ORLANDO, Fla.—The Masters picture is finally starting to clear up, thanks to the Arnold Palmer Invitational at Bay Hill.
The obvious favorite going into the year’s first major championship in a few weeks now is … Rory McIlroy.
No, wait! Your man Rory stumbled through parts of the weekend and never even made a run at the leaders Sunday. His wedge game and his focus are off. Rory, in fact, hasn’t been right since he took February as spring break month.
“I’m not taking advantage of getting it up and down close to the green,” McIlroy admitted. “There are quite a few wedges for me at Augusta so I’m going to concentrate a lot on shots from 120 yards and in and get that as sharp as I can.” So he can’t be the favorite then, can he?
“If you go on form, given how I’ve been playing, then probably no,” McIlroy said. “It depends how far back you want to look at form. I’m not a bookkeeper.”
He laughed, a circle of writers laughed. Welcome to the headless Masters. Well, the new obvious Masters favorite is Henrik Stenson, who was ranked third in the world, took a two-shot lead into the API’s final round and—whoops!
Stenson three-putted the 15th and 16th holes Sunday and lost by a shot to defending API champion Matt Every, a former University of Florida star. Stenson’s putter sank his run like a torpedo hitting an ammo barge.
And the sorry greens at Bay Hill, which are going to be ripped up again for the second time in six years and re-grassed in May (due to somebody’s bad decision on which cost-effective strain to install mistake) weren’t running anywhere near as fast as Augusta National’s infamous ski slopes will. If Stenson’s putter isn’t ready for prime time at Bay Hill, where they were the equivalent of a ski resort’s bunny hill, it’s not going to be ready for Augusta National.
So now what? Our Masters favorite default setting, Tiger Woods, isn’t going to cut it. We’re not even 100 percent sure he’s going to show up and play. He didn’t play at Bay Hill, where he’s won eight times and could get it around one-handed if he really had to, so what does that tell you about the state of Tiger? Not good.
Our second-favorite Masters default setting, Phil Mickelson, has whipped up one good week in the last year and a half, and that was the PGA Championship that ended in the dark eight months ago. His putting touch is missing in action. So Phil can’t be the favorite.
Adam Scott? His cut streak came to an end recently.
Jason Day? He’s never won a major.
Jordan Spieth or Patrick Reed? They look like they have that magical closer’s gene, that ability to pull off the crucial shot under pressure at the end. But they haven’t won a major yet, either. Can’t make them the favorites.
Bubba Watson has won two of the last three Masters, there’s your man, right? Well, he melted down at Doral and he had to pull out before the Arnold Palmer Invitational began so he could attend a friend’s funeral. He’s got two weeks to get ready, so maybe he’s the guy. Or maybe he isn’t.
Let’s just call this the most wide-open Masters in a decade and see what happens.
So we didn’t learn anything about what’s coming up in April but we did learn something about Every. He’s 31, he’s had 17 top-10 finishes in the last six years and has always played with a lot of confidence. Last year he finally validated himself by winning the API in a playoff.
Sunday, he successfully and somewhat unexpectedly defended his title with a Sunday charge. He shot 66 on the toughest scoring day of the week and he made the clutch, downhill, pressure 20-foot birdie putt on the 72nd green to take the lead. Stenson, the big-hitting Swede, had a chance to tie him on the last green but wasn’t able to hole a sharp-breaking 20-footer from left of the pin.
With Tiger and Phil on the ropes, we keep discovering more and more talent on the PGA Tour. From players such as Brooks Koepka, who won in Phoenix, to Daniel Berger, who has played well every week and who made an albatross at Bay Hill, to 36-hole API leader Morgan Hoffmann, who stumbled at the end but had an impressive week to finish fourth.
You’re not going to make Every your Masters favorite. Last year was his first Masters and his game wasn’t in third gear by the time he reached Augusta.
“I got my butt kicked,” he joked.
Every is droll and deadpan and open and smart. He’s so good at his offhand remarks that you’re not always sure if he’s joking. In other words, do not play poker with this guy.
Like when he was asked about winning a tournament that Tiger has won eight times and now he’s got his name on the trophy in back-to-back years.
“I actually told him when I found out he wasn’t going to play this week, ‘Don’t worry, I’ll hold it down for you until you get back,’” Every said. He didn’t laugh, he didn’t crack a smile. Stony. Did he really tell Tiger that? Or was he just having fun with the media? And does it even matter.
“It’s cool to make a putt on 18,” he concluded. “You always see those replays. Yeah, it’s cool.”
Now Every is going back to Augusta, thanks to this win, for a chance to continue elevating his career. He owes it to a terrific week of ballstriking—thanks to his coach, Sean Foley, with whom he’s been working since before the end of last year. He had a pretty good week on the greens, too.
It all came down to that last putt on that last green, where we’ve seen Tiger sink every potential winning putt he had there. This time, it was Every’s turn. “I walked up to the green and this guy in the crowd kept coughing like, ‘Straight putt, straight putt,’ like that,” Every said with a wry grin. “I was like, ‘This guy is really a d--- if he’s lying to me because it’s a pretty important moment.’”
Every didn’t see any break and because it was downhill, he wasn’t worried about it coming up short.
“I put it on a decent line and it hung there,” Every said. “The last three feet I was begging for it to hang on. It would be so cool to see this one dive in, and it did.”
He got the read right. And that guy in the crowd apparently wasn’t being a d---. It wasn’t Johnny Miller, was it? Nah, couldn’t have been. He was up in the tower with Dan Hicks of NBC.
Every pulled off another deadpanner when the topic of the Masters came up. He needed to win to get invited back.
“That was the first thing on my mind when Henrik missed that putt at 18,” Every said. “It was like, ‘Miss it, you’re already in (the Masters), I need to get in.’”
There was laughter in the pressroom. Every didn’t really laugh but yeah, he was definitely, probably, maybe kidding.
Every knew he had a chance to defend his title on the front nine Sunday. At the eighth hole, he’d just watched Ben Martin hit a 7-iron approach shot that came up well short, having been battered by unseen winds. “That kind of shocked me,” Every said.
He decided to ignore the wind and stubbornly play the shot he’d already decided he was going to play—a hard, flat, drawing 8-iron shot that would knife through the wind. That’s just what he did, executing it perfectly, and his ball stopped two feet away for a kick-in birdie.
“All right, it’s playing tough out here,” he told himself. “Now I’ve got a pretty good look at it.”
He meant the victory. Fast forward a few weeks, though, and he’s got a second look at the Masters.
“After Augusta last year, I was really bummed out,” he said. “I got my butt kicked and thought, I’ve got to get better because I don’t want to be a guy who can’t compete there. You can’t win a Masters by making every 10-footer you look at there because you’re going to miss some of them. So I wanted to get better. Nothing wrong with that.”
That’s why Every eventually caught on with Foley after he split up with Woods and had time to work with Every, and why Every started a conditioning program with a trainer. It’s not as if he was in poor shape, it’s just that now he’s in top shape. Three years ago, Every said, he was 220 pounds. Now he weighs 185, he said, “And I’m ripped,” he joked.
Was he joking? Yes. Maybe not. Maybe.
Two can play this game, Every.
Your Masters favorite? Maybe it should be the hottest player in golf. Sunday afternoon in Arnietown, that was Every. Again.
Am I joking? Maybe. I don’t know. Am I?
Your turn, Matt. See you in Augusta.