OPINION: A Masters green jacket for an SA player this year?
Not since Gary Player, Jack Nicklaus and Arnold Palmer dominated the golfing world as the self-titled 'Big Three' has the sport seen such strength from its current top three players… this time the players in question are Jason Day, Jordan Spieth and Rory McIlroy.
Player, Nicklaus and Palmer picked up 13 green jackets at the height of their 28-year dominance from the late-1950s until well into the 1980s, and even though Messrs. Day, Spieth and McIlroy can only point to one green jacket, it is still early days in their respective careers.
Day is the oldest of the group at 28 but is possibly the late bloomer among them as he's just returned to the world number one spot after a stellar 2015 season, which ended with his first Major win at the PGA Championship (golf's richest Major) and he has recently been in sublime form as he won the Dell Match Play event over a field which included his fellow 'musketeers'. Day put paid to McIlroy in the one semi-final and South Africa's Louis Oosthuizen saw off then world number one Jordan Spieth in the quarterfinals.
Most pundits will tell you that the winner of this year's first Major, the US Masters, will come from the current top three and that would be good advice. All three appear to be unbeatable at the moment and seem to feed off each other and as well as others who 'dare' challenge them.
The fact is though that they will have to get past several other top-notch players who sit in the positions slightly further down from their lofty world rankings. Adam Scott goes into the Masters already with a green jacket neatly hanging in his cupboard and is in excellent form having already won twice this year.
Another player to watch out for, other than the normally strong American contingent of tow-time Masters winner Bubba Watson, the insanely talented Rickie Fowler and hard-as-nails Patrick Reed, is Sweden's Henrik Stenson. Stenson has placed in the top five a total of five times in his last seven outings and a win cannot be far off for the massive-hitter from Gothenburg.
But for me the most exciting prospect is the form of the South African contingent. In the past few years the South Africans have been somewhat underdone and then somehow managed to concoct a form resurgence to challenge, or at least post a top 10 finish. Cue Oosthuizen out of nowhere in 2012 in a losing playoff to Watson after a win for Charl Schwartzel in 2011.
Those were the only two highlights for South African fans since Trevor Immelman's win in 2008 which ended a golden era for the country. In 2007 Rory Sabbatini and Retief Goosen were T2 behind Zach Johnson, 2006 saw Tim Clark end second behind Phil Mickelson, Ernie Els was second in 2004 with Mickelson again the winner, Retief Goosen had the honour of placing second behind Tiger Woods in 2002 and Ernie Els was again the bridesmaid in 2000 behind Vijay Singh.
This year though the top South Africans have all won recently and are all showing good form… form that is threatening to burst into full-blown brilliance in the right environment and maybe for the right kind of prize. And the pulling power of a simple green jacket has shown it has a desirability factor not too far off front row seats at the Victoria's Secret annual fashion show!
How coincidental then that as before we once again point out THREE players to watch out for, namely Oosthuizen, Branden Grace and Schwartzel. And coincidentally, just like the top three players in the world, the South African trio also have a single green jacket to share among themselves. In total there will be five South Africans in the field - Els and Immelman will also tee off on Thursday, with Immelman a previous Masters winner. He will do well though to make it to Saturday and the Els game is unfortunately not where it needs to be to contend at the Masters, although he may have enough in the tank to make the Friday cut.
Oosthuizen sits at 11 in the world, Grace at 13 and Schwartzel at 20, but really there is nothing to separate them. They will be mindful of all the hype around the 'Top 3', but will certainly not be intimidated by them or, if they were to share a grouping with them during the Masters, won't be affected by them. They've stared down at some of Augusta's biggest challenges and while respectful of the magnificence of the course, the awesome history of the event, the undeniable talent of their fellow players, the three South Africans will not blink or shy away from this challenge. They are going to Augusta to win… not to shake hands with the winner.
Jeremy Harris is the sports anchor at Kfm and Cape Talk based in Cape Town. He is a keen golfer and plays off a 5 at his home club, Arabella. He is the specialist golf correspondent for EWN Sport and is also the narrator for the Sunshine Tour's two TV programmes on Supersport. Follow him on Twitter: @jeremyharris55.