Handicapping Redux for the 2018 Masters

http://jayflemma.com/wp-content/uploads/2018/04/tiger-and-phil.jpgHandicapping Redux for the 2018 Masters

“Tiger and Phil! Tiger and Phil! Tiger and Phil!”

For the last eight weeks, that’s all we’ve heard in golf. Turn on your television set, pick up a magazine, or scan a newspaper headline, and it’s almost as if prophets were delivering a message from God that they saw written in letters of fire 30 feet high. And as we’ve inched closer to the Masters, it’s grown more strident, more clarion, almost a prayer from golf media, who seem to only like things they’ve seen before.

“Tiger and Phil! Tiger and Phil! Tiger and Phil!”

Lather, rinse, repeat. Makes you wish they’d run out of shampoo or hot water faster.

This time, for once, they could be right. As the golf season turns towards the Masters, Tiger and Phil have lived up to the hype, and the top of the PGA Tour almost looks like it did 20 years ago.

Just this month, Mickelson won in a playoff in Mexico (the former Doral/World Golf Championships event) and he beat last year’s breakout star and Player of the Year Justin Thomas to do it. Phil also finished second at Pebble Beach and sixth at Riviera. That’s a solid spring: he snapped a five year-long winless streak, and he has found consistent form heading into Augusta, where he’s won three times, and almost always contends.

“I’m starting to play some of my best golf,” he said while smiling and holding his first trophy since lifting the Claret Jug at Muirfield in 2013. “I couldn’t have done it without the support of Andrew Getson, who has really helped me get my swing back. My brother, [his caddie] who has done a phenomenal job and we have had a lot of fun this year.”

Meanwhile, despite not winning, Woods is both playing well and pinning the needle, sending media types gleefully high-fiving. Woods finished tied for second at Innisbrook, T-5th at Bay Hill, and 12th at PGA National. Everything has been solid except his driver, but with his gargantuan length through the bag, and his meticulous pre-tournament game plans, he hasn’t needed it all that much…yet. His precision has been particularly remarkable; he’s been sharp and consistent with his irons, and his putting has been downright surgical. He was 59 for 59 from seven feet in at Bay Hill. Gotta admit, he’s playing great for a guy with four back surgeries, a whopper of a DUI, and a reputation for treating women like a buffet table.

So coming into Augusta, Woods had 2/3 of the winning combination in pristine order – putting and irons. He’s going to need the driver at Augusta to contend. This far, he’s been terrible with it – hooking it one minute, flaring it the next. You only win a Green Jacket from the pine straw if your name is Phil Mickelson. But if he’s fixes his driver problems, then look out: Woods could actually make good on Vegas making him the favorite.

And right on cue, that’s exactly what’s happening. On Tuesday, Tiger and Phil played a friendly best ball against Thomas Pieters and Freddie Couples over the back nine at Augusta.

They smeared them like little floppy grapes.

Woods was particularly lethal, eagling both 13 and 15. Word is, it was an expensive day – afterwards Woods joked it was like earning an “appearance fee.”

So as we turn to the 82nd Masters, the rest of the field has to feel a bit like Ken Venturi did at the 1960 Masters. Late Sunday afternoon, every journalist inn the house was seated around Venturi’s locker as he gave an interview. He looked like he was going to win, until Arnold Palmer incredibly birdied 17 and 18 out of nowhere.

“Suddenly someone shouted Palmer, and you guys left me there with my can of Coke,” Venturi moaned plaintively.

The same thing is happening this year. Are the golf media skipping a good story to write “Tiger Woods comma?” They metaphorically abandoned – for example – Justin Thomas and Rory McIlroy, dropping with them with a resounding thud once Woods starts playing well.

“No way if Justin or Rory any of these young guys is in a playoff with Woods that they can deal with the massive number of fans. Tiger just sees right through that,” gushed one breathless commentator during the Bay Hill final round telecast.

Just two short hours later, however, Rory McIlroy put an exclamation point on a final round 64 that featured four birdies in a row, five in the last 6 holes, and a 25-foot bomb in the gloaming on 18 to finish in typical Rory panache. He zoomed past everyone like they were standing still and peeled out of the parking lot with the trophy in the passenger seat.

Copy editor! Rewrite on desk 2!

Plenty of other guys have been making noise too. Justin Thomas, who still wears his PGA Championship crown, has won twice this season already, in Korea and at PGA National. So has Bubba Watson, who also has two green jackets. First Bubba won at Riviera, then again at the grueling Match Play at Austin Country Club.

On the European side of the ledger Justin Rose, last year’s hard-luck runner-up to Sergio Garcia, won the WGC event in Shanghai. Young guns Tommy Fleetwood and Joost Luiten also broke through with wins over impressive fields at premiere events.

Finally, we’re expecting lousy weather for much of the tournament. If true, that’s a great equalizer that brings a great deal more players into the mix, including Zach Johnson who won the coldest Masters in the modern era (2007) and who also bagged a Claret Jug at cold, blustery St. Andrews eight years later. Jordan Spieth has won both a Masters and an Open Championship as well. And Adam Scott won the 2013 Masters in a downpour, besting 2009 champion Angel Cabrera in a heart-stopping finish. You can’t discount any of their chances. There’s so many options , perhaps no one said it better than former SI scribe Gary Van Sickle.

“It’s so wide open, I don’t know who to pick.”

There are some good bargains on the handicap sheet, if you’ve got a few Andrew Jacksons to spread around.

Even at 10-1 you get good odds on Tiger Woods. He’s already playing well, yet getting stronger still. Augusta National is his safe space where he can escape the scandals that endlessly hound him, (another one just broke this week: ex-girlfriend Kristen Smith alleges he threatened to publish compromising photos of her if she breaches a non-disclosure agreement she claims is invalid). And he always plays well here. None of us expected this as quickly as it happened, but he could win.

You get better value with Rory McIlroy at 15-1. Rory’s younger, stronger, and less scandal-scarred. (That’s an emotional, intangible advantage, but a significant one nonetheless.)

In a playoff with Woods? Just think to yourself “pancake waitress,” and all the nerves will laugh themselves away immediately. You just did it, and that’s exactly what happened, wasn’t it?

Jason Day and Rickie Fowler will give you excellent return at 22-1 and 25-1 respectively. Also take a long look at Hideki Matsuyama at 35-1 and Louis Oosthuizen at 60-1. For those of you pointing to his earning a career runner-up Grand Slam, don’t forget he already owns a Claret Jug that he won in record-setting fashion.

Our pick: Rory – will finally complete career Grand Slam

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Jay Flemma