Will this year's Masters be the best ever? Which major would you most want to win? Which hole at Augusta would make the best finisher? Why doesn't Charl Schwartzel get any respect? And who will win the 76th Masters?
SI convened a panel of experts-senior writer Michael Bamberger, Damon Hack, Alan Shipnuck and Gary Van Sickle as well as special contributor John Garrity-and a PGA Tour pro (who participated on the condition of anonymity) to take up these and other questions.
Van Sickle: Is it just me or does this feel like the most important Masters ever?
Shipnuck: It does seem potentially monumental. Tiger is entering the twilight of his career; Phil is still a threat but his days as a contender may be ending; and Rory McIlroy is establishing himself as the game’s dominant force. We have a new Big Three.
Van Sickle: So Phil and Tiger are costarring in Twilight?
Garrity: You’re wrong, Alan. The 1942 Masters was the most important ever. Augusta National was on the brink of bankruptcy and shutting down for the duration of the war. If that Masters hadn’t been settled by a playoff between Ben Hogan and Byron Nelson, they may not have started it up again.
Hack: You should write that up for some magazine.
Garrity: I really should. Here’s why Alan is excited— you’re looking at a potential replay of the 1960 U.S. Open at Cherry Hills, where you had Arnold Palmer at his peak, a young Jack Nicklaus and Ben Hogan contending in a major for the last time. If we have something like that this year, maybe someday we’ll look back and say, This was the Masters to top all Masters.
Bamberger: Why wouldn’t this Masters be great? There are so many excellent players. If we made a list, we’re talking about 15 players we think can really win, and that’s more than we’ve talked about in a long time.
Anonymous Pro: This Masters is big because it marks a changing of the guard. The young guys are trying to stake their claim. They’re taking over, and they’re not scared of Tiger or any of the veterans. They have the edge.
Hack: What’s so intriguing is the collision of stories— Rorygoing back to the place of his lowest moment in golf, Tiger and Phil, plus Lee Westwood and Luke Donald trying to win their first majors.
Garrity: Maybe we should simply say that so far, this has been the best run-up to the Masters in history. It’s human nature to think, with all this stuff brewing, that this could be an unforgettable Masters. But if Robert Karlsson wins, is this the greatest Masters of all time? I’d still say yes, but I’m biased.
Shipnuck: The big question was, Is there life in golf after Tiger? The answer looks like yes, because if Rory wins this Masters, he goes to absolute superstar level. He’ll be ahead of Tiger’s pace and Jack’s pace. We’ll stop the Tiger countdown and start a Rory countdown.
Bamberger: Alan, the Number 1 question in golf is still whether Tiger can get to 18 or 19 majors. The Masters annually represents his best chance. So with the years slipping away, we’ll be watching Tiger more intensely than ever, if that’s possible.
AN OPEN QUESTION
Van Sickle: If you could win only one major, which one would you pick?
Anonymous Pro: l’d want to win the Masters. It’s the same great course, and they get the setup right every year. You seldom hear guys complain. What a great feeling to go back there every year for life. Plus, they treat you like a champion.
Bamberger: That would be pretty cool.
Anonymous Pro: You win the U.S. Open, you get only 10 more years. How many guys even want to go back to the Open 15 years later? It’s not fun. It’s root canal.
Shipnuck: That’s true, but I’d take the U.S. Open—at Pebble Beach.
Bamberger: You’re simply looking for free golf at Pebble, Alan.
Shipnuck: I think it’s the greatest Open venue. It’s so macho.
Van Sickle: Macho? Maybe you’ve heard of Oakmont, which is actually macho.
Shipnuck: Well, I’m admittedly biased toward Pebble, but Oakmont is a great Open site too.
Bamberger: I’m going with the British Open at St. Andrews. I don’t know what could be better than that.
Hack: I’m going old school. I’d love to win an Open Championship at Prestwick. I love the movement of the land and the fact that shots must be struck with the right weight, as Old Tom Watson might say. To celebrate I would sip black tea and wear the Challenge Belt with great pride.
Garrity: I’d want to win the British Open too, and I wouldn’t care which venue. I love the history; I love meat pies; and most of all, I love links courses. The only part I don’t like is the claret jug.
Shipnuck: Well, next to the Wanamaker Trophy and its sheer grandeur, the tiny jug has to feel a little inadequate.
Van Sickle: You know, size does matter.
Van Sickle: If you could magically rearrange the holes at Augusta National, which one would you swap out with the current 18th?
Hack: How about number 11? It has water left of the green and is 500 yards of terror.
Shipnuck: That would be brutal.
Anonymous Pro: I like the current 18th, but if you want a tougher finish, it has to be number 11. You bail out right, it’s no guaranteed up and down, unless you’re Larry Mize. The 11th would be a little like Congressional’s 18th, a downhill finishing hole where the ball is in the air longer, which means a lot more can go wrong.
Shipnuck: I’d take the 15th. There isn’t a prettier hole in the world than 13, but if you hit a good drive, you’re hitting six-iron into a par-5 green with a backstop. The 15th is do or die, you can make a 3 or a 7.
Van Sickle: Three or 7? You can make 2 or 9. Just ask Gene Sarazen, Vijay Singh or Geoff Ogilvy. The 15th is what the 18th hole at Torrey Pines wishes it was. Even a fourshot lead wouldn’t be truly safe.
Shipnuck: That’s so true. If you lay up at 15, the third shot is from a downhill lie and really hard. Chipping from behind the green is downright scary too. The potential for disaster is high.
Garrity: The 11th is out. I’m not going to break up Amen Corner to create a new 18th.
Anonymous Pro: Good point.
Garrity: I’ll pick number 2, a par-5. The tee is way up high; the green is way down low. It’s a much better spectator hole than 18, plus it’s a semiamphitheater setting that holds thousands of people, the perfect spot for lasthole drama. Best of all, the green is out in the open, so it’s bathed in sunlight when the rest of the course is in deep shadow. That’s important for television.
Van Sickle: Well, TV is certainly all that matters.
Garrity: Plus the 2nd has trouble off the tee. You remember the old line about the Delta ticket office being in the left trees there?
Bamberger: That’s right. I’ll offer number 10 for the same reason—I love any downhill finishing hole. You have to hit a draw if you’re a righty, and that’s harder to do under pressure. It’s easy to hit a snapper, like Rory did last year. The second shot has to be so precise, and the chipping is difficult. Ten would set up beautifully as the finishing hole.
Van Sickle: What would be the worst finishing hole?
Anonymous Pro: None. They’re all good.
Van Sickle: No Masters champion since Trevor Immelman has generated less buzz than Charl Schwartzel. Let’s give the man his due.
Shipnuck: He has the great swing and the putter. He also has a lot of Retief Goosen in him, in that he seems unaffected by what’s going on. I think he’ll make a stout defense.
Garrity: I can’t think of much to say about him. It’s not how well you play, it’s how compelling your backstory is. Until we know more about Charl, there’s not enough for us to be as excited about him as we could.
Bamberger: You have to win over time—if you simply emerge at 5:30 on Sunday afternoon, it’s too late to enter our imaginations. That’s not his fault; that’s reality.
Hack: Still, can you imagine if Tiger or Phil made four birdies at the end to win? It would be huge. It’s so unfair.
Shipnuck: It was his first major, the first time he contended and his first win in the U.S. He had no body of work here.
Garrity: Even when John Daly won the ’91 PGA, he burst onto the scene on Saturday, and halfway through his final round he was already a legend— the borrowed caddie, the ninth alternate. His story was told for two full days. We didn’t notice Schwartzel until the last two holes.
Anonymous Pro: Charl isn’t a flashy player. He’s more like Zach Johnson or Mike Weir—a surprise winner. Augusta loves the popular winner, the great players of history like Phil and Tiger. Charl is Ben Curtis or Shaun Micheel. They won majors because they were the last men standing, but people didn’t know who they were. The pressure of validating a Masters victory is going to be the tough part. That’s why I don’t see him repeating.
Van Sickle: Even though he played great, there was luck involved. Those shots he holed at 1 and 3 amounted to a four-shot swing, and even then he had to birdie the last four. Was it one of the best Masters since Jack in ’86?
Hack: I don’t know if it was one of the best. How do you put it next to 1997 or 2001 or ’04?
Shipnuck: Maybe I’ve watched the video too often, but to me it was an amazing day of golf. The drama was unbelievable. Don’t forget, Rory McIlroy was a huge story, and even though he was still leading at the turn, he was completely forgotten by the 13th hole.
Anonymous Pro: It had everything except a winner with marquee value.
Bamberger: Exactly. That’s why, for me, last year’s Masters was only very good. At the end of the day, it’s who won, and the guy who won isn’t somebody we were invested in.
Hack: It was a great couple of hours on Sunday, but was it better than Faldo versus Norman? Better than Tiger going for the Tiger Slam with Mickelson and David Duval nipping at his heels? Better than the social significance of Tiger’s win in ’97?
Shipnuck: What was the best shot Tiger hit on Sunday in ’97? That was a really boring day of golf. It was dreadful.
Garrity: It’s not always about how they won. That was history in ’97, and it was important. Tiger blew everyone away and upset the golf firmament. Based on how the winner won, Schwartzel would rank Number 1. That was the most dramatic finish in 30 years, other than Mize’s chipping in. But what was the story? What was the drama? The most dramatic stuff happened to the golfers who didn’t win.
Anonymous Pro: Starting in 1986, you had five years in a row of ridiculous Masters finishes— Nicklaus and Mize and Sandy Lyle and Faldo in two playoffs. I don’t know if anything beats that.
Van Sickle: Name the non-CBS announcer you would like to see on a Masters telecast.
Garrity: Well, Johnny Miller would smash a few stained-glass windows, for starters. It’s a shame that Miller, the top TV analyst of our era, has never had a chance to do the Masters.
Anonymous Pro: Johnny is the easy choice, absolutely. I’d love to hear him call the back nine on Sunday. I wonder how many times he’d say choke. I’d love to hear what he says when guys are trying to finish off winning a green jacket. He’s painfully honest and painfully accurate. He isn’t wrong very often. That’s why I enjoy him.
Van Sickle: Every time Johnny would say choke, a bunch of green jackets in the clubhouse would choke on their peach cobblers. I’d suggest Paul Azinger, the best analyst who isn’t working regularly, which is a crime.
Garrity: My second choice would be Brandel Chamblee. He has the freshest and most compelling takes on anything that happens in golf these days.
Hack: I’d go with Brandel too. His analysis is right on. He seems very adept at delivering really sharp observations about what guys go through, from stars to journeymen to young players.
Van Sickle: Chamblee knows the game, the swing and even the history of the swing. He can talk just as easily about the swings of Arnie and Snead and Hogan as he can about Rory, Lee Westwood or Nick Watney. Plus, Chamblee’s not afraid to take on Tiger when pretty much everyone else is.
Shipnuck: It would be fascinating to watch Gary McCord, who’s been left out for years, sprain a muscle trying not to say the wrong thing yet still be the irreverent Gary McCord. It would be a hilarious show within a show.
Bamberger: I’ll see your McCord, Alan, and raise you a Ben Wright.
Shipnuck: I thought you had to still be alive.
Bamberger: Ouch. You know who would be a fantastic Masters analyst? Mr. Colin Montgomerie.
Anonymous Pro: He would be an improvement over Nick Faldo. I can’t understand what he says half the time. It’s like Sir Nick has marbles in his mouth.
THE WINNER IS...
Bamberger: Rory McIlroy is my pick. My sleeper pick is Fred Couples, who’s feeling great. One thing about Rory, he’s very bright in golfing terms. He learned so much from last year’s Masters, and he’ll capitalize on it.
Shipnuck: I’m picking Phil to win, and my sleeper pick is a golfer who hasn’t won a major since 2008—Tiger Woods.
Van Sickle: Tiger as a sleeper pick? That’s serious role reversal.
Shipnuck: I like Phil because his ball striking has been superb, and his putter has gotten hot. He could shoot some low numbers.
Hack: I picked Rory before, and I’m picking him now. I love what Bamberger said about how smart Rory is. Look how quickly he learned after the Masters, how he won the U.S. Open. He’s in contention every time he tees it up. It’s Rory’s time. My sleeper pick is Mark Wilson, a good putter who knows how to win.
Shipnuck: Rory is the obvious pick, but my concern is, he’s taking three weeks off. He may want it too much and shoot 74 on Thursday because he’s trying to shoot 61. He’s grown up tremendously, but he’s still a frisky young lad. Thursday is going to be the hardest day for him. He has to remain composed and take his bogeys and not shoot himself out of the tournament.
Van Sickle: Too much can go wrong on the greens, and Rory still has to prove he can handle Augusta’s greens. Lee Westwood is slimmer, fitter and stronger than he has ever been. He looks as if he’s in now-or-nevermode, and if he can finally handle the greens, then this will be his year. My sleeper pick is Kyle Stanley, who combines unbelievable talent with Vijay Singh’s work ethic. I think he may be the next big thing.
Anonymous Pro: My long shot is Stanley too. He has the length to dominate. My pick to win it all is Peter Hanson. He’s a damn good player, I’m telling you. I’ve been watching him for the last six months. He’s long, he’s really straight, and he putts well. Plus, I’m tired of picking the usual suspects.
Van Sickle: Yeah, I always prefer the unusual suspects.