GOLF.com conducts a weekly roundtable with writers from Sports Illustrated and GOLF Magazine. Check in every Sunday night for the unfiltered opinions of our writers and editors and join the conversation by tweeting us @golf_com.
1. It’s Masters week(!), and this year there might be more juicy storylines than players in the field. We’ll lead with the obvious one: Four months ago we were saying a “win” for Tiger Woods would be just to get through four injury-free rounds in the Bahamas. Now, he has finished top 12 in his last three starts and is one of the betting favorites at Augusta. Have you seen enough positive signs from Woods to make you believe he can slip on his fifth green jacket this week?
Josh Sens, contributing writer, GOLF (@JoshSens): Tiger as a betting favorite is irrational exuberance and bears no relation to his true statistical chances. At this point, I think it’s pretty clear that he can win but I would wager heavily against it. There’s just too much depth in the field. The caveat is that I’ve been so wildly incorrect in my Tiger predictions that if you believe anything I’ve said about him you probably also believe Mexico was going to pay for the wall.
Dylan Dethier, associate editor, GOLF.com (@dylan_dethier): This puts me on the other side of Sens and the Vegas sharks and may make me a sucker, but I’m expecting a surgical, dialed-in week from Tiger. This is no dress rehearsal. He won’t be playing golf swing. The qualities that took him through the most dominant stretch in golf’s history are still in there somewhere, and we’re going to see ’em. He’s my pick to win.
Jessica Marksbury, senior editor, GOLF.com (@Jess_Marksbury): Dylan, yes! I’m with you all the way. Tiger’s whole demeanor seems different this time around. He’s dropped that helpless, pained air of frustration that plagued him in prior comebacks. This version of Tiger is focused, grinding and wants in on the hunt. And the most wonderfully unexpected thing is, he’s capable of getting there and actually doing it. At his worst and most downtrodden, he’s proven he can contend at Augusta. Based on what we’ve seen since December, why wouldn’t he be the favorite this time around?
Alan Shipnuck, senior writer, GOLF (@AlanShipnuck): You have to hit more drivers at Augusta National than any other major championship venue, and Tiger has been defensive and ineffective with that club. He still seems uncomfortable trying to hit a draw with the big stick, and that is a crucial shape at ANGC. Think about how much Tiger will be giving up off the tee to Dustin, Rory, JT and others – the rest of Woods’s game would have to be that much better to beat them. It’s a big ask for a guy who hasn’t won a Masters in 13(!) years.
Jeff Ritter, digital development editor, GOLF.com (@Jeff_Ritter): Tiger’s comeback has been incredible and it really is astonishing that we’re here discussing his chances to win at Augusta. He’s already shown he can now contend with the Tour’s best. But win? Not yet. I’m old enough to remember the Woods of 2013, when he ascended to No. 1 in the world but never connected four rounds in the majors. It always looked like he wanted it too badly, and he never played his best under pressure on the weekends. I like Woods for a solid top 10 this week, but no jacket. With continued good health, 2019 might be his year, though.
Sean Zak, associate editor, GOLF.com (@sean_zak): Tiger definitely can, mainly because of that incredible putter and short game. He never lost his ball-striking and the driver seems like it will come and go throughout the rest of his career. But at Augusta, those tight lies and slippery greens seem very manageable for Tiger in his current form.
Michael Bamberger, senior writer, GOLF: There are 30 players who I think would have a better chance to win than Tiger. I’d be surprised if he doesn’t contend, but to win right now, nearly 10 years after his last major and five years after his last Tour win, is asking too much.
John Wood, caddie for Matt Kuchar (@johnwould): Before his last few events, I wouldn’t have thought much of Tiger’s chances at Augusta this year. I just assumed there would be quite a bit of tournament rust, and no matter how much he practiced at home, tournament golf is different. His performances at the Valspar and Honda changed my mind completely. His short game and putting have been vintage Tiger, and for someone who has experience and good memories at Augusta, that is everything. I have no reason to believe he won’t play well enough to contend.
2. Where would a Tiger win rank among his career accomplishments?
Sens: That’s a high bar but how could it be anything but his most astounding? I’d be eager to hear his answers to the inevitable questions about how satisfied he is to have “proved the doubters wrong.”
Dethier: This is tricky to answer because it would only be significant because of his past accomplishments, if that makes sense. I think ’97 and ’00 outrank for shock and awe. This would take the cake in terms of sheer improbability. Regardless, we’re getting out over our skis a bit here.
Ritter: If Woods wins the Masters, it would complete the greatest comeback story in the history of sports. Overstating it? When you consider the injuries, the sex scandal, the DUI, the complete and total fall from grace … what athlete in history, in any sport, has fallen further and then managed to climb back to the top of their sport? I’ll hang up and listen.
Shipnuck: I think you’re actually understating the case, Ritter.
Bamberger: Actually, Alan, I think you are understating the case.
Zak: It would rank below the Tiger Slam, if only because that seems like an impossible thing these days. But it would be the next best thing in my opinion. We’re talking a human body we never thought could return to a healthy golf state, not to mention a passable swing, both off the tee and around the green. Then the mind to bring it all together in the game’s greatest place? Legendary doesn’t do it justice.
Marksbury: I’m with you. Not only would it be the greatest win of his career, it would be the most outrageously unexpected and celebrated comeback in sports, period.
Wood: I don’t know how to answer this. His past accomplishments and where he took the game in his prime are unassailable. He played the game at the highest level it has ever been played. For me, his winning this week would be impossible to quantify until I saw it. I can’t even gauge how I would feel if I saw him coming up the 18th on Sunday winning a fifth green jacket.
3. Bubba, Rory and Phil have ended their winless droughts, DJ is playing Augusta for the first time as World No. 1 and Justin Thomas has won four times since last April. This 82nd Masters certainly isn’t short on narratives. What non-Tiger subplot are you most excited to see unfold this week?
Sens: The general theme of old guard vs. young guns is compelling in its own right. But to pick something more specific, I’d say Rory, with his game rounding into shape just in time for him to have a crack at completing the career grand slam. That’s a great threadline, especially when you throw in the demons that lurk out there for him. If he’s in contention on Sunday, it will be epic theater. And I bet you a thousand bucks he favors the right side on the 10th hole.
Dethier: I want to see which of the highly touted eight to 10 hotshot favorites can work their way to the top of the leaderboard come Saturday afternoon. Most interesting final four pairings? DJ and JT, Tiger and Rahm, Rory and Spieth and Rickie and Phil anchoring?
Ritter: I’d set my DVR for any of those pairings. Rory’s pursuit of the career grand slam would also be my first choice, and a close second is Phil’s run at a fourth jacket, which would match Woods. It just feels right that those two have the same number of coats when it’s all said and done, and they’re co-honorary starters on the first tee in about 20 years.
Zak: Phil is about to be 48 and seems to have a better chance this year than he has in the last six years. That’s absolutely incredible.
Marksbury: It’s funny how far under the radar Bubba Watson is flying these days. After being largely MIA at the majors over the past few years, as well as being sidelined in 2017 with a mysterious illness, Bubba is arguably one of the hottest players in the game at the moment, with two big victories in just five weeks, and just in time to contend for green jacket No. 3! He’s a fascinating character and has a game perfectly suited for Augusta.
Shipnuck: It’s funny that no one is talking about the keynote player of recent Masters: Spieth. To watch a wounded Jordan brawl with the course that has defined him will be fascinating theater. But for sheer emotion, you can’t top another Phil run at the jacket. Around Augusta, Woods is revered but Mickelson is beloved, and if Phil is there late on Sunday it will be bedlam.
Bamberger: I want to applaud the person who worded this query for avoiding the tired word “storylines.” The ascendency of Mr. Tom Fleetwood to the Champions Room. I like the young man and his game. As for a Langer victory, I think that needs little explanation. Ageless wonder.
Wood: I’ll go completely off the reservation and say I’m interested to see if there are any huge changes from the Chairman Payne era to the Chairman Ridley era. The era that just closed out brought about some very positive changes at Augusta National: the new practice facility, the new media facility, a return to Sunday roars after a few years of U.S. Open-like quiet, it’s just been amazing. So for me it will be interesting to see if any big changes are in store.
4. We know there’s a long list of favorites, but one or two are bound to come up short of expectations. Who is your big-name favorite most likely to disappoint?
Sens: It’s golf so things can change in an eye-blink, of course, but DJ’s game looked rough around the edges last time out. Rough around the edges doesn’t get it done at Augusta, yet he remains one of the betting favorites. He gets my money as the big name most likely to disappoint.
Shipnuck: I’ll say Rory. Masters week he always looks like a cat on a hot tin roof. If he misses a couple of 5-footers early in his round on Thursday his whole Masters goes pear-shaped.
Bamberger: If Tiger doesn’t win, many people will be disappointed. A better way to look at it, I believe, if you are a Tiger fan, is something like this: Can you believe this guy is competing again at a high level given where he’s been?
Dethier: Bubba! He goes up and he goes down. He’s way up right now.
Zak: Jordan Spieth just hasn’t been consistent enough with his putter to make me believe he can play that course the way he always has.
Marksbury: It pains me to say this, but I’ll choose Rickie. I fully expect to see him in the top 10 on Sunday, but I’m not convinced he’s going to be the guy to grind out a victory against a stacked field late on Sunday afternoon.
Ritter: I imagine since he’s become the betting favorite, a lot of folks will be disappointed if Tiger doesn’t win. Like I said earlier, this comeback is so far along, he’s exceeding all reasonable expectations. I think he’s going to play well in Augusta and hang around in contention through the weekend, but I just don’t think major championship No. 15 arrives this week. Those who bet him to win will have a nice souvenir, though.
5. We asked a panel of GOLF’s course raters to rank all of the holes at Augusta National from 18-1. Now it’s your turn. What’s the best hole at ANGC? And what’s the worst, a.k.a., least best?
Sens: I’ve only walked the course, never played it. So 12 and 13 are obvious picks. But being a sucker for short par-4s, I’m going to go with No. 3. It comes too early in the round to have spawned a zillion indelible highlights. But I love its subtlety and shot-making options. For worst, I’d say the lengthened par-4 7th, an architectural casualty of Tiger-proofing.
Dethier: The way every type of action unfolds on 13 makes it my easy favorite. Sens is right about 7. I’d toss 17 in the mix; it’s the only forgettable hole on the back nine.
Ritter: The 13th is absolutely fantastic, but I’ll take 12 by a nose. It’s the world’s greatest par-3, and spectators can gather right behind that tee box and feel exactly what the players are facing. Least greatest hole? I think 17 feels a little lonely without the Eisenhower tree.
Zak: I’m obsessed with the 6th hole. Much more than I should be, or at least the architectural fiends have made it seem. I love that you can view shots from behind the player, in front of the player and behind the green. As for the worst, I’ll take another front-nine par-3: the 4th hole is just brutal. I enjoy it for what it can mean for the action on Sunday, but I don’t think anyone really enjoys playing it.
Shipnuck: The 6th hole is always one of the great spectating spot on the course, though it was way better in the ’90s before there were seats there – you could flop in the grass while the shots sizzled right over your head. Thirteen is gorgeous but has lost all of its bite now that guys are hitting short-irons in, so I’ll say 15 is my favorite. It’s also playing too short these days but at least there is still a high fear factor on the second shot. And if you miss the green the recovery shots are high-wire acts. I agree that 4 has no charm and 7 and 17 have been more or less ruined but my pick is 18. It’s not a horrible hole but 10-16 are so epic and it’d be nice to have a great finisher to redeem the 17th hole. Instead the course ends with two of its most boring holes. And the second shot for 18 is now so short – Schwartzel hit a wedge! – it asks very little of the players.
Wood: There is no worst hole. That’s like asking which part of the Mona Lisa isn’t painted well. There are so many holes and shots I love at Augusta, but for me, the 12th is the most fascinating hole we play all year, every year. It is the best par-3 in the world. Find another shot in the world where the elite of the game are so challenged with an eight- or nine-iron. It’s remarkable. But there is beauty and challenge and strategy at every single point during the tournament. Not many courses can say that.
Marksbury: I just love No. 13. The azaelea-framed green gets me every time. And I’ll second Sean’s sentiments on No. 4. It just doesn’t have the grand feel the rest of the holes do.
Bamberger: I’m with you, Jess: 13. For the hole, what’s happened there, the many things that can go wrong, the many things that can go right, the beauty of it, the stillness of the tee and the extreme energy off the green and the way the crescendo builds as you (one) approach it. Eleven is a great, great hole, I just cannot stand what has happened to the tee shot over the years, back in that claustrophobic chute. I don’t think it’s what the good doctor intended. It’s fine from the members’ tee — although there are too many trees on the right — but the hole has been so diminished by over-emphasizing the tee shot. The mystery and joy of Augusta National (I think) is that the shots get harder the closer you get to the hole.
6. Congratulations, the green coats have just awarded you 30 minutes of freedom at their uber-exclusive/secretive club. Every inch of the course and clubhouse are yours to roam freely. How are you spending your time?
Sens: I’m playing the back nine, speed golf style.
Marksbury: Thirty minutes?! What a tease! I’m with Josh. As many holes in little time as possible.
Dethier: A slightly more leisurely trek around Amen Corner. Either that or bugging the grill room.
Ritter: I’ll play 12 and 13 on a loop until I’m asked to leave.
Shipnuck: I’m jumping in a cart (lol) and hitting all my favorite shots and then while the ball is still in the air zooming off to the next one: the second at 2, trying to drive the green at 3, approach to 5, tee ball at 6, a wedge into 7, approach to 10, etc.
Zak: I’m getting naked and swimming down Rae’s Creek.
Sens: Check please! This is slightly off topic, but Sean’s Blue Lagoon fantasy reminds me of a story I heard from one of the assistants in the pro shop at the muni in Augusta, which a lot of people still know as The Patch. He was an Augusta native, and he told me that when he was a kid, and the National was (slightly) less fortress-like, he and his friends used to sneak onto Augusta by hopping into Rae’s Creek just beyond the boundaries of the club. They’d float down the currents, carrying a couple clubs and balls, then hop out along Amen Corner and play as many holes as they could before getting kicked out. I want that childhood.
Bamberger: A nap in the Crow’s Nest after peach cobbler on the upstairs porch.
Wood: I’m ducking down into the wine cellar with Phil and having him pick out a bottle that is way over my paygrade, then sitting down in the Champions locker room with four glasses and Tiger, Phil and Jack, asking them to talk fast and tell me stories of why they won this tournament.
7. Here we go. Pick your Masters winner, runner-up, sleeper to crack the top five and winning score.
Sens: Justin Rose. He’s in great form and has a great track record at a course where past performance means so much. We’ll end up looking at last year’s painfully close call as the necessary prelude to his getting it done at 11 under. Runner up: Jason Day. Yeah, I know, back issues but Augusta for him is like the briar patch for Br’er Rabbit. He’s at home. Top five: Patrick Reed. Isn’t it time for that match-play swagger and success to spill over into a big event? Plus, he’s been very much in the mix of late.
Dethier: Winner: We’re not going to see the old Tiger Woods, but we’ll see the new one will his way around the course to victory. Runner-up: Justin Rose, who remains relentless (if unexciting) and has been on a heater since last fall. Sleeper: Ryan Moore, who has an eye for Augusta and could mess up everyone’s storylines come Sunday.
Ritter: I’ve also been on Rose for a while, but now that we’re here, I have this funny feeling about McIlroy. He’s had terrible mojo at Augusta ever since his crackup on Sunday in 2011, but at some point he’s bound to win on a course that plays straight into his strengths … isn’t he? Winning at Bay Hill a few weeks ago surely bolstered his confidence, and maybe with much of the attention this year on Tiger and Phil, his career slam quest flies a little under the radar and he gets it done, clipping Rose and Phil by two and winning at 12 under. Sleeper? Paul Casey has quietly gone 6-4-6 in his last three Masters and won the Valspar a few weeks ago. Watch out.
Zak: Phil Mickelson is somehow going to win the Masters at 47-going-on-48, and unlike Jack doing so at 46, it won’t actually be that surprising. Hopefully we’re all able to enjoy it along the way when he shoots 12 under. Justin Rose will finish runner-up for the second straight year as Phil gets payback for Merion. Cracking the top five is Rafa Cabrera-Bello, one of the greatest ball-strikers on the planet who gets hot with the putter this week.
Marksbury: Tiger wins, completing the most epic comeback the game of golf has ever known. His final tally of 10 under edges Bryson DeChambeau, who was the early afternoon clubhouse leader at eight under after shooting a final round of 66, and Bubba Watson.
Wood: Winner: Kuchar, because he’s playing really well, is due for a win, and overdue for a big one, especially after the Open last year. Runner-up: Bubba: Because he’s our partner in New Orleans and I want him to keep playing well. Sleeper: Marc Leishman. Although I don’t know if he counts as a sleeper pick being that his name seems to be on every major board at some point during the week.
Shipnuck: I am recusing myself because once you make a pick you have to keep rooting for it to come true, no matter what else is happening. There are so many great storylines I just want to let myself get swept away in the excitement.
Bamberger: Thank you, Alan, for your excellent use of the word storylines. Winner: Rory. Runner-up: A. Noren. Sleeper top-10: Herr Langer.