From 1997 to 2013, the Masters was essentially all about one person. After three years of having the pre-tournament focus on multiple players, the tournament again has a dominant performer who will attract most of the attention before the first group tees off at Augusta National April 6.
Dustin Johnson has emerged as golf’s clear No. 1after the trio of Rory McIlroy, Jordan Spieth and Jason Day had a relatively brief run as the game’s ruling triumvirate. Johnson has won his last three starts – the Los Angeles Open, the WGC event in Mexico and the Match Play Championship, giving him six victories since his breakthrough triumph in the 2016 U.S. Open.
Prior to capturing the U.S. Open at Oakmont, Johnson was known as one of the game’s most talented players, but one who lacked the ability to close out an opportunity to win a major title. Johnson’s final round meltdown in the 2010 U.S. Open at Pebble Beach and his unfortunate visit to an alleged bunker later that year in the PGA Championship at Whistling Straits defined his career as a player until his three-putt par on the 72nd hole of the 2015 U.S. Open at Bandon Dunes added another chapter to his book of near-misses in majors.
Johnson’s six wins in less than a year have increased his career total to 15 titles — five in WGC events and three in the FedExCup Playoffs. He has opened a considerable lead as the game’s top-ranked player, and with a much-improved short game to add to his prodigious length, enters the Masters as the clear favorite.
It took Johnson a while to figure out Augusta National, as he placed higher than 30th just once in his first five starts. But he finished sixth and fourth the last two years, ending up just four shots behind 2016 winner Danny Willett. Johnson has not always appeared comfortable on Augusta’s treacherous greens, but has been much more effective with his putter of late, a big reason for his rise to No. 1.
Although he has fallen behind McIlroy and Day (as well as Henrik Stenson and Hideki Matsuyama) in the world rankings, Spieth would have been the pre-tournament favorite was it not for Johnson’s otherworldly play over the past year.
Spieth easily could have won each of the last three Masters, tying for second in 2014 and ’16 around his record-tying victory in 2015. Two holes in ’14 and his disastrous quadruple bogey on the 12th in the final round last year prevented a possible three-peat. Spieth has already acquired a mastery of Augusta National’s famously demanding greens in just three tries, more than offsetting the distance gap between himself and the likes of Johnson, McIlroy and Day.
With his victory earlier this year at Pebble Beach, Spieth has nine career wins at the age of 23 and it would not be a surprise if he made it into double figures at Augusta.
McIlroy has top 10s in each of the last three Masters, with his best showing a fast-finishing fourth in 2015. But until he wins one to complete a career Grand Slam, McIlroy will always have to deal with the lingering doubts from his back-nine collapse in 2011, one month before his 22nd birthday.
Since then, McIlroy has 13 PGA Tour wins, including four majors, and 10 other international titles, and has yet to turn 28. He locked up the 2016 FedExCup title with a playoff win at East Lake in the Tour Championship, and a Masters victory seems inevitable. He has yet to seriously contend in Augusta since his disastrous back nine on Sunday six years ago, but that may be about to end.
Day is dealing with health concerns regarding his mother, which resulted in his withdrawal from the Match Play Championship. It’s been almost a year since his last victory in the 2016 Players, with his results since then including WDs in the last two Playoffs events of 2016, a DNS from the recent WGC Mexico Championship and his tearful early exit from the Match Play.
During his career, the 29-yard-old Day has successfully dealt with both physical and emotional challenges, winning a combined eight times in 2015 and ’16, part of a 10-month stretch that produced seven victories, one of them a major.
Day made a pair of determined runs at victory in Augusta, tying for second in 2011 and placing third two years later, both times finishing two shots behind the winner. His tie for 10th last year was his best showing since, and his mom’s health issues aside, he remains a serious challenger to Johnson and McIlroy in the race to a first win in Augusta.
The other two players at the top of the list or pre-tournament favorites are both former Masters champions.
After falling victim to four consecutive birdies on the last four holes by Charl Schwartzel in 2011, Adam Scott defeated Angel Cabrera in a playoff in 2013. It was the third straight top 10 in Augusta for Scott, but he has not been a serious factor since, and has just one win outside his native Australia over the past four years.
Phil Mickelson has three Masters titles among his 42 career PGA Tour victories, but his last win came in the 2013 British Open. Mickelson turns 47 in a few months, but as he demonstrated in his runner-up finish to Stenson in last year’s British Open, he still has the game to win at golf’s highest level.
Mickelson has a tremendous career record in Augusta, with six top-3 finishes along with his three victories and 15 career top 10s. Mickelson tied for third in 2012 and was a second behind Spieth two years ago, part of a long string of strong showings in majors in recent years.
But Mickelson has not been able to put four rounds together to produce a victory since his spectacular final round at Muirfield in 2013. If he still has the ability to do that, Augusta National is the most likely place for it to happen.
No Masters rookie has won the tournament since Fuzzy Zoeller in 1980, with Spieth almost accomplishing that feat in 2014. PGA Tour rookie Jon Rahm could do what Spieth almost accomplished, possessing a power game and deft putting touch that has already resulted in a win in San Diego and top-3 finishes in WGC events in 2017.
Justin Thomas made a quiet first appearance in the Masters last year, and has yet to make a splash in any of the five majors he’s appeared in. Like Johnson, Thomas has three wins in the 2016-17 PGA Tour season, but since back-to-back victories in early January in Hawaii, has pretty much disappeared other than a fifth place finish in the WGC Mexico. Like Rahm, he has the game for Augusta National, but may not be ready to handle the overall experience.
Twenty-somethings Matsuyama and Rickie Fowler both have top-5 finishes in Augusta and each has won on the PGA Tour in recent months. While Fowler has played well throughout the early stages of 2017, Matsuyama seems spent after a torrid stretch that produced five wins worldwide in late 2016/early 2017.
After winning 11 of 20 Masters in the 1980s and ‘90s, no European won the next 15 years before Willett took advantage of Spieth’s inexplicable 7 on the par-3 12th, earning his win with an outstanding final round of 67. Willett was making just his second Masters start, and while he was considered one of the European Tour’s rising stars with four wins since 2012, he was a relative unknown in the U.S. and had never finished higher than 30th in an American major. He has done absolutely nothing since.
Several players in this year’s Masters have similar resumes to that sported by Willett last year, among them Thomas Pieters, Tyrrell Hatton, Tommy Fleetwood and Alex Noren. All four will be competing in their first Masters, with Pieters possessing a power game that should fit Augusta National and each of the four turning in some top finishes in WGC and PGA Tour events this season.
Five European veterans are also among the top tier of pre-tournament favorites, two of whom have major titles to their credit.
Stenson outdueled Mickelson in the British Open at Troon last year, but has never finished better than 14th in 10 Masters starts. He has five top-20 finishes in Augusta, but his suspect putting has negated his strong play from tee to green. Justin Rose, the 2013 U.S. Open champion, tied for second in the Masters ’14, one of four career top 10s in Augusta, and is one of the players most likely to contend but not necessarily win.
Another likely European contender is Paul Casey, who has finished sixth and fourth the last two years with strong Sunday showings after some final round flameouts in Augusta earlier in his career. Lee Westwood has a terrific career record at Augusta National with three top-3 finishes, but his window of opportunity may have closed after his tie for second last year. At the age of 37, Sergio Garcia still has time to capture his first major title, but he has seemingly talked himself out of making a serious run in a Grand Slam event, notching just one top 10 in Augusta since 2004.
Beyond Johnson, Spieth, Mickelson and Fowler, there are no obvious likely American contenders, although it’s hard to discount two-time Masters champion Bubba Watson, whose Masters record is spotty other than his two wins and has not played well this season.
Matt Kuchar had three straight top 10s from 2012-14, but has not been his usual top-10 machine of late. Brandt Snedeker has three career top 10s in Augusta and three on the PGA Tour this year, but like Kuchar, is closing in on 40 without a major championship trophy on his mantle.
Dark horse contenders range from England’s Ross Fisher to Australia’s Mark Leishman to Italy’s Francesco Molinari to a trio of ex-Georgia Bulldogs – Kevin Kisner, Hudson Swafford and Russell Henley. Swafford and Henley have PGA Tour wins in 2017, with Henley earning a last minute invite with an impressive Sunday comeback in Houston.
Names to avoid in Masters pools include Patrick Reed, Jimmy Walker, Schwartzel, Bill Haas, Jason Dufner, J.B. Holmes and Martin Kaymer, with Stenson, Matsuyama, Thomas, Watson, Willett, Kuchar and Westwood among those to shy away from.
The law of averages may be about to catch up to Spieth (for the last three years in Augusta) and Johnson (for his three straight wins), and Day’s focus may or may not be on a green jacket.
That leaves McIlroy as the most likely winner, with Fowler a real threat. Mickelson may still have one more challenge left in him, and Rose, as always, is someone to watch. After Willett’s surprise triumph last year, keep an eye on the likes of Hatton, Fleetwood, Pieters, Noren and Fisher. Expect one or more of that group to be in the hunt on Sunday, with a very strong possibility that a second straight European winner will take home a green jacket.