Masters: How Many Intriguing Plotlines Can There Be? Let's Count
Ever since Jordan Spieth opened 2016 with a scorched-earth performance at Kapalua, it's been clear this is going to be a special year. In the dozen weeks since, three other Masters champions have won PGA Tour events (Bubba Watson, Adam Scott, Charl Schwartzel), as have a pair of PGA Championship winners (Jason Dufner, Jason Day). That so many top players are peaking only adds more juice to what was already shaping up as an exceptionally intriguing Masters. The miniswoon that Spieth has fallen into post-Kapalua actually helps; had he kept up that torrid play, he would have been a prohibitive favorite heading into Augusta. Now it will be fascinating to see if the boy wonder can summon a big-time performance for his title defense. Bubba's minor back injury is also helpful to the narrative—Watson has won two of the last four Masters, and he is playing some of the best golf of his life. After his win at Riviera he supplanted Spieth as the Masters favorite, but now you have to wonder how a withdrawal from Bay Hill will affect Watson. Golf's most finicky character doesn't do well when anything upsets his routine.
So who is going to win this Masters? That's a boring question, best left to a voodoo priest, or perhaps Mark Broadie. Here's a passel of players we want to win, in descending order of awesomeness.
Vaughn Taylor (20) has never been a headliner, but his surprise victory at Pebble Beach, after years of poor play and related hardship, has been the season's sweetest moment so far. Like another Augusta native, Larry Mize, Taylor is a preeminent putter, and he will be helped by an adoring home crowd. If you want a Cinderella story, this is it.
Danny Willett (19), the Yorkshire terrier who is third in the European tour's Race to Dubai, makes an excellent dark horse. He has the game and the gumption to pull a Spieth and contend in only his second Masters. But an entire generation of Next Faldos has failed to get it done at Augusta. Can Willett, 28, break the curse?
Speaking of dread titles, Henrik Stenson (18) lugs around a weighty one: Best Player Never to Have Won a Major. (Rickie Fowler is too young and has not collected enough scar tissue to earn this good news--bad news honorific, and we've simply given up on Sergio García.) Stenson's hot draw and towering irons set up perfectly for Augusta National, but his mental fragility holds him back on golf's most stressful greens, which is why he has never finished better than 14th.
Of course, we can't discuss demons without mentioning Kevin Na (17). Can you imagine the tension if he took a lead into Amen Corner on Sunday? Na's 12th-place finish last year gives him something to build on and us something to dream about.
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In this era of the neo--Big Four, Mr. Top Five himself, Patrick Reed (16), has gone strangely quiet. Everyone likes the polite, personable young men atop the World Ranking, but Reed, 25, is the antihero golf desperately needs. He hasn't won in more than a year; it would be just like him to rise up and nab the green jacket from one of his more popular contemporaries.
If we're talking about young players ready to make a big leap forward, how about Justin Thomas (15)? To this point he is known for being Spieth's best friend on Tour, but Thomas can flat play, and when he recently said Augusta National is a "perfect" fit for his game, he was just being honest. Endless droll musings have made Thomas, 22, a social-media superstar, and nobody will ever have more fun with a green jacket than this kid.
Brooks Koepka (14) has a similar scouting report as Thomas—long off the tee, great touch on the greens—but he brings even more firepower and polish. For a couple of years now Koepka, 25, has been billed as the next big thing, and he's begun to fulfill that promise with top 10s at the last two majors.
Quick, which Americans have won the most PGA Tour events since the start of 2011? Yes, Watson and Tiger Woods (remember him?) lead the way with eight, but next on the list, at seven, are Spieth and none other than Brandt Snedeker (13), a cold-blooded killer who fools folks by having the personality of a Labrador retriever ... and the same haircut. Sneds has racked up seven top 10s in the majors, including a pair at the Masters, where his fearless putting can separate him from the field. At 35 it's time for Snedeker to stop being underrated and win the major that will stamp him as a star.
Of course, anyone can win one major—it's winning a second one that turns you into a player for the ages. Both Schwartzel (12) and his friend, fellow South African and hunting buddy Louis Oosthuizen (11) seem to be on the verge of making this leap, but it's hard to say which one wants it more, because neither seems to want it that much. But they're both so talented, it might happen anyway.
It was King Louis who was a victim of Watson's instantly classic hook shot out of the trees during their playoff in 2012. Bubba (10) added a second green coat in '14; another would tie him with Jimmy Demaret, Sam Snead, Gary Player, Nick Faldo and Phil Mickelson, and it would most likely punch his ticket to the Hall of Fame.
If Bubba is the most polarizing figure in the game today, Scott (9) has to be the most universally liked. For the man who seemingly has it all, a second Masters win would be deeply meaningful, as he has had to will himself into becoming a good putter since the anchoring ban took away his crutch. Scott has been the game's hottest player for months now, but Augusta National's greens represent the ultimate test.
Short putts have long been the bugaboo for Dufner (8), but it was injury and divorce that led to 2 1/2 winless years following his breakthrough at the 2013 PGA. The Duf's ball striking is so pure, he will be dangerous at this quintessential second-shot course.
The influence of Bobby Jones is felt at the Masters in more ways than just the cathedral he helped conjure. The lifelong amateur will surely be smiling down from the great clubhouse in the sky upon Bryson DeChambeau (7), the reigning U.S. Amateur champ, who has played well in tune-ups from Australia to Abu Dhabi to Florida. He has the game to make a run and, more important, the self-belief not to shrink from the moment.
Before Jason Day (6) became Jason Day, he nearly stole a pair of Masters, in 2011 and '13. Few players have the ability to overpower Augusta National like Day, but as always with him, health is an issue. He started this year in the hospital at San Diego with a bad case of the flu, and during his victory at the Match Play he was hobbled by back problems. Will he ever be whole enough to make a sustained run?
Of late, the biggest ailment Mickelson (5) has dealt with around Augusta has been a broken heart. He coulda/shoulda won in 2012, if not for a freakish triple bogey on the 4th hole on Sunday, his ball clanging off a grandstand into a bamboo thicket, and last year Phil shot 14 under, a score that had been bettered only five times previously in tournament history but was eclipsed by Spieth's record-tying performance. Mickelson's consistent play this season augurs for another opportunity at the Masters, but almost three years removed from his last victory, can this aging warrior remember how to close the deal?
It's hard to believe that Mickelson's frequent practice-round foil, Dustin Johnson (4), just last year recorded his first top 10 at the Masters. This bomber once seemed destined to win multiple green jackets, but at 31 he has accumulated an awful lot of scar tissue. To paraphrase Yogi, it's getting late early. But if DJ can figure out how to get out of his own way in the biggest events, he could yet reshape the golf landscape.
The guy who broke Johnson's heart at the U.S. Open, Spieth (3), always figured to have a bit of a falloff this year. Which is why it will be such a big deal if he can right himself and join Nicklaus, Faldo and Woods as the only players to win back-to-back Masters.
As fresh faces go, none would make a more appealing winner than Fowler (2), even if orange and green don't look so great together. Fowler finished 12th at last year's Masters (and tied for fifth in 2014), but over the last 11 months he has emerged as a fearless finisher, notwithstanding a little wobble in Phoenix. There's only one more step to take if the fifth-ranked player in the world wants to make it a real Big Four.
But of all the potential story lines, a Rory McIlroy (1) victory at the Masters would be the biggest and best. It would give him the career Grand Slam and as many career majors (five) as all-timers Mickelson, Byron Nelson and Seve Ballesteros. It would reestablish the onetime wunderkind as a dominant force after 18 months of middling play, injury and intermittent apathy. Rory's disconcerting tendency to lose focus for nine holes has been fatal in previous Masters, though last year he rallied to torch the final 45 holes in 15 under on his way to a fourth-place finish. Will Rory come through and give us the win we want? Hard to say, but the good news is that if he falters, there are a couple dozen other great stories waiting to be told, as we've seen here. All of which means that Soren Kjeldsen is sure to prevail.