Begay: Rory, not Tiger, 'by far the biggest story' entering Masters

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Begay: Rory, not Tiger, 'by far the biggest story' entering Masters

PGA Tour

Begay: Rory, not Tiger, 'by far the biggest story' entering Masters

This year’s Masters is considered to be one of the most anticipated in recent memory.

Tiger Woods is back and the betting favorite to win his fifth green jacket. Rory McIlroy is coming off a victory at Bay Hill and can achieve the career Grand Slam this week at Augusta National. Phil Mickelson has also won recently and is searching for his fourth Masters title. Two-time Masters champ Bubba Watson has two wins this calendar year. And Justin Thomas just nearly overtook Dustin Johnson as World No. 1 while Johnson is returning to Augusta a year after he withdrew the week of the tournament with a freak back injury. The storylines don’t stop there, either.

Golfweek recently caught up with Golf Channel analyst Notah Begay to talk this year’s Masters, his favorites, Jordan Spieth’s chances and of course, Tiger:

Let’s start out with this: Who’s your favorite to win the 2018 Masters?

“I would have to put Bubba as … my second favorite. I would put Phil as my favorite. I think he found his game and his confidence on top of that, and so those two things combined with whatever Augusta National does to them are I think going to produce a really strong performance.”

Tiger is back. Rory has won recently, as has Phil. Bubba’s won twice. Justin Thomas almost just went to No. 1 in the world. Dustin Johnson is back. Is this the most anticipated Masters that you can remember?

“I don’t like characterizing things in terms of all-time. I try and I guess limit that when possible. But in terms of since I’ve gotten into television, since 2012, this is by far the most exciting Masters I’ve ever been a part of. You could make a very strong case for five players to be the favorite. And I don’t think we’ve ever really had that. It’s kind of a two-sided coin; on one side of the coin, it’s the easiest major to win from who you have to beat – there’s only two dozen players who could theoretically win the tournament. But on the other side of the coin, it’s the hardest one to win because it has so much pressure, and I just think that the pressure comes from the fact that it’s got such a huge history – at the same venue, it’s the most watched of the majors, it’s the one that kids growing up really identify with, it’s the first one of the year, just all of these things that contribute to its lore that it make it hard to win.”

Jordan Spieth reacts after chipping in for birdie during the second round of the WGC-Dell Match Play. (Gregory Shamus/Getty Images)

It almost feels like this could be Jordan Spieth’s year again. It wouldn’t quite be anticlimactic, but not a lot of people are talking about him positively, they’re looking at the putting stats. Can Spieth still win the Masters this year even with the putting problems that he’s been having?

“Absolutely. It’s something to talk about because the disparity in the statistical performance (of his putting) is so big, but you look at any one given player, especially a player as talented as Jordan Spieth that has all of the other devices to win major championships and has already won major championships, all you need is one thing to click in. There have been so many major champions throughout history that have said, ‘Oh, my driving clicked in this week,’ or ‘I put a new putter in the bag.’ For Jordan, it’s simply finding that one little key in his setup, which I know he’s kind of been searching for a little bit, that creates a little more consistency. He starts to see putts go in and all of a sudden his confidence is back; that can happen in a matter of two rounds. I don’t really buy into the notion that it takes months to correct something that has worked in the past. … For a player like Spieth, he’s one or two rounds away from putting all that behind him and not questioning or doubting what he’s doing, but really having the capacity to run with it if he finds it. I think that makes him dangerous, I think (Rickie) Fowler’s really dangerous, I think (Jon) Rahm’s really dangerous, because nobody is going to be talking about those guys.

“They’re going to be talking about Tiger and Phil and Thomas, guys that have been playing well going into the tournament. And Rory, I mean, I think Rory is by far the biggest story, and I know that 99 percent of the media would disagree with me. … Nobody’s ever completed the career Grand Slam at Augusta. I think that’s the kind of stuff that motivates him, and he’s known to be a player who needs a little fire lit under his feet to get him hopping, and I think that’s the kind of thing that will get him going. I mean, that golf course was playing so hard Sunday at Bay Hill, for him to put together that kind of round and that kind of putting, that’s truly world class, and he was heads and shoulders above everybody in the field that week.

I’ll put Rory as Storyline 1-B this week.

“Tiger’s 1-A? OK, I’ll take that.”

Let’s rewind a little bit, about 17-18 years. What do you remember about your two Masters starts? You were T-37 in 2000 and missed the cut in 2001. What’s a memory that still sticks out?

“I think it’s the memory that hits me every time I walk into the place; no matter how many times you play or you visit, it’s just as impressive every time. The grandiosity of the place, it’s just a big place, it’s intimidating, and that’s part of the reason why first-timers don’t play well, part of the reason why anybody over the age of 50 typically doesn’t play well. It’s a tough course to walk, it’s intimidating, it’s penalizing if you don’t hit the right shots or you don’t know where to miss shots. It’s very intimidating – that’s the word I keep going back to, but that’s what I would characterize it as.”

Tiger Woods laughs with Notah Begay on the range during the third round of the 2017 Hero World Challenge. (Ryan Young/PGA TOUR)

I was looking at the money list in 2000, which was the year you won twice and made just over $1.8 million. Well, Tiger won nine times and made close to $9.2 million. Just how incredible was that season, and do you think that kind of season will ever be matched again?

“That season along with many of the other records are never going to be matched again. I don’t think that people truly grasp the greatness of Tiger Woods and what he was able to do and how he was able to continually push himself. I mean, he was running a race by himself because he had no equal, and continued to find the motivation and focus to make himself better. And I think that’s the intriguing thing about genius is that a lot of us, even myself, we don’t understand it, we question it, we second-guess it. These guys, man, they just have a way of seeing things that are uncommon.”

What would a Tiger win Sunday at the Masters mean for not only the golf world, but for Tiger himself?

“Honestly it would set this game up for the next 20 years, just like his win in 1997 set it up for 20 years. You’re going to see the Tiger effect this spring; I think you’re going to see more rounds of golf being played, more people spending money on golf, more people watching golf. If you look at our ratings, all the ratings in our shows have been up. I mean, it just creates this swirl of interest that is uncommon. You hate to say it, but there just isn’t anyone else out there that has that impact. But it comes with winning; Tiger Woods didn’t just show up and people started watching golf. He went out and he won the Masters by 12 shots, and then he followed that up a couple of years later with four (straight) majors. Not only was he winning but the way he was winning majors just set an incredible precedent that I don’t think you or me or anyone else who was around it really appreciated it.”

This last one is kind of a fun one. Take your paintbrush and paint a picture: What’s your ideal Masters Sunday look like? Who’s in the final groups?

“I would like to see McIlroy and Mickelson in the last group. And then Spieth and Tiger making the charge from the back. … I think my TV would break.”

And maybe a final-round 59 from Bernhard Langer?

“Don’t get carried away (laughter).”

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