It’s been three years since Tiger Woods played in the Masters. He hasn’t played a full season of golf since 2013, the last year he won on the PGA Tour. He hasn’t won a major since 2008 and his last victory in the Masters came in 2005.
But after playing five tournaments this year, Woods has been installed as one of the betting favorites for the 2018 Masters alongside the game’s top players, several of whom have already won thi season.
Woods’ comeback has been the dominant topic in the golf media since he made his return earlier this year, and fans have flocked to the tournaments he has appeared in over the past two months.
Despite strong showings in his three starts in Florida, which included a tie for second in Tampa, the fact that Woods has been installed as a betting favorite along with Dustin Johnson, Rory McIlroy, Justin Rose, Phil Mickelson and Jordan Spieth is more a reflection on the fascination the golfing public still holds for Woods and not his actual chances to win the tournament.
Woods ended up eight shots behind the winners in the Honda and Bay Hill, and in his one opportunity to win in Tampa, played an ordinary final round and parred the 72nd hole with a chance to get into a playoff.
Although his short game and putting shows no rust from his lengthy absence resulting from his damaged back, Woods has not been nearly as sharp tee to green. He ranks 202nd on the PGA Tour in fairways hit and is 179th in greens in regulation, a consequence of his inaccuracy off the tee.
Woods will not be able to get away with hitting 3-woods or driving irons off the tee at Augusta National, and even with the expansive fairways there, will not contend if he can’t keep his ball between the tree lines with his driver.
As much as the golf media and Tiger’s legions of fans want him to win the Masters and renew his quest for 18 major titles, the likelihood of that happening is significantly less than the Vegas odds. Realistically, Woods ranks in the second tier of Masters favorites, with at least 10 players ahead of him in the pecking order.
From this perspective, here is a look at the 20 players who have the best chance to win in Augusta this week, starting with the players in the 11-20 category along with Woods.
Paul Casey: Has finished 6-4-6 in Augusta the last three years and has a recent win in Tampa on his resume, but has done little in other majors since 2010 and has had frequent problems late in tournaments when in contention, including the Masters.
Tommy Fleetwood: Has emerged as one of Europe’s rising young stars, winning the Order of Merit last year and contending in big events in America, including last year’s U.S. Open. He missed the cut in his first start in the Masters last year but has the game to contend for a green jacket, if not this year than in the near future.
Rickie Fowler: Tied for fifth in the 2014 Masters, when he was top-5 in all four majors. Has finished 12th and 11th in Augusta since and added two top-5s in majors last year, but has yet to capitalize on his major opportunities. Played well in late ’17 and early this year, but nothing special of late.
Hideki Matsuyama: Was sidelined earlier in ’18 with a wrist injury, and may not be in top form. Has gone 5-17-11 in Augusta last three years and had two top 5s in majors last year and was in the top 15 in all four. A legitimate threat if healthy.
Alex Noren: Has won six times in Europe since 2015 and is clearly adapting to playing in the U.S., with a trio of top-3 finishes this year, including a playoff loss in San Diego and third in the recent Match Play. One of the game’s best putters, always a helpful attribute on Augusta National’s greens.
Louis Oosthuizen: Lost a playoff to Bubba Watson in 2012 and has tied for second in the other three majors over the last three years. Former British Open champ a frequent contender in big events, but his recent record in Augusta and on the PGA Tour this year is just OK.
Jon Rahm: One of the game’s most talented young players, has already risen to third in the World Rankings. Has a win and runner-up finish this year but did little in last year’s majors, with a T27 in Augusta his best showing. Has the game to handle Augusta National, but may still lack the patience.
Adam Scott: Has four top 10s in last seven Masters, including win in 2013. Tied for ninth last year but that’s his only major top 10 the last two years. Has not done much in 2018 and will have to regain past form if he hopes to make a run at victory.
Henrik Stenson: A curious Masters record with six top 25s but no finish better than 14th. After strong showing early this year in the Middle East, has made only two U.S. starts, tying for fourth at Bay Hill. Doesn’t appear that he’s particularly comfortable at Augusta National.
Jason Day: Was second and third in Augusta in 2011 and ’13 and has been solid there since. Quality recent record in majors including win in PGA. Already has a victory (San Diego) and runner-up finish (Tampa) this year, but has not played much recently.
Sergio Garcia: Repeating after capturing his first major last year may be too great a task, but who expected him to win last year after having just one top 10 in Augusta since 2004. Placed second four times in majors prior to last year’s Masters victory and arrives in Augusta off three straight top 10s. Getting off to a decent start Thursday will be key.
Dustin Johnson: Was the heavy favorite last year before unfortunate fall at his rental home knocked him out of the Masters. After early struggles at Augusta National, finished sixth and fourth in 2015 and ’16. Started 2018 with dominant win in Tournament of Champions and was playing well until awful showing in Match Play. Might have been looking ahead to Augusta.
Matt Kuchar: Only non-major champion in this group, but has four top 10s in Augusta the last eight years, three top 5s among them. Tied for fourth in Masters last year and was second behind Jordan Spieth in British, which may turn out to be his best chance to win a major if he doesn’t. Hasn’t played his best this year, but may be due.
Rory McIlroy: Needs Masters to complete Grand Slam and has four straight top 10s in Augusta despite not seriously contending in any of them. Hasn’t won a major since 2014, but has six top 10s during that span. Up and down so far this year with two top-3s in Middle East and a win at Bay Hill, but has also had some bad results, mostly due to putting. If he putts like he did in Orlando, watch out.
Phil Mickelson: Exceptional showing thus far in 2018 has been overshadowed by Woods’ return, but Phil may turn out to be the bigger and better story if he can win in Augusta or at Shinnecock. Has tremendous career record in Masters and has played his best golf in years with four straight finishes of sixth or better including win in Mexico WGC. Probably won’t have another chance as good as this.
Justin Rose: Almost always in contention in recent years, with pair of runner-up finishes in 2015 and ’17. Was hot at the end of 2017 and has remained in top form this year, and would be a logical successor to Garcia as Masters champion.
Jordan Spieth: Went 2-1-2 in first three Masters from 2014-16 before falling to 11th last year after 75 on Sunday. Has surprisingly struggled with putter this year, and needs to reclaim magic on Augusta National greens if he hopes to continue stellar track record.
Justin Thomas: May only be No. 2 in World Rankings, but is the game’s best player at the moment with recent playoff win, playoff loss to Mickelson in Mexico and semifinal run in Match Play. So-so record in first two Masters (39 and 22), but has power game that is well suited to Augusta National and has proven ability to handle big moments.
Bubba Watson: Two-time Masters champion made major return to prominence with wins in Los Angeles and Match Play after being mostly MIA for more than a year. Has established record as all-or-nothing performer in Augusta, and we should know by end of day Thursday if he’s a contender or pretender. Question is, can he continue recent torrid stretch or will law of averages catch up to him?
Picking a winner from a list of 20 or so likely contenders is a stab in the dark, but it says here the champion will come from the trio of McIlroy, Mickelson or Thomas. McIlroy should win if his putter cooperates and Thomas should win if it doesn’t, provided he hasn’t already used up his quota of outstanding play in recent months.
If you appreciate irony, it would be especially sweet for Mickelson fans to watch him win a fourth green jacket to tie Woods, stealing the spotlight from Tiger.
Anyone else hearing Alanis Morissette in the background?