The list of potential favorites seems to keep growing at the Masters Tournament as fast as the ranks of No. 1 golfers in the world.
Charl Schwartzel, the 2011 winner at Augusta National Golf Club, doesn’t seem to mind that his name often gets overlooked in the conversation.
“That doesn’t bother me, because end of the day, people talk about the guys that are in form,” said the 32-year-old South African who is ranked No. 28 in the world. “Guys that are playing well, that’s what everyone sees in media. That’s what I think everyone gets wrong. The tour is getting so strong. There’s so many guys that can win that.”
Schwartzel hasn’t drawn much of the spotlight since he birdied the last four holes in 2011 to rise above a cluster of stars vying for the green jacket. He’s continued to win around the world since, with 15 career global victories to his name, but admits there was some frustration living up to the mantle of being crowned a Masters champion at age 26.
He didn’t win again in America until last year at the Valspar Championship in Florida.
“You win the Masters and your expectations rise so much, and you have a drought for four or five years without winning you start doubting yourself, ‘What’s going on?’ ” he said. “I won outside of America, but it was really nice to come back here and win again. … Last year was a nice breakthrough for me just mentally to realize that you are capable of winning out here.”
Schwartzel’s trajectory gradually dipped before rising again as he enters what have long been considered the prime years of a golfer’s career. It’s not an uncommon pattern for a player who achieves a major milestone at so early an age. A winless 2014 was the low point in a two-year victory drought between Dunhill Championships in his native South Africa in 2013 and ’15, as he fell outside of the world top 50 for the first time since the start of 2010 and reached as high as No. 6 in 2012.
“The year after the Masters, I still played well,” Schwartzel said. “I got a few good finishes. Between a third place and a win, sometimes it’s really so minor. So I was out there a few times, came close.
“But then got frustrated and I started swinging a bit badly in ’13 and ’14. That compounds to not playing very well that year. Then ’15, I went back to looking at original footages of my golf swing, and I started fixing it up.”
The victory on the Copperhead course in Palm Harbor, Fla., not only boosted Schwartzel back in the range of a top-20 player but reignited his confidence. He qualified for the Tour Championship for the first time in three years, finishing 10th at East Lake last fall. The victory also re-upped his PGA Tour exemption that was set to expire at the end of 2016 through 2018.
“I just needed to get over the hurdle of winning out here again,” he said.
Returning to Innisbrook as defending champion in March allowed Schwartzel to relive the excitement of his Masters Sunday six years ago when he started with an unlikely chip-in birdie on No. 1, holed out for eagle on No. 3 and then had the hottest finish in Masters history to win.
“People talk about the four birdies finish, but I remember that first hole up until 3,” Schwartzel said. “And I didn’t have a 3-putt all week until the fourth hole. And then I played great. But there was so many guys in contention, you know, everyone was taking the lead, guys making birdies.
“But I still remember playing phenomenal golf, tee to green. It was amazing, all the way ’til 18. And make the putts on 15, 16, 17, 18. It was awesome.”
Regardless of who are considered favorites, only a select few have the experience that Schwartzel has to draw from when he gets to Augusta.
“You know, fair enough if they talk about everyone else,” he said. “But any time I get there, I feel like I’ve got just as good a chance to win as anyone else.”