The last two Masters have been like London buses. You wait ages for the next one, and then two come along in quick succession.
With just six months separating the two tournaments, crowds coming back to Augusta, and Tiger Woods’ recent car crash, there’s much to discuss.
We speak to Bernard Gallacher and his nephew and PGA Tour pro Stephen Gallacher to get their thoughts on what to expect from the 2021 Masters.
We’ve got to start with Tiger Woods and the car crash that’s ruled him out of the Masters. What did you think when you heard the news, and what does this mean for his future at the top level of golf?
My first thought was, is Tiger going to come out of this alive? It was a pretty bad smash, and he was lucky his injuries weren’t fatal. There must be serious doubt over whether he can come back into golf, and his health is obviously the most important factor.
If he’s not strong enough to play golf or practise, he’s not going to be strong enough to compete in a major. When you consider that he’s suffered a serious break and had pins put in his legs, plus the problems that he’s had with his back, winning more majors is going to be very difficult for him now.
He will have looked at the Masters as an opportunity to catch up with Jack Nicklaus’ record because Augusta suits him down to the ground. I’m not sure if he’ll want to play in future majors if he doesn’t feel like he’s got a chance of winning. As we know, you can never write Tiger off, but my gut feeling is that he won’t come back from this.
Golf has learned to live without Tiger. The PGA Tour has had to adapt to a future without him due to his problems off the course and injuries.
But it shouldn’t be forgotten that he’s been the world’s most important golfer since the 90s. If Arnold Palmer and Jack Nicklaus have been the driving force behind the development of the PGA Tour in the past, Tiger has brought it to another level. Tim Finchem, the former commissioner of the PGA Tour, built the whole Tour around Tiger.
The sponsorship and money that have come into golf have primarily been down to him. He’s broken down barriers, and his record is unbeatable.
We’ve talked before about the impact of there being no patrons at the last Masters. This one will have a limited number of patrons, which is a step in the right direction. What difference do you think this could make?
Even a limited number of spectators will definitely help because they’ll make a lot of noise and generate a great atmosphere. It’ll be a massive boost to the players. We’ve already seen what a difference it made having a crowd at Bay Hill.
The players have got used to playing without crowds – it took them a bit of time to get used to it, but now they’re used to it, and they’re creating their own pressures. But there’s no question that the lack of crowds has hindered certain players like Rory McIlroy – Rory likes having spectators and feeds off the buzz they create. It’ll help him having crowds at Augusta.
Someone like Bryson DeChambeau will also benefit from having a crowd because he’s a showman – he’s pure theatre. He knows that people are coming to watch him take his driver, and he gives them what they want.
Having a crowd at Augusta will produce better golf. Professional golf, like any sport, needs spectators because they get your adrenaline going. I think that the Masters will be a much better spectacle this time around because of the patrons being there.
Rory is 14/1 to complete his Grand Slam as things stand. However, he recently slipped out of the top 10 in the world rankings for the first time in three years, and it’s been six years since he won a major championship. Despite that, do you think he’s still got a good chance at Augusta?
Rory’s game isn’t as bad as people think. He never plays that badly because he’s such a majestic driver of the ball. When you look at the driving stats, Rory is always right up there week in, week out. That’s never going to change.
His putting stats are good, too – I looked at them, and he’s averaging 28 putts a round, which is impressive. They might not be in the same class as Tyrell Hatton, Bryson DeChambeau, or Colin Morikawa, but these numbers are still strong in top-level golf.
His iron shots are more what he struggles with, and he’s slightly low on confidence, so he needs a spark to get going. Golf is all about confidence. But Rory can get his confidence back very quickly if he gets off to a strong start and stays in contention going into the back nine.
There’s the added pressure of trying to complete his Grand Slam. We sometimes forget that he would become only the sixth golfer of all time to achieve his feat if he wins the Masters, which is quite remarkable. Whether or not that pressure is too much for him remains to be seen, but I think he’s got a good chance. He’ll never be far away because he’s a great player.
Dustin Johnson is the favourite for the Masters. He’s the World number 1 and was the runaway winner last time. If you were picking a winner as things stand, would you choose him?
I choose Dustin Johnson every week. Whenever someone asks me who I fancy to win a tournament, I always say him.
His record over the years speaks for itself. He’s been a very consistent player, and he now knows what it takes to win majors, which is vital. He’s got the game, the length, a great left-to-right shape, and, of course, a superb temperament. You wouldn’t know if he was having a good or bad round, he’s so easy going.
He’s a good age at 36, and he doesn’t seem to have a weakness in his game. You’ve also got to look at his team – he’s working with swing coach Claude Harmon III and his brother does a good job as his caddie. So, overall, he doesn’t have much to worry about.
He curtailed his length in order to hit the fairways more often, and a marginal tweak like this has made such a difference to his game. It’s clearly paying off.
As always, he’ll need to have a good week on the greens if he’s going to win the Masters. But he’s got everything to do that, and he would be my pick every week. I’m not right every week, but I’m close most of the time!
Bryson DeChambeau is another player who’s in terrific form, having won the Arnold Palmer Invitational. He’s a player who divides opinion, and some people felt that he was too complacent in last year’s Masters. What do you think he’ll have learnt from that experience, and how do you expect him to fare this time around?
I don’t think he showed the course enough respect last year. He hasn’t played the Masters that often.
Because of his added length, he was overconfident coming into Augusta, and he told the press that he was looking at a par-67 and that he could reach all the par-fives in two. If you multiply that across the course, he’s expecting to get 16 or 17-under par!
The course bit him on the first day. He got into trouble at the 12th, and he never recovered from there. In some ways, he did well to make the cut.
This time, I think he’ll be much more respectful of the course. There won’t be as much bravado, and he’ll have learnt from his mistakes.
He’s a good putter – he putted great at the US Open and Bay Hill – and good putting is what you need at Augusta. And for all his long driving, he’s quite straight, too.
So, he’s got the game, and he’ll be there or thereabouts. I think his experience last year will stand him in good stead.
Are there any other players you see as realistic contenders for the Green Jacket?
Brooks Koepka is having a good season so far, with a win in Phoenix and a tied-second finish in the WGC event on the tough Concession course in Bradenton, Florida at the end of February. There have been doubts over his fitness, and it was a blow that he had to pull out of The Players Championship but if he’s fully fit, I can see him being a major threat. He’s a four-time major winner, he always does well at Augusta, and there’s no doubting his credentials.
I fancy Tyrell Hatton will do well because he’s a great putter and because of how he played at the Arnold Palmer Invitational. He’s got the game, determination, and ‘anger’ to do well at Augusta. He won against a strong field in Abu Dhabi and, of course, he’s strong on and around the greens, which you need to be to win at Augusta.
Justin Thomas won the PGA Championship back in 2017 and has surprised many people, including me, by not adding to that major. He is the world number three and he’s been a prolific winner on the PGA TOUR since turning professional in 2013 with 13 victories, so he’s more than good enough to win the Masters.
Jordan Spieth has struggled the last couple of years but is showing a welcome retuning to form in 2021 with strong finishes in Phoenix and the AT&T at Pebble Beach. He’s a likeable and popular player who has the course management and prowess on the greens to do well this year.
Lee Westwood is enjoying a real resurgence. He was named European Tour Golfer of the Year last year and, in my opinion, he’s the greatest golfer never to win a major. There’s a question mark around his age with him being 47 years old, but this isn’t as old as when I was playing. Jack Nicklaus won the 1986 Masters at 46, so it’s possible. People are also generally fitter nowadays than 30 years ago. Lee Westwood is the prime example of this – he looks strong, and I don’t think his age is a barrier to his chances of winning a major.
Viktor Hovland is an outside bet for me. He’s only been a pro for two years, and he’s already in the top 15 in the world rankings, recently finishing tied-second at the WGC-Workday Championship. He’s definitely one for the future.
Stephen Gallacher knows all about playing at the Masters, having finished tied-34th at Augusta in 2014. Here are his thoughts ahead of next week.
Let’s start by talking about Paul Casey. He delivered an emphatic statement with his four-stroke victory at the Dubai Desert Classic, and he feels he’s got a good chance at the Masters. What do you make of his chances at Augusta based on his recent performances?
He’s coming into the tournament on very good form. I watched him in Dubai and he was relentless. He drives the ball so far, and his putting and chipping were superb.
He’s finished top-5 in a few major championships, so he’s got the experience of playing well on the big stage. A major is about the only thing missing from his career.
He’ll also be looking to do well at Augusta to bolster his Ryder Cup chances. I spoke to him in Dubai, and he’s desperate to play at that.
With the form Paul’s in, you wouldn’t bet against him. I think he’s got a real chance.
We also need to talk about Tyrell Hatton – how do you rate his chances at Augusta?
I’d say he’s got a brilliant chance. He’s in the top 10 of the World Golf Ranking, he won in Abu Dhabi, he won the Arnold Palmer Invitational and BMW PGA Championship last year. He’s in fantastic form, and he’s in with a great shout.
Tyrell blew the field away at Abu Dhabi – and it was a strong field, as well. I know his caddie Mick Donaghy well, and I spoke to him after Abu Dhabi – Mick was saying that Tyrell’s now a complete player. He’s a great driver of the ball, he’s aggressive, and he’s got plenty of guts – he doesn’t fear being out in front or winning.
I can see him being a multiple major winner at some stage in his career. He’s already won three Rolex series titles, which is impressive in itself, but I think he can win a number of majors. That’s the direction he’s going in and, for me, it’s only a matter of time before he gets over the line.
He’ll be planning his schedule around the majors as the top golfers do, and that’ll be his big focus.
If we look at another member of the British contingent, Tommy Fleetwood, a player of his calibre will have been disappointed to finish 19th at last year’s Masters. What does he have to do if he’s to have any chance of winning at Augusta this year?
You’ve got to putt well at Augusta – it’s as simple as that. It didn’t look like Tommy putted too well last year.
But, again, he’s another player who’s starting to look really comfortable at majors. He’s had some bad luck in recent years, like when Brooks Koepka pipped him to the 2018 US Open by one stroke, but he’ll now be looking at going one better.
If he gets into contention early, he’ll have a good chance because he’s not got much weakness in his game. It’s just a case of whether or not he can hole the putts.
As I know from personal experience, it’s tough to get the ball close at Augusta, so you’re putting a lot from distance. If Tommy can navigate this challenge and putt the best on the week, he’s in with a very good shot.
He’s another good frontrunner who’s not scared to win, he’s consistent, and he knows he’s got the game to win a major. The Masters is a big focus for him, I know that for a fact.
One British golfer who’s showing a lot of promise and who people will be looking out for is Robert MacIntyre. He’s just secured his Masters debut and was named the European Tour Golfer of the Month for the first time a couple of months ago. What do you like about his game, and what do you think the future holds for him?
I think the sky’s the limit for Bob. He’s Scotland’s superstar, and he’s still only 24, so he’s got such a bright future ahead of him. He won the European Tour Rookie of the Year Award back in 2019 and managed to achieve the breakthrough victory at the Cyprus Showdown last year. Every week, he plays he seems to be in contention.
The Masters is a tournament that suits left-handers like Bob when you think about it – the likes of Phil Mickelson and Mike Weir have won it in recent years. So, I can see Bob winning a Masters or another major at some point in the future – no problem at all. I can see him becoming a serial winner.
He’s got an aggressive game, he’s a good putter and he has a fantastic attitude. He’s got a lot of learning to do, and I don’t want to put too much pressure on him because I know how nice a kid he is. But based on what he’s shown so far, he can do whatever he wants in the game – I think he’s that good.
You’ve been lucky enough to play in the Masters and obviously finished tied-34th in 2014. Can you describe to our readers what it’s like to play at Augusta and be a part of such an amazing spectacle?
I was on the leaderboard the first couple of rounds, and then Amen Corner hit me! I had two doubles in a row out of the blue from the middle of the fairway. But it was a great experience playing at Augusta.
It’s one of these places that people talk about and big up so much that you’re not sure if it’s going to live up to your expectations. Generally, when people tell you how good somewhere is, you get there and you’re a bit disappointed. But when I got to Augusta, I found it better than what people had said. It’s unbelievable.
Everything about the Augusta experience, right down to the drive through Magnolia Lane, is special. You can feel the hairs on the back of your neck stand up. When you get there and see it first-hand, you appreciate how perfect everything is – there’s not a blade of grass out of place.
The course is so hilly – TV doesn’t do it justice – and it’s a really tough test. But it’s a course that lives up to its billing, and it’s one of the best I’ve ever played.
I remember watching Sandy Lyle and Ian Woosnam and all these guys on the TV as a kid and thinking I’d love to play at the Masters, so to say I’ve done that gives me a lot of pride.
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