Going into the 2014 Masters, virtually all the top players in the game are nursing injuries – some physical and others with mental scars – leaving this one of the toughest to assess major championships in Modern memory.
Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson, with seven green jackets between them, are both questionable competitors, with Woods battling a balky back and Mickelson endeavoring to quickly recover from an oblique muscle pull.
Jason Day, who would have been among the top handful of favorites, has not played since winning the WGC Match Play title in February.
Justin Rose, the 2013 U.S. Open champion, is still struggling with the after effects of a shoulder injury.
Then there are the players whose bodies may be healthy but whose games or psyches are not in prime condition heading to Augusta.
Adam Scott, the 2013 Masters champion, coughed up a big lead in his most recent start at Bay Hill, not the first time he has failed to close out a tournament on Sunday.
Rory McIlroy let victory slip from his grasp recently in the Honda Classic, and may or may not be completely over his back nine meltdown at Augusta National in 2011.
Lee Westwood, who has a terrific recent record in the Masters, has played well below his standards so far in 2014, and may be fated to repeating Colin Montgomerie’s career o-fer in majors.
As the only major championship played on the same course every year, the Masters is the easiest of the Grand Slam events to handicap, at least from the standpoint of dividing the field of players into groups of contenders and pretenders.
With the rare exception, the Masters has not produced a lot of totally unexpected champions along the lines of Lucas Glover, Michael Campbell, Steve Jones, Todd Hamilton, Ben Curtis, Y.E. Yang, Shaun Micheel and Rich Beem.
Other than Mike Weir and Zach Johnson, who are major championship caliber players, just not ones with games that appear best suited for Augusta National, the past dozen or so Masters champions fit neatly into one of two categories.
They either hit the ball prodigious distances (Woods Mickelson, Scott, Bubba Watson, Angel Cabrera), or they’re South Africans not named Ernie Els who hit the ball long enough not to be confused with Weir or Johnson, who are more in line with 1990s champions like Mark O’Meara, Ben Crenshaw, Jose Maria Olazabal, Bernhard Langer and Nick Faldo.
Since Augusta National was stretched to its current length of almost 7,450 yards in 2006, the Masters has become even more bomber-friendly, with Johnson’s victory in intemperate conditions in 2007 the lone exception.
Woods hasn’t won since then, but has been a consistent contender, finishing no lower than 6th in Augusta in eight of nine Masters since 2005, the last year he won. But his back issues appear quite serious, and the likelihood of him just playing in Augusta is in doubt, with his chances of capturing a fifth green jacket not that great even if he was completely healthy.
The five victories he scored in 2013 obscured Woods’ recent decline from the dominant player he was for his first dozen or so years on the PGA Tour. Add in his back problems, and it’s looking more and more that Woods’ reign as golf’s No. 1 player is nearing an end.
Woods’ last major championship came in the 2008 U.S. Open, when he overcame a leg injury to hobble his way past Rocco Mediate. Even though he has contended at Augusta almost every year since then, that may prove to be his final major title unless his back issues subside.
Mickelson has won three Masters since 2004 and has three other top-5 finishes since ’08, but the relatively minor injury he suffered in San Antonio is not exactly conducive to a 43-year old golfer who swings with the aggression of Mickelson.
If healthy, there is no reason Mickelson can’t contend again in Augusta, but if he can’t reclaim the putting touch he displayed for much of last year, a painless swing isn’t likely to produce a fourth Masters victory.
In addition to being mostly big hitters, Masters champions since 2003 have largely been players who had not won a major previously. Mickelson, whose Masters victory in 2004 was his first major, and Woods have skewed the numbers but the only other player to have won a major prior to the Masters during that time frame was Angel Cabrera, who only makes an appearance on leader boards in the U.S. in majors, usually at Augusta National.
At the top of the list of players yet to win a major who best fit the recent profile of Masters champions is Dustin Johnson, who had one shot at a Grand Slam title taken away from him and kicked away another.
If healthy, Day would be possibly be number one, but his injured thumb seems likely to interrupt his recent run as a frequent major challenger. If he had not convinced himself that a major title is not in his future, Sergio Garcia would be a strong possibility, but no European has won in Augusta since 1999 after winning more than half the Masters in the ‘80s and ‘90s.
The player most likely to end that streak is McIlroy, one of just a handful of players with multiple recent majors. His track record at Augusta is not particularly stellar with the exception of the first three rounds in 2011. Augusta National is well-suited to his style of play, at least tee to green, and he will figure the course out at some point, likely sooner than later.
Other than maybe Henrik Stenson, the other most prominent European players are not in the Scott-Watson-Cabrera mold, and would likely need an assist from the weather to produce a higher winning score, a la Zach Johnson.
The 2013-14 PGA Tour season has certainly taken a turn in the direction of the young and previously obscure, and that could certainly continue in Augusta, although the obscure part (Jimmy Walker) is a stretch.
The two youngsters who will receive most attention going into the tournament are Patrick Reed and Harris English, who have five PGA Tour victories between them in the last nine months, but are both Masters rookies. Jordan Spieth is also playing his first Masters, but is still developing the temperament required to handle the ups and downs of major tournament contention.
Based on current form and recent Masters record, Matt Kuchar will be on the short list of favorites, particularly with the questions surrounding most of the 10 players ahead of him in the world rankings.
Kuchar does not have the length of most of the recent Masters champions, but a deadly wedge game and a hot putter can compensate, as both Weir and Zach Johnson demonstrated.
Unlike tennis, where you can narrow down the list of likely major champions to as handful of names, there are at least two or three dozen players who would not raise eyebrows if they won the Masters, or one of the other majors.
Scott, McIlroy and Kuchar may be the most likely trio of potential champions, with Day and Mickelson removed from that group due to health concerns. His record at Augusta National aside, McIlroy has the fewest marks against him, but does not engender real confidence in the role of favorite.
At this stage, Scott is probably the game’s best player. But if he’s going to win the Masters, he needs to avoid building a seemingly comfortable lead.
The one thing that is a near certainty is the likelihood of another thrilling finish on Sunday. The last five Masters have included three playoffs and two sensational finishes by the winner, and there’s no reason not to expect that string to extend to six in row.
Unless McIlroy channels his two major championship victories and resumes his pursuit of the No.1 ranking and a mantle full of Grand Slam trophies.