Don’t overlook the defending champion

The PGA Tour media has been aflutter with Masters predictions, ranging from the return of Tiger Woods to the era of Rory McIlroy, but they make the mistake of overlooking defending champion Charl Schwartzel.

“To be honest, I don’t look into those things. You know, I mean, there’s a lot of talk now. Tiger has obviously won again and he’s really playing very good. Rory is playing well. Phil is playing well; Luke; all of the guys. But to me, I go about my business as I normally do, and I feel – and I know, if I play my best, I can compete with anyone,” he said.

That’s no overstatement – Schwartzel had the best results of any golfer to compete in all four majors last year, and returns to Augusta National having proven that playing tough courses under pressure only galvanizes his resolve.

His big-match temperament comes through in the statistics – Schwartzel is ranked second on the PGA Tour for both third and fourth round scoring average this year. What does it mean? Well, with all of this year’s predictions for a tight Masters leaderboard, it means the Vereeniging local is likely to really get going at the weekend – and that’s when it counts.

On to the matter of those notorious Augusta greens – greens which the 27-year-old overcame en route to his green jacket. In fact, four-time Masters winner Tiger Woods tipped putting as the deciding factor at Augusta, saying: “I think it requires good ball-striking, but generally the guys that have won here have really putted well, avoided three-putts, and have made the correct – the big putt from 10 feet or so for par. Those are huge around here.”

Schwartzel is ranked seventh in three-putt avoidance this year, and ranked seventh in the world, for that matter. Essentially, it’s his putter that has kept him within the top 10 of world golf, and he was confident heading into this week. “I’ve started preparing a couple of weeks ago, and everything feels like it’s falling into place for me. I played last week. Obviously I missed the cut by a shot. But I wasn’t too fazed because honestly my golf swing felt good. I knew if I could get my putting in place, I’m pretty much on track like I was last year,” he said, making it clear that anything is possible at the Masters this week.

World number three Lee Westwood echoed the sentiment when asked whether he felt it was McIlroy versus Woods, and said: “Rory has never won here. Tiger’s not won here since 2005. So I think everybody in this room would have to be naïve to think it was a two-horse race, wouldn’t they. There’s more. I think Phil might have a little bit of something to say about that; Luke might; I might.”

By ‘Phil’, Westwood means three-time Masters champion Phil Mickelson, who had a few words of his own regarding the greens, and said: “I think that it’s easier to remember the breaks than it is to see them. And the greens are very challenging to actually see what the ball is going to do, to be able to visualize what it will do on the surface. They are so fast that everything is magnified. If you do get it a little bit off line, it just gets magnified and goes even further off line. Reading them is the most important thing.”

So that’s it then – around the greens is important, on the greens is crucial. And where did Schwartzel ascend to fame at Augusta last year? On the greens of the back stretch.

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