ESPN hosted a teleconference Thursday with ESPN golf analysts Andy North and Curtis Strange about next week’s Masters.
Besides the usual SportsCenter reports, ESPN will have four and a half hours of Masters coverage Thursday and Friday, 10 hours of coverage over five days on ESPN 3D, a Masters tribute on ESPN Classic and live coverage of Wednesday’s par 3 contest. Add it up and it’s actually more air-time than CBS will have.
Hearing Strange and North discuss the tournament was a reminder that they’re two of the smarter talking heads in the game. It’s a shame that we don’t get to hear their voices more often at golf’s big events. Without any other clutter, then, here are their deepest Masters thoughts:
On Jack Nicklaus and his sentimental, surprising win in 1986
Strange: “I was like four groups in front of Jack, so I heard the roars on the back side. But I think what I remember the most is, as a player if you’re not winning, you finish the round and you escape as quickly as possible. Well, that afternoon, we didn’t leave. I, along with all of my colleagues, sat in that locker room in the player dining there, riveted to the TV. It was truly amazing. The one last impression that I have in my mind is Jackie and Jack walking off the last green together, arm in arm. I think as a father we all can relate to that. At 46, that was unheard of back then. Forty-six back then would be like 56 today, so it was truly phenomenal.”
On handicapping this year’s tournament
North: “I think you have three distinct groups of players this year. First of all, it’s this high-ranked group of European players who are terrific players. As a group, they haven’t had terrific success at Augusta yet. Lee Westwood contended the last couple of years, but other than that, the other guys haven’t been there. They are all top-ranked, really quality players looking for a breakthrough there, and there are probably five or six of those guys.
“Then you’ve got the two guys that when they drive through that gate, it doesn’t matter how they’re playing, their games become very, very good, and that is Tiger and Phil. I think you’d be shocked if one of those two guys didn’t play exceptionally well. There is something about the place. They both love it. There is some freedom in their games there that maybe you don’t see some other places. Then you’ve got this group of young American players who have played exceptionally well this year early on. The Nick Watneys of the world, the Dustin Johnsons. There are another five or six of them, and this is the type of golf course that maybe they can break through on because of the length and the fact that they’re playing so well.”
Strange: “Let me add a couple of those players. Mark Wilson. Gary Woodland is incredibly long, young, inexperienced, but incredibly long. Jhonattan Vegas, the same thing. Bubba Watson, don’t forget about him, because he’s matured more in the last year and a half than anybody else on the planet. He’s literally a contender every time he tees it up. But Andy said it best. The field is very, very even. The only advantage could be Tiger and Phil. The light switch is switched on when they come through the gate Monday. That means a great deal. If anybody has an advantage, it would be those two. But I think the field is so wide open, and so evenly matched this year, it would be hard to pick anybody in the top 50 who didn’t have a chance.”
On the evolution of the par-3 contest from well-kept secret to popular TV show
Strange: “It has become a spectacular show. It’s something the general public didn’t have any idea about. Only the true golf fans knew that it existed. Now by putting it on TV it has become very, very popular. That has changed a lot over the years. We now have all the youngsters and daughters and sons caddying for these players. In our day, that didn’t happen. My main concern there was being rested and not to overdo it during the week. I played the par-3 contest some, but I didn’t play every year, and I didn’t play the years I felt like I had a chance to win because I thought it was more important to play 18 holes. I’d spend a long time on the putting green, and then I’d go home. That was my own practice schedule. I think today with the kids you’re almost pressured into playing. How can you get out of the house if you don’t say I’m going to play in the par 3 and I’m going to caddie for you, Dad? Anyway, it’s a great show. It’s a lot of fun for the viewers as well.”
North: “Personally, I enjoyed playing the par 3. I have told that story of the very first time I played there, they had a different first and second hole. The first hole was about 65 yards and they had a path for you to walk down to get to the green. I was scared to death. Honestly, I was afraid I was going to kill somebody because the greens are about 20 feet by 20 feet. Even though you’re only hitting a 75-yard shot, I was nervous. But the thing I enjoyed so much about the par-3 contest is the greens over there are the same speed as on the big course. And I liked the idea of going over there on Wednesday afternoon and trying to make a 10 footer, standing over a 4-footer for par, and really grinding on it to knock it in. I thought that was really important. For me, personally, it freed me a little bit and made me feel like I competed a little bit, and now I’m ready to go on Thursday. On the other side of that, a lot has been written about the par-3 contest curse. There is one year I made four or five birdies early on, and I put three balls in the lake on six on purpose.”
On Tiger Woods and his progress with his swing changes
North: “He’s been very inconsistent. We’ve seen him play a handful of good rounds and a handful of bad rounds. But I think it changes when he gets to Augusta because he feels so comfortable there. I like that he’s starting to get his left arm in a little different position than he’s had it in. I know he’s hit some horrible shots. When you’re on the golf course and making major swing changes, you’re going to hit some goofy-looking shots, and he’s hit some of those. I think Tiger’s close enough that all it takes is having a good feeling about Augusta. If he were to go out and shoot 69 the first day or maybe even 70, I would think that would be the round that would give him a lot of confidence. Once he starts playing well, I think you’ll see him play well a lot.”
Strange: “I think that he’s in transition right now. But let’s be honest, he’s going to pop out of this. Once he gets more comfortable on the golf course and in his life, I think he’s going to pop out of this, and it could happen next week. He’s going to pop out of this. When he does, things will seem like old times.”
On assessing Phil Mickelson, who has been struggling with his game
North: “Phil at Augusta National looks like a totally different player than he does at any other major championship. I don’t know if it’s just a confidence factor, or he has so much confidence in his short game or whatever. But his swing looks so much freer when he’s at Augusta National than any other place. Yes, he hasn’t played very well yet, but I really don’t think that’s that big of a deal. I understand he was in there Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday working. As a player, you always want to play well going in there. But I think he has such a good feeling and so much of what he’s doing right now is preparing for that tournament. I think that’s something that people might not understand.
“But I do think he’s got to be a favorite there. He has such great feelings for that golf course, and the golf course fits perfectly to his length and everything that he likes to do. So, even though he and Tiger haven’t played exceptionally well, I still think both of them will be there Sunday afternoon.”
Strange: “Phil prepares differently than anybody I’ve ever known. I would think he’d plan this week in Houston to make sure he’s competitively sharp for Houston. And he goes in there early. And when he goes into Augusta National for two or three days, he really works at it. He doesn’t just play with the members and drink a couple beers afterwards. That is something that is the new age preparing for Augusta and some of these majors that we never did. We never went into Augusta early. The only guy that I know of in my day before was Jack Nicklaus. I think it’s a hell of an idea. I wish we had done it. But I think Phil will be fine.”
On other contenders
North: “Length has such a huge impact at Augusta. So many of the players we’ve talked about in those two groups really don’t have good track records there. That’s important. Experience around Augusta National is very important. Understanding pins to shoot at, pins not to shoot at. That stuff that sometimes it takes you a while to learn. If you go back and look at how soon a player won at Augusta, very seldom does it happen in the first two or three years. Usually the players get into their fourth, fifth, sixth year before they figure the golf course out. But pure length really makes a big difference. And some of these younger players now, not just young Americans, but you throw a Rory McIlroy in there, the guy hits it a mile. These guys hit it so far could something happen like Tiger in 1997 again? It might.”
Strange: “Nobody who is a top player doesn’t launch it now. Maybe Mark Wilson might be a little bit of an oddity, that he’s not a launcher of the golf ball. Without a doubt, Martin Kaymer and Lee Westwood have more experience right now over our young guys. That’s just because of Kaymer’s record in the last two or three years and No. 1 in the world. Lee Westwood has been certainly a consistent player and just hasn’t come through. That shows I would think he’s extremely hungry. I think right now the three Europeans have an edge over our young guys.”
On the potential for a Cinderella story, like VCU in the Final Four
Strange: “I don’t think VCU has a chance to win at Augusta National. Oh, a rookie or high-ranked player that just gets in the Masters, that would be an interesting comparison to how big an upset that would be to win the Masters and VCU to win the NCAA. I honestly don’t think either one is going to happen, but it would be comparable.”
North: “For a player in his first year or even second year going in there, there is so much going on around you. It is so difficult to really understand the magnitude of the event. Going back to my first year at Augusta. I opened with a 66 on Thursday. I walked off the 18th green that day and thought, well, shoot, I’ll win six or seven of these things. I love this golf course. It was a day I had the ball below the hole on every hole — by mistake sometimes, you didn’t have a clue what you were doing. The second round on Friday, I played almost the same way and had it on the wrong side of the hole every single hole. Spun it off the bank on the 15th green and shot 81, and literally didn’t feel like I hit the ball much differently. And that is the difference on that golf course, understanding how to get it around. That is why it’s almost impossible for a VCU to win.”
On something that makes playing in the Masters more special
Strange: “The ghosts. Ghosts is the wrong word, but the memory of Bobby Jones and Clifford Roberts, and some of the old past champions who would come back and play practice rounds. The Sneads and Nelsons would hang out on the practice tee, hit balls with you, trash talk with you. That’s what made it more special than other majors.”
North: “Something happens there that doesn’t happen in the other championship events. And that is the gallery is so knowledgable. They so understand the history of the event. They are so well behaved. They are dressed exceptionally well. It means so much to the players to be there, but when you look at the folks who have paid their money to come in and watch, they care about it as much as the players do. And that doesn’t happen at many events. I talked about my first year and how I played really well on Thursday and terrible on Friday. Walking up the last hole, I was so embarrassed by the score I was shooting. Yet people still clapped for you. I mean, that is something you don’t get any other place.”