On paper, the 2016 Masters is shaping up as one of the most competitive in history, with almost all the potential contenders for a green jacket in form coming into the tournament.
Of the 10 players at the top of almost everyone’s list of most likely contenders, seven have won in 2016. As for the other three, perennial challenger Phil Mickelson already has three top-5 finishes this year, Rory McIlroy advanced to the semifinals in the recent WGC Match Play Championship, and Justin Rose, who shared runner-up honors with Mickelson in last year’s Masters, has a string of solid finishes of late.
Beyond the obvious contenders, another 15 or so players with legitimate hopes of winning in Augusta are playing well coming into the tournament, making this month’s Masters one of the most wide open ever.
Any discussion of likely challengers in Augusta begins with golf’s current Big 3 – defending champion Jordan Spieth, recent Bay Hill and Match Play winner Jason Day, who has overtaken Spieth as No. 1 in golf’s world rankings, and McIlroy, who is looking to complete a career Grand Slam at the age of 26.
Coming off his sensational 2015 season that included victories in the Masters and U.S. Open, near misses in the British Open and PGA Championship, and a FedExCup title earned thanks to a win in the Tour Championship at East Lake, Spieth began 2016 with an 8-stroke runaway in the Tournament of Champions.
Since then, however, Spieth has a succession of respectable showings, but did not have a top-10 finish in his next five starts coming into the final pre-Masters event in Houston. After rolling to three victories in the round robin portion of the Match Play Championship, Spieth struggled noticeably in a round of 16 loss, and headed to Houston looking to locate the game that made him golf’s dominant player in 2015.
In his only two appearances in Augusta, Spieth has placed second and first, matching the 72-hole scoring record last year that was set by Tiger Woods in 1997. Despite the absence of length off the tee compared to his two main rivals, Spieth has obviously already figured out an Augusta National layout that supposedly favors those with either power or experience (or both).
After a long off-season break, Day got off to a relatively slow start in 2016 before back-to-back wins at Bay Hill and in the Match Play. Despite encountering back issues late in his opening match, Day went 7-0 in Austin, taking down McIlroy and Louis Oosthuizen in the semifinals and finals. He showed no signs of being hampered by his aching back, but has to have some concern about walking the hilly terrain of Augusta National.
With wins in Canada, the PGA Championship and two of the first three Playoffs events after two very close calls in the U.S. and British Opens, Day was golf’s best player through the Summer of last year. Until his win at Whistling Straits in the 2015 PGA, Day had a history of coming up just short in the majors, twice in Augusta. But now that he no longer has to shoulder that burden, it’s likely that his PGA Championship title will be the first of many.
McIlroy hasn’t won since taking the Match Play and at Quail Hollow in the Spring of last year. He played poorly with the final round lead at Doral and was out-dueled by Day in the Match Play semifinals after barely surviving a challenge from Kevin Na in the round robin.
Since his memorable Sunday back nine meltdown in 2011, McIlroy has finished eighth and fourth in Augusta the last two years, and should have his game ready this year when he tees is up on Thursday.
Next in line behind the Big 3 is a trio that combined for six Masters titles in an 11-year stretch from 2004 to ’14. Mickelson won three times between 2004 and ’10, with Bubba Watson a winner in 2012 and ’14 and Adam Scott capturing a victory in between.
No player has a game better suited for Augusta National than Watson, but he has been more miss than hit during his seven Masters starts, with a tie for 20th his best finish apart from his two victories. Watson’s 2016 record includes a win in LA and a close second at Doral, both in battles with Scott. Watson will be looking to continue his every-other-year pattern of Masters victories, and based on recent results, there’s no reason to expect that he can’t accomplish that.
Scott answered any questions about his ability to still contend without an anchored putting stroke, winning Honda and Doral in consecutive weeks after his narrow loss to Watson in L.A. After finishing a close second in the Masters in 2011 and winning two years later in a playoff, Scott has not been a factor in Augusta the last two years, but given his recent play, that is not likely to happen again.
Mickelson has by far the best record in Augusta among active players with three wins, six other finishes of second or third and 15 top 10s during his career. After disappointing showings in 2013 and ’14, Mickelson made a strong run at a fourth green jacket last year, one of the few highlights of a mostly unproductive 2015. With three top-5s in 2016, Mickelson appears to have regained enough of his game to make a run in the Masters, but has not yet displayed the ability to sustain a championship-caliber performance over 72 holes.
South Africans have a long history of success in the Masters, with Charl Schwartzel winning in 2011 with four birdies on his final four holes and Louis Oosthuizen losing a playoff to Watson the next year. Schwartzel hasn’t done much in Augusta since his victory, but with three wins this season, two in South Africa and one recently in Tampa, he seems poised to contend again.
Oosthuizen has some decent finishes in Augusta since his playoff loss, and comes into this Masters on a hot streak, winning a European Tour event in Australia before several strong U.S. efforts, including a loss to Day in the Match Play finals.
Rose has both a solid track record in Augusta (three career top-8 finishes) and a history of success in big events, but has gone almost a year without a win and has not seriously contended this year.
Rickie Fowler has a 2016 win in Dubai and lost in a playoff in Phoenix, coming off a 2015 season that included victories in the Players and the Playoffs event in Boston. Fowler showed he is a threat in the majors with top-5 finishes in all four Grand Slam events in 2014, and followed up his T5 in the Masters with a tie for 12th last year.
The 2016 Masters champion will probably be one of the above 10 players, but there is a group of at least 15 players who have a realistic shot at leaving Augusta with a green jacket if none of the favorites claim it.
Paul Casey revived his career in 2015 with four top-3 finishes and a tie for sixth in the Masters, the fourth time he has placed 11th or better in the tournament. Casey had top 10s in his last two stroke play starts in Florida, and is near the top of the list of dark horse selections.
Long-hitting J.B. Holmes has made just two career starts in Augusta, tying for 25th in 2008 and missing the cut last year. After a strong 2015 that included a win in Houston the week before the Masters, he played well on the West Coast to start 2016 and defeated Watson in the Match Play, although he did not make the knockout round. Holmes does not have a history of major championship success, but has the length to handle Augusta National, although maybe not the short game.
Dustin Johnson, like Holmes one of golf’s most celebrated bombers, contended in L.A. along with Watson and Scott, and reached the Match Play quarterfinals before losing to Oosthuizen. Johnson has played well in Augusta the last two years, tying for sixth in 2015, and has nine PGA Tour victories between 2008 and ’15, at least one every year. Johnson has made several runs at wins in Grand Slam events, but has not held up well under late-tournament pressure on several occasions.
Zach Johnson scored an unexpected Masters triumph in 2007, but did not have another top finish in Augusta until last year, when he tied for ninth. Johnson captured a British Open title later in 2016, and played well at both Bay Hill (T5) and in the Match Play, losing to McIlroy in the round of 16 after dominating his round robin group. He will need to be at the top of his game to offset his relative lack of power.
Patrick Reed, who played two seasons of college golf in Augusta and led the Jaguars to two NCAA titles, tied for 22nd in his second Masters appearance last year. He already has five top 10s in the 2015-16 season with a strong showing in the Match Play, where he routed Mickelson in the round robin before losing to Johnson in the quarterfinals. He has yet to face Sunday major championship pressure, however.
Henrik Stenson is the game’s highest ranked player without a major, and has never finished higher than 14th in Augusta, but does have five finishes between 14th and 19th, including each of the last three years. Has the tee-to-green game to handle Augusta National, but putting is suspect on demanding greens.
Like Stenson, Bill Haas has three straight top 20s in Augusta and is off to a strong start in 2016 with a playoff loss in Tampa and a quarterfinal finish in the Match Play. But like Dustin Johnson, is not known for his ability to close out tournaments.
Matt Kuchar was third, eighth and fifth in the Masters from 2012 to ’14 and has been one of the game’s most consistently successful players since 2009, but his window for capturing his first major title may be nearing an end.
Brandt Snedeker had a win, playoff loss and tie for third on the West Coast to start the year and has a positive career record in Augusta, but did not respond well the first time he had a chance to win.
Sergio Garcia has three career top 10s in Augusta and has played well in the Masters in recent years, but no longer seems to have the will to claim his first major title.
Hideki Matsuyama, Danny Willett and Brooks Koepka are among the game’s rising stars who could break through in the Masters, with Ryan Moore and Jimmy Walker a pair of veterans who have typically not been major players in Grand Slam events but still have a shot at changing that.
Martin Kaymer, on the other hand, has won two majors, but has been thoroughly frustrated by Augusta National, never finishing in the top 30 in eight starts.
Scott, McIlroy and Day look to be the best bets, with Watson next in line along with Schwartzel and Oosthuizen. Casey, Snedeker, and Matsuyama are the brightest of the dark horses, with Willett a legitimate long shot.