Promos for the Masters on ESPN since the first of the year have been saying “It won’t be spring until it’s The Masters.” And with that, just a few days before the annual pilgrimage of golfers and golf lovers to Augusta, Georgia, it warmed up across the south. And, quoting the advertising of CBS, the “tradition unlike any other” is here.
Unfortunately, Tiger Woods is not, due to surgery on his back. The man who has played in every Masters since 1994, and has been the favorite in practically every one since his first win in 1997. Therefore, this field is wide open.
As always, there are tons of storylines this week, with the absence of Tiger certainly being one of them. A young field, with a record number of first-timers, is another. Perhaps my favorite is the story of Craig and Kevin Stadler. Craig, the 1982 Masters champion, and Kevin, the 2014 WM Phoenix Open winner, will become the first father-son pair to play in the same Masters (they are the ninth tandem to both play in the Masters in their lifetime), as Kevin plays his first, and Craig, at age 60, plays his last. While the tournament did not pair them together (that shouldn’t have been that hard, Augusta), Kevin will be four groups ahead of his father on each of the first two days, allowing him to meet Craig on the 18th green. If Craig surprisingly makes the cut, perhaps the golf gods will allow them to be paired together. If not, Kevin can see his father putt out at Augusta one last time.
I don’t have to preview the course, as anyone who has ever watched the Masters knows about the glory, prestige, and excitement created each April by the Augusta National Golf Club. However, one change has been made, and not by the choice of the Augusta hierarchy. The landmark Eisenhower Tree on the left side of the 17th hole had to be removed in February after an ice storm that some have called the worst ever to hit the Augusta area. Without the tree to block the potential path of tee shots on the hole, the drive was just made a lot easier. Expect a lot more balls in the 17th fairway, which should lead to easier approach shots, and a few more birdies on Augusta’s penultimate hole.
I heard one commentator say there are literally 30 players in the field with a legitimate shot at winning from the moment they step on the first tee on Thursday. I thought that number was a little high, until I went through the field and looked at who had a good shot to win. Sure enough, here are the 30 players with a great chance to be wearing the green jacket on Sunday night:
30. Nick Watney
Watney is by no means on this list due to current form, but instead due to experience; Watney has four top 20s in six Masters starts, including a 7th in 2010.
29. Graeme McDowell
McDowell seems to play his best on big stages, although his career record at Augusta shows four missed cuts in six appearances. He does, however, also have a pair of top 17 finishes.
28. Patrick Reed
One of a record 24 Masters rookies, Reed has won three times since August, including a WGC event at Doral. He also has all the confidence in the world.
27. KJ Choi
Choi tends to suddenly appear on the leaderboard at Augusta, with a 3rd in 2004 and top 10s in 2010 and 2011. Has played every major since 2002 Masters (I was surprised by that).
26. Louis Oosthuizen
The sweet-swinging South African has made only one cut in five attempts at Augusta, but finished 2nd in 2012, losing to Bubba Watson in a playoff. Has been battling injury lately, though.
25. Hideki Matsuyama
The former Asian Amateur champion was low amateur in 2011, and finished in the top 20 in all three majors he played in last year. Has a very bright future.
24. Fred Couples
Throw out the stats for Freddy; the ageless wonder (he’s 54 now), and 1992 Masters champion, seems to play well here no matter how he’s playing coming in. Here’s one relevant stat: Couples has finished in the top 15 each of the last four Masters, and had a shot on Sunday in 2010.
23. Lee Westwood
Westwood is not having a good year, but one of the best players without a major is one of two players to finish in the top 15 each of the last four Masters (Couples is the other), including a 2nd in 2010 and a tie for 3rd in 2012.
22. Jimmy Walker
The 35-year old got his long-awaited first PGA Tour win in October, and won two more events soon after. He is playing his first Masters, and his career best in a major is a tie for 21st at the 2012 PGA.
21. Ernie Els
The four-time major champion is always a threat, and a win this week would be the third leg of the career grand slam for the Big Easy. Finished top 6 at Augusta every year from 2000-2004, but has only one top 15 since (2013).
20. Steve Stricker
The now part-time player has a plethora of top 20s in majors, 11 top 10s, but only three top 5s, and none since 1999. Did finish tied for 6th at Augusta in 2009.
19. Henrik Stenson
While his best Masters finish is 17th, he ended 2013 as the hottest player in the world, finishing 2nd at the Open Championship and 3rd at the PGA before winning the FedEx Cup. Of his 7 top 10s in majors, 6 are top 5s. Could become world #1 with a win.
18. Ian Poulter
Poulter had top 10s in 2010 and 2012, and has come close to winning a pair of Open Championships and a PGA. If someone tells him the Ryder Cup is being played this week, he might blow out the field, as he always plays well in that arena.
17. Charl Schwartzel
He has all of one top 5 in a major in his career, but we know he’s capable of winning after he birdied the last four holes to win the 2012 Masters over a crowded leaderboard. He did finish in the top 25 in three of the four majors last year, with a high of tied for 14th in the US Open.
16. Angel Cabrera
Cabrera is another player that his form coming in never seems to matter. “El pato” won the Masters in a 2009 playoff, over Kenny Perry and Chad Campbell, and was in the final group on Sunday in 2011 and 2013, losing last year’s playoff to Adam Scott, with each result coming with little to no warning signs.
15. Sergio Garcia
One of the best players without a major title comes in with good form, having finished in the top 20 in every start this season, including a win in Europe in January and a 3rd last week in Houston.
14. Keegan Bradley
Augusta seems to fit Bradley’s game, although his best finish in two tries is just 27th. He is one of two players in the last century to win his first major start (along with Ben Curtis), and comes in off a 2nd at Bay Hill and five top 20s in seven starts so far this year.
13. Brandt Snedeker
Snedeker has been in the last group on Sunday twice, in 2008 and 2013, and was the 54-hole leader last year. He has publicly spoken about the process of learning the course, and what it takes to win here. His worst Masters finish as a pro is 19th, although his start to 2014 has been up-and-down.
12. Jordan Spieth
No Masters rookie has won the tournament since Fuzzy Zoeller in 1979, and Spieth is the highest ranked rookie on my list. He certainly appears to have the game and nerves to do it, but history isn’t on his side. Was low amateur at the 2012 US Open, and comes in with a pair of top 5s early in the season on the west coast.
11. Jim Furyk
The most recent “Mr. 59” has a trio of top 6 finishes at Augusta, although none have come since 2003, and is coming off heartbreak in the 2012 US Open and 2013 PGA. He is one of the most consistent players of this era, and can be counted on for a likely top 20, if not better, and has top 20s in three of his last four Tour starts.
10. Jason Dufner
While the defending PGA champion hasn’t finished better than tied for 20th in his three Masters appearances, he hasn’t finished worse than 30th, and he now knows what it takes to win a major. He was the 36-hole co-leader in 2012, and has finished in the top 5 in five of his last ten non-Masters major attempts, and hasn’t missed a cut all year.
9. Bubba Watson
The 2012 champion hasn’t played on Tour in over a month, but he finished in the top 2 each of his previous three starts, with a win at Riviera. In his career, when he’s threatened in major championships, he’s really threatened, losing a playoff at the 2010 PGA, and winning the green jacket in 2012.
8. Justin Rose
Rose finally won his long-anticipated major championship at the US Open last year at Merion. While his Masters record isn’t the best, he did tie for 5th in 2007 and tie for 8th in 2012. His best result of the year is a tie for 8th in Tampa, although he appears to have centered his schedule around the majors more than he has in past years.
7. Zach Johnson
While Johnson’s Masters win in 2007 is his only good finish at Augusta, he is one of the few top 10 players in the world who is actually playing very well right now, with a win at the Tournament of Champions in Hawaii and three other top 10s. He has finished in the top 10 in three of the last six majors.
6. Dustin Johnson
The one-time novelty player known for his length is now a threat to win every time he tees it up. In four starts this year, he has two runner-ups and a worst finish of 6th. He came painfully close to the US Open and PGA in 2010, and the Open Championship in 2011, and the only thing holding him back could be that, if he is in contention on Sunday, it would be his first time with a shot down the stretch.
5. Jason Day
It seems it is just a matter of time before one of the game’s best young players, wins a major, and particularly the Masters. He finished in a tie for 2nd in 2011 and 3rd in 2013, falling just short of becoming the first Aussie to win the event. He also has two other runner-up finishes in majors, at the 2011 and 2013 US Opens. He can become #1 in the world with a win, and won his last start at the WGC-Match Play, although he has been sidelined with a thumb injury since.
4. Matt Kuchar
Kuchar has a reputation as a top 10 machine, and that has held true early this season, with five top 10s and a 13th in eight starts. He finished tied for 4th and 2nd in his last two starts, and had the tournament won in Houston before an unfortunately timed pull and the incredible luck of Matt Jones. Kuchar finished tied for 3rd in the 2012 Masters, and had a great shot to win on the back nine, and tied for 8th last year. The Georgia native surely wants this major more than any other.
3. Phil Mickelson
It’s hard to bet against the three-time Masters champion, particularly after his unexpected win at the Open Championship last July that leaves him just a US Open away from the career grand slam. Before last year’s tie for 54th, Lefty had finished in the top 27 in every Masters since 1997, and the top 10 every year of that stretch except three. Phil has eight top 3 finishes in this event. The words Mickelson and Masters seems synonymous. While he hasn’t had the best results of his career this year, a runner-up in a European Tour event at Abu Dhabi and five top 20s on the PGA Tour early in the season isn’t bad at all.
2. Rory McIlroy
The favorite in Las Vegas is probably the most talented player in the field. He, surprisingly, doesn’t have a top 10 in his Masters career, in five tries, with a best finish of tied for 15th in 2011 after leading by four after 54 holes and leading by one on the tenth tee on Sunday. He knows how to win majors, with a pair of eight-shot victories in the 2011 US Open and the 2012 PGA. Augusta seems to suit his game, so it’s probably only a matter of time before he is wearing a green jacket. Will it be this year? In four Tour starts this season, he has finished in the top 25 in each, with a tie for 2nd at the Honda Classic, and a tie for 7th last week in Houston, where he closed with a 65.
1. Adam Scott
Scott finally won his first major at last year’s Masters, after finishing in the top 10 the previous two years, with a tie for 2nd in 2011. In doing so, he became the first Australian to win the Masters after so many heartbreaks for the nation. After winning at Augusta last year, he finished tied for 3rd at the Open Championship and tied for 5th at the PGA. He was playing fairly well before his breakthrough win last year, but is playing better coming in this year. In five starts, his worst finish is a tie for 25th, while each of his other four finishes were in the top 12, with a 3rd in his last start at the Arnold Palmer Invitational. No one has won the Masters back-to-back since Tiger Woods in 2001-02, and the only others to do it are Nick Faldo in 1989-90 and Jack Nicklaus in 1965-66. Scott, however, seems poised and ready to join them. Should he win, the 33-year old would jump to the top of the world rankings for the first time in his career.