The MastersFebruary 22, 2015

Nine Questions

The most intriguing topics leading up to the 2015 Masters

__1. Is it still true that, as Dan Jenkins first wrote, "The Masters doesn't start until the back nine on Sunday?" __

The pressure of the green jacket and five holes with water always lent truth to that insight, but it has become less true. When Augusta was shorter and wider, going for back-nine par 5s was more prevalent, increasing the chances of large stroke swings. Byron Nelson going 2-3 on the par-3 12th and par-5 13th holes in 1937 to Ralph Guldahl's 5-6 turned Nelson's four-stroke deficit into a two-stroke lead and began a narrative that was followed by Arnold Palmer, Gary Player and Jack Nicklaus in their most memorable wins. The tournament seemed to lose some of its volatility after 460 yards were added from 2002-'06. However, the club responded by making the back-nine par 5s more accessible on Sundays, and Charl Schwartzel (2011), Bubba Watson (2012) and Adam Scott (2013) all made extended late birdie runs on their way to victories.

2. What are Tiger Woods' chances for victory?

Zero if his early-season chipping problems persist or recur, or if his latest absence from the game includes missing the tournament.

3. What would be the best story?

Woods somehow winning the Masters for the fifth time, his first major-championship victory since the 2008 U.S. Open, and restarting his quest toward Nicklaus' record of 18 major-championship wins.

4. What would be the second-best story?

Rory McIlroy winning his first green jacket to complete the career Grand Slam, giving him three legs of a Rory Slam and leaving no doubt that golf has entered the McIlroy Era.

5. Do left-handed players have a real advantage at the Masters?

Yes. Left-handers have won six of the past 12 Masters. Before that, no left-hander had won the tournament. The big­gest reason, besides the obvious talent of three-time champion Phil Mickelson and two-time winner Bubba Watson, is the technology of the modern driver. Because the titanium clubheads of the past decade have dramatically reduced the spin imparted to the ball, the power fade has become more advantageous than it used to be. The heavier spin on pre-titanium fades would cost a lot of distance compared to draws, but that gap has closed, and the safer fade has become the go-to shot for long hitters. At Au­gusta, the favored ball flight off the tee is still right to left, the direction of a left-handed fade. Watson especially has been able to use a very long and surprisingly accurate power fade as his main advantage over the competition.

6. What's the next big alteration that should be made to the course?

Remove the bentgrass on the greens and replace it with the same Champion ultradwarf Bermuda that has been installed at Pinehurst No. 2. It would make the course more interesting by creating firmer greens (with almost no ball marks) that could also putt slightly slower. Better shotmaking would be rewarded, more aggressive putt-ing would be encouraged, and more hole locations would be possible. The club's leadership position in the game would be strengthened because the prevalence of shorter second putts would speed up play, and the more environmentally friendly grass would require less water.

7. What is it about the course that allows such a mix of players of varying ages to contend?

Because the course has always rewarded power, aggressive younger players can go low. In 2009, Anthony Kim, then 23, made a record 11 birdies in a second-round 65. Though supreme talents like Nicklaus, Woods and Seve Ballesteros were able to win the tournament at 23 or younger, youth tends to give way to experience at Augusta. In 1979, Fuzzy Zoeller became only the third player to win on his first attempt (after Horton Smith and Gene Sarazen in the tournament's first two years). Youthful power has created plenty of excitement and some 54-hole leads (like McIlroy's ill-fated four-stroke edge in 2011). But in part because the Masters is always played on the same course, accumulated knowledge of efficient strategies and correct green reading play a bigger role than at other majors.

8. What's the worst hole on the course?

To some, it's the seventh, which has been stretched to 450 yards, too long for the narrow fairway and the size of the green. It's a problem that can be solved by moving the tees up. A harder fix is the fourth. The right half of the green is much too shallow for a hole of 240 yards, and the hole is generally dull visually.

9. What is the best hole?

It's still the par-5 13th, even though after an incredible drive Bubba Watson had only a sand wedge for his second shot in the final round last year. Par is irrelevant: The gorgeous dogleg left is as good a hole as there is in tournament golf because the first, second and third shots so often create the opportunity for an artistic and spectacular (or disastrous) stroke.