Home » Masters 2024: This s#!t never gets easy – Australian Golf Digest

Masters 2024: This s#!t never gets easy – Australian Golf Digest

AUGUSTA, Ga. — He was too young to be burdened by a past and too inexperienced to know pain. But that was 90 minutes ago, when Nicolai Hojgaard was atop the white boards littered across Augusta National. Now, as he stumbled off the green, briefly looking back at the 15th fairway to wonder what went wrong before his dropping and shaking his head in dazed resignation, Hojgaard bared the scars that only the lucky and good will earn:

This **** is hard, and Masters Sunday will only be harder.

Let’s start with Collin Morikawa, who played his way into the final pairing. Morikawa turned in the round of the day on Saturday, a three-under 69, and did his work when the course was at its meanest. It was a reminder that while this course calls for gusto sometimes bravado needs to be benched for a more surgical approach.

Morikawa being in the mix at the Masters is a welcome surprise, “surprise” the operative word. It wasn’t that long ago that Morikawa was the next big thing. He won the 2020 PGA Championship in just his second career major start and proved that was no fluke when capturing the claret jug the following summer. Historically there’s no better barometer for success than the tee-to-green game, and Morikawa quickly proved himself as one of the best. Yet while ball-striking is the primary constant there are other variables in the equation, and Morikawa’s putting has often left him without answers. It has led him to try different grips and different clubs, but the confounding results remain, including this year, where he ranks 164th in strokes gained/putting. The next big thing has mostly become an afterthought: After six worldwide wins in a two-year span, Morikawa has just one in the past three, and he enters the week ranked 94th in strokes gained. He’s still in his 20s with plenty of runway to get right, and a win tomorrow would give him a shot at the career Grand Slam come the U.S. Open at Pinehurst. Golf is also littered with players fighting to become what they once were and losing that battle.

“Yeah, it sucks,” Morikawa said about trying to get that former feeling back. “I mean, I think the last time I was pretty close was probably the U.S. Open in ’22 at Brookline. And, you know, they are just different. You don’t—as a person and as a golfer, you don’t know how you’re going to react in those situations. Thankfully I’ve already been able to win two, so I can kind of go back on those experiences and just take that and take that experience into tomorrow.”

Bryson DeChambeau knows. Like Morikawa he is a major winner, his 2020 U.S. Open triumph coming in such dramatic fashion that it begged the question if he would dismantle the pillars Augusta National has stood on for decades. Since his Winged Foot victory, however, the paradigm-shifter has mostly been sidelined at majors, betrayed by the very methods that allowed him to reach those previous heights. There’s also that invisible weight that DeChambeau has brought on himself, both by his confident, iconoclast nature and the gamble he made on the game (whether he understands it) in his dealings with LIV Golf.

Through two days in Georgia, DeChambeau had excelled by keeping his noted brashness at bay and matching his power with precision, and even with back-to-back bogeys at the 11th and 12th was still very much in contention when he got to the 15th. Out of position on his second shot he tried what could be classified as a heroic shot, attempting to bend his ball through the trees and onto the green. But there is a difference between courageous and reckless and DeChambeau choose poorly, his ball getting caught in the pines and spitting out into the water. After the round he blamed it on an unlucky break and a bad lie, but as the ball disappeared DeChambeau stared a hole at where the ball stood just moments before, looking very much like a man wanting a mulligan but knowing it would not come. He bogeyed the 16th, and though he registered a fairway hole-out for birdie at the last he will begin the final round four back.

“It’s not easy when the course conditions aren’t just kind of lending to your favor, and just the breaks aren’t going your way is what I mean by that,” DeChambeau said after a Saturday 75, leaving him four shots off the lead. “You just have to stay positive no matter what.”

Ben Walton

There’s Max Homa. The social-media darling, the man of the people, the tour’s comic relief. He does his best when the sport is on the West Coast. The rest of the year, Homa is mostly a spectator, especially when it comes to major championship golf with just one distant top-10 finish in 17 major starts. He has not lived up to the expectations that have come with his rising stardom.

That’s changed through the first two days in Augusta, and on Saturday he played tough in tough conditions. He didn’t make a birdie, but he didn’t make any mistakes either. Homa did what he was supposed to do, which is make Sunday matter. Homa is a proponent of self-belief, about the grail quest is not the grail but the quest itself. That belief will be put to the test.

“I came here with the gratitude and appreciation that I get to do it. I’m happy I get to do it tomorrow,” Homa said. “I’m going to remind myself I’m a dog and I’m ready for this moment.”

Ask Xander Schauffele. He has 11 top-10 finishes at the four biggest events, including a runner-up and a third here, and those performances once bestowed Schauffele the reputation as raising his game at the biggest stages. But Schauffele’s standing has considerably changed over the last few years, those high finishes without trophies no longer viewed as encouraging but as indictments, proof that when the lights are at their brightest Schauffele tends to be blinded. A shaky closing finish at Sawgrass last month with the Players on the line did little to quiet those aspersions. Schauffele also carries the stink of last year’s Ryder Cup, where he was reportedly threatened with team explosion for requesting payment for his participation. Against the backdrop of golf’s civil war and the perception that many of the game’s central actors cared more about themselves than where their actions were taking the sport as a whole—coupled with rumors that the American locker room was fractured—it did not paint Schauffele in the most positive of lights. But Schauffele is in the Masters mix, shaking off a so-so first round with two impressive displays in the wind to enter Sunday five back. Perhaps no player’s narrative has more riding on it. “You just want a chance coming down that back nine,” Schauffle said. “Hopefully I’ll have mine tomorrow. I’m going to be ahead of the leading groups, but not too far, I hope. Yeah, that’s all I can shoot for.”

The lone aberration is Ludvig Aberg. He’s in golf’s version of the honeymoon phase, playing in his first major championship. There are no expectations, only possibilities; golf is not a game where anyone has it all but with our fledgling stars we briefly allow ourselves to think they might. Aberg’s play is not disabusing this notion, a two-under 70 putting him in the penultimate group at three back. Augusta is notoriously unkind to first-timers, so he’s essentially playing with house money. Enjoy him while it lasts, because, eventually there will be expectations, and possibilities start evaporating. Their wrongs begin to stick out, often outweighing the rights that made us fall in love in the first place.

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J.D. Cuban

“Yes, I don’t think you should shy away from it,” Aberg said. “I don’t think you should try to push it away. I try to embrace it, and I try to be OK with all that comes with it, I guess.”

On that front, look no further than Rory McIlroy. There’s no need to relitigate McIlroy’s forever war with the Masters, only that this week emphatically stated the war will continue. His profile seems fitting of this tournament and karmically the man deserves to be its champ. But green jackets are not given but earned and golf is a game that does not repay its debts.

“I mean, all I can do is come here and try my best,” McIlroy said, trying to answer the question he’s been unable to solve. “That’s what I do every time I show up. Some years it’s better than others. I’ve just got to keep showing up and try to do the right thing.”

Which brings us to Scottie Scheffler. He recognizes the impalpable pressure of what’s at stake better than any of the above. He is a past Masters winner and entered as the favorite after two wins and a runner-up in his last three starts. Through 54 holes he continues his tour-de-force performance, sticking with the same measured and total performance that is often misconstrued as plodding in the best possible connotation. Despite the formidable competition Scheffler is supposed to get the job done by Sunday night. He is as inevitable as golf gets.

“I’m in a comfortable spot with my game,” Scheffler said, in the running for the understatement of the year. “Yeah, I’m definitely excited about tomorrow.”

But it was also this tournament that two years ago brought Scheffler to tears. He didn’t know if he was ready for what awaited, scared at getting this close to a dream only to watch it pass on by. Players spend their entire lives chasing this moment, and they often don’t realize until it’s too late that the gravity may be too much to handle, and that’s the hardest part.

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This article was originally published on golfdigest.com