The 2016 Masters is finally here. I’m sure there’s some recency bias at play here, but I can’t ever recall being this excited for the year’s first major (and that’s coming from a guy that calls the Masters his favorite sporting event of the year). Ninety players were invited to compete at Augusta National Golf Club this year. Last Friday, Tiger announced he would sit out the tournament due to injury, bringing the number of participants in the 80th edition of the Masters Tournament to 89 players. The Masters always has the smallest field of the four majors (usually in the mid-nineties, while the others have around 150), and as an old saying goes: the Masters is the toughest major to get into, but the easiest to win. Now, there’s nothing easy about winning a green jacket at Augusta National, but the fewer players you have to beat, the better your chances of pulling it off. In addition, a large number of those limited spots are taken up by past champions (who receive lifetime exemptions to play) and amateurs (to honor the legacy of tournament co-founder Bobby Jones), and that makes it pretty easy to narrow down the field to a relatively small number of serious contenders. When you pair the small field with a golf course that requires a very specific set of skills from its champions, you can winnow the contenders down even further. So, without further ado, we’ll eliminate the also-rans before I make my prediction.
Past champions whose week is pretty much over after Tuesday night’s Champions Dinner: Older guys like Tom Watson, Sandy Lyle, Ian Woosnam, Larry Mize, Vijay Singh, Mark O’Meara, and Bernhard Langer; younger guys that I still can’t believe actually won a Masters like Mike Weir and Trevor Immelman; and the in-between guy that’s awesome but has no chance, Angel Cabrera. Fred Couples would be lumped into that last group with El Pato had he not been forced to withdraw with his perpetually creaky back.
The Amateurs: Augusta National reserves six spots in the field for the winners (and in the case of the US Amateur, the runner-up) of various amateur championships from around the world. No amateur has ever won the Masters. Sorry, Asian-Pacific Amateur champ Cheng Jin and British Amateur winner Romain Langasque. Enjoy your stay in the Crow’s Nest high above Augusta National’s clubhouse, soak it all in, and try to have fun.
However, there is one amateur garnering a lot of attention this week, and for good reason. Reigning US Amateur and NCAA Champion Bryson DeChambeau has a better chance of staying relevant through Sunday than any amateur in recent memory. The minute DeChambeau’s Masters ends, he’ll turn pro. The only reason he hasn’t turned professional already is because doing so would mean forfeiting his Masters invite. DeChambeau is a fascinating cat; his Tuesday press conference was probably the most interesting and thoughtful of the week. He plays the game with one noticeable quirk: every one of his irons is exactly the same length. Typically, the shaft on a 4-iron is longer than the 5-iron, and so on. His are all identical. There’s a scientific method to his madness, and I’m genuinely interested to see if more players follow suit in the future. Bryson DeChambeau will be competitive in many Masters over the course of his career, and he may hang around through the weekend this year, but calling him a serious contender in his first competitive trip around Augusta National is too much, too soon.
First-Timers: Not since Fuzzy Zoeller in 1979 has a Masters debutant walked away with the green jacket. Augusta National requires experience, both in terms of getting comfortable around the strict and somewhat suffocating environment of the club itself, and learning the golf course. Augusta has some of the most-sloped fairways in major championship golf, and also some of the the trickiest, subtlest green complexes. On average, first-time champions have needed six or seven Masters before they figure it all out, and while there are exceptions (Spieth’s win in his 2nd Masters last year), I don’t see any serious contenders in this group. Of the 20 first-timers, Justin Thomas is getting most of the pre-tournament hype along with DeChambeau, but I’ll be keeping an eye on Australian Cameron Smith, England’s Andy Sullivan, or Georgia alum Kevin Kisner to possibly break through (though not win). Thomas is undeniably talented, but I’m not convinced he can close against an elite field…yet. Smith finished tied for 4th at last year’s US Open, and Sullivan has had one of the better seasons on the European Tour in 2016. Kisner has played well in some big events (Rickie Fowler beat him in a playoff at The Players Championship last year) and he got his first Tour win last fall, and you know the Masters is the biggest stage of them all for a kid from Georgia.
Americans who are good but just don’t seem like they’ll ever be “major winners”: Matt Kuchar, Bill Haas, Ryan Moore, JB Holmes, Jimmy Walker, and Hunter Mahan. There are perfectly valid reasons to think any of those six could win the Masters this week (well, except for Mahan…that pick would be pretty unjustifiable). I’m not buying any of them.
Europeans who are good but just don’t seem like they’ll ever be “major winners”: Lee Westwood, Ian Poulter, Sergio Garcia. Every year, my friends and I pool some cash and make Masters bets in Vegas. If we hit, we split the winnings, regardless of who picked the winner. And every year, somebody in the group sets their money on fire by picking Sergio. Garcia has said he doesn’t like the course, that it doesn’t suit his game. I’m pretty sure my friends pick him just to infuriate me. It works, and it’s the only possible explanation.
Internationals who are good but just don’t seem like they’ll ever be “major winners”: I included this category just so I could type the names Kiradech Aphibarnrat, Anirban Lahiri, and Thongchai Jaidee.
The group just outside my top 10: I’m putting past champions Charl Schwartzel and Zach Johnson in this group to go along with Paul Casey, Henrik Stenson, Justin Rose, and Patrick Reed. It’s really tough to leave Rose out of my top ten, considering he finished runner-up to Jordan Spieth last year. In 2015, Rose had the best-ever cumulative score to par of anyone not to win a major in that particular year. That’s not a record anyone wants, but it speaks to his ability to play the toughest events well. I’m a huge Patrick Reed fan. I realize that just about everyone on Tour hates his guts, and he has been accused of both cheating on the course and petty theft off of it by some of his former college teammates, but I can’t help but root for him. When a guys shows the kind of passion for the Ryder Cup that Reed showed at Gleaneagles two years ago, he’s got me in his pocket.
Now, onto the real contenders….
My Top Ten (if the winner comes from outside this group, feel free to mock me mercilessly, but…ya know…don’t be a jerk about it):
10) Hideki Matsuyama. No Asian player has ever won the Masters (unless Fiji counts as Asia, in which case, Vijay Singh has, so never mind), but Matsuyama has the game to become the first. He was low amateur in his first Masters back in 2011, and he finished 5th last year. Matsuyama has two highly impressive wins for a 24-year-old, in a playoff over Rickie Fowler in Scottsdale earlier this year, and at the 2014 Memorial. Muirfield Village, Jack Nicklaus’s private playground in Dublin, Ohio, and site of the Memorial, comes as close to Augusta National in terms of shotmaking required and course conditions as any on Tour. Matsuyama has never truly been in the hunt at a major on a Sunday, and you never really know how someone will react to that situation until they’re in it, but it’s only a matter of time for Japan’s brightest golfing star.
9) Dustin Johnson. This is a tough one. I firmly believe DJ will finish in the top 5 at this year’s Masters, but I don’t think he’s more likely to win than anyone who follows. The difference between top-5’s and wins is the difference between being good and being great. DJ is good. DJ isn’t great. And, as always, Dustin Johnson can’t putt (though he did have a great putting week in Houston last week, but Augusta National definitely ain’t Houston).
8) Louis Oosthuizen. The slight, soft-spoken, kinda-funny-looking South African always flies a little below the radar. When you watch him swing, however, you take notice. Louis’s swing is my favorite on Tour (Adam Scott’s is right there, too, but Adam Scott can’t have EVERYTHING). It seems like Oosthuizen has hung around every major leaderboard since his breakthrough blitzing of the field at St. Andrew’s in 2010. Since then, he lost in a playoff to Bubba at Augusta in 2012 (the ridiculous hooked gap wedge from Bubba sunk him), finished one shot behind Spieth at last year’s US Open, and was beat by Zach Johnson in the playoff at St. Andrew’s last summer. Playing the “what if” game when it comes to championship golf can send you down an endless rabbit hole of alternative universes, but Louis Oosthuizen is four shots away from being a four-time major champion. That’s not insignificant.
7) Rory McIlroy. Surprised he’s this far from the top of my list? Me, too. If I had made this list a month ago, Rory would’ve been a lock for my top 3, but he’s had a shaky stretch of play. Naysayers will point to his changed putting grip (McIlroy started going left hand low a few events ago) as a sign he isn’t as confident as one needs to be coming down Magnolia Lane, but his putting hasn’t been the problem. His putting stats have actually improved since the switch. It’s his ball-striking that has hurt his results in 2016, and Rory has won each of his 4 major championships with his superior long game. He seems to mix a couple of double bogeys or a triple into every round he’s playing lately, and you can’t afford to make those big mistakes and win at Augusta. Additionally, the forecast is calling for some stronger winds this weekend in northern Georgia, and wind is Rory’s kryptonite. That might seem surprising for a lad from Northern Ireland, but it’s true. Rory wins on courses that are long, soft, and calm. McIlroy will win a Masters sooner rather than later to complete the career grand slam, but I don’t think it’ll happen this week.
6) Bubba Watson. Two-time champion (2012 and 2014). Owner of two of the best shots I’ve ever seen at the Masters (his aforementioned gap wedge from the pine straw on 10 in the playoff win over Louis, and his drive on #13 in the final round of the 2014 tournament. That drive basically let Jordan Spieth know that he and Bubba were playing two different courses. It was impossibly aggressive and majestic, and I don’t think it gets enough credit when people discuss “defining” shots in Masters wins). Bubba will always be one of the favorites at Augusta because the course suits powerful lefties better than anyone else, but Bubba’s personal demons of self-doubt and insecurity are always just below the surface, waiting to burst through. Nothing brings out “bad Bubba” more than wet, windy weather. We’ll know if Bubba has a chance at green jacket number three by Friday evening. If he’s within 4 or 5 shots at the halfway point, he’ll probably become my favorite. But I also wouldn’t be surprised if the wind, some rain, a little mud on the ball, and the weight of expectations led to a missed cut. As always, Bubba is an enigma. I want to love him because he plays the game so uniquely, but his attitude and on-course outbursts make it tough.
5) Phil Mickelson. Speaking of powerful lefties who know a thing or two about winning at Augusta. Phil is looking to join Tiger, Arnie, and Jack (6) as the only 4-time champions in Masters history. He’s 45 years old, but it doesn’t feel like it would be a “Jack Nicklaus at 46 in ‘86 fairytale” if he won. He was runner-up last year, he’s been playing well, and he feels completely at ease at the Masters. He’ll be in the mix on Sunday.
4) Rickie Fowler. Rory and Bubba dropped in my ranking because of the forecast. Rickie rose. He hits it as long as just about anyone despite standing only 5’7” and weighing 160 pounds. He’s learned how to close (the 2015 Players Championship and Scottish Open, a Euro Tour event in Abu Dhabi against a quality field earlier this year), and he knows how to play in bad weather. He’s ready to win a major, and I think he’ll get his first this year. Obviously, it wouldn’t surprise me if it happened this week.
3) Adam Scott. He was the first Australian to win the Masters, in 2013. When the anchored putting ban went into effect on January 1st of this year, many (including me) thought it would be the beginning of the end for Scott. Instead, he’s thrived, and it makes you wonder why he ever used that stupid cheating broomstick in the first place. Scott won the Honda Classic and the WGC Cadillac at Doral in back-to-back weeks during last month’s Florida swing. His confidence is high, his game is sharp, and I’d be absolutely stunned if he wasn’t on the first page of the leaderboard on the back nine on Sunday.
2) Jordan Spieth. When you’ve only played in two Masters (as Spieth has) and your results are a runner-up finish and a four-shot win (while matching Tiger’s championship scoring record), you’re one of the favorites. It’s hard not to put him first, since Spieth seems better than anyone at golf’s most important skill (getting the ball in the hole in fewer strokes than anyone else), and he’s already in the discussion when you bring up the best putters of all time (nobody’s better from 15-20 feet). However, his game seems a little off, and, quite simply, it’s difficult to defend, especially at the Masters, where the defending champion has an unusually long list of ceremonial duties during the week. He lit golf social media on fire when he started last Sunday in Houston with 5 birdies in 7 holes, but some shaky shots left him frustrated by day’s end. If his recent form was just a little bit better, he’d be the favorite, but one man deserves the top spot ahead of the top-ranked American in the world.
1. Jason Day. Bold choice, I know. Day is the #1 ranked golfer in the Official World Golf Ranking. He won the most recent major championship, the PGA Championship at Whistling Straits, with one of the most impressive displays of power golf I’ve ever seen. He was routinely hitting drives 50 yards past his playing partner that Sunday (some guy named Spieth) and making every putt he looked at. Day has admitted that, in the past, he felt more comfortable being in the mix, but not leading; making a bunch of money with good results, but not ready to close out and deal with the attention and pressure that come with winning. He’s gotten over that. After that win at Whistling Straits, he rattled off two more wins in the FedEx Cup playoffs (the Barclays and the BMW), and has two additional significant wins in the last month, at Bay Hill and the WGC Match Play event, where he fought through back tightness early in the week to win seven matches in five days. He’s the hottest player in the world right now, and he knows his way around Augusta National, where he has two top-threes in five career starts. When the dust settles on Sunday, Day will join Scott as Aussies to win the Masters.
Or he won’t. Who knows? It’s championship golf, championship golf in a post-Tiger world is ridiculously unpredictable, and the top-level talent in the field this week is as good as it’s ever been in Masters history. This week is going to be awesome. Fore, please…