PGA Tour Picks: The 86th Masters

By Tom LaMarre

The PGA Tour’s stars, including Tiger Woods, have aligned at Augusta National Golf Club for the 86th Masters, the men’s first major of the season, which begins on Thursday.

The 46-year-old Woods, who has won 15 majors including the Masters five times, hasn’t played in an official tournament since tying for 38th in the 2020 Masters, which was pushed back to November because of the Coronavirus Pandemic.

About three months later he was fortunate to survive a serious rollover accident  in his SUV, which caused an injury that nearly cost him his right leg.

Last December, Woods played 36 holes with his son Charlie at the PNC Championship. The scramble format allowed him to ride the course in a cart, and Woods at times walked with a limp and struggled on some drives to push off with his right leg.

Woods, who seems to have made real progress since then, has said the decision as to if he plays on Thursday will be “a game-time decision.”

The problem will be walking 72 holes at hilly Augusta National on his injured leg that is still healing, but Woods showed up at the course a few days ago and played a practice round with Fred Couples and Justin Thomas.

“He looked like the Tiger we saw before the accident, the way the swing looked and the speed,” Billy Horschel told Sean Martin of PGATour.com. “For him to hopefully be playing–which I think he is–I think we’re all giddy about it.”

The consensus is that Woods, who last won the Masters in 2019, will play, but he’s keeping everybody in suspense until Thursday.

Before this week, the consensus of the golf community was that Woods would return in July for the 150th Open Championship, a tournament he has won three times, on the famed Old Course at St. Andrews in Scotland.

“Augusta is the last place you would have thought he could possibly play,” said two-time U.S. Open champion Andy North, now an ESPN commentator, who added, “St. Andrews is flat and it’s an easy walk.”

Said Couples: “He hit it great, phenomenal. And he walked around the course well. I’d say he’s going to play. And if he can walk, he can contend.”

Also set to play is defending champion Hideki Matsuyama of Japan, who withdrew before the third round of the Valero Texas Open last week because of a neck injury.

Those two storylines, especially the fact that Woods is expected to play, might take some of the pressure off Rory McIlroy of Northern Ireland, who will be making his eighth attempt to join Woods, Jack Nicklaus, Gary Player, Ben Hogan and Gene Sarazen as the only players to complete the Career Grand Slam.

BEST BETS

1. Jon Rahm, United States – Has fallen to No. 2 in the World Rankings, but Rahm is the favorite this week after finishing in the top 10 in each of the last four Masters, including a tie for fifth last year. He also has wound up in the top 10 in the last for majors, including a victory in the 2021 U.S. Open at Torrey Pines, where he tied for third in the Farmers earlier this year.

2. Scottie Scheffler, United States – Now No. 1 in the world after winning three of this last five events, including the WGC-Dell Technologies Match Play. Scheffler’s best result in the majors was solo fourth in the 2020 PGA Championship, and last year he tied for eighth in the PGA and the Open Championship, tied for ninth in the U.S. Open and tied for 18th in the Masters.

3. Cameron Smith, Australia – Took three weeks off after winning the Players Championship, the so-called fifth major, for his fifth victory on the PGA Tour and seventh as a pro. Smith has placed in the top 10 in three of the last four Masters, with a tie for second in 2020, a tie for fifth in 2018 and a tie for 10th last year. Also tied for fifth in the U.S. Open in 2015 at Chambers Bay.

4. Justin Thomas, United States – The seventh-ranked Thomas claimed his only major title in the 2017 PGA Championship at Quail Hollow, but golf pundits are expecting more. His best result in the Masters was solo fourth in 2020, and he also tied for eighth in the U.S. Open that year, tied for fifth in the same event the next year and tied for sixth in the PGA last season.

5. Rory McIlroy, Northern Ireland – Rory makes his eighth bid to complete the Career Grand Slam, and he’s been close with six top-10 results in the Masters, including fourth in 2015, ties for fifth in 2018 and 2020, and a tie for seventh in 2017 before missing the cut last season. Ninth-ranked McIlroy won the PGA in 2012 and 2014, the U.S. Open in 2011 and the Open in 2014.

6. Dustin Johnson, United States – Former world No. 1 DJ is eighth now, but could make a big move back up the rankings by repeating his victory on the 2020 Masters, which he won by five strokes. Johnson’s only other major title came in the 2016 U.S. Open at Oakmont, but he has been close many times with an astounding 21 top-10 finishes in the Grand Slam tournaments.

7. Viktor Hovland, Norway – The fourth-ranked Hovland has yet to finish in the top 10 of a major, but has won six titles around the world since 2020, including four in the last five months. He was low amateur in the 2019 Masters in a tie for 32nd and tied for 21st last year in his first appearance as a pro. Hovland also tied for 12th in the 2019 U.S. Open and in the Open last year.

8. Patrick Cantlay, United States – The 2020-21 FedEx Cup champion, fifth in the world, has yet to win a major but his time should be coming. Cantlay’s best major results were a tie for third in the 2019 PGA and a tie for ninth in the 2019 Masters. Claimed three of his six PGA Tour victories last season and lost to Scottie Scheffler in a playoff at the Phoenix Open this year.

9. Collin Morikawa, United States – The third-ranked Morikawa has captured two major titles in nine tries, winning the 2020 PGA at Harding Park in San Francisco and the Open Championship last year at Royal St. George’s in Kent, England. Last season, he tied for fourth in the U.S. Open, tied for eighth in the PGA and tied for 18th, his best finish  in the Masters.

10. Hideki Matsuyama, Japan – The host of the Champions Dinner at the Masters this week as defending champion said he feels better after withdrawing from the Valero Texas Open after two rounds last week because of a neck injury. Matsuyama, even more of a national hero after winning at Augusta, has won twice this season and has seven other top-10 finishes in the majors.

OTHER PLAYERS TO WATCH: Tiger Woods, United States; Bryson DeChambeau, United States; Shane Lowry, Ireland; Xander Schauffele, United States; Louis Oosthuizen, South Africa; Jordan Spieth, United States; Brooks Koepka, United States; Joaquin Niemann, Chile; Matt Fitzpatrick, England; Corey Conners, Canada; Daniel Berger, United States; Sergio Garcia, Spain; Sam Burns, United States.

SLEEPERS

1. Tom Hoge, United States – Ranks fifth in the FedEx Cup after a victory at Pebble Beach and solo second in the AmEx. Looking for his first top-40 finish in the majors in his first Masters.

2. Lucas Herbert, Australia – Also playing in his first Masters, Herbert won the 2020 Dubai Desert Classic, the 2021 Dubai Duty Free Irish Open and the 2021 Bermuda Championship.

3. Talor Gooch, United States – FedEx Cup standings leader for several weeks early this season, Gooch won the RSM Classic and has four top-10s this season. Also making his Master debut.

4. Sepp Straka, Austria – After sinking a birdie putt on the final hole to win the Honda Classic, Straka his making his Masters debut, and he also tied for ninth in the Players Championship.

5. Cameron Young, United States – Tied for second in the Arnold Palmer Invitational and at Sanderson Farms, Young ranks 19th in FedEx Cup standings heading into in his first Masters.

For first round tee times (once they are released), visit https://www.pgatour.com/leaderboard.html

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