AUGUSTA, GA. Weekend finishes at The Masters are traditionally unpredictable. Those gathered at the top of the leaderboard are very much aware nothing is secured until the final putt is holed.
Three men have placed themselves in fine position and each has a clear storyline of interest. Pondering what it can mean to don The Green Jacket is certainly on the radar screen for each but the task ahead requires a more centered focal point in getting to the ultimate prize.
Brooks Koepka - "The Gunslinger"
After winning his fourth major championship at the 2019 PGA Championship at Bethpage it had become clear Brooks Koepka was not averse to raising his game to meet the most challenging of moments. Playing in pressure-packed events seemed to come as naturally to him as a duck to water.
Much seemed likely to happen and his performance in the majors for the rest of that year were equally good but without a win.
Then the global pandemic came onto the scene in March 2020. Brooks did have three top ten finishes in the majors in 2021 but the year 2022 saw him have to deal with a series of nagging injuries.
His game plummeted for a series of months and many wondered whether he would regain the form needed to return to the top of professional golf.
Koepka has often displayed a cool outward disposition. His desire to dismiss questions from media he believed to be irrelevant has happened on a few occasions.
If Koepka reflected a movie star who has often played roles of the outwardly quiet and sometimes aloof character, it is Clint Eastwood. It is Eastwood who perfected the role of the gunslinger not to be trifled with.
Koepka's form has returned, winning in Orlando via the LIV circuit, and his 36 holes at this year's Masters resulted in a 132 total, equaling Greg Norman's score in 1996 and just two off the tournament record set by Jordan Spieth in 2015.
A Masters victory would give him a 5th major championship title and three legs of the career Grand Slam.
Jon Rahm - "The Matador"
In his earliest years at the professional golf level the usage of the word matador would not have been entirely accurate for the highly talented Jon Rahm.
More noted for wide swings in behavior the 28-year-old Spaniard might have been more accurately described as "The Bull." Bursts of temper were often fast to envelop him and many wondered whether he could summon the inner strength to allow his skills to rise to the top. Unpredictability was his early calling card.
Rahm successfully changed his ways and by 2020 he ascended to the top of the world rankings. Matters only got better in 2021 when he claimed his first major title at Torrey Pines in winning the U.S. Open.
Rahm began 2023 by shooting a final-round 63 at the Sentry Tournament of Champions to win by two from Collin Morikawa. He did that by overcoming a six-shot deficit going into the final round. Two weeks later, he won The American Express shooting a 27-under-par total. The following week, Rahm was in contention to win the Farmers Insurance Open at a familiar location in Torrey Pines. A final round 74 had him finish in a tie for seventh place. At his next outing he finished third at the WM Phoenix Open. The week after, Rahm won the Genesis Invitational to reclaim the #1 ranking in the world. It was Rahm's fifth worldwide win in nine starts.
A win at Augusta would make him the fourth Spaniard to win The Green Jacket and have him reclaim the number one position in the world rankings.
Sam Bennett - "The Amateur"
The standout collegiate player at Texas A&M displayed his golf skills with a consistent high-level performance in capturing the prestigious U.S. Amateur title last year at The Ridgewood CC in New Jersey.
The 23-year-old opted to remain as a 5th year senior and his play through the first two rounds has been stellar. His first 36 holes was just one shot off the record number of 135 scored by Ken Venturi in 1956.
Over the first 36 holes Bennett only made one bogey.
No amateur has ever won The Masters although in three different occasions one has finished in the runner-up slot.
The last amateur to have a major event was Johnny Goodman who won the 1933 U.S. Open at North Shore CC in Illinois.
No matter what Bennett scores for the final 36-holes he will earn the low amateur honors as the other six failed to make the cut at 145.
This and that from Augusta
Wobbly walking Woods
The success in getting to weekend play for the 5-time Master champion was no small feat. Tiger Woods had played only one event in 2023 at The Genesis Invitational and questions abounded on how he would fare given his physical condition and the up and down hills that are prevalent at Augusta National.
Woods has never missed a 36-hole cut at The Masters during his time as a professional and he was able to tie the record 23 consecutive cuts made, shared by Gary Player and Fred Couples with scores of 74-73 to make the cut of 147 right on the number.
Seeing Woods compete is always an important moment but especially knowing that each step is fraught with unknowns. The discomfort on his face was clear for anyone with eyes to see.
Woods hinted that future competitive rounds at The Masters are not a given. At certain moments the flash of shotmaking brilliance was present but those instances now fall further and further apart.
For a 47-year-old who has said ceremonial golf is of no interest to him. It will be most interesting to see what upcoming event in 2023 are in store for him. What is clear is that the man who won in stunning fashion in 2019 is no longer that same player given the number of surgeries he has endured over the years.
Coming into this year's Masters much was expected of the four-time major winner and third-ranked player in the world. McIlroy ended his final round in the 2022 event with a spectacular hole out from the bunker and a score of 64 to finish runner-up to Scottie Scheffler.
In arriving at Augusta, McIlroy was attempting to end a non-major victory streak stretching back to 2014.
He has played well in previous Masters appearances with five other top finishes. But this year's event for the 33-year-old started with an even par round of 72 on a day when numerous players were able to seize the benign weather conditions and fire much lower rounds.
McIlroy had an opportunity to make his way back into the mix during Friday's second round but four bogies on the outward nine doomed his chances and the Ulsterman was only able to post two birdies on the inward side limping in with a clearly disappointing round of 77.
Winning The Masters would elevate McIlroy as the 6th member of the elite career Grand Slam club. One can only surmise the frustration that befell Rory as his story at Augusta National continues to elude him.
The syrupy languid swing of Fred Couples has always been a joy to behold. The swing matches the laid-back personality of the former world ranked number one player.
No one expected much from Couples at this year's Masters but the 1991 Green Jacket winner showed considerable prowess in his play with scores of 71-74 and became the oldest player at 63 to make the cut.
Amazingly, Fred has made a Masters cut 31 times, second only to the 37 accomplished by six-time winner of The Green Jacket Jack Nicklaus.
“I am excited to make the cut,” the 1992 Masters champion said Saturday, according to the PGA Tour website. “That’s why I come here … that’s my objective, and I did it.
“I’m going to try and compete. I can’t compete with Viktor Hovland or Jon Rahm or anybody, but I can compete with myself, and that’s really why I come. That’s what I like to do, is make the cut here at an older age.”
Couples showed age is just a number.
— The Masters (@TheMasters) April 6, 2023