By Mike Dudurich, Freelance writer and host of The Golf Show on 93.7 The Fan Saturday mornings from 7-8 AM – Follow Mike on Twitter @MikeDudurich
Part of it is that golf fans haven’t had a major championship to get into since last August.
Part of it is that this is the first major championship of the professional golf season and has become something of the official start of spring in areas like Western Pennsylvania where it sometimes seems like the snow will never go away.
Not long after the 2015 Masters champion has been determined, the golf season will kick off with the 16th West Penn Amateur Public Links at Cranberry Highlands Golf Course. Did you know that Robert Rohanna of Waynesburg, who has done very well in the current Golf Channel’s Big Break, won the WPGA Public Links twice as a youngster?
And while the best players in the world will move on Sunday to the next stops on their respective tours, championship golf in Western Pennsylvania will move to center stage.
Early in May, local qualifiers will be held for the U.S. Open at Indiana Country Club and Willowbrook Country Club. Last year, Oakmont Country Club’s director of golf, Bob Ford, was the oldest competitor in the country to advance from the local qualifier to the sectional qualifier.
A tournament that has grown into a premier event, the Spring Stroke Play Championship, will be held at Sunnehanna Country Club May 18. One of its unique features is the makeup of the field in that it ranges from juniors to mid-ams to seniors. One of the best mid-ams in the country, Nathan Smith, has won this event six of the last 10 years.
The Fred Brand Foursomes Championship at Longue Vue Club has been in existence since 1954 and is one of the few true alternate-shot, 36-hole championships left in the country. The DeNunzio brothers, Ronald and David, and team of Smith and Sean Knapp, have won six of the last seven Fred Brands. Each of those teams has won three times in that span.
But before the local season gets started, the greatly anticipated 2015 Masters gets underway this morning at Augusta National Golf Club with golf’s Big Three – Arnold Palmer, Gary Player and Jack Nicklaus leading the field out with a trio of ceremonial tee shots.
And while each year brings new compelling storylines, this year’s Masters has more than its share.
Since the PGA Championship last August, the anticipation has been amazing regarding Rory McIlroy’s chance to win the career Grand Slam with a win in the Masters. He’d become only the sixth player in the history of the game to have won all four majors in his career if Bubba Watson is putting a green jacket on his shoulders this Sunday evening.
Watson has been the guy getting the green jacket put on two of the last three years and brought his unconventional swing and quirky attitude this week with a chance to join Nick Faldo, Sam Snead, Gary Player and Jimmy Demaret as three-time winners of the event.
The golf world can’t wait for one of the young stars of the game to win a major. Jordan Spieth is the best bet among that group, but Rickie Fowler and Patrick Reed are capable as well.
What about Jimmy Walker, the most prolific United States player over the last two years with five wins? And Dustin Johnson, one of the most powerful players in the game, would seem to have an advantage in the Georgia hills, but he has yet to prove that to be the case.
And then there’s Tiger Woods. Two weeks ago, there was a real possibility the four-time Masters champion might not even compete this year. But two practice rounds at Augusta National last week convinced Woods he could play this week without embarrassment.
How will he play with 40,000 patrons watching his every swing? And how will he handle being required to count strokes and put numbers on a scorecard? Those answers won’t be known until after today’s first round.
The Masters’ storied history is filled with stories of great players doing great things on one of golf’s great layouts. There aren’t nearly as many stories of great players dominating, going away and coming back to dominating again.
Woods will dominate in one regard: media coverage today and tomorrow. His every move once he hits the Augusta National grounds will be documented by every media platform available, good and bad.
McIlroy certainly won’t mind being outside the spotlight shining on Woods. The pressure to win at Augusta will increase each day and, if Woods’ presence helps ease that heat a bit, the Northern Irishman will gladly welcome Woods’ return.
The Masters is not all about the competition on the greener-than-life course that was a fruit tree nursery before Bobby Jones and Clifford Roberts created the masterpiece we’re used to seeing in early April.
This year, Ben Crenshaw will follow in the footsteps of Palmer, Nicklaus and Player as he makes his 44th and final Masters appearance. The tournament has always been special for Crenshaw, who won a pair of green jackets. He’s always been an emotional man and he’ll no doubt be extremely so this week.
Adding to that will be him accepting an invitation from Palmer to take the King’s place in the annual Par 3 contest on Wednesday. Palmer’s recovery from a dislocated shoulder suffered in December will prevent him from playing with Nicklaus and Player and he believed Crenshaw would be the perfect replacement.
Palmer has given Western Pennsylvania a presence at the Masters for decades and that will be increased this year when his long-time administrative assistant Doc Giffin was given the William D. Richardson Award at the annual Golf Writers Association of America dinner Wednesday night.
The award recognizes “an individual who has consistently made an outstanding contribution to golf,” a description that wraps up Giffin’s career quite nicely.
Masters week is always special and this one promises to be, at the very least, very special.