Back-to-back events in the Lone Star State yielded exciting drama for the PGA Tour, with a Billy Horschel match-play victory over a celebrated local in Austin preceding the return of superstar Jordan Spieth to the rank of champion.
And as it does every year, the end of the Texas swing is followed by Georgia for the world’s most famous golf event: The Masters at the inimitable Augusta National Golf Club.
If it feels like The Masters just happened, that is probably because it did. A frantic reschedule due to the worldwide COVID-19 pandemic forced last year’s event from its traditional place in April to a November showdown, which turned into a five-stroke romp by world No. 1 Dustin Johnson.
Now Johnson defends a Green Jacket for the first time, needing to stare down the most elite field in golf to slip the jacket back on his own shoulders for the first time since Tiger Woods won the 2001 and 2002 editions.
Sadly, Tiger will not be in attendance as the long-term ramifications of his horrific post Genesis Invitational car wreck have not yet become known, but as always, his legend will shine over Augusta’s iconic azalea-laden property.
This is arguably the most wide-open Masters in recent memory, making a top 20 ranking extra difficult, but here is who we like best this week:
(One further note: this is the only place in this article where we mention that we had Jordan Spieth and Charley Hoffman finishing 1-2 at the Valero Texas Open last week.)
2021 Masters Power Rankings
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20. Phil Mickelson
Lefty is 50 and no longer inside the top 100 in the OWGR, and as recently as a month ago, putting him in the top 20 would be nothing more than a sign of respect, but in that time, he has become one to legitimately pay attention to going into his 29th career Masters.
After an absolutely disastrous seven-month stretch (nothing better than a T44 in 11 starts) of play that had many wondering if he would be best suited taking a commentator role, Phil has looked much better.
He finished T35 at THE PLAYERS Championship, followed by a T25 at The Honda Classic, and while he did miss the cut at last week’s Valero Texas Open, he showed tremendous resilience bouncing back from an opening round 79 (although 10 of those strokes were on one hole) with a second-round 69.
Most encouraging to us, is that he has finished in the positive in strokes gained: off-the-tee in three consecutive starts, which recently would have sounded impossible.
He’s a three-time winner of this event (2004, 2006, 2010), and has 15 top-10s in 28 Augusta starts. Do not overlook his chances of besting Julius Boros’ status (48 years old) as the oldest player to win a major.
19. Bubba Watson
Bubba defines hit-or-miss in this event. In 12 career Augusta starts, only in his 2009 debut (T20) did he finish below 12th, but higher than 37th. Among those higher finishes though, is two victories (2012, 2014) and a T5 (2018).
The 42-year-old has an eye for this course, and he has a history of faring well in events where he has past success. He rarely comes out of nowhere anymore, and nobody would be surprised to see him contend again this week. He had been slumping in 2021, but may have snapped out of it in Austin at the WGC-Match Play, where he advanced out of the group stage before getting ousted in the Round of 16 against a player (Brian Harman) who birdied seven consecutive holes mid-round.
Many would be surprised to know that Bubba ranks 16th on Tour in strokes gained: tee-to-green, making him an intriguing bet at long-ish odds. He just needs to be merely bad on the greens, rather than horrific, as he has been in this season.
18. Dylan Frittelli
It could be said that 2021 has been the Year of the Longhorn on the PGA Tour (or at least in weeks where it hasn’t been the Year of the Cal Golden Bears), with Jordan Spieth resurrecting his career, Scottie Scheffler playing phenomenally regardless of the venue, and Brandel Chamblee drawing less ire than usual with his controversial takes on the Golf Channel.
So, who’s next? What about Dylan Frittelli? The 30-year-old sprinted out of Augusta’s gates in November, opening with a co-leading 7-under 65 and adding a Saturday 67 on his way to a career-high T5 finish.
And after a nightmare start to 2021, Frittelli is coming back around. His iron game was unbelievable in three of four rounds at THE PLAYERS; he lost 3.4 strokes to the field on approaches in the third round and STILL gained 8.6 for the week. He also led the field in strokes gained: around-the-green, a statistic where he ranks sixth on Tour for the season.
Then, at the WGC-Match Play, he was the lowest-seeded player in the field, but still advanced out of a difficult group containing Tony Finau, Jason Kokrak, and Will Zalatoris. He has shockingly long odds this week (125-1) for someone with so much in his favor. He will need to hit a few more fairways this week than he has been though; he has only been marginally better in that regard than Phil Mickelson, who has been a punchline off the tees this year.
17. Lee Westwood
Those who like a good sports story (as someone who can barely watch a 30 for 30 special without tearing up, I have to consider myself among that group) should be rooting hard for Lee Westwood to finish Masters week at Butler Cabin with Jim Nantz, Billy Payne, and Dustin Johnson.
A Brit who turns 48 this month, Westwood has had a career defined by one close call after another. In fact, he has finished second or third in a major nine (!) times without a win, among 12 top 5s and 19 top 10s.
In The Masters alone, he has two runner-ups and a T3, all since 2010. It appeared that Father Time had swooped in and ended Lee’s chances of major title, leaving him to become his generation’s Colin Montgomerie. But then, something interesting happened: Westwood got good again.
He won a 2020 event in Europe, posted a long string of good-to-great finishes, and then finished solo runner-up in back-to-back Tour February events: The Arnold Palmer Invitational and THE PLAYERS Championship, where his iron game has looked good as ever. In both of those events, Westwood made the final Sunday pairing with Bryson DeChambeau, creating a most unlikely rivalry.
A missed cut at the following week’s Honda Classic, which was forgivable given the physical and emotional fatigue that comes from two long weeks in contention, but he looked mostly great again at the WGC-Match Play, dropping his first match in group play before wins of 5&4 and 5&3. That 2-1-0 group record put him in a playoff with Sergio Garcia, which Sergio won with a walk-off ace. An ace. There was nobody less surprising to see lose that way than Westwood, who could do nothing but laugh it off.
16. Rory McIlroy
It has been a strange turn of events that we are no longer worried about the state of Jordan Spieth’s game, but are very concerned about Rory McIlroy. The former World No. 1 is in the midst of a long winless drought by his incredible standards, with no victories since the 2019 WGC-HSBC Champions, and has not won a major since the 2014 PGA Championship.
This will be the seventh year in a row where a Masters victory would make McIlroy the sixth player in Tour history to achieve the career grand slam. In his last six tries, he has five top-10s, including a T5 last November. He has certainly been close.
His play has reached a different level of concern though, because for a while, he was still posting above-average results, just struggling to close the door. Now, he is coming off two consecutive starts where he has looked abysmal. He missed the cut in his title defense at THE PLAYERS Championship, and not just by a little bit: he shot 79-75 (+10). Then in his most recent start, the WGC-Match Play, he was absolutely obliterated in his first match 6&5 to Ian Poulter, followed by a win against a struggling Lanto Griffin, and then a halved match against Cameron Smith.
Rory’s best still might be the best of anyone on Tour, but he seems to be completely lacking the killer instinct that kept him among the elite of the elite for so long.
15. Webb Simpson
It is surprisingly easy to forget about Webb, because he is such a quiet personality and it feels like he has not seriously contended in a major in forever, but it should be noted that he is one of just four players to finish in the top 10 in each of the last two Masters held (Dustin Johnson, Brooks Koepka, Jon Rahm).
In 2020, he led the Tour in both scoring average and birdie average, and nobody said a thing about it. In the current season, he has again been remarkably precise (6th in driving accuracy, 17th in greens in regulation), and again, is unbelievable on the greens for anyone, let alone somebody who used to be a liability with his flat stick. He is higher in the world rankings than Cantlay, Koepka, or Rory.
All in all, Webb is just a dead solid player. Him winning this week, would feel an awful lot like when Adam Scott took the 2013 Masters.
14. Sergio Garcia
It looked like Sergio might be a career 0-for in the majors, until he broke through on his 74th major start, occurring at the 2017 Masters where he made a number of clutch iron shots in a classic duel with another veteran golfer in Justin Rose.
Sometimes a win like that, after so many close calls, will open the floodgates. What about Sergio? He finished T21 in his first major start since that Masters win, then T37 at The Open Championship, and then nine missed cuts, a T52, and a T67 in 11 major starts since, so… maybe not a good example.
So why mention the 41-year-old in these power rankings? He is playing his best golf in years in the 2021 season. We were still skeptical when he won October’s Sanderson Farms Championship, where he faced the worst field we have seen in a non opposite-field event in recent years, but he kept playing well, both in the U.S. and in Europe, and now comes into Augusta off consecutive top 10s: a T9 at THE PLAYERS Championship, and a T5 at the WGC-Match Play where he won a difficult group (Tyrrell Hatton, Lee Westwood, and Matt Wallace), and knocking off a hot Mackenzie Hughes in single elimination before running into the unexpected buzzsaw of Victor Perez.
Sergio currently ranks an impressive 2nd on Tour in strokes gained: off-the-tee, and is 10th in strokes gained: tee-to-green. He is not putting well, but has he ever?
13. Daniel Berger
We’re trying to remember the last time a Daniel Berger shot at Augusta National made the television broadcast and are completely blanking. It does not help that the 27-year-old Florida State product has not even qualified for this event, which feels absurd considering he’s 15th in the world rankings, and over the past two seasons, he has two wins among 11 top-10s, with seven of those inside the top five.
A phenomenal finish to the 2020 season led to a pedestrian start to 2021, but the four-time Tour winner appears to be coming back around over the past two months, winning the AT&T Pebble Beach Pro-Am in dramatic fashion, finishing T9 at THE PLAYERS Championship, and then showing strong at the WGC-Match Play, going 2-1-0 in group play before losing a sudden-death playoff to a guy (Erik van Rooyen) that he beat 6&4 in his opening match.
There is a good argument that Berger probably should have won the group on a tiebreaker. Regardless, he has been fantastic over the past two years in every part of his game (he somehow has lost strokes to the field around the greens this year, despite ranking well in most individual categories connected to around-the-green work), and really just needs a major to be considered truly among the best of the best.
12. Patrick Reed
He’s not popular, and he’s not going to win Miss Congeniality of the PGA Tour, but what Patrick Reed is, is a nine-time Tour winner and a green jacket owner, having taken the 2018 Masters by a stroke over Rickie Fowler. He also won earlier this year at Torrey Pines, and ranks second on Tour in birdie average and first in strokes gained: putting.
On the flip side of that, his results have been unimpressive since his win at the Farmers Insurance Open (CUT, T22, T28), he missed the cut at the Arnold Palmer Invitational, he has seven straight rounds in stroke play of 70 or higher, and in his most recent start at the WGC-Match Play, when he had a chance to advance out of group play with a win, he got destroyed 5&4 by a 22-year-old making his tournament debut (Joaquin Niemann).
In his past four major starts, Reed has two tenth-place finishes (one solo, one share) and two T13s. You might call that consistent.
11. Scottie Scheffler
A 24-year-old with just four major starts, is not supposed to contend at just his second Masters start. However, a 24-year-old with just four major starts is also not supposed to contend at the PGA Championship, contend at two FedExCup playoff events, and is DEFINITELY not supposed to finish runner-up in their WGC-Match Play debut, knocking off world No. 3, Match Play extraordinaire Matt Kuchar, and Ryder Cup legend Ian Poulter along the way.
Experience matters at Augusta, but Scheffler looked pretty comfortable in finishing T19 in his Augusta debut in November. His 63rd-ranked scoring average this season ranks among the most misleading stats on Tour. He’s good, and he has done everything in his short time on Tour except win. That is coming very soon.
10. Patrick Cantlay
A missed cut at THE PLAYERS Championship is the only result of worse than T18 in the last eight starts for the 29-year-old former amateur superstar, who is one of the best players in the world yet to taste victory in a major.
Patrick Cantlay, currently 10th in the world rankings, was a factor until late on Sunday in Tiger Woods’ 2019 victory (just one stroke off the lead with three holes to play), and he followed that T9 with a T17 at the November event.
A testament to his all-around game, Cantlay has not finished outside the top 60 in any of the six strokes gained categories three years running (and was worse in just one in the season prior), and in the current season, ranks in the top 10 in three of them: around-the-green (7th), tee-to-green (8th), and total (6th). He is more than due for a triumph of this magnitude.
9. Collin Morikawa
The 24-year-old, who already ranks fourth in the OWGR, is one of those guys who somehow becomes the exception to every rule. Collin Morikawa already has four career victories, in just 41 career starts, with the most impressive of those being at last August’s PGA Championship, where he surged out in front of the best leaderboard logjams the Tour has seen in recent years, and at the recent WGC-Workday Championship at The Concession.
Morikawa also won an event (Workday Charity Open) last July at Muirfield Village. All that together, and Morikawa has clearly established himself as one of the best difficult course players on Tour. So, the question becomes, “how difficult do you think Augusta National is?”. It might not be quite as difficult for someone who leads the Tour in strokes gained: approach-the-green and is third in strokes gained: tee-to-green.
8. Xander Schauffele
This feels too low for Xander Schauffele, given that he ranks sixth in the OWGR, fifth in the FedExCup, has four career Tour victories at 27 years of age, he is second on Tour in strokes gained: total, and has posted top 10s in six of his last 11 majors, including a runner-up here to Tiger Woods in 2019.
However, despite remarkably consistent play over his five full-time seasons on Tour, this is the least optimistic we have been about his game in some time. Yes, he does have those four wins, but he is suddenly struggling to close now, with a Tony Finau-esque 12 top 5 finishes, including eight runner-ups, since his last victory (2019 Sentry Tournament of Champions).
In addition, his play has fallen hard over his last three starts: a T39 at the WGC-Workday Championship At The Concession, a surprising missed cut at THE PLAYERS, and a failure to advance out of the group stage at the WGC-Match Play, losing in a sudden-death playoff to Scottie Scheffler.
His game is Masters-made, though, so we would not be shocked to see him overcome his recent form, but something just seems off with him lately. His putting especially has been letting him down.
7. Paul Casey
The Brit should be one of the most motivated players in this week’s Masters field. Paul Casey is playing some of the best golf of his career in 2021, and at 43 years of age, he has to be wondering how many great opportunities he will have left to win a major championship.
Currently 18th in the world, Casey has a European Tour victory along with four top 10s in five Tour starts since the calendar flipped to 2021, and even in his lesser result at the WGC-Match Play, he managed to bounce back nicely after a difficult opening match, tying for second in his group.
While his results on the major championship stage have not been extraordinary as a whole, he was remarkable in a T2 finish at last August’s PGA Championship and had a three-year stretch at The Masters 2015-17 where he finished T4-T6-4. As of late, he has definitely showcased the shot-making prowess of a green jacket owner.
6. Brooks Koepka
Color us among the most surprised that Brooks Koepka is going to give it a go this week, as we thought all the talk that “he might” was just gamesmanship.
Details are scant on how Koepka re-injured the knee that caused him to miss his two-time Championship defense of September’s U.S. Open, but there had been whispers that he might miss “6-to-8 months”.
After announcing that he will be playing this week, Brooks tweeted a link of that report, along with the best use of the Michael Jordan “…and I took that personally” meme that we have seen.
Let this be your quarterly reminder that Brooks is really, really good in majors. Over the last four seasons of majors – a span of 13 starts – he has four victories, two runner-ups, a T4, a T6, and two other finishes of T13 or better.
Still, despite his major wizardry, the 30-year-old’s chances are difficult to pinpoint this week, as a result of the injury. He struggled for a time after the initial injury, missing three cuts in a row at one point and reaching what he called “a dark place”, but he then won the Waste Management Phoenix Open, and finished T2 in his most recent start, which was just over a month ago at the WGC-Workday Championship At The Concession.
Koepka is too good on the biggest of stages to put him any lower than this. If you have money on him, it would be wise to pay attention to the pre-tournament reports of how healthy he looks in practice.
5. Bryson DeChambeau
People say you can’t overpower Augusta National. Despite several “powerful” plays leaving with green jackets in recent years, that is more or less true. People are wrong, however, when they use that to discount reigning U.S. Open Champion (by six strokes) Bryson DeChambeau, whose game is a heck of a lot more than viral drives.
A real-life Happy Gilmore would not win eight times on Tour over the past five seasons. The 27-year-old DeChambeau leads the Tour in scoring average, strokes gained: tee-to-green, strokes gained: total, and is in his fourth consecutive season in the top 40 in strokes gained: putting, including tenth a year ago.
If there is a valid criticism of Bryson this week, it is that he has not been played especially well in his three Augusta starts since finishing T21 as an amateur in 2016, including a T34 in November. We will not attempt to dissect why the most intimidating player on Tour has been so awful in match play, somehow amassing a 2-9-1 record in his career and losing two weeks ago to whoever Antoine Rozner is, but in his last two stroke play starts – which The Masters is – he won the Arnold Palmer Invitational and finished T3 at THE PLAYERS Championship.
4. Dustin Johnson
If you’ve read this far, there is no need to remind you, yet again, what happened at the last November’s Masters. While it was just his first green jacket, and second career major championship victory, DJ’s orchestration of the iconic course was not exactly a surprise.
Going into that start more than five months ago, he was on a torrid string of results: in T2-WIN-2-T3-T6-T2 over his previous six events. And those six include two majors and three FedExCup playoff events. Now? Not so much.
Johnson is still No. 1 in the world rankings, but he has tamed over his last three starts: a T54 at the WGC-Workday Championship at The Concession, a T48 at THE PLAYERS Championship, and an underwhelming week at the WGC-Match Play, where he failed to advance past group play, despite being the “A pool golfer” in what was considered a weak group.
How much of a concern should his recent drop-off be? Not terribly. He is well-rested after taking the Valero off, has no weaknesses in his game, and has a sparkling record in this event, with top 10s in his last five Augusta starts.
3. Jon Rahm
The 26-year-old Spaniard and his wife had their first child on Saturday, putting an end to worry that he might have to jet in the middle of The Masters. If Rahm gets into contention this week, prepare to hear more references to “Kepa” than Harvard references in an NFL game featuring Ryan Fitzpatrick.
With more important concerns as of late, Rahm would not be faulted if his head was not 100% into his quest to win his first career major this week, but looking at the world No. 3 from purely a golf perspective, his chances should be considered as strong as anyone’s in the field. He is so good that he won the BMW Championship in August, and it still kind of feels like his recent months could be considered a “drought”.
Even without a win since, in his last nine Tour starts, he has just two finishes outside the top 10, and one of those was a T13 in an event (Waste Management Phoenix Open) where he shot four rounds in the 60s.
Of anyone in the world currently without a major championship, Rahm is easily the best bet to win one at some point, and coming into Augusta off a three-year Masters stretch of 4-T9-T7. Maybe he can become 2021’s Fred VanVleet: an athlete who reaches his career apex immediately following the birth of his first child.
2. Justin Thomas
The world No. 2 has had a Jekyll and Hyde thing going lately, looking spectacular in a win last month at THE PLAYERS Championship, and then following it up by looking lost in a 1-2-0 performance at the WGC-Dell Technologies Match Play.
Fortunately for Thomas, The Masters is stroke play, and he has to be among the favorites to win a first green jacket this week. With 14 Tour victories, the 27-year-old is long overdue for a second career major (2017 PGA Championship), and he has improved his result in each of his five Masters starts: T39, T22, T17, T12, 4.
Only two things can happen: either that trend ends or Thomas has a phenomenal week. When you’re deciding which, keep in mind that he has the Tour’s second-best scoring average.
1. Jordan Spieth
That sound you heard at 4:58pm local time in San Antonio was the collective groan of the entirety of the PGA Tour, minus one, when Jordan Spieth’s par putt hit the bottom of the 18th hole at the Valero Texas Open, clinching the former World No. 1 and three-time major champion’s valiant return to PGA Tour winnership!
We can say, without hyperbole, that the Jordan Spieth winless streak – which dated back to the 2017 Open Championship – is the golf equivalent of the Boston Red Sox not winning the World Series for 95 years following their 1918 triumph, and again, we want to express the lack of hyperbole.
The first Spieth win in 1,351 days – the 12th of his career – should be a worry to the Tour because this was never a Padraig Harrington or Martin Kaymer situation where the lack of results can be imputed to swing changes. Nor can it be attributed to injury, such as the case was with David Duval and Ben Curtis, among others. This was strictly between the ears for Spieth, and now he finally knows what it feels like to win again.
Heck, Spieth probably would have come into the week confident, even had finished dead last at TPC San Antonio, given that he has shown a mastery for The Masters since his 2014 debut, with unprecedented success to the tune of 2nd-WIN-2nd in his first three tries.
Now, that he appears to be back following six top-15 finishes in his last seven starts? Watch out OWGR!
Next Five: Cameron Smith, Tony Finau, Matthew Fitzpatrick, Ian Poulter, Jason Day