The list of potential 2019 Masters champions is long, with a clear but not overwhelming favorite who comes into the tournament as the game’s hottest player, but who does not have the best relationship with Augusta National.
Everything points to a Rory McIlroy victory in Augusta next week. He has finished sixth or better in each of his six starts in PGA Tour stroke play events this year, including a win in the Players Championship a few weeks ago. He went unbeaten in pool play in last week’s WGC Match Play before one bad hole cost him a likely victory over Tiger Woods in the round of 16 and a possible second straight tournament title.
McIlroy has five consecutive top 10s in the Masters, but has not been a serious contender on the back nine Sunday since his ignominious meltdown in 2011. He posted a score of at least 77 in four of his next five Masters appearances, and shot 74 on Sunday last year when paired in the final group with leader and eventual champion Patrick Reed.
From 2011 to ’14, McIlroy won four majors but none since. His recent Players victory was just his second win since 2016 (both in Florida), due mainly to some losing battles with his putter.
This will be McIlroy’s fifth attempt at securing a career Grand Slam. Eventually, he’s going to get it, and this year seems as good a time as any. But a creeping suspicion has begun to set in that the Masters may be to McIlroy what the PGA was to Arnold Palmer.
If not McIlroy, then who?
Dustin Johnson is the game’s top-ranked player, has a major among his 20 career titles and has already won twice this year in the golf hotbeds of Saudi Arabia and Mexico. He’s placed in the top 10 in his last three Masters appearances, has been in the top 10 in five of six PGA Tour starts in 2019, and ranks with McIlroy as one of the two best players statistically this season.
But he is also prone to letting opportunities at victory slip away, as happened recently in Tampa, and has never looked that comfortable on Augusta National’s challenging putting surfaces.
Brooks Koepka has won three of the last seven majors and has the power game to win in Augusta. But other than a tie for second in the Honda, he has played poorly this year, and ranks outside the top 150 in putting stats. He showed improvement in his second and third Masters starts in 2016 and ’17, but was sidelined by an injury last year. A green jacket is almost certainly in Koepka’s foreseeable future, but his game does not appear to be in top form.
Bubba Watson won the Masters in 2012 and ’14, and finally scored a non-victory top 10 last year, tying for fifth. Augusta National is perfectly suited to his creative power game, which appears to be in decent shape. He’s dangerous if he gets into contention, but is almost as likely to miss the cut.
Justin Rose, No. 2 in the World Rankings, is always a sensible choice, and has runner-up finishes in Augusta twice in the last four years, losing a playoff to Sergio Garcia in 2017. He’s still trying to vacate the long list of prominent players with just one career major, and at 38 may not have long to achieve that. No reason to think that he won’t be in the mix on Sunday.
Jason Day made strong runs for a green jacket in 2011 and ’13, but hasn’t been a serious challenger since. Has some solid showings this season, but hasn’t come that close to victory and has had recent back issues. Probably not his year.
Francesco Molinari is clearly in top form and has a 2018 British Open title on his resume, but has never finished higher than 19th at Augusta National. He may win another major, but unlikely it will be the Masters, although others with his style of play have been champions.
Tommy Fleetwood, the other half of the Moliwood duo that shredded the U.S. Ryder Cup squad last year, keeps making runs at a first win in the U.S., but hasn’t broken through yet. Has the game to win in Augusta, but needs to maintain the level of his play on the weekends.
Justin Thomas has won eight times the previous two seasons and has three top-3 finishes in 2019. Has not completely figured Augusta National out yet in three attempts, but had a top-20 showing last year, and is likely the best bet among the strong young group of American players to claim a green jacket, maybe as soon as next week.
Rickie Fowler has come close in majors several times in recent years, including last year’s runner-up finish in the Masters. Scored his fifth PGA Tour victory earlier this year in Phoenix, and seems likely to score a major breakthrough in the near future. Has been 12th or better in Augusta four times the past five years.
Jordan Spieth has a win, two seconds and a third the past five years in the Masters, rebounding after a Sunday collapse in 2017 with a final round 64 last year to place third. However, Spieth did not play especially well for the remainder of 2018 and has been borderline dismal this year, with no finish better than 35th and sub-standard stats to match. He may be the biggest mystery coming into the tournament.
Matt Kuchar leads the FedExCup standings with two wins and a runner-up finish in last week’s Match Play. He also has four finishes of eighth or better in the last seven Masters. His tee-to-green game has been terrific this season, and if has a hot week with the putter, he could make another run at his first major next week.
Jon Rahm has the power game to handle Augusta National, placing fourth in his second Masters last year. He also has six top 10s already in 2019 with some excellent stats to go with his results, but until he gets a better handle on his emotions, a green jacket may be out of his reach.
Paul Casey has not been outside the top 15 in Augusta the past four years with three consecutive finishes of sixth or better from 2015-17, and is enjoying an outstanding season including a recent win in Tampa. But he is 184th in putting and has a long history of not playing particularly well in pressure situations in the final round.
Hideki Matsuyama has not been outside the top 20 in Augusta since 2014, with his best showing a fifth in 2015. He remains one of the game’s best ball strikers, but he ranks even lower in the putting stats than Casey, making a Masters title an unlikely occurrence.
Bryson DeChambeau has won five times on the PGA Tour since his rookie season of 2017, and picked up a victory earlier this year in the Dubai Desert Classic. Even though he hasn’t played all that well since, his strong overall games makes him a threat to win the Masters in just his second start in Augusta.
Adam Scott, Sergio Garcia and Patrick Reed have won three of the last six Masters, but don’t bet on any of them doing it for the second time. Reed has not done much since his somewhat surprising victory last year. Garcia has some excellent recent results but clearly has some internal issues that have manifested on the golf course. Scott hasn’t won anywhere since 2016 but has played well of late, which is something that can’t be said about 2016 Masters champion Danny Willett, who has done absolutely nothing in the U.S, since his stunning win in Augusta three years ago.
The international trio of Louis Ooshuizen, Marc Leishman and Henrik Stenson rank at the top of the dark horse list. Oosthuizen’s results in the Masters are middling since his playoff loss to Watson in 2012, but he played extremely well in his two most recent starts. Leishman scored his second top 10 in Augusta last year, but has slowed down a bit since a fast 2019 start in Hawaii. Stenson collected his first top 10 in Augusta last year, and judging by his showing in the Match Play, may be on the verge of some quality play.
Most of the other talented twenty-something Americans are not in top form of late, but the trio of Xander Schauffele, Patrick Cantlay and Tony Finau all merit a dark horse mention, especially Finau after his painful but impressive top 10 last year. One young American who has played well of late is ex-Georgia Bulldog Keith Mitchell, who could surprise if he can handle Masters rookie nerves.
Like Mitchell, Augusta native Charles Howell and Aiken, S.C. resident and fellow ex-Bulldog Kevin Kisner are also 2018-19 winners, with Kisner coming off a stellar performance in the Match Play last week. Howell has played consistently excellent golf the entire season, while Kisner has been steady with a string of solid finishes in stroke play events. Howell is looking to rewrite his history of lackluster showings in majors, while Kisner hopes to contend in a major for the third straight year on a course that is not exactly suited to his fairways and greens style of play.
Keep an eye on a talented group of European players age 28 or younger, who like Fleetwood have all enjoyed some success in their early appearances in the U.S.. Denmark’s Lucas Bjerregaard was one of the stars of the Match Play, and the English quartet of Tyrrell Hatton, Matthew Fitzpatrick, Matt Wallace and Eddie Pepperell all join him the current top 50 in the World Rankings. Hatton is already a PGA Tour member and the others will join him, perhaps like Willett after donning a green jacket.
That brings us to the two golfers who dominated the Masters for two decades but have been absent from Augusta National leader boards of late.
Tiger Woods is currently third in betting odds behind only McIlroy and Johnson, and those putting their money on Tiger might as well splurge on the lottery. While he won for the first time in seemingly forever at last year’s Tour Championship at East Lake and has some quality results in 2019, a fifth green jacket is likely out of his reach. If he regains the putting touch that made him one of the all-time greatest with the flat stick, maybe, but the odds of that are a lot longer than Vegas has him at 12 to 1. Old Tiger is not the Tiger of old.
Phil Mickelson picked up a victory and had one stolen from him in California, but since then has played like someone about to turn 49. The combination of wildly erratic driving and repeated misses from short range on the greens are not a positive sign coming into the Masters, but Phil has been known to turn things around on a dime. He’ll need to if he’s going to contend for the first time since 2015. I like his chances more than Tiger’s, but I’d avoid both in a Calcutta.
My picks to click:
A group: Thomas, McIlroy and Fleetwood.
B group: Oosthuizen, Stenson and Finau.
Long shots: Mitchell, Bjerregaard and Wallace.