Predicting a winner in any golf tournament is a lot different than picking the winner in a baseball/football/basketball game where there are only two possible outcomes.
There are at least several dozen players coming into this month’s Masters who are plausible champions, with pretty much every player in the game who might have a chance to win in Augusta in the field.
Not every prominent player is a decent bet to leave Augusta in a green jacket, however, including some recent major champions and tournament winners and residents of the upper echelon in the World Rankings.
Martin Kaymer, Ernie Els, Jason Dufner and Webb Simpson have all won major championships the past few years, but for various reasons, none is likely to repeat that feat in Augusta. The same can be said of former major champions Geoff Ogilvy and Padraig Harrington, whose recent victory in Florida may be more a one-off than a sign that his long slump is over.
Billy Horschel, the 2014 Tour Championship winner and FedExCup champion, won a big event in Georgia last year, but two in a row in the state is a bit much to ask. Talented youngsters Hideki Matsuyama and Victor Dubuisson have impressive world rankings, but they won’t translate into the first Masters victories by players from their respective countries. The same applies to veteran Thomas Bjorn.
Players like Graeme McDowell, Luke Donald and Jim Furyk, who rely on precision rather power, can’t be completely counted out, but given McDowell’s ailing ankle, Donald’s ailing game and Furyk’s Sunday struggles when in contention, they should be well down the list of potential winners. Ditto similar players like Miguel Jimenez (too old), Tim Clark (one of a number of players who may be sidelined by injury) and Kevin Na (one of the hotter players on the PGA Tour but too nervous).
The likes of Ryan Moore, Ryan Palmer and Bill Haas have excellent credentials and all have played well this year, but it’s hard to imagine any of them in a green jacket. The same goes for two of the game’s big hitters – J.B. Holmes and Gary Woodland – who clearly have the power, but seem to lack some of the other qualities that enabled a fellow bomber to win two of the last three Masters.
Cross off the new contingent of European and international players who have made it into the top 50 in the World Rankings and we’re down to about 25 players who have a serious chance to win in Augusta, some more serious than others.
Zach Johnson and Charles Schwartzel have both won the Masters since Augusta National was lengthened to its current maximum yardage, but neither has played well there otherwise. Schwartzel is not in form and Johnson faces the same problem as Furyk, McDowell, et al. Hunter Mahan has hovered around the top 10 in Augusta three times in the last six years, but his star is not shining as bright as it did. Same for Keegan Bradley, who has yet to solve the puzzle of Augusta National.
Former UGA golfers have enjoyed considerable success on the PGA Tour the past few years, but Watson, whose career in Athens pales compared to most of his fellow ex-Bulldogs, is the only one to reach golf’s elite level. Chris Kirk is the best bet of the twenty-something former ‘Dogs with some decent showings in majors last year, but don’t discount Brendon Todd, who stepped up at the 2014 U.S. Open. Russell Henley has been AWOL of late, but you never know when his putter is going to heat up. Probably not in Augusta.
Patrick Reed, who would like to forget the year he spent in Athens, will be a popular pick based on his track record over the past year-and-a-half and his 2014 Ryder Cup showing, but may not be ready to handle the pressure of a Masters final round. Paul Casey and Brandt Snedeker painfully encountered that situation earlier in their careers, but both are in top form and may be capable of another shot at a victory.
A number of Masters champions won after earlier near-misses and Louis Oosthuizen fits that bill. He played well on the Florida swing, but his playoff loss to Watson is his only strong showing in Augusta. Angel Cabrera, on the other hand, has a Masters victory, a playoff loss and several other high finishes, and can never be overlooked in Augusta no matter the state of his game.
Six European golfers combined for 11 Masters titles in the 1980s and ‘90s but no Euro has won since. Justin Rose has a U.S. Open trophy and a string of solid Masters showings, but his dismal record so far this year probably rules him out. Sergio Garcia and Ian Poulter have been stellar in the Ryder Cup, but both seem destined to go major-less, Poulter lacking the overall game and Garcia the conviction that he can actually win one.
Rickie Fowler enjoyed an outstanding run in the majors last year, but will be hard-pressed to approach top-5 finishes in all the majors plus a strong Playoffs run. He is eventually going to break through, but is not coming into the Masters in prime form. Jimmy Walker had three top 10s in U.S. majors last year, but did not seriously contend in any of them. He is one of the two hottest U.S. players at the moment, but whether he is ready to withstand Sunday pressure at Augusta is a question he still has to answer.
Perhaps the best American player in 2015 has been Dustin Johnson, who has shown zero rust coming back from his sabbatical/suspension. Johnson clearly has the talent to win anywhere, but his record at Augusta National is not encouraging and he has had his chances in majors before and has fallen short.
No one has had more opportunities to win majors and been unable to do so than Lee Westwood, who has come close twice in Augusta over the last five years. Westwood has to look to Tom Kite for a comparable career in the majors, and has to hope he’s still got at least one more good shot left. His record in Augusta is too good to discount him.
Henrik Stenson enjoyed a terrific three-week stretch before withdrawing from Houston with an illness. His Masters record is respectable but lacks any top finishes and his putting is a liability in Augusta. But if Vijay Singh can win the Masters, so can a player with Stenson’s ball-striking skills.
The three players most likely to leave Augusta with their first major are Matt Kuchar, Jordan Spieth and Jason Day, all of whom have come close to a green jacket. Kuchar has been 3rd, 8th and 5th the last three years and has a remarkably consistent overall record the last five-plus years, but is known more as a top-10 machine than a frequent winner.
Day and Spieth are going to win majors soon, and no one would be surprised if soon is this month. Both have held up well under Sunday pressure when in contention and have one playoff win each in 2015.
Just based on his Masters record, Phil Mickelson is still a threat, but not if he putts like he has since his unexpected British Open triumph in 2013. Mickelson can contend out of nowhere (2014 PGA), but he’s been putting too bad for too long to suddenly find it. Maybe.
That leaves the three players who are the no-brainer favorites. A lot of people were surprised when Bubba Watson won the Masters in 2012. At least that many were surprised (again) when Watson won (again) last year. Unlike many players who win their first majors, Watson is showing no signs of career shrinkage, rising to third in the World Rankings. You wouldn’t think he could win for the third time in four years, but whose game is better suited to Augusta National than his?
Watson won for the second time in three years in 2014. Adam Scott has the chance to match that this year, with the only concern about him his occasional putting struggles. If his putting is just decent, he’s the most likely player to leave with a green jacket.
Rory McIlroy is shooting for his third straight major and a career grand slam a month short of turning 26. When he’s on, he’s the best player on the planet, but he has not really been “on” in Augusta since his Sunday back nine meltdown in 2009. The law of averages are against him after winning the last two majors, they’re on his side when it comes to his record in Augusta. Which will win out?
Then there’s the player who, whether he’s in Augusta or not, will be the media’s favorite topic Masters week. Not here. Not interested.