Jack Nicklaus is proof you don’t have to shape tee shots right-to-left to be successful at Augusta National. Nicklaus won the Masters six times playing predominantly with a left-to-right ball flight. While not as long, it’s exactly the same ball flight that pre-tournament favorite Dustin Johnson has been playing since Butch and Claude Harmon planted the idea at the 2015 Tour Championship. “What’s so great about Dustin is he doesn’t play the way I played, but he gets there with the same result,” Nicklaus told me on Sunday. “He plays a fade. He does it in a different way.” What impresses Nicklaus most about Johnson’s domination since last year’s U.S. Open is not as much the distance as it is the accuracy. Johnson is first in driving distance and in strokes gained/tee to green. “Here’s a guy hitting it three hundred and some odd yards,” Nicklaus said, “but he controls it fantastically.” Nicklaus told me that he won the Masters for the first time in 1963 by working it both ways with his trusted 3-wood. When he set the Masters scoring record in 1965, he never played a right to left shot. “In ’65,” he said, “I was hitting the ball so long, and so under control, I just played my game.” Sound familiar? In winning five times since winning the Open at Oakmont, Johnson has shown remarkable course management for a big hitter, dialing back with his 3-wood and irons when the situation calls for it. Some of this has come from a sit down Nicklaus had last year with Johnson at the Bears Club. According to Nicklaus, “We just sat down and talked about attitude and things to do, how you play and how I used to play.” Looks like he listened.
Russell Henley win again and not get much credit for it. Here’s a surprising stat: With three career PGA Tour victories after his triumph at the Shell Houston Open, Henley has one less win in 115 starts than Rickie Fowler in 182 starts. The major difference, besides the marketing appeal, is that Fowler, at 28, has nine runner-up finishes to Henley’s one. But Henley, who turns 28 next week, once again showed his ability as a closer with a final-round 65 to blow past Sung Kang. This is a reflection not only of Henley’s golf, but the tenaciousness he showed at the University of Georgia and learned as an all-state high-school point guard for Stratford Academy in his hometown of Macon, Ga. The common denominator in his wins at the Sony Open (2013), the Honda Classic (2014) and the Shell was his putter. In Houston he gained three strokes against the field per round. Credit goes to swing coach Scott Hamilton and Tim Clark, winner of the 2010 Players Championship, for mentoring him. “He’s one of those kind of guys that when he gets in the hunt, he would usually hyper-focus,” said Henley’s college coach Chris Haack. “Whenever he gets in the hunt, I expect him to do well.”
Back from Fred Couples when Tiger Woods pulled out of the Masters late last week. No high-profile player in modern-day golf can relate to what Tiger is going through with his back than the 1992 Masters champion. It was two years later that Couples went down at Doral. He’s been patching together a golf career ever since. Last year was the first time since 1994 that Couples did not compete at Augusta. “The back is a nasty thing,” Couples said. “No fun.” In 2016, Couples only played one tour event and three PGA Tour Champions events. This year he’s got a win and a second-place finish in four senior events and will be able to catch up with Woods at Tuesday night’s Champions Dinner. Tiger could take hope that Couples has six top-10s at Augusta since ’94, including a second in 1998 and a third in 2006. This year will be the third time in four years since his microdiscectomy in 2014 that Tiger hasn’t played the Masters. “I was hoping he could play,” Couples said. “He wants to play so bad.”