Day Three of our Masters countdown and you can almost smell the Azalea’s (the flowers, not Sergio Garcia’s daughter) from here.
There are a couple of events left, with the small matter of the WGC Match Play next week, as well as the final warmup which as usual will be at the Houston Open.
We have so far profiled two players who have won multiple times on the PGA Tour, but today Alex Noren will be in the spotlight.
Now Noren may not have won Stateside yet, despite going mighty close this season, but since 2015 he has elevated his game and become one of the elite players in the world of golf.
Like Brian Harman who started off this countdown, Noren has only played at Augusta once and failed to make the weekend. This does have to be put into perspective though, as this course can take a while to figure out.
Twelve months ago Noren made his Masters debut, which seemed well overdue and he finished alongside his compatriot, Henrik Stenson. The problem for both was that they both finished on eight-over-par after two days and missed the weekend.
Two rounds of 74 and 78 over the course of Thursday and Friday is unfamiliar territory for the Swede over the last three years and he will be looking to right that this year, in his second attempt.
Why he can win the 2018 Masters
His second start at Augusta will give Noren another chance to prove to everyone that he is a force to be reckoned with, no matter where or how big the event is.
There were a lot of bemused faces at Torrey Pines when Noren made it to a play-off with eventual winner, Jason Day as well as Ryan Palmer but plenty of fans, especially in Europe knew it was a matter of time before he contended in America.
Noren has won six times since winning his home event, the Nordea Masters for a second time in June 2015, seeing him rise to a career-high 8th in World Rankings last season.
This was largely thanks to a four-win season in 2016, but he made sure to follow that up in 2017, when he sealed a two-stroke victory at the European Tour’s flagship event, the BMW PGA Championship at Wentworth thanks to a final-round 62.
Whilst he hasn’t won again since that event last May, Noren has been in contention on a regular basis, finishing inside the top-10 on five occasions, including his two top-3s on the PGA Tour this season. This has ensured Noren has stayed near the top of the Official World Golf Rankings (16th), and is no longer an afterthought.
Strangely, whilst fans, players and coaches in Europe knew he was a natural winner and has always had the potential to be the player he is now, it is the run he has been on since playing regularly on the PGA Tour this season that has validated his major credentials.
This of course is a lot to do with the American media. A player will not be focused on unless he is a regular feature on PGA Tour leaderboards, but now he has done that this season he is all of a sudden a “sneaky pick” for the majors.
Whilst it does raise a smile at times, when players such as Noren are overlooked for so long, his play in America this season has proven to everyone he is ready for that next step and most importantly it has probably given him the confidence he needs to win a major.
Constantly pitting yourself against the world’s elite week in, week out and beating many of them, which he has done this season, is the best way to prove to yourself and everyone else that you are the real deal and a major champion in waiting.
If he was to have converted either of those chances at the Farmers or the Honda, he would be firmly amongst the favourites, but as it is stands, he is still a relative outsider.
In his five PGA Tour starts this season, Noren has made five straight cuts, finishing inside the top-21 each time, including on his last start in Mexico where he finished T14.
His 3rd at the Honda Classic saw him just one shot shy of the play-off between Luke List and Justin Thomas, so he really has been in a strong position to win on two occasions already in 2018 and he will hope that is the case again here.
A fine player, who has now put all the injury problems that plagued him for much of his early career behind him, Noren is clearly one of Europe’s top hopes in the four majors this season.
He is also a certainty to feature in Thomas Bjorn’s Ryder Cup side in September, barring injury and he will be key to defeating a strong US team given his knowledge and relatively strong form around Le Golf National.
If there is one thing that Noren needs to focus on ahead of the Masters it is his short game, as he currently sits 117th in Strokes Gained: Around-the-Green. His solid putting (21st in SG: Putting) means he is still putting together strong weeks, but his play around the greens will need attention in the practice rounds.
You need to be able to chip well around these Augusta greens, given the run-off areas and he will not want a tough week in that department to be the reason he can’t contend.
Every other facet of his game is in fine fettle, ranking 8th in SG: Approach and Tee-to-Green and 31st in SG: Off-the-Tee, good enough to rank him 4th in SG: Total. Flagging his play around the greens as an issue is very much a case of looking at any weakness he may have and come Masters week there’s every chance he will be fine in this area of his game also.
At time of writing, Noren is T71 (+2) at the Arnold Palmer Invitational, following a third-round 75 and he will need an exceptionally low round to keep up his top-25 streak this season.
This is his only blip in an otherwise extraordinary start to 2018 and he will be keen to move on and contend at the Match Play in Austin next week, after making it to the Quarter-Final stage last season.