AUGUSTA, Ga. — When we pick winners at this yearly invitational, we work our way down a checklist. Typically, it’s the checklist. We search for certain things like a favorable history at Augusta National or a recent run of good form. Maybe we scour the statistics for a figure that helps it all make sense.
Then we do one more thing: we imagine the ceremony.
We imagine Augusta National chairman Billy Payne toting the microphone on a fading Sunday evening, introducing the newest champion in green. We imagine the punny newspaper headlines to follow. We ask ourselves, Can this pick actually win a green jacket?
And so, in the curious case of Rickie Fowler, we envision the contradiction of a green jacket hung over blaze orange shoulders and ask: Can Rickie Fowler actually win the Masters? The answer, most obviously, is of course he can.
His course history shows layers of success. Despite a missed cut last year, he was T12 in 2015, T5 in 2014 and made three more cuts in the years prior. His recent form shows four top 10s in just seven events, a victory at the Honda Classic and a T3 in Houston last week. Finally, if stats are your standard for reasoning, Fowler’s tee-to-green game (4th on Tour) has never been better during past trips down Magnolia Lane, and his putter is as good as ever (9th in strokes gained: putting).
The only other time his game has been this good entering the Masters was last season. What happened? Well, his first drive flew into the pine trees right of the fairway. His next shot punched one of those pines and ricocheted across the fairway. By the time he had a chance to breathe, he was tapping in for double bogey and headed toward a first-round 80. It was the first missed cut of his Masters career.
“I know this golf course too well now to really make those mistakes that I did last year,” Fowler said Monday during the first press conference of the week. “I really kind of had to kick myself in the butt because I should have been playing on the weekend, even with making a couple mistakes.”
And therein lies the reason we ask ourselves if our pick can truly get it done. Luck can burn the checklist to ashes. For now, all we can do is ask: can Rickie Fowler stave off bad luck, double bogeys and more long enough to create that blaze orange-forest green collage? He’s made double or worse 10 times in his six appearances, and when you combine the 80 rounds played by the last 20 Masters champions, you’ve got a total of just three double bogeys.
Still, the question seems unfairly premature. Phil Mickelson didn’t win here until age 33. Ben Hogan didn’t win here until 38. Just use the non-champion list headlined by Norman, Price, Miller, Els and a number of other hall-of-famers as evidence. Golfers of supreme talent will play the Masters dozens of times without winning it. All their lives they’ve been the exception, but a needle-thin difference between winning and losing reduces them to the rule.
It doesn’t happen for everyone at the Masters. But for Fowler—one of the most talented and broadly skilled players in the world, who just so happens to check all the boxes on the Masters checklist—it has never made more sense than it does right now.