Read GM Columnist Wayne Riley's thoughts ahead of the opening major of the season at Augusta National...

Wayne Riley: ‘Augusta Can Be Like Playing Golf In A Tumble Dryer’

The Masters is almost upon us. The golfing Oscars if you will. The white clubhouse, the blooming flowers and Magnolia Lane – Augusta National is like pixie land. It really does open one’s mind and imagination. There’s so much excitement ahead of the first Major of the year for numerous reasons, partly because it’s been so long since the previous one by the time it rolls around! You folks in the UK are also extremely partial to it because it coincides with a time of the year when the sun starts to shine and the golfing season proper gets underway. Happy days!

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Is this Major my favourite? It’s great, but I’d have to say no. For me, there needs to be more players in the field. The Open Championship, US Open and USPGA Championship all have more than 150 players taking part, whereas The Masters often falls short of 100. That’s a big difference, don’t you think? One of the beauties of golf is that virtually anyone in a particular field can have the week of their life and win – see Micheel, Curtis and countless others. With such a small field, the potential for these kinds of narratives is greatly reduced. You could potentially be 51st in the world and not get an invite, while a past champion with no hope of success can play for as long as he likes.

Sergio Garcia Wins AGW Golf Writers Trophy

Sergio Garcia claimed his first Major at Augusta

Sergio Garcia winning last year was a joyous occasion, and no one could begrudge the Spaniard his Green Jacket. I want to ask him which Major he’d have selected to be his first if he had the choice. I bet my bottom dollar he’d say The Open. Don’t get me wrong, winning any Major is a huge accomplishment, but The Open is the best of the lot.

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The unique aspect of The Masters as compared to the others is the fact it’s played at the same golf course each year. I love this, because it means everyone watching is so familiar with the layout. We all know the formula: get through the front nine a couple under, plot you way carefully around Amen Corner and then beat the par 5s up as you run for home. It’s a course that lends itself to excitement and some box-office finishes, as we’ve seen countless times over the years.

The golf ball used by Gene Sarazen in his albatross on the 15th hole during the 1935 Masters Tournament.(Photo by Augusta National/Getty Images)

The first of the famous finishes came in 1935, when Gene Sarazen hit ‘the shot heard around the world’ – a holed second to the 15th from 235 yards with his trusty 4-wood. Jack Nicklaus holing that putt on the 17th green in 1986 is one of golf’s most iconic images to this day, and signified the Golden Bear coming out of hibernation. Couples’ ball stopping on the bank in 1992, Mickelson out of the pine straw on the 13th in 2010, Bubba’s shot from the trees on the 10th in 2012 and countless others are all written into folklore. I guarantee you something special will also happen this year.

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By this point, you all know what attributes help at Augusta: a high ball flight, an ability to shape the ball from right to left, pinpoint accuracy on approaches, length and so on. But in my opinion, an underrated skill is the ability to read the wind. The trees through which the course is carved are towering and, much like Wentworth on these shores, it can be like playing golf in a tumble dryer.

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It’s one of those courses that brings so many different types of player into the mix. As mentioned, a high ball flight is an advantage, but if it’s windy that advantage is nullified. Long hitting is also beneficial, but playing from the middle of the fairway is crucial when the greens are so firm and undulating. Bombers and short hitters can thrive at Augusta and that’s one of the reasons why the event is so compelling. Zach Johnson won in 2007 and didn’t go for a single par 5 in two, while Bubba Watson hit wedge into the 13th hole during the final round in 2014.

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There has been a first-time major winner in six of the last seven Masters

Something that’s curious about Augusta is its habit of throwing up first-time Major winners. Why is that? Well, the field size makes it the easiest Major to win. And to clarify, I said easiest, not easy. Look back at the list of past winners and you’ll see so many examples of players who got over the line for the first time at Augusta. Since the turn of the millennium you’ve got Weir, Mickelson, Johnson, Immelman, Schwartzel, Bubba, Scott, Spieth, Willett and Garcia.

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Could we see another first-time Major winner in 2018? Absolutely. But, as I said, The Masters is the golfing Oscars – a celebration of Hollywood’s finest. Who else could that statement be applied to? You guessed it – Rory McIlroy. I know his Holywood is spelt with one L, but don’t be pedantic! Ready that green carpet, and the Green Jacket while you’re at it…

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