Don’t get me wrong. I love the NCAA basketball tournament and the Final Four for all its drama—buzzer beaters, and upsets; it is one of the most exciting times of the year for sports fans. But as a lifelong golfer and huge fan who follows the tour religiously, I love this week in April like no other.
It’s Masters Week!!!
I’ve been to The Masters for a practice round a few years back and still talk about it like it was yesterday. I think it is a safe bet that any golfer, beginner or pro, has Augusta National Golf Course at the very top of their list of courses they want to play or at least visit. I was lucky.
Yes, it was only a practice round the year Phil Mickelson won his first green jacket, but to get to see the course in person was a gift. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: Attending sporting events, any sporting event, in person is the only way to go. Television does not do it justice. This is especially true of this historic course.
The pure beauty of the course is breathtaking when you first walk on the grounds. It used to be an indigo plantation and nursery, and it still looks like it. It is simply a huge 365-acre bowl, which all funnels down to Rae’s Creek, and its hills just happen to be full of golf holes. Simply spectacular! If you get a chance, don’t hesitate.
Enough about the course, let’s talk golf. Who’s playing well, who are the favorites, and who is going to win this year’s tournament and slip on the prestigious green jacket?
As always, The Masters makes for a tough tournament to handicap. Previous success and current form are the typical parameters used in making an educated guess. But it is usually fruitless. The last four winners have been first-time champions and first-time major winners too boot.
Since 2000, only Tiger Woods (3), Phil Mickelson (3), and Bubba Watson have been able to capture more than one green jacket. That is 11 first-time winners. So the field is, and always will be, wide open.
This year there are several hot golfers heading into the week. Here are a few of those playing well right now:
Veteran Matt Kuchar, at the age of 40, is leading the FedEx standings (season-long points race), has two tournament wins and five top-10 finishes. Rickie Fowler is always a crowd favorite. He won the Phoenix Open in February and has three top-10 finishes. Italian Francesco Molinari has a win this year and a couple of top-10s. He is also the reigning PGA Championship title holder.
Xander Schauffele is another hot golfer with two wins on the year and three top-10’s.
With any major golf tournament you can’t leave out of the conversation Justin Thomas, world No. 2 Dustin Johnson (one win this year), two-time U.S. Open Champion Brooks Koepka, and Englishman Justin Rose who always seems to play well in Georgia and just recently took over the top spot in the world rankings. A couple of longshots to keep an eye on should include Bryson DeChambeau, Paul Casey, Jon Rahm and Tony Finau.
But the majority of the talk this week will inevitably be centered around Tiger Woods and Rory McIlroy. Woods owns four green jackets and is always a favorite anytime he enters the field at any tournament, let alone The Masters. Injuries have derailed his career in recent years as he was on track to capture every major golf record. He hasn’t won at Augusta since 2005.
Now (somewhat) healthy he has put together a good year but has only been able to play in five tournaments. However, he has managed to finish on the final leaderboard twice and beat Rory in the World Golf Match Play Championships two weeks ago, finishing tied for fifth.
I just don’t see Tiger winning this week. For me he hasn’t played enough golf this year to be considered the favorite. His putting has also been shaky (74th on tour), and he can’t consistently get off the tee with his driver. Augusta is a brutal walk and wears out even the fittest athletes. I think his lack of rounds will be his downfall. You have to be long and accurate at Augusta, and he has shown he can’t maintain that for four rounds.
You’ll hear plenty of his name throughout the week, but I just don’t think it will be heard much on the weekend.
My pick to win it all is Rory McIlroy. Yes, it is not much of a stretch as he is probably the hottest golfer coming into the tournament. He won the Players Championship against arguably the strongest field of the year in March. He also has not finished OUT of the top ten in any of the seven tournaments he has entered. Throw on top of that the fact that he is seeking the one major that has eluded him. This will be Rory’s fifth try to win at Augusta, and if he is successful, he would become only the sixth player ever to win all four majors in a career.
But I’m picking Rory because I have seen more consistency from him lately (despite his meltdown against Tiger in match play), and he seems to have a more determined mindset this year. His personal life has settled down, and he has been able to focus on his golf. He was in the final group last year and watched Patrick Reed win his first jacket, so he can still taste it. Rory knows what it is going to take to win it all.
It won’t be easy for Rory, as there always seems to be a random player who has a career week and messes up all the best laid plans. But if he can stick to his game, avoid big numbers, and put pressure on the leaders, I think he can slide up the leaderboard on Sunday and don the Green Jacket.
I’ll be watching for certain.
Oops. Congrats Tiger. Well deserved.