Augusta, GA—When the first round of the 79th edition of The Masters gets underway it will likely mean for the first time in nearly 20 years neither Tiger Woods nor Phil Mickelson are high on the radar screen as prime contenders to carry off another green jacket. In 2014 neither man was around for weekend play—Woods opted not to compete because of injury and Lefty missed the cut for the first time since 1997.
Woods may opt to return for the first time since the PGA Tour stop this past February in San Diego but his earlier form has been nothing short of woeful. Flipping the switch on to compete at the highest of levels with a return to Augusta may prove just too much for the former world number one player.
Nonetheless, key contenders have emerged—any of the five mentioned below could very well add possession of their first green jacket and the distinction in being called Masters champion.
No discussion of pre-tourney favorites can begin without mentioning the world’s number one player—Rory McIlroy. The 25-year-old Ulsterman won the final two majors from 2014 and a win this week at Augusta would mean completion of a career Grand Slam—becoming just the 6th golfer ever to achieve such a herculean feat.
In addition, with McIlroy winning his first Masters he would head to Washington State in mid-June to have a shot in holding all four major titles at the same time—a feat known as the Tiger Slam for what Woods achieved in the 2000-01 seasons. McIlroy has held the number one slot for 74 consecutive weeks and although his play on the PGA Tour has been less than his stellar stuff from the year prior, there is no question that when on form McIlroy has a gear switch that, thus far, none of his contemporaries can match.
In 2014, McIlroy earned his first top ten placement at Augusta with a tie for 8th. In 2011, he was in the driver seat in possibly winning his first green jacket. All things that were possible just collapsed with a meltdown starting at the 10th hole, finishing with an 80—an unfathomable reality after going into the final round with a four-shot cushion. The McIlroy of 2011, quickly rebounded with the next major—the U.S. Open at Congressional and a record setting four-round performance.
All eyes will be on Rory this week—as the should be. True separation of where he stands now compared to his peers are the stakes this week at Augusta. Should McIlroy get off to a fast start, he may leave all others in his rear view mirror. The main concern for McIlroy is handling the demands of Augusta National’s sweeping putting surfaces. Never known as a superb putter — McIlroy will need his flatstick working no less than his superior tee-to-green skills.
Ranked number five in the world, the 27-year-old Aussie has shown a deep desire for intense competition on golf’s grand stages. In the last four Masters, Day has come forward with a 2nd and 3rd place finish. His swing works well with all the clubs—especially on the driver side and is comparable to the skills McIlroy possesses with the big stick.
Day did win this past February in San Diego at Torrey Pines and has shown a knack for being in contention at major championships. In 17 total appearances he has seven top-ten finishes.
The issue for Day is a simple but major hurdle—closing the deal. Despite his enormous talent, he has only three wins on the PGA Tour. He has had a few injury issues in the past but it appears that all is well and Day now has to demonstrate whether he can finally push through and claim the ultimate prize.
The 35-year-old Spaniard has been on the international professional golf scene since 1999. At that year’s PGA Championship at Medinah, Garcia pushed Tiger Woods all the way and finished solo second. The sense from many after that event was the belief that a budding rivalry would develop and that Garcia would be no less the player than other Spanish golf dynamos such as the late Seve Ballesteros and Jose Maria Olazabal.
That has not happened—at least thus far. Ranked 8th in the world, Garcia has still not claimed a major title although he has come close on a few occasions. This year’s Masters means the 17th time that Sergio will venture onto the hallowed grounds in Georgia. The results have shown only 3 top ten finishes during that span. The Spaniard has competed in 65 majors with 17 of them resulting in top ten finishes along with 4 second place finishes.
In years past Garcia could often be his worst opponent. If matters did not happen, Garcia could be petulant and look to blame others for his demise. The Garcia of today is a seasoned player—comfortable in his own skin and has shown a remarkable tenacity to battle through even when a bad break or two happens.
Sergio has eight PGA Tour wins to his credit and his tee-to-green game has always been a pillar of strength. In years past Garcia carried a balky putter and such a liability was something that would only be magnified on the vexing putting surfaces of Augusta National. More comfortable with his stroke, Garcia will seek to add his name to what other fellow countrymen have already done. The possibilities in finally securing that elusive first major triumph could well happen this week.
In terms of sheer overall talent—with the exception of McIlroy—Dustin Johnson stands above all other players. The 30-year-old came back in 2015 from a mid-year self-imposed withdrawal from the PGA Tour. Some media sources claimed the six-month absence came about for violating the PGA Tour’s drug policy dealing with cocaine usage. Johnson has vigorously denied the charge and the PGA Tour stated that Johnson’s decision to refrain from competition was self-imposed and had nothing to do with violations of existing drug policies.
The 2015 campaign has shown quite clearly Johnson is set to go full bore and demonstrate what he is fully able to do when playing at a peak level. Johnson and his significant other, Paulina Gretzky, have started their own family and the guidance Johnson has received from Paulina’a father—the former NHL “great one” Wayne Gretzky—has provided a stable base from which Johnson has now realized.
Dustin showed form earlier this year, losing in a playoff in the L.A. Open but coming from behind in the final round to win the WGC event at Doral’s famed Blue Monster course.
With nine PGA Tour wins, Johnson is now at the stage where a major victory could be the catalyst for an even greater year and career. In past situations, Johnson could sometimes play indifferently when failing to get off to a good start. His wherewithal to grind during the recently concluded Texas Open after shooting a 78 in the first round and then coming back with rounds of 72, 68 and 68 for a 6th-place tie is ample proof the 2015 Johnson is no longer the golfer who would likely bail when circumstances were stacked against him.
This will be Johnson’s sixth career start at Augusta with his best finish being a tie for 13th. Now ranked 7th in the world, Dustin Johnson has pushed aside many doubts about his commitment to playing world class golf. The final barometer comes this week at Augusta.
Ranked 10th in the world, Jimmy Walker is the quintessential case in point that it matters not if you’re late for the party but that you’ve actually arrived. For the 36-year-old Oklahoma native who now calls the greater San Antonio area home, the road to professional golf success has been a bumpy one. Resolute self belief has catapulted Walker to the very front row position he occupies now.
The quiet man has made some loud noises during the 2015 PGA Tour season with two wins—a commanding nine-stroke margin in winning the Sony in Hawaii and an equally resolute four-shot win at the Valero Texas Open in his adopted hometown. He nearly earned the Hawaii doubleheader in winning the Hyundai Tournament of Champions this past January but was defeated in a playoff by Patrick Reed. Walker’s solid play during last year’s Ryder Cup Matches at Gleneagles in Scotland where he earned 2 1/2 points and lost only once in five matches indicated a keen appetite for competition no matter the course, the setting or the stakes.
Last year was Walker’s first Masters—finishing in a tie for 8th. He made the cut in all four majors last year, bolstered with three top ten finishes. There’s little question his game is solid in all aspects and the big stages have not intimidated him from playing at the highest of levels.
For Walker, the test at Augusta is demonstrating he can win at the major championship level—he’s won five times on the PGA Tour since October 2013. Winning his first major championship is certainly a very real possibility this week.
M. James Ward, a member of Golf Writer’s Association of America (GWAA) and past member of Met Golf Writer’s Association (MGWA), has reported on golf’s grandest events since 1980 in a variety of forums.