From 2013 to 2016, a total of 10 PGA Tour members with ties to Georgia made their career debuts in Georgia’s annual major championship – the Masters, at least one each year.
That streak was in jeopardy for 2017 until former UGA golfer and St. Simons island resident Hudson Swafford scored his first PGA Tour victory in southern California in the tournament once known as the Bob Hope Classic.
Swafford’s victory in January earned him his first invitation to the Masters, and he will be one of eight Georgians to tee it up in Augusta. This year’s tournament will be played April 6-9, with Swafford one of three players who call St. Simons home and one of three ex-Bulldogs in the field.
Joining Swafford in the 2017 Masters field are former champions Bubba Watson, Zach Johnson and Larry Mize, veteran Matt Kuchar, 2014 Masters rookies Patrick Reed and Roberto Castro, and 2016 Masters rookie Kevin Kisner, along with Mize one of two Masters qualifiers born in the Augusta area. Reed played his college golf at Augusta State.
Swafford, Kisner and Watson are the former UGA golfers in the field, with Castro, Kuchar and Mize playing their college golf at Georgia Tech. Swafford, Johnson and Kuchar are the three St. Simons residents.
Reed and Castro were part of a 4-man group of Georgia rookies in 2014 that included Georgia natives and former UGA golfers Chris Kirk and Harris English. Macon native and ex-Bulldog Russell Henley started the Georgia rookie streak in 2013, but like Kirk and English, he is not qualified for this year’s Masters.
All four Georgia Masters rookies from 2015 are absent from this year’s field, with former UGA golfers Brendon Todd and Erik Compton having lost their exempt status on the PGA Tour. Savannah’s Brian Harman, an-ex Bulldog, and Cameron Tringale, a former Georgia Tech golfer, also made their lone Masters starts in 2015.
Watson is the only player with two Masters victories over the past decade, winning in a playoff over Louis Oosthuizen in 2012 and out-dueling Jordan Spieth in 2014.
Other than his two wins, however, Watson’s Masters record is ordinary, with his next best finish a tie for 20th in his debut in 2008. That is his only other top-35 finish in eight starts at Augusta National. Watson has nine wins and six Tour Championship appearances over the past seven years, but has not played well in his first five starts of the 2016-17 season.
Like Watson, Johnson does not have a successful track record in Augusta apart from his win in nasty weather conditions in 2007. His only strong showing in Augusta other than that was a tie for ninth in 2015, with Johnson missing the 36-hole cut in both 2014 and ’16. Johnson has five missed cuts in 12 career starts at Augusta National, a course that does not suit his style of play, unlike Watson.
Johnson has gotten off to a mostly undistinguished start to the 2016-17 season apart from a second round 61 in the Hawaiian Open that led to a tie for sixth. He also played well in Phoenix, but began the season on a sour note, missing the cut in the RSM Classic at Sea Island Golf Club. Johnson won 12 times in his first 12 years on the PGA Tour, with his last victory coming in the British Open at St. Andrews in 2015.
Mize will be celebrating the 30th anniversary of his memorable 1987 Masters victory, highlighted by his pitch-and-run hole out for birdie on the 11th hole to beat Greg Norman on the second hole of sudden death.
Like Johnson, Mize does not have the power game that has produced most of the modern Masters champions, but compiled an excellent career record at Augusta National, and has made two of the last three cuts while approaching the age of 60.
Kuchar was a contender in the Masters in 2012, ’13 and ’14, including ties for third and fifth. He has made the cut in Augusta each of the last seven years, and has finished lower than 27th just once in that span.
Since scoring his second PGA Tour victory in 2009, Kuchar has been of the game’s most consistently successful players. He has finished in the top 20 of the FedExCup standings each of the last seven seasons, and has increased his number of career victories to seven. Kuchar is off to an uncharacteristically up-and-down start in 2016-17 with four top 25s and three missed cuts in his first seven starts. A tie for ninth in Phoenix is his best showing thus far.
Reed will be making his fourth straight Masters start, with his best finish a tie for 22nd in 2015. Reed has five wins in his first four full seasons on the PGA Tour, including a WGC event at Doral and a tournament that is part of the FedExCup Playoffs, but has yet to record a top-10 finish in a major. He does have four top 20s in majors over the past two years, and has been a 36-hole contender several times in that span.
So far this season, Reed has one top 10 in eight starts, but has finished outside the top 50 five times with a few poor final rounds leading to some of his disappointing showings.
Kisner, a native of Aiken, S.C., a short ride across the Savannah River from Augusta, tied for 37th in his first Masters appearance last year, and earned a return invitation thanks to a top-30 finish in last year’s FedExCup standings.
After three nondescript seasons on the PGA Tour, separated by a return to the Web.com Tour in 2013, Kisner emerged as a world-class player in 2015, qualifying for the Tour Championship each of the last two years thanks to a succession of strong showings. Kisner had four runner-up finishes in 2015, including three tough playoff losses, before breaking through with a win late that year at Sea Island GC. In his first five starts in 2017, Kisner placed 11th or better three times.
Castro is back in the Masters for the first time since missing the cut in 2014, qualifying for the Tour Championship for the second time last year. Castro has yet to make a cut in the U.S. and British Opens as well, with a tie for 12th in the 2013 PGA his lone successful showing in a major. The Atlanta resident is looking for his first PGA Tour victory, losing in a playoff at Quail Hollow last year.
In his first eight starts of 2016-17, Castro has not finished higher than 28th, falling to 45th in the recent WGC event in Mexico after holing the outright lead early in the second round.
Swafford had just three top-10 finishes in his first three seasons on the PGA Tour before scoring his first victory in LaQuinta, Calif. Since his victory, Swafford missed the cut in his next three starts. Swafford has made just two starts in majors in his professional career, both in the U.S. Open, missing the cut both times. His first U.S. Open appearance came while he was a member of the UGA golf team.
English, Harman, Kirk, Henley and Augusta’s Vaughn Taylor have wins in recent seasons on the PGA Tour, and will need a victory in one of the handful of events left before the Masters to earn a spot in this year’s field.
Also looking to qualify for the 2017 Masters is Augusta native Charles Howell, who was 65th in the World Rankings one month before the Masters. Howell will need to move into the top 50 by the end of March to qualify for the Masters for just the second time since 2009.
Howell has a history of falling just short of qualifying for big events, with the recent WGC Mexico Championship the latest example. Howell was ninth in the FedExCup standings with one event left before the WGC tournament, but fell to 11th after the Honda Classic, needing to be among the top 10 to qualify.
After seven straight finishes of 15th or better prior to the Honda, Howell is likely to get into the field for the WGC Match Play Championship, and a strong showing there could move him into the top 50 and earn a return to his hometown major.