The Masters gets underway tomorrow at Augusta National, and as always there are a plethora of storylines.
While Tiger Woods is absent, continuing to nurse a bad back, 93 of the world’s best players make up the most exclusive field in golf for the 81st time.
Over the years the fields at Augusta have gotten deeper, and this year is no exception, with dozens of players who have a legitimate chance to wear the green jacket on Sunday night.
As tournament play begins on Thursday morning, here are the biggest storylines:
After Wednesday’s Par 3 contest was rained out for the first time ever, the course should play soft. However, it won’t play easy, as winds of over 20 miles per hour are forecast for the Augusta area on Thursday and Friday.
Augusta National is never easy, but should play even more difficult than usual if this forecast is correct. A score of even-par could easily be in contention entering the weekend.
Saturday and Sunday, the weather will be better. Calm winds and warmer temperatures will allow for better scoring conditions, meaning that the even-par score that should be a contender on Friday evening will have to move a few under-par to don the green jacket on Sunday evening.
World No. 1 Dustin Johnson
This will be the first major Dustin Johnson has played as the top-ranked golfer in the world, and the first Masters since his victory in last year’s U.S. Open, a win that got the proverbial monkey off his back in major championships.
Few players have entered a Masters as hot as Johnson enters this year’s edition. Johnson has won three straight starts on the PGA Tour, and has finished in the top six in six of his last seven starts.
Johnson was the clear favorite early Wednesday, but now his status for the tournament may be in jeopardy after accidentally falling down the stairs in his Augusta rental home and injuring his lower back. Fortunately, Johnson has the very last tee time (2:03 pm ET), so he has the longest possible amount of time to treat his injury and decide if he can play.
Johnson’s manager says he hopes to play, but the uncertainty about whether Johnson can play and how well he can play with the injury has made Johnson an even bigger story entering the first round.
Jordan Speith vs. the 12th Hole
Last year, Jordan Spieth led The Masters by five shots entering the back nine on Sunday, but a quadruple-bogey seven on the par-3 12th hole cost him his second straight green jacket.
Now, as the 23-year old seeks his third major championship, Spieth will have face redemption at the difficult Amen Corner hole after hitting two balls in the water the last time he played it in competition.
Spieth hit his tee shot to about one foot at the 12th in Tuesday’s practice round, perhaps exorcising some of the demons from a year ago.
Even with last year’s collapse, Spieth’s record at Augusta is the best ever by a player in his first three starts: a win and two runner-up finishes. With that experience, it would be shocking if Speith is not in the mix late Sunday.
The Young Guns
Spieth is not the only young star capable of winning the green jacket on Sunday.
20 years after a 21-year old Tiger Woods changed the game of golf forever with his 12-shot Masters win, the young stars who grew up watching Woods are primed for Masters success.
Rory McIlroy (age 27) is seeking to win the final leg of the career grand slam, and would become the second youngest to do so (Woods was 24). McIlroy, who is ranked second in the world, led through nine holes of the final round in 2011 before a back nine 43 in his best chance to win to date. McIlroy has finished in the top 7 in both of his starts after missing time with a rib injury.
Jason Day (29) is ranked third in the world. His form hasn’t been as strong as some of the others on this list, although his mother’s cancer battle may explain that. Now, after her cancer surgery was successful and she will not require chemotherapy, Day has a clear mind to go chase the green jacket. Day tied for second in the 2011 Masters and finished third in 2013, and has the game to threaten in any major championship; he won the 2015 PGA Championship.
Justin Thomas (23) is ranked seventh in the world after starting the 2016-17 PGA Tour season with three wins. Thomas, who grew up competing against Jordan Spieth in junior events, tied for 39th in his only Masters appearance last year, and his best major finish is a tie for 18th, although he has made the cut in five of his six starts.
Hideki Matsuyama (25), ranked fourth in the world, also has two wins and two seconds this season, plus an unofficial one against a strong field at the Hero World Challenge. The Japanese star made the cut at Augusta twice as an amateur, and has finished in the top seven the last two years, along with a tie for fourth at last year’s PGA Championship.
Rickie Fowler (28), ranked eighth in the world, has a win at The Honda Classic and six top-six finishes this season. While he didn’t win last week in Houston, some suggested his result of third is even better than winning (only two players the last 60 years have won The Masters after winning the week before, a spell that now falls to Shell Houston Open winner Russell Henley). Fowler tied for 5th in the 2014 Masters as part of a season when he finished in the top five of all four majors.
Jon Rahm (22), ranked 12th, is the least established star on this list, but is still coming into Augusta on a hot streak after winning the Farmers Insurance Open and finishing in the top 10 in his last four starts (including two WGC events). However, this is Rahm’s first Masters–the only Masters rookie since 1935 to win was Fuzzy Zoeller in 1979. Rahm’s idol is fellow Spaniard Seve Ballesteros, whose 60th birthday would have been this Sunday.
Danny Willett (29), ranked 17th, is the defending Masters champion, although he has not won an event since donning the green jacket last April. Jack Nicklaus (1965-66), Nick Faldo (1989-90) and Tiger Woods (2001-02) are the only players to win back-to-back Masters.
Other young guns with a legitimate chance include Emiliano Grillo (24), Brooks Koepka (26), Daniel Berger (23) and Tyrrell Hatton (25).
Youth vs. Experience
But while the young stars have the talent to win The Masters, experience is always a factor at Augusta.
Masters champions receive a lifetime exemption into the event, with most playing the event into their late 50s or early 60s. Often, one of these legends will randomly pop up on the leaderboard and contend on the weekend.
Jack Nicklaus, who stopped playing the Masters after 2005 but will be one of the honorary starters on Thursday morning, won his sixth Masters at age 46 in 1986 to become the oldest Masters winner, then tied for sixth at age 58 in 1998.
Phil Mickelson (46) is trying to tie Arnold Palmer and Tiger Woods for the second most Masters titles, as a win would be his fourth. Mickelson, while still in his prime, is a few months older than Nicklaus was in 1986, and has finished in the top seven in two of his last three starts.
Bernhard Langer (59), the 1985 and 1993 champion, tied for eighth in 2014 and was tied for third, two shots back through three rounds last year, before fading with a final round 79. Langer comes in in good form with a win and two thirds this season in the PGA Tour Champions, where he leads the Charles Schwab Cup standings.
Fred Couples (57), marking the 25th anniversary of his 1992 Masters triumph, can threaten if his bad back cooperates. Couples finished in the top 20 in every Masters from 2010-14, including a sixth in 2010, and has finished in the top six in all four PGA Tour Champions starts this year, with one win, and is second in Charles Schwab Cup points.
Other past Masters champions in the field include Charl Schwartzel (32), Adam Scott (36), Trevor Immelman (37), two-time champion Bubba Watson (38), Zach Johnson (41), Mike Weir (46), Angel Cabrera (47), two-time winner Jose Maria Olazabal (51), Vijay Singh (54), Augusta native Larry Mize (58), Sandy Lyle (59), Ian Woosnam (59), and Mark O’Meara (60).
There are also players who have not won The Masters, but still have plenty of experience on Augusta’s hallowed ground.
Ernie Els (47), a four-time major champion, may be playing his final Masters, as his exemption from winning the 2012 Open Championship expires after this year. From 2000-2004, Els finished in the top six every year, including two runner-up finishes. Last year, he six-putted the first hole, eliminating a realistic chance to win just 15 minutes after his tournament started.
Jimmy Walker (38) and Henrik Stenson (turned 41 on Wednesday) are the winners of the last two major championships of 2016. Walker, who won the PGA Championship, tied for 8th in the 2014 Masters, while Stenson, the Open Champion, has never finished better than 14th at Augusta, although he has 11 combined top 10s in the other three majors and was the 2016 Olympic silver medalist.
Matt Kuchar (38) and Brandt Snedeker (36) are both seeking their first major, and have both said how emotional a win at Augusta would be. Kuchar finished in the top 10 each year from 2012-14, including a tie for third in 2012, and won bronze at the 2016 Olympics. Snedeker has three top 10s including a tie for third in 2008.
Steve Stricker (50) has scaled back on playing regular tour events, focusing on the majors as he still seeks his first. He has two top 10s in The Masters and none since 2009, but has not missed a Masters cut since 2008.
Lee Westwood (43), Paul Casey (39) and Sergio Garcia (37) are each European stars who have had successful careers but never won a major championship, while Justin Rose (36) has one major, the 2013 U.S. Open, and won the Olympic gold medal in 2016. Westwood has only finished outside the top 11 once in the last seven Masters, with two runner-up finishes; Casey has four top tens, including ties for sixth and fourth the last two years; Garcia has three top eight finishes including a tie for fourth in 2004 and has four second-place finished in majors; Rose has four top 10s including a tie for second in 2015.
Augusta National Golf Club, Augusta, Ga.
Notable First Round Tee Times (ET)
7:40 a.m.: Honorary Starters (Jack Nicklaus, Gary Player)
9:06 a.m.: Zach Johnson, Louis Oosthuizen, Adam Hadwin
9:28 a.m.: Adam Scott, Kevin Kisner, Andy Sullivan
10:01 a.m.: Fred Couples, Paul Casey, Kevin Na
10:12 a.m.: Russell Knox, Rickie Fowler, Hideki Matsuyama
10:34 a.m.: Jordan Spieth, Martin Kaymer, Matthew Fitzpatrick
10:45 a.m.: Phil Mickelson, Rafael Cabrera-Bello, Si Woo Kim
10:56 a.m.: Brandt Snedeker, Justin Rose, Jason Day
12:24 p.m.: Danny Willett, Matt Kuchar, Curtis Luck (a)
12:46 p.m.: Angel Cabrera, Henrik Stenson, Tyrrell Hatton
1:19 p.m.: Sergio Garcia, Lee Westwood, Shane Lowry
1:41 p.m.: Rory McIlroy, Hideto Tanihara, Jon Rahm
1:52 p.m.: Marc Leishman, Bill Haas, Justin Thomas
2:03 p.m.: Bubba Watson, Dustin Johnson, Jimmy Walker
(Year, Winner, Nationality, Score)
1934 Horton Smith, U.S., 284
1935 Gene Sarazen, U.S., 282
1936 Horton Smith, U.S., 285
1937 Byron Nelson, U.S., 283
1938 Henry Picard, U.S., 285
1939 Ralph Guldahl, U.S., 279
1940 Jimmy Demaret, U.S., 280
1941 Craig Wood, U.S., 280
1942 Byron Nelson, U.S., 280
1943-45 No tournament due to World War II
1946 Herman Keiser, U.S., 282
1947 Jimmy Demaret, U.S., 281
1948 Claude Harmon, U.S., 279
1949 Sam Snead, U.S., 282
1950 Jimmy Demaret, U.S., 283
1951 Ben Hogan, U.S., 280
1952 Sam Snead, U.S., 286
1953 Ben Hogan, U.S., 274
1954 Sam Snead, U.S., 289
1955 Cary Middlecoff, U.S., 279
1956 Jack Burke Jr., U.S., 289
1957 Doug Ford, U.S., 283
1958 Arnold Palmer, U.S., 284
1959 Art Wall Jr., U.S., 284
1960 Arnold Palmer, U.S., 282
1961 Gary Player, South Africa, 280
1962 Arnold Palmer, U.S., 280
1963 Jack Nicklaus, U.S., 286
1964 Arnold Palmer, U.S., 276
1965 Jack Nicklaus, U.S., 271
1966 Jack Nicklaus, U.S., 288
1967 Gay Brewer, U.S., 280
1968 Bob Goalby, U.S., 277
1969 George Archer, U.S., 281
1970 Billy Casper, U.S., 279
1971 Charles Coody, U.S., 279
1972 Jack Nicklaus, U.S., 286
1973 Tommy Aaron, U.S., 283
1974 Gary Player, South Africa, 278
1975 Jack Nicklaus, U.S., 276
1976 Raymond Floyd, U.S., 271
1977 Tom Watson, U.S., 276
1978 Gary Player, South Africa, 277
1979 Fuzzy Zoeller, U.S., 280
1980 Seve Ballesteros, Spain, 275
1981 Tom Watson, U.S., 280
1982 Craig Stadler, U.S., 284
1983 Seve Ballesteros, Spain, 280
1984 Ben Crenshaw, U.S., 277
1985 Bernhard Langer, West Germany, 282
1986 Jack Nicklaus, U.S., 279
1987 Larry Mize, U.S., 285
1988 Sandy Lyle, Scotland, 281
1989 Nick Faldo, England, 283
1990 Nick Faldo, England, 278
1991 Ian Woosnam, Wales, 277
1992 Fred Couples, U.S., 275
1993 Bernhard Langer, Germany, 277
1994 Jose Maria Olazabal, Spain, 279
1995 Ben Crenshaw, U.S., 274
1996 Nick Faldo, England, 276
1997 Tiger Woods, U.S., 270
1998 Mark O’Meara, U.S., 279
1999 Jose Maria Olazabal, Spain, 280
2000 Vijay Singh, Fiji, 278
2001 Tiger Woods, U.S., 272
2002 Tiger Woods, U.S., 276
2003 Mike Weir, Canada, 281
2004 Phil Mickelson, U.S., 279
2005 Tiger Woods, U.S., 276
2006 Phil Mickelson, U.S., 281
2007 Zach Johnson, U.S., 289
2008 Trevor Immelman, South Africa, 280
2009 Angel Cabrera, Argentina, 276
2010 Phil Mickelson, U.S., 272
2011 Charl Schwartzel, South Africa, 274
2012 Bubba Watson, U.S., 278
2013 Adam Scott, Australia, 279
2014 Bubba Watson, U.S., 280
2015 Jordan Spieth, U.S., 270
2016 Danny Willett, England, 283