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Opinion & Analysis

Breaking down the top 10 contenders for the Masters (No. 10-6)

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With just a week now to go until the first major of the year kicks off, it’s time to take a closer look at some of the leading contenders for the Masters. Taking course history, current form and the necessary skill sets into account, here are my top-10 power rankings.

10. Bubba Watson ( current odds 33/1)

It has been a bit of a mixed bag for Bubba Watson so far in 2019, with two top-five finishes, a missed cut and a very early exit last week at the WGC-Match Play. But Watson remains a threat at Augusta, as he showed last year on his way to a T5 finish. He was arguably in better form heading down Magnolia Lane 12 months ago, but a T4 finish at the Valspar a couple of weeks ago should hold the left-hander in good stead.

Watson’s work off the tee in 2019 has been excellent, and it’s an area which will no doubt give him a launching pad to get himself into contention next week. The two-time Masters champion sits seconds in next week’s field for strokes gained: off the tee over his last 24 rounds, an area which only Rory McIlroy can boast better numbers. A cause for concern, however, is his iron play. Watson has lost strokes to the field in four of his last five starts for his approach play and stands 91st this season for strokes gained: approaching the green. Considering just how much the course fits Watson’s eye though, don’t be too surprised if he turns those numbers on their head next week.

9. Hideki Matsuyama (33/1)

With five top-20 finishes in his last six starts, and with three of them being top-10 finishes, Hideki Matsuyama heads to Augusta National in confident mood. The Japanese star is still in search of his first major championship, and history suggests that the Masters is as likely a place as any for the world number 26 to make the breakthrough. With four successive top-20 finishes at the Masters, three of which were top-11 finishes, Matsuyama has the game to conquer Augusta.

Over his previous 24 rounds, Matsuyama ranks second in next week’s field for both strokes gained: tee to green and ball striking, and first in strokes gained: approaching the green. His elite long game should ensure that he stays in touch, but a balky putter could prevent Matsuyama from claiming his first major next week. Matsuyama ranks 183rd this season in strokes gained: putting, and finished dead last in this department at the Arnold Palmer Invitational. The 27-year-old did, however, gain strokes on the greens at TPC Sawgrass which is cause for optimism.

8. Phil Mickelson (50/1)

Another man with excellent course history that you can’t ignore is Phil Mickelson. Lefty has stumbled as of late, missing back-to-back cuts before suffering an early exit at the WGC-Match Play, which isn’t exactly ideal preparation for the colossal test that is Augusta National. However, Mickelson has a win to his name already this year, and when he achieved that victory at the AT&T Pebble Beach Pro-Am, it was off a missed cut at the Phoenix Open, which suggests that there is no real need to panic.

In typical Mickelson fashion, the 48-year-old took the positives out of his early exit last week, telling Golf Channel

“I think that’s why I’ve enjoyed this Match Play. If things don’t go well … I get an extra day or two there (Augusta).”

Just like Watson, Mickelson has a love affair with Augusta, winning there three times previously, and though he would need to make history to triumph there again and become the oldest champion in the tournament’s history, Mickelson has shown already this year that he has the game to do it. Despite the hype and hope surrounding his career grand slam chances in June at the US Open, Mickelson’s best chances of major glory remain at Augusta National.

7. Adam Scott (40/1)

In case you missed it on Wednesday, I’m high on Adam Scott at this year’s Masters. The Australian is flying well under the radar, and all areas of his game are in sync as he prepares for his major assault at Augusta. The 38-year-old ranks top-25 in every significant stroke gained category over his previous 12 rounds and looks confident once again with the putter in hand. Scott ranks 17th so far this season for strokes gained: putting, and if he can showcase that form on the greens for four days next week then he will have every chance.

6. Justin Thomas (18/1)

It wasn’t very long ago that people were calling Justin Thomas the best player in the world. Five top-10 finishes from his opening six starts of 2019 did much to back up those claims, but Thomas has begun to cool off over the last few weeks, which is a little worrying. A T30 at the Honda Classic was followed by a T35 finish at the Players, and last week he crashed out of the WGC-Match Play in the group stages. Despite this recent form, I believe that the 25-year-old is poised for his best Masters performance yet.

Thomas has been trending very nicely at Augusta National, with finishes of 39-22-17 in his last three appearances there. There is a steep learning curve at Augusta, and Thomas has now served his apprenticeship. Over his previous 24 rounds, Thomas sits third in strokes gained: total, fifth in ball striking, and crucially at a track which demands exceptional touch, the American ranks second in strokes gained: around the green over the same period. Possessing the ability to get hot and stay hot as well as anyone in the game,  Thomas has the ability to win on any course. More so than the other betting favorites, a hot start could be crucial for the 2017 PGA Champion’s confidence levels considering his recent stuttering form.

 

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Gianni is a freelance writer. He holds a Bachelor of Arts as well as a Diploma in Sports Journalism. He can be contacted at gmagliocco@outlook.com. Follow him on Twitter @giancarlomag

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Opinion & Analysis

A conversation with a Drive, Chip and Putt national finalist

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I’ve been very fortunate to have had the opportunity to attend all of the Drive, Chip and Putt National Finals at Augusta National since the inception of this amazing initiative. I’ve also been extremely lucky to have attended the Masters each of the past 10 years that I have been a PGA member. Each year, I’m still like a kid on Christmas morning when I walk through the gates at Augusta National, but nothing compares to my first trip in 2010. I was in absolute awe. For anyone that’s been, you can surely agree that Augusta National and the Masters Tournament is pure perfection.

The past few years at DCP finals, I couldn’t help but notice the looks of sheer excitement on the faces of the young competitors as well as their parents. That led me to reaching out to one of this year’s competitors, Briel Royce. A Central Florida native, Briel finished second overall in the 7-8-year-old girls division. She is a young lady that I know, albeit, not all too well, that competes in some of my youth golf organization’s Tour series in Florida. I spoke to Briel’s mom at Augusta and then reached out to the family after their return to the Orlando area to get a better idea of their DCP and Augusta National experience…

So how cool was it driving Down Magnolia Lane?

Briel: “Driving down Magnolia Lane was awesome.  Usually, you do not get to experience the scenic ride unless you are a tour player or a member. Everyone got extremely quiet upon entry. There were tons of security along our slow ride. Seeing the beautiful trees and the Masters Flag at Founder’s Circle in the distance was surreal. Having earned the right and opportunity to drive down this prestigious lane was breathtaking. I would love to do it again someday.”

What was the coolest part of your time at Drive, Chip and Putt at Augusta National?

Briel: “Everything was cool about the DCP. Not too often do you see people taking walks in the morning with green jackets on. We were not treated like kids. We were treated like tour players, like we were members at Augusta. The icing on the cake was when they took us to the practice green and we were putting alongside Zach Johnson and Charl Schwartzel. Everyone was confused when we first got there because we weren’t certain we should be putting on the same green around the pros. Again, we were treated like we were tour players. Where else would I be able to do this? Nowhere other than DCP at Augusta. One of my favorite reflections is having Bubba Watson watch us chip and congratulating each of us for our efforts. He did not need to do that. He took time out of practicing for a very important week in his career to support the DCP players. I think his actions show what the game of golf is about: the sportsmanship, the camaraderie, and support.”

How did you prepare for the finals?

Briel: “I prepared just like I did for every other tournament, practicing distance control, etc. But to be honest, you really can’t practice for this experience. The greens are like no other. The balls roll like they are on conveyor belts. I didn’t practice being in front of so many cameras, Bubba Watson, Condeleeza Rice as well as many other folks wearing green jackets. You need to practice playing under extreme pressure and scrutiny. When it is game time, you need to just do your thing and concentrate; have tunnel vision just like the ride down Magnolia Lane.”

What tour pros did you get to meet and talk to?

Briel: “WOW! I spoke to so many tour pros while I was there. I spoke to Keegan Bradley, Annika Sorenstam, Nancy Lopez, Zach Johnson, Mark O’Meara, Gary Player and Patrick Reed. I also met up with the U.S. Woman’s Amateur Champion, Jennifer Kupcho, and 14-year-old baller Alexa Pano. I’m still in awe!”

 

How fast were those greens?

Briel: “Those greens were lightning quick. The balls rolled like they were on a conveyor belt; you didn’t know when to expect them to stop. Had I practiced these speeds a little more, I would have putted the 30-foot like a 15-foot and the 15-foot like a 6-foot putt.”

I also wanted to ask Briel’s parents a few questions in order to get a better idea from the standpoint of the mom and dad, on what an increasable experience this must have been.

So how cool was it driving up Magnolia Lane for you guys?

Mom and Dad: “Going down Magnolia Lane was a dream come true and we wouldn’t have EVER been able to do it without Briel’s accomplishment. Driving down was so peaceful; the way the trees are shaped like a tunnel and at the end of that tunnel, you see the Masters Flag and Founder’s Circle. Just thinking about all the legends, presidents, influential people driving down that road and we were doing the same thing was extraordinary. We appreciated how slow the driver took to get us down the lane for us to take it all in. A lot of tears. It was heavenly.”

What was the coolest part during your time at Drive, Chip and Putt and Augusta National?

Mom and Dad“The coolest part was seeing 9-year-old Briel compete at Augusta National! Seeing the whole set up and everything that goes into making this event what it is, we have no words. They made these kids feel like they were royalty. We are so truly blessed, thankful, and grateful for everything that was provided to Briel to make this a truly awesome experience. We don’t want to share too much as it needs to be a surprise to anyone else that’s reading this that may make it there.”

How impactful do you feel this initiative is to golf in general?

Mom and Dad: “You can’t possibly make any bigger impact on golf than to let golf’s future attend the best golf course and the coolest event, Drive, Chip and Putt at none other Augusta National during Masters week. The day after the event, we had a handful of people walk up to Briel to tell her that she was an inspiration to their older daughters who now want to play golf. They even requested a picture with Briel; how cool! This initiative is definately, without question, growing the game.”

It goes without saying that you were incredibly proud of your daughter but what may have surprised you most on how she handled this awesome experience?

Mom and Dad: “We are so incredibly proud of Briel! She handled this challenging and overwhelming experience very well for only being 9 years old. She was cool, calm and collected the whole time. The atmosphere at Drive, Chip and Putt can chew you up if you let it, but she didn’t let all of the distractions get to her, she embraced them.  Out of all the competitions she participated in to earn her invitation to Augusta, we truly feel she treated this whole experience like she was not at a competition but a birthday party where she was having a blast. She made many new golf friends and we met amazing golf families we anticipate spending more time with in the future. You don’t get to go to many parties where Bubba Watson is hanging out with you like he’s your best friend.”

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Podcasts

The 19th Hole (Ep 76): Rees Jones on how Tiger won at Augusta and will win at Bethpage!

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The Open Doctor Rees Jones talks with host Michael Williams about the key holes that shaped Tiger’s win in Augusta and his chances for victory at Bethpage Black in the PGA Championship. Also features John Farrell of Sea Pines Resort (host of this week’s RBC Heritage Classic) and Ed Brown of Clear Sports.

Check out the full podcast on SoundCloud below, or click here to listen on iTunes or here to listen on Spotify.

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Opinion & Analysis

Municipal golf matters. Here’s why

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With another golf season upon us, it’s the time for many to consider the options for how and where they plan to play their golf this season. A good number of golfers would have already started paying dues towards their club memberships, some are waiting to buy a pack of prepaid passes for their local course, and like many, I’m eagerly awaiting the opening of my local municipal golf course — my muni.

Growing up, my friends and I were what you would call course rats: kids who would be there when the sun came up and there as the sun went down. Spending hours on the range often picking our own balls to avoid paying for another bucket — since that meant an extra burger after practice. It was the best “babysitter” our parents could have asked for — endless hours spent outside day after day and for the low price of just $350 for the season — plus about $5 a day for that burger I was talking about. We all ended up being pretty decent players without much instruction, based on the simple truth that we were given the opportunity to play as much as we wanted, and we were always trying to beat each other — we learned to play golf, not “golf swing.”

Living outside of the city in a smaller town, this was a “mom and pop” course that is still around today and busy, but I often wonder now as an adult if other kids that loved golf got to share in the same experience. Looking back, I don’t think I could have gotten a better education in being polite, responsible, honest, and confident — I guess this was The First Tee before The First Tee. The memories from those summers are some of the fondest I have from growing up, and with so many young families living in cities, along with the high cost of organized sports, and the closing of golf courses, municipal golf is one of the last places where this type of opportunity is available to juniors and adults alike at an affordable price.

Municipal golf has been around for a LONG time, and in this day and age it has, for some cities, become a lightning rod for budget cuts along with concerns about tax dollars being spent to fund an “elite” sport. The issue I have is cities spend a huge amount of money to help subsidize other sports fields and recreation facilities including swimming pools, ice ricks, soccer and baseball fields yet none of these sports have the “elite” tag attached to them like golf — with a young family I utilize most of these facilities too. This could end up sounding like a blasphemous statement from a Canadian, but hockey, for example, has become a much more elite and expensive sport as far as access and barrier to entry, including equipment, yet a lot of (non-hockey playing) people would chain themselves to an arena to prevent it from closing its doors.

I’m not here to argue the merits of a city budget, but I am fully aware of the perception many people have about golf. Recently, speaking to one of the golf professionals at a city-owned course near me, he told me they are one of the few city recreational facilities that actually turns a profit thanks to high traffic the course sees, along with efficient use of the clubhouse facilities for events during the season, and in the offseason.

What I love about “muni” golf is that it really is the course for the people. St Andrews in Scotland, for example, is by definition a “muni” public golf course. The course and the “R & A Club” are separate entities, and if you can show a handicap card (and can get a tee time), you can play one of the many courses located in the town.

The munis I play the most because of proximity are Kings Forest Golf Course and Chedoke Civic Golf Courses in the city of Hamilton. The Chedoke courses are in no way a “Championship Test” heck, the shorter Martin Course tops out at just over a whooping 5,700 yards ( that’s a VERY generous number based of the tees actually used), but like St. Andrews it’s home to more than just golfers. Early morning and late afternoon you will find people strolling the paths, walking their dogs and just enjoying the green space — something that as cities continue to grow will be needed even more. It’s not closed on Sundays and doesn’t become a park like St Andrews, but even during winter you will still find dog walkers, cross country skiers, and people sledding down hills. That seems pretty multipurpose if you ask me.

As much as I pick on, and use my local Chedoke as my example, I do it out of love, like a little brother. The Martin course is a Stanley Thompson design with a bunch of very cool holes build into the Niagara Escarpment. It’s a ton of fun to play.

What makes muni golf accessible for so many players from juniors to seniors and everyone in between is the affordability. Sure the conditions might leave something to be desired on a day-to-day basis, but it’s understandable when you have a course staff of 5-6 versus more than a dozen like at high-end facilities. At the end of the day, it’s 18 tees with 18 greens and the company you are with that makes a round of golf, not the height of the fairways or rough or the occasional bunker in need of a good raking.

Locally, a junior membership is right around $500 bucks and that gets you unlimited golf with no tee time restrictions. It’s a pretty nice deal if you ask me. What makes golf different from other individual activities and team sports (something I would like to note I was very active in as a younger person) is that it can be played at any time, and you can easily be pair up with three other random people to just play the game together regardless of gender, age, or skill. It’s often those rounds that are the most fun. No scheduled practice and “game days” like other sports. That means seven days a week access, not just a few hours here and there like many other organized sports.

If we look at the bigger picture and data from the National Golf Foundation (2017), there are just over 11,000 PUBLIC golf facilities in the United States. The average price paid for an 18 hole round of golf was only $34 at these public facilities, which sounds to me like a very reasonable cost. If the “average” golfer plays 10 times a year, that’s only $340 (yeah, I know I’m good at math) and with the buyers’ market in the used equipment space, even if you need a full set up of clubs to get started it can easily be had for less than $400, and you can have those clubs for a long time. A true recreational player will have just as much fun with a 580XD, and 3-PW set of Ping Eye 2s, as they would with a shiny new set of clubs.

Whats even more interesting is there are recent examples of municipal/small, privately-owned golf courses making big comebacks thanks to passionate individuals and cities willing to understand the value a course really has.

The best two are Goat Hill Park and the Winter Park 9 – I’ll let Andy Johnson from The Fried Egg give you the rundown: The Fried Egg Profiles Winter Park. Two courses on opposite sides of the country achieving fantastic results and offering extremely affordably priced fun golf to boot. It’s the sense of community that these places created that make them beacons in the landscape. I may be an outlier but I know that if given the opportunity to volunteer at my course for a few hours once a week to help fix a bunker, clean up fallen branches, or just help with general course maintenance in exchange for the ability to golf I would be first to sign up.

It’s a program like this that could also work for juniors (within a reasonable age obviously) to not only help grant more access to golf but teach about agronomy and respect for the course itself. I can only imagine that this type of “education” and team environment would help create more life-long golfers. (Please remember this would be 100 percent voluntary and open to both kids and adults alike. I’m not asking or suggesting free hard labour.) Some retirees already do something like this as course marshals.

At this point, I think it’s important to state that I am NOT anti-country club and private course; I love private courses too! Conditions are top notch, the architecture is in most cases primo, which also has a lot to do with the land they were put on when they were founded (especially in North America) rounds are played quickly, perfect practice facilities, I could go on and on. I have a lot of friends that are members at clubs, and like many people in the industry I know a lot of pros that are happy to grant the occasional access on slower days to “friends in the industry.” I love playing golf one way or the other, but at heart I’m a muni kid that has a huge amount of respect for the game and both sides of the fence, regardless of where someone started in the game, or where you choose to play now, we’re all playing golf, and that’s the most important thing.

Sure the pros on T.V. play high-end often expensive and private courses, which is great for entertainment and sponsorships, but municipal golf where you are going to find the largest percentage of golfers who are really the heart and soul of the game. If we really want to #GrowTheGame (a phrase used way too often) and maintain some semblance of accessibility for the next generation of “muni kids” having municipal golf is a critical part of that.

Ask your local course manager or pro how you can help, attend city council meetings. I know I have many times to listen to arguments from both sides and to participate in the discussion. Golf as a whole will be better off for it.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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19th Hole

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