This month’s US Masters could represent a total changing of the guard more than anything else as Rory McIlroy continues his unfettered emergence as the undisputed superpower of world golf.
The world No. 1 has an amazing opportunity to achieve the career slam at the ripe old age of 25 having already collected a US Open, Open Championship and two PGA Championship triumphs and it appears his main opposition at Augusta will come from contemporaries including a pair of Australians.
Once perennial Augusta contenders Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson have, in the minds of many, been reduced to also-rans on tour and Woods – who continues to battle injury, swing changes and an extreme lack of confidence with his chipping – wouldn’t surprise many if he didn’t complete 72 holes at Augusta.
Mickelson – without a win since his fifth major victory at the 2013 Open Championship – has failed to capture any consistency since then and his veil of superiority at Augusta appears to have abandoned him as well.
In 14 showings from 1999 to 2012, he banked 12 top tens including three green jacket acquisitions. In his last two appearances, he’s driven down Magnolia Lane and out the gates with a missed cut and tie for 54th to dwell on.
It’s full steam ahead, though, for McIlroy.
The Northern Irishman’s form may have waned since crafting a win and runner-up finish in the Middle East from his first two starts in 2015, but like Mickelson was able to do for so many years, McIlroy has shown an ability to snap out of down periods at the drop of a hat.
Aussie stars Jason Day and 2013 Masters champion Adam Scott have always seemed to thrive on consistency and, for the first time in recent years, would be difficult to split as Australia’s great white hopes.
For Scott, the 2015 Masters should be a welcome return to relative anonymity compared with a 2014 showing packed full of obligations as defending champion.
Excluding Tiger’s successful defense in 2002, it’s been all too common to see the defending Masters champion struggle as their attention is drawn partly away from preparation and onto more mundane matters like how their Champions Dinner menu selections will be received by the green jacket-clad cohort of former winners.
The phrase ‘lease of life’ gets thrown around a lot but it certainly applies to Scott as he settles into his new role of fatherhood.
After an agonising playoff loss to Greg Chalmers at December’s Australian PGA on the Gold Coast, Scott took three months off and, in February, welcomed baby daughter Bo Vera into the world.
It didn’t take Scott long to recapture his edge on tour, finishing tied for fourth in his first event back at last month’s WGC event at Doral.
Eyes were locked on the 34-year-old that week as he put the short putter in play for the first time since early 2011 to again familiarise himself with the style ahead of the January 2016 ban on anchoring.
Outright third after two rounds at the Cadillac Championship, Scott reminded us it’s not a major change.
“I putted ten years of my career and my whole junior life with a shorter club and fortunately I didn’t forget how to do it well,” he remarked.
Scott’s hunger for more Masters success could not be questioned but neither could Day’s quest for a maiden green jacket having already suffered a fair degree of Masters heartbreak.
Day appeared to have slipped one arm into the jacket in 2013 when he led with three holes to play but back-to-back bogeys helped paved the way for Scott’s march into Australian golfing folklore.
But Day – who has regularly contended at majors despite a persistent wrist injury – is finally fully fit.
He won February’s Farmers Insurance Open at Torrey Pines in a playoff over Americans J.B Holmes and Harris English to claim his third PGA Tour win – the 27-year-old’s latest victory in a career may feel should have netted many more wins.
If ever there was a place to suit the Queenslander, it has to be Augusta National.
Finding a glitch in Day’s game is difficult but, if anything holds him back, it’s probably occasionally errant play from the tee, but wild driving is hardly punished at Augusta.
Day can hit as high and soft as anyone with his iron play and his short game is absolutely world-class.
He’s dynamic from inside 10 feet with the putter and his bunker play, chipping and pitching – all pivotal skills around the precarious putting surfaces of Augusta – could not be questioned.
One Australian who’s looking to gain as much exposure to Augusta as possible is our only amateur in the field – 19-year-old Antonio Murdaca.
A member at The Grange Golf Club in Adelaide, Murdaca earned an invite to the Masters with a stunning seven-shot win in last October’s Asia-Pacific Amateur Championship at Royal Melbourne.
Murdaca spent a full week at Augusta in the first week of March with his coach Gareth Jones, playing four practice rounds including a hit on the famous par-three course.
Speaking just after returning home to South Australia, Murdaca admitted he hadn’t thought much about the gravity of the scenario to come.
“It was such an amazing experience for me to be there and get a chance to play Augusta,” the Golf Australia national squad member said. “I’m super happy how everything is tracking and I can’t wait to stand on the first tee Thursday morning.”
Murdaca will bring his parents, uncle and an extensive entourage to Augusta.
“I’m so happy to have them there and I will also have my physio with me, coach and Matt Cutler from Golf Australia.”
Murdaca’s coach, Jones, will caddie for his protégé in what will also be his first trip to the Masters.
Jones – the teaching professional at Adelaide’s Glenelg Golf Club – admitted the visit to Augusta in early March was equally a chance to get the ‘sightseeing’ out of the way.
“Conditions and facilities are unbelievable so it was good to also get the tourist stuff done early,” Jones said.
“The weather conditions were quite variable which allowed us to see the course in different lights. The temperature really had an effect on carry distance. We used local caddie Brian Tam. Brian is known as ‘low am Tam’, as he caddied for Ollie Goss last year and Guan Tianlang two years ago, so his knowledge was great. We also spent time with club pro J.J. Weaver discussing greens. Our goal will be to get the ball under the hole as much as possible, similar to Royal Melbourne.”
There’ll be a number of other Aussies at Augusta to show Murdaca around the place including Marc Leishman, John Senden and Geoff Ogilvy who round out the Australian contingent.