10 Players to Watch: The 81st Masters

  1. Dustin Johnson, United States — Many people thought DJ was the best golfer in the world for a while now, and he has proved it by winning his last three starts, including two World Golf Championships. He has taken a firm hold on the No. 1 spots in the Official World Golf Rankings and the FedExCup standings by finishing sixth or better in five of his six starts on the PGA Tour this year. And Johnson finally got the major monkey off his back last year when he captured the U.S. Open at Oakmont by three strokes over Jim Furyk, Shane Lowry of Ireland and Scott Piercy, shrugging off a one-stroke penalty after his ball moved slightly on the ninth green and he did not place it back on the original spot. Johnson is making his seventh start in the Masters and recorded his best results the last two years, tying for sixth in 2015 before tying for fourth last year, two of his 13 finishes in the top 10 in the major championships.
  1. Rory McIlroy, Northern Ireland — Rory will make his third bid to become the sixth player to complete the Career Grand Slam this week in the Masters, and even though he has yet to win at Augusta National, he has proved that his game seems to be a good fit for the first major of the year by finishing in the top 10 each of the last three years. However, his most memorable Masters came when he took a four-stroke lead into the final round in 2011, only to implode with an 8-over-par 80 and skid to a tie for 15th. However, McIlroy showed his moxie when he bounced back to win the U.S. Open by eight strokes two months later at Congressional, the first of his four major championships. However, he hasn’t won a major since claiming the PGA Championship for the second time in 2014, a month after winning the Open Championship. McIlroy is playing well, having tied for fourth in the WGC-HSBC Champions and the WGC-Mexico Championship, and tied for seventh in the Arnold Palmer Invitational in his three PGA Tour stroke-play events this year.
  1. Jordan Spieth, United States — What Spieth needs this week is a case of amnesia after he blew a five-stroke lead on the back nine of his title defense last year in the Masters, closing with a 73 to tie for second, three strokes behind Danny Willett of England. Looking beyond that, Spieth is another player who makes it appear that Augusta National was made for him, as he has tied for second, claimed the Green Jacket and tied for second again in his three appearances in the first major of the year. Two months after he won the Masters in 2015, he captured his second major title by one stroke over Dustin Johnson and Louis Oosthuizen of South Africa in the U.S. Open at Chambers Bay, and he has six finishes in the top 10 at major championships in the last three years. Spieth has been in good form this year, winning the AT&T Pebble Beach Pro-Am and finishing in the top 10 in four other PGA Tour events, even though he missed the cut last week in the Shell Houston Open. It was the first time he missed the weekend since the Players Championship last May.
  1. Rickie Fowler, United States — In recent years, Fowler has joined the club of best players without a major championship, especially when he finished in the top five of all four of the Grand Slam events in 2014. Unfortunately, he has failed to crack the top 10 in the last eight majors, missing the cut three times, with his best result a tie for 12th in the 2015 Masters. Rickie is making his sixth start at Augusta National and his best result was a tie for fifth two years ago, when he was two shots out of the lead before finishing with a 73. He has to stay away from the big numbers, as he has carded 13 double bogeys in his six starts in the first major of the year. Fowler has four top-10 finishes this season, including his fourth PGA Tour victory by four strokes in the Honda Classic at the end of February, and he prepped for the Masters with a tie for third last week in the Houston Open.
  1. Jason Day, Australia — At some point, Day figures to join Adam Scott as the only Aussies to claim the Green Jacket, but this week Day’s concern over his mother’s battle with cancer might prove to be too much of a distraction. That’s what happened when he withdrew during his first-round match in the WGC-Dell Technologies Match play a few days before she was scheduled for surgery. Day did not pick up a club again until he went to Augusta National to practice last week, but who knows, this time the situation might inspire him since his mother seems to be better. This will be Day’s seventh appearance in the Masters and he has been close, finishing two strokes behind winner Charles Schwartzel of South Africa in 2011 and winding up third, two strokes out of the playoff in which Scott beat Angel Cabrera of Argentina in 2013. He also tied for 10th last year in the Masters, one of 13 top-10 finish he has in the Grand Slam events, including his only major title in the 2015 PGA Championship at Whistling Straits.
  1. Justin Rose, England — Since claiming his only major title in the 2013 U.S. Open by two strokes over Jason Day and Phil Mickelson at Merion, Rose has had several more chances and four of his 12 top 10s in the majors have come in the last two years. He is making his 12th start in the Masters and his best result was a tie for second two years ago, when Jordan Spieth beat him by four strokes. He also tied for fifth in 2007, tied for eighth in 2012 and tied for 10th last year at Augusta, among his seven consecutive finishes in the top 25 in the first major of the season. Rose claimed the Olympic gold medal last year at Rio de Janeiro in an event that felt like a major for those who were there, and he has played solid golf this season. After finishing second at the Sony Open in Hawaii, he tied for fourth in both the Farmers Insurance Open and the Genesis Open, and more recently he tied for 13th in the Arnold Palmer Invitational and tied for 15th in the Shell Houston Open.
  1. Jon Rahm, Spain — The 22-year-old has been so impressive in his rookie season on the PGA Tour that he is given a solid chance to become the third player to win the Masters in his first attempt, joining Horton Smith (the first Masters), Gene Sarazen (the second) and Fuzzy Zoeller (1979). After earning his PGA Tour card last year in limited events after leaving Arizona State, he has five top-10 finishes this year (all in his last six starts), including his first victory on the circuit in the Farmers Insurance Open. He also lost to top-ranked Dustin Johnson in the final of the WGC-Dell Technologies Match Play, tied for third in the WGC-Mexico Championship, tied for fifth in the AT&T Pebble Beach Pro-Am and tied for 10th last week in the Shell Houston Open. He was low amateur in the U.S. Open at Oakmont, tying for 23rd in his first major last year, and he tied for 59th in the Open Championship last July at Royal Troon after turning pro.
  1. Phil Mickelson, United States — Lefty counts three Masters titles among his five major championships, and even though his game as shown some life this season, it might seem to be a long shot that he could win again this week at Augusta. However, Mickelson is 46, and that just happens to be the age Jack Nicklaus was when he claimed his 18th and final major championship is a stunning performance in 1986. Phil the Thrill claimed his Green Jackets in 2004, 2006 and 2010, and added the 2005 PGA Championship, but hasn’t won any event since the 2013 Open Championship at Muirfield to claim a third leg of the Career Grand Slam. Mickelson played his best golf this year by tying for second in the WGC-Mexico Championship and tying for fifth in the Dell Technologies Match Play last month. He tied for 55th last week in the Shell Houston Open, but sometimes its difficult to tell if Lefty is playing the tournament or practicing for the upcoming major when he plays the week before.
  1. Henrik Stenson, Sweden — One of four players who earned his first major championship last season, joining Danny Willett, Dustin Johnson and Jimmy Walker, Stenson will again try to figure out the mysteries of Augusta National. Although he would seem to have the game to contend in the first major of the season, he has never finished in the top 10 in the Masters, but he’s too good for that to continue. His best result was a tie for 14th in 2014 and he has finished in the top 25 in six if his 11 appearances, including the last four in a row. Stenson outdueled Phil Mickelson to win the Open Championship at Royal Troon last July for his first major title and tied for seventh in the PGA a month later to give him 11 top-10 results in the majors. However, he is coming into the Masters after missing the cut in the Arnold Palmer Invitational and the Shell Houston Open, but earlier this year he finished second in the Omega Dubai Desert Classic, tied for eighth in the Abu Dhabi HSBS Championship and tied for seventh in the Valspar Championship.
  1. Bubba Watson, United States — Even though Bubba has been struggling for most of this season, Augusta National has brought out the best in him twice in the last five years. In 2012, he closed with a 4-under-par 68 to finish 72 holes even with Louis Oosthuizen of South Africa, and then claimed his first Green Jacket with a brilliant hook shot out of the trees that set up a winning par on the second playoff hole. Two years later, Watson was tied for the lead with 20-year-old Jordan Spieth, but shot 69 on the final day to win by three strokes over Spieth and Jonas Blixt of Sweden. Bubba’s best result in six others Masters appearances was a tie for 20th in 2009, but it’s hard to imagine any other two-time winner at Augusta coming in more under the radar this week. His only top-10 finish this year on the PGA Tour was a tie for ninth in the WGC-Dell Technologies Match Play in his last start, as he won his group with a 2-0-1 record before Ross Fisher of England knocked him out, 4 and 3.

–Courtesy of The Sports Xchange, TSX Golf Editor Tom LaMarre

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