This year’s Masters, arguably the most iconic and renowned golf tournament in the world, will be setting their personal record for the shortest amount of time between two editions.
Traditionally held in the first full week of April, the 2020 Masters was rescheduled and played in November due to the COVID-19 crisis. The wait was certainly worth it for Dustin Johnson, who shot a record 20-under par and claimed his first Green Jacket. But the Masters – more than any other golf tournament, is associated with its place on the calendar and the traditions it signifies, so while a November Masters was better than no Masters, the whole thing just felt out of place – almost as if we’d mixed up our holidays.
Now, it won’t exactly be the same this year, either. Only limited fans will be in attendance, and five-time champion Tiger Woods will be home in Florida, the result of a February car crash that wrecked his legs and could very well threaten his playing future. Still, the traditional scenery will return; the drive down Magnolia Lane will too; and the field is still the most elite and exclusive in all of golf.
With so many phenomenal players, there are no shortage of storylines. We could easily double the seven we highlight here:
1. DJ Defends Masters Title
Last November’s Masters was mostly a one-man show – one orchestrated by 24-time Tour Champion Dustin Johnson. Coming in extraordinarily hot, with two wins, three runner-ups, a T3, and four other top-12 finishes since the Tour restart in June, DJ opened at Augusta with a co-leading 7-under 65 that by the end of Sunday, became a five-stroke landslide win over Cameron Smith and Sungjae Im. His 20-under final score was a Masters record.
Given the unbelievable levels of skill the 36-year-old has shown over the years, the only surprising thing about that Masters obliteration was that it was his first one. Only one of his prior career victories happened at a major (2016 U.S. Open), and at The Masters, he had yet to win, but he had finished posted top 10s in each of the previous four editions, including a runner-up to the Tiger Woods epic in 2019.
It still kind of feels like DJ should have more majors on his resume, but given how difficult it is to win one, let alone multiple, it really was a legacy-changing win that mostly silenced his critics. At least professionally. There will probably always be whispers about his rumored personal life. Someday, one heck of a book is probably going to be written by somebody.
So, a short five months later, the reigning FedExCup Champion and PGA Tour Player of the Year should be the easy favorite for a repeat performance, right?
It’s not that simple.
While Johnson remains the No. 1 player in the world, and in the time since he won his green jacket, he also took the green flag classic in Saudi Arabia (that isn’t what it’s actually called; that was a poor attempt to be clever), and posted several high finishes in the U.S., his game has suddenly hit the skids.
A T54 at the WGC-Workday Championship at The Concession wasn’t especially worrisome, since it was an unfamiliar course, and he may have just lost interest after opening uncharacteristically opening with a 77, but he followed that up with a pedestrian T48 at THE PLAYERS Championship. He has made just one more start since: a disappointing performance at the WGC-Dell Technologies Match Play Championship, where he failed to advance from group stage, despite a favorable draw in group 1 with Kevin Na, Adam Long, and group winner, 24-year-old Scot Robert MacIntyre.
Johnson had been set to play last week’s Valero Texas Open, but withdrew beforehand, opting for rest. It could easily end up being the right decision, but it is too early to know for sure. Regardless, he has everyone gunning for him this week, and he has not had his best stuff in the past month.
2. Jordan Spieth is Back. Just in Time For The Masters!
We can say it! We can finally say it! Jordan Spieth is officially back!
The University of Texas product exploded onto the professional golf scene in 2013 as the PGA’s Oscar Robertson, Night Train Lane, or Teemu Selanne: naturals who laughed in the face of the alleged “learning curve”. Spieth won an event as a teenager. He had multiple major championship victories by the time he was 23. He stepped on the tee box at the 2017 PGA Championship, where a win would have meant achieving the career Grand Slam at a younger age than Tiger Freakin’ Woods.
More relevant to this week, he needed shockingly little time to master The Masters. In his 2014 tournament debut, he made the final Sunday pairing and led a former Masters Champion in Bubba Watson by two strokes as late as the 7th hole in round 4, before finishing runner-up.
Debutants aren’t supposed to finish runner-up at Augusta National. The following year, he went wire-to-wire, transmuting an opening-round 64 into an eventual four-stroke romp over three-time Masters Champ Phil Mickelson.
The following year, he again made the final Sunday pairing, even holding as much as a five-stroke lead before the disaster of all disasters on Amen corner led to a runner-up. Spieth showed enormous class in staying composed and slipping the green jacket onto Danny Willett’s shoulders in the post-tournament ceremony. T2-WIN-T2. Nobody is supposed to do that at The Masters right off the bat. Jordan Spieth did.
Of course, we all know where he has been in recent years, or more accurately, where he hasn’t been: the top of a leaderboard. Spieth had been stuck on 11 Tour wins for a really long time, by his standards.
From that 11th win, an inspiring victory over Matt Kuchar at the 2017 Open Championship, Spieth dropped from 1st to 92nd in the world rankings, and was suddenly not qualifying for WGC events.
And that all has changed in 2021. Starting with a T4 at February’s Waste Management Phoenix Open, Spieth strung together four consecutive top 15 finishes, three of which included him holding at least a share of the 54-hole lead. Then, at last week’s Valero Texas Open, Spieth’s Sunday struggles became a thing of his past, as he shot a 6-under 66 that left him two clear of TPC San Antonio wizard Charley Hoffman.
So, Spieth knows what it feels like to win again. That should be very scary for the PGA Tour, and in that regard, there is no worse week for The Masters to be happening.
3. Jon Rahm’s New Good Luck Charm
In the 2019 NBA Playoffs, unheralded (at the time) Toronto Raptors point guard Fred VanVleet got red hot after a 3-point game against the Milwaukee Bucks where he went 1/11 from the field. He shot 5 for 6 in a starring role off the bench, followed by a game where he went 7/9 from three, and that hot streak lasted all the way through the end of the NBA Finals, where he was a key in a dismantling of the Golden State Warriors dynasty.
What does that have to do The Masters? Maybe nothing, but VanVleet credited his vastly improved play on the birth of his first son, something world No. 3 Jon Rahm will be attempting to channel when he attempts to win his first major championship. The Spanish prodigy has five Tour wins, and six more in Europe over the short time he has been a pro.
That is because Rahm welcomed his first child into the world on Saturday, ending concern that he might have to jet off at a moment’s notice during the event, potential drama that would have brought back memories of Phil Mickelson at the 1999 U.S. Open. It was a son, which they named Kepa. Expect that to be brought up an almost nauseating amount if Rahm is to get into the contention this week.
And there is every reason to think he will be a factor. In his last three Masters starts, he has finished 4, T9, T7 respectively, and he is rarely out of the top 10 anywhere else.
Since winning the BMW Championship, the second event of the FedExCup Playoffs, Rahm has finished worse than tenth just twice, and one of those was a T13. In his most recent two outings, he followed a T9 at THE PLAYERS Championship with a T5 at the WGC-Match Play, where he somehow (we still do not know how) was the only pool A golfer out of 16 to advance out of the group stage. He reached the quarterfinals before falling victim to whatever Scottie Scheffler was on.
Nobody would fault Rahm if his thoughts and passions are elsewhere this week, but he ranks third in the world for a reason, and among those seeking their first career major, he is far and away the best bet to get there someday. Maybe “someday” will be this week.
4. Best Players Without a Major?
Rahm is arguably the best player in the field without a major championship victory as of yet, but he is far from the only notable in that position. Here are some more whose PGA resumes are need of the ultimate booster, listed by world ranking:
Xander Schauffele (6): Xander’s stock has taken a little bit of a hit as of late. He has posted many high finishes since his last win, which was at the 2019 Sentry Tournament of Champions (an early January event), and has drawn criticism of sudden struggles to close, despite four career victories. He has also posted his three worst results of the season in his last three starts. Still, he posted two tops 10s in majors in each of the past three seasons, and has not failed to finish one in the top 5 in any of his four Tour seasons. He was also T2 here to Tiger Woods in 2019.
Tyrrell Hatton (8): Has been fantastic in Europe, and won the 2019 Arnold Palmer Invitational, but despite five top 10s in majors, the 29-year-old has yet to truly contend in one, and he always seems to be either really hot or really cold. After posting top 10s in both of his 2016 major starts, he missed the cut in all four in 2017, made the cut in all four in 2018 and 2019, and then missed the cut again in all three last year. He has the shotmaking to win a green jacket, but does he have the temperament?
Patrick Cantlay (10): Made a great run here in 2019, getting himself into the mix late before Tiger prevailed. He boasts one of the best all-around games on Tour, and has three victories on Tour. Only has one finish of worse than T18 in his last eight starts, and ranks third in the FedExCup Standings.
Tony Finau (13): An agonizing 31 top 10s without a win since he won his only Tour event in Puerto Rico in 2016. At one point this year, he finished runner-up in three consecutive events, and was among the three to finish runner-up to Tiger Woods at Augusta in 2019. The 30-year-old has to be getting tired of the close calls.
Paul Casey (18): This might be one of the last great chances for the 43-year-old, who is playing his best golf in a long time over the past six months. He was T2 at the PGA Championship in August, and before a so-so week at the WGC-Match Play (his most recent start), he had posted top 12s in his last six starts worldwide, including a win in Dubai. Has struggled at Augusta in his past two tries, but had a T6-T4-6-T15 stretch from 2015-2018.
Lee Westwood (20): The man who turns 48 this month might be the best story in the field if he wins. He has nine top-3 finishes in majors without a win, and no, that is not a typo. He has been close over and over and over again, and just as it seemed like his time contending in professional golf was done, his game was suddenly reborn. He finished runner-up in consecutive weeks at the recent Arnold Palmer Invitational and THE PLAYERS Championship. He was The Masters runner-up to Phil Mickelson in 2010, and co runner-up to Danny Willett in 2016.
Others: Viktor Hovland (14), Daniel Berger (15), Matthew Fitzpatrick (16), Billy Horschel (17), Sungjae Im (19), Scottie Scheffler (22), Tommy Fleetwood (24), Hideki Matsuyama (25).
5. Same Old Masters’ Storyline With Rory McIlroy
This year’s Masters is the seventh in a row where the 31-year-old former world No. 1 McIlroy could become the sixth golfer in PGA Tour history to earn the career Grand Slam with a win. He would join Gene Sarazen, Ben Hogan, Gary Play, Jack Nicklaus, and Tiger Woods.
The Northern Irishman has four career major titles, and has come close at The Masters before, with six top 10s in his last seven Augusta starts.
Nobody questions whether he has the talent to win a green jacket; he clearly does, but his mental game has come in question during a two-year stretch where he has gone from winning often, to just finishing well often.
He has not won anywhere since the 2019 WGC-HSBC Champions, his longest winless drought since 2008, when he was still a teenager. He was also miserable in his last two starts: a missed cut in his Championship defense of THE PLAYERS Championship, and a poor performance at the WGC-Match Play where he was basically done after getting shelled 6&5 in his first match against Ian Poulter.
At November’s Masters, Rory did well to finish T5 after opening with a 3-over 75, but he never came close to contending, and as good as a T5 normally looks, it should be noted that it was still nine strokes behind Dustin Johnson’s winning number.
6. The Bryson DeChambeau Show at Augusta National
Fewer than two months off a six-stroke blowout win at The U.S. Open, where he was the only player in the field to finish under par, his first major championship win, there was concern that Bryson would similarly destroy Augusta National with his blistering drives and unprecedented power. That concern proved to be unwarranted, as the 27-year-old former amateur superstar was unable to get a string of good holes going early, eventually finishing T34. In three Masters starts as a professional, DeChambeau has yet to finish better than the T21 he had as the low amateur in 2016.
While it has been long said that you cannot overpower Augusta, that should not automatically eliminate Bryson, whose eight career Tour victories have occurred at a diverse set of courses. It is also important to stress that he is not a Happy Gilmore-esque one trick distance pony.
DeChambeau eads the Tour scoring average, strokes gained: tee-to-green, and has consistently been one of the best putters on Tour for the past four years.
The world No. 5 also arrives at Augusta in good form, winning the recent Arnold Palmer Invitational and finishing T3 at THE PLAYERS Championship. He formed an unlikely rivalry with veteran international player Lee Westwood, being grouped with him in the final Sunday pairing in both events.
7. Can Phil Mickelson Win One More Green Jacket?
The 50-year-old 44-time Tour champion, with three of those coming at The Masters (2004, 2006, 2010), appeared to be on the way to nothing more in this piece than an afterthought, getting mentioned only when it related to other players. Then the past month happened.
Phil still is nowhere near peak Phil, but after a disastrous seven-month stretch where he failed to finish better than T44 anywhere, falling out of the top 100 in the world for the first time since 1993 in the process, he is again looking like he at least still belongs on the regular Tour, as opposed to the Champions Tour, or the commentator booth.
After a respectable T35 at THE PLAYERS, Phil finished T25 at the Honda Classic, and while he missed the cut in his next start, at last week’s Valero Texas Open, he deserves credit for bouncing back from an 8-over 79 in the opening round (10 of that was on only very, very bad hole), with a 3-under 69. Heck, it could even be argued that it was the best thing that could happen to him: he got to rest for the weekend and still comes into Augusta on a high note.
Most encouraging for Phil’s Masters chances, an event where he has more finishes inside the top 10 (15) than outside (13): he has gone from absolutely nightmare with his driver, to making three straight starts where he GAINED strokes to the field off-the-tee.
If anyone is able to finally knock Julius Boros from his post atop the oldest all-time major winners list (48 years, 4 months when he took the 1968 PGA Championship), Phil feels like the best bet to be that man. He doesn’t look like he’s 30 anymore, but he still plays much younger than 50.