirds, a couple of those third-place finishes being even greater chances than the seconds. The Scottsdale pro’s view, in retrospect, was that he “should have putted better,’’ but it was as if that old adage about the Masters not winning him seemed to kick in every time.

Unbelievably, Tom Weiskopf, another guy who lives in Scottsdale, holds the dubious distinction of being the runner-up for the green jacket a record-tying four times, or as Weiskopf spun it: “That put me in some pretty good company.’’ Yes, Weiskopf is correct, as he shares that record for “near misses’’ with Ben Hogan and Nicklaus.

Certainly more drama is in store for this week with the plots and subplots seemingly everywhere. However, it says here that the correct answer to one of these five questions will most likely resolve this year’s Masters riddle.

*Is Tiger really back on track?

He certainly looked like it at the Arnold Palmer Invitational two weeks ago, where he won by five shots, the “W’’ being the first in two and a half years — or ever since he hit the fire hydrant. But remember, Tiger has two runners-up and four other top-six finishes in the past six years since he last won in 2005. So he is definitely a horse for a course.

*Will McIlroy be able to bounce back for last year’s debacle?

After watching his impressive win in last year’s U.S. Open parlayed with the fact he recently was No. 1 in the world, most observers say “yes.’’ He looked good at the WGC Match Play, where he finished second, and then won the following week at the Honda. But he hasn’t played in a month, so it’s not like he’s coming to town on a hot streak.

*Can Phil equal Tiger with a fourth green jacket? Considering many of Augusta National’s fairways are the size of a football field (with no rough), and the greens are so gigantic you can hardly miss (even if you can hardly make), you can never write off the free-swinging Lefty. Hey, the Mickster didn’t roll up 11 top-10 finishes, including those three wins and three thirds, without bombing away. He is the “other” horse for this course.

*If Luke Donald really is the No. 1 player on the planet, why can’t he win a major?

It says here that Donald never will win a Masters, chiefly because Augusta National is just too long for the Englishman at 7,435 yards. But he’s way too accurate (and too good a putter) not to win a major. Then again, maybe the Masters will smile upon him like it did on Zach Johnson in 2007?

*Or how about Lee Westwood, the No. 3 player in the world who has been the “best player not to win a major’’ for seemingly forever? In the past three years he’s finished T3, runner-up and T11 at Augusta National, so he’s either coming or going depending on the tournament’s fickle finger.

*And, finally, can we finally believe in Hunter Mahan, the season’s only double winner, despite the fact that he’s never had a top-five finish in a major?

If you’re looking for a “dark horse,’’ this could be the guy, although birdies are Mahan’s calling card and Augusta National hasn’t given them out in bunches since Tiger went on his red-numbered roll in 1997, somehow getting to 18-under par. Besides, Mahan won last week, which is a bad omen (along with being the winner of the Par 3 Contest) although Mickelson managed to pull off the back-to-back double in 2006, when he won his second green jacket.

So stick around, as the golf season officially gets under way and then climaxes all in the same week. Chances are we’ll answer at least some of those aforementioned questions in dramatic fashion because no major mesmerizes us quite like the Masters.

Click Huff’s Stuff Arizona Golf Blog for Bill Huffman’s complete Arizona Golf Authority archive; it’s “All Things Arizona Golf.”

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