Spring has sprung. The azaleas and rhododendrons in bloom.
Pine needles rustle. Creeks gurgle. And trucks trundle, carrying industrial vats of creamy pimento cheese down Magnolia Lane. Hey, patrons gotta eat. Yes, the Masters is nearly upon us, and once again it’s time for golf lovers to consider exactly what it is they really want from 2015. To hell with that new job, a lottery win or world peace: the big dream depends upon the correct and most righteous players winning the four constituent parts of the Impregnable Quadrilateral of Golf.
Or the majors, as they’re also known to those who have reluctantly moved on from mid-1930s nomenclature.
It’s a most agreeable parlour game. And one, let it be noted, which makes no reference whatsoever to reality. This has nothing to do with form, distance from the tee, preferred shot shape, past record, or actual chance of winning the damn thing. Where’s the fun in that? Where’s the sport in nominating Bubba for a third Green Jacket, or tipping Rory to shoot another 63 at St Andrews? Of course they’re going to be there or thereabouts. Of course. But much of golf’s beauty, charm and splendour rests on the ability of long-odds journeymen, fortysomething veterans, and occasionally utter no-marks to walk away with the biggest prizes. Which means each and every golfing dream and fantasy, however fanciful, far-fetched or downright hallucinatory, always carries at least a smidgen of legitimacy. It’s hope’s equivalent of a 140-foot chip off the side of 11.
The Masters, then. Probably best not to go too far off-piste with a dream selection, for not many second-raters walk off with a Green Jacket. Larry Mize, referenced not particularly obliquely in the previous paragraph, perhaps. His 1987 win was one of only four tour victories in a 30-year career. But in fairness he did it the hard way, seeing off two behemoths, Greg Norman and Severiano Ballesteros, in the play-off, sending Seve – Larry Mize did this to Seve – trudging back up the 10th fairway in tears. But this doesn’t happen often.
Youth isn’t necessarily a bar – Tiger Woods won his first Green Jacket at 21, Seve and Jack Nicklaus at 23 – but in recent years both Rory McIlroy (21) and Jordan Spieth (20) found the pressures of Amen Corner too much to bear. Their times will almost certainly come. Perhaps this year – Rory is looking for his third major on the bounce, while Spieth has just won his second tour title at the Vaspar – though if it’s a first-time winner you’re after, the real form horse is the post-bong Dustin Johnson, who recently closed out victory at the WGC-Cadillac in a most relaxed manner.
Another big post-hiatus Johnson victory, this time in a major, would give plenty of hope to we borderliners out there. A righteous fable of the benefits of moderation. But just as Rory goes to Augusta chasing a career slam, so does Dustin, sort of. So here’s the thing: he’s imploded in spectacular style at all three of the other majors, grounding his club in a bunker down the last at the 2010 PGA to give up a place in a play-off; wanging a ball out of bounds from the centre of the fairway into a nearby field while chasing Darren Clarke at the 2012 Open; and of course shooting a final-round 82 when leading the 2010 US Open, shedding six shots in less than 30 minutes over the opening four holes, as his hopes, dreams and ball sailed off into the blue vagueness running alongside Pebble Beach. Three down, one to go!
He’s not produced anything so wantonly spectacular at the Masters yet, but if there’s one guy surely destined to complete the Impregnable Quadrilateral of Meltdowns, Dustin’s that man. Maybe he could match, or better, Tom Weiskopf’s memorable performance of 1980, when the 6ft 3in Ohioan, prone to internalised hot funks and known as the Towering Inferno, found water at the 12th five times, running up a Masters one-hole record high of 13. Dustin could do this! But it would only really work as a spectacle were he a couple of shots in the lead going through Amen Corner on Sunday afternoon, or any inherent drama becomes structurally compromised. A guilty admission, but we’d kind of like to witness this, albeit only if the intensely likeable Johnson wins a redemptive Green Jacket a year or two down the line. Otherwise it’d be downright cruel. Those are our terms, karma, or there’s no deal, forget we said anything, let the poor man be.
Bubba being the exception that proves the rule, a cool, wise head is probably the best around Augusta. So given that Augusta’s official marker and course-record holder Jeff Knox isn’t eligible to compete, let’s plump for Freddie Couples, a man with a swing so smooth that it’s never clear whether anything just happened. Couples, despite his advancing age, has made a habit of bothering the leaderboard in the last few tournaments, finishing sixth in 2010 and in the top 20 places every year since. As you’d expect from a fiftysomething, he tires as the week progresses. But a few extra power bars and, well, you never know. Hey, it’s our dream. And if he does it, he’d become the oldest major winner ever, at 55 besting the equally laid-back Julius Boros (1968 PGA) by seven easy-going years.
On to the US Open, and the uncharted waters of Chambers Bay. A links course, and a hellishly difficult one at that, if the fourth hole, its design seemingly influenced by 1984 Atari hit Marble Madness, is anything to go by. A couple of players in particular will go into this competition with hopes not wholly commensurate with current form. Graeme McDowell will remember grinding out his 2010 US Open win on the not dissimilar links of Pebble Beach. And then there’s Phil
Mickelson. Even if Rory has won the Masters, and would therefore be attempting to become only the third player in history, behind Bobby Jones and Tiger Woods, to hold all four major titles available to him at once, everyone in the States would still have their eyes trained on Lefty. After six second-place finishes, can the apple-pie all-American hero complete his career grand slam with the title he yearns after the most, his national championship?
It’s not beyond the realms. Like Tom Watson before him and Rickie Fowler after, Mickelson famously went out of his way to learn about links golf, finessing skills counter to his natural style at tournaments in Ireland and Scotland. This respectful approach won him hearts and minds. And the 2013 Open at Muirfield, where his final-day 66 stands as one of the greatest rounds of all time, anywhere, period.
Such knowledge could well come in handy at Chambers Bay, where only the coldest stone heart would wish against Lefty finally getting over the line in first, seventh time lucky. His smile would light up the sky from Seattle to San Francisco.
Then again – and perhaps this is a more European, and certainly British, way to look at things – there’s something much more windswept and romantic about sporting imperfection, blots of failure on otherwise stellar CVs. Who has the more fascinating story to relate? Roger Federer, elegantly and efficiently racking up all those slams, or Bjorn Borg, repeatedly unable to land the US Open, and Ivan Lendl, staring exactly one thousand yards into the distance every year at Wimbledon? Ryan Giggs, his cabinet teeming with multiple honours of every stripe, or Steven Gerrard, a Premier League shaped hole in his heart (and falling at the final hurdle like that, too). Similarly, the Mickelson story, six times a US Open runner-up is widescreen melodrama at its very best. The title would give us all a cheap feelgood rush, nobody could deny it, but there’s more beauty long-term in the seemingly more unpalatable alternative. A flawed hero is a more loveable one. And besides, the lack of a US Open never did Sam Snead’s reputation any harm.
Mickelson also needs to wait in line. For if anyone is truly due the karmic succour of a US Open victory, it’s poor old Colin Montgomerie. Who, unlike Lefty, doesn’t have six other major titles to fall back on. Monty qualifies for his first US Open since 2008 as a result of winning the 2014 US Senior Open. And if Tom Watson was, at the age of 59, able to guide his ball around Turnberry in 2009 as if it were on a bit of string, then some similarly wily course management shouldn’t be beyond the ken of a 51-year-old whose penultimate hurrah in a major – his second place at the 2005 Open – came on a blustery links. Hey, we’re just trying to soothe troubled minds in an ever-changing turbulent world, and like we said, it’s our dream, it’s up to us what happens in it.
The Open, then. Tom Watson would be our usual pick, to make up for the ache that lingers within all our hearts – Stewart Cink, technically you did nothing wrong, but nevertheless can never be forgiven – but having already selected a 55-year-old and a 51-year-old to win the first two majors of the year, we’re probably beginning to test your patience. Let’s fold at least a little realism into the mix.
The Old Course at St Andrews rarely throws up anything other than a first-rate Open champion. Look at this post-war roll call: Sam Snead, Peter Thomson, Bobby Locke, Kel Nagle, Tony Lema, Jack Nicklaus, Seve, Nick Faldo, John Daly, Tiger Woods, Louis Oosthuizen. Tiger and the Golden Bear both won it twice. It’s going to have to be a big name, we can’t have an also-ran sullying an honours board like that.
Rory shot 63 and 80 here last time round, so he could achieve anything. Fowler, having followed the Watson-Mickelson road to Scotland, worked tirelessly on his links game and charmed the locals while doing so, would prove a very popular champion. Jason Day deserves something very soon as well, while Spieth and Patrick Reed aren’t going to wait for their elders to faff around. Any winner from that lot would be most welcome. But the stars have to align for Sergio at some point, don’t they? Eight top-10 finishes at the Open, including two second places. If he’s ever going to win a major, the Open’s surely his only chance. Let’s pencil him in for this one, then, with the caveat that he’d need to win it like Ben Curtis, posting a clubhouse score early on with the pressure off, the entire leaderboard falling back towards him, so that he never, at any point whatsoever, feels he might actually win, and therefore suffer a bunker-bothering, grandstand-pestering, dream-shattering breakdown. There’s usually no need for such pragmatism in a fantasy world, of course, but with Sergio it’s best to take no chances.
And finally glory’s last shot, the PGA. Historically the major where some of the less fancied players, the big names having exhausted themselves at the Open, put their names on the board. The best chance for a valedictory 15th major for Tiger, then, before his body totally quits on him. There’ll be a tear streaming down your face when he does it, don’t you pretend otherwise.
So here we have it, then. Our dream 2015 major winners are …
Masters Tournament: Fred Couples
US Open: Colin Montgomerie
Open Championship: Sergio García
PGA: Tiger Woods (on one leg and with a back that’s giving him proper gyp)
Sergio being the most unrealistic selection, there, obviously. One of the new 12-sided pound coins would, according to the good people working for William Hill, earn a prescient punter a mere £41,250,846. What could go wrong? You in? Ah, but you’ve probably been mulling over a fantasy selection of your own, haven’t you.
This article was written by Scott Murray, for theguardian.com on Thursday 2nd April 2015 12.59 Europe/Londonguardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010