Ten players who could win the Masters, and why

By Brandel ChambleeApril 4, 2016, 7:00 pm

In the 1920s, in particular the mid-to-late part of the decade, golf was, to quote the late Jim Murray, “as one-sided as a heart attack.” Bobby Jones was an amateur but even to the men who played professionally, his talent was imponderable. When he and 25-time winner Tommy Armour played practice rounds he would give the Silver Scot two strokes a side. When asked why he needed the shots, Tommy said, because that is how gosh dern good he is. Only he didn’t say gosh and he didn’t say dern.

From 1926-30 Jones won nine of the 14 majors he played, which includes the four in a row to end his career in 1930. Save for the interlude of runs by Ben Hogan from 1948-53, when he won eight of the 11 majors he played, and Tiger Woods from 1999-2001, when he won seven of the 11 majors he played, you’d be better off trying to win a street card game in New York City than trying to pick the winner of a major.

The Masters, however, gives us would-be prognosticators a little help. To start with, it is the smallest field in major championship golf. Usually shy of 100 players, but as a homage to Jones and to grow the game globally, a number of amateurs are invited, even though the last one to finish in the top 10 was Charlie Coe in 1962.

Furthermore, the confounding and tempting nature of the golf course keeps inexperienced players guessing. Adam Scott didn’t break 70 at Augusta National until his 28th competitive round and one gets a sense of how long it takes a player, even one as talented as Scott, to go from participant to contender. And this conversionary process is by no means a given when one thinks about what Augusta National asks of a player.

What Jones and Alister MacKenzie sought to reward with their collaborative effort was not just a technical eminence but an imaginative one as well, which reduces the field to little more than a dozen who have everything needed to win the Masters. Don’t believe me? Going back to 2000, 11 of 16 winners were ranked in the top 10 in the world on the eve of the event.

Keeping all of this in mind, I’ve reduced the field to 10 players, in ascending order as I see their chances.

10. Brooks Koepka: Ranked 18th in the world, Koepka is one of a few players on this list I’ve gone outside the top 10 for. He simply has the ability to hit the ball longer and better than anyone else. At the Open Championship last year, he led the field in greens hit in regulation with 64, and did it again at the Wyndham Championship and Alfred Dunhill Links, where he missed only seven greens all week. In 2015 he finished 33rd at the Masters, 18th at the U.S. Open, 10th at the Open Championship and fifth at the PGA Championship. His talent and that trend in majors gets my attention.

9. Louis Oosthuizen: Jones wanted to capture the spirit of St. Andrews at Augusta National. Judging by Louis’ play at these two venues, I’d guess Jones would like his game. Oosthuizen won by seven in 2010 at St. Andrews and lost in a playoff last year. He also lost in a playoff at the 2012 Masters to Bubba Watson’s C-shaped wedge at the 10th. He is as fragile as a wet bag of groceries but when he is uninjured, and on form, he makes the game look laughably easy.

8. Hideki Matsuyama: Even though Hideki is just 24 this will be his fifth Masters. Arguably the best iron player in the world, he has the ability to hit the ball high enough and stop it quick enough to have easier putts than most in this elite field. That ability helped him to a fifth-place finish last year.

7. Rory McIlroy: In his last three Masters, Rory has finished 25th, eighth and fourth. There are two reasons he’s not higher on this list. He makes a lot of big numbers at Augusta National (doubles or higher) – on average more than two per Masters - and has a less than stellar short game. With regard to the first of these caveats, since 1997 only Phil Mickelson in 2004, Trevor Immelman in 2008 and Jordan Spieth last year have recorded a score higher than bogey on the way to victory. The big numbers speak as much to a less than stellar short game as they do the wide miss. The combination of these two problems will likely mean Rory comes up just short of the career Grand Slam this year.

6. Phil Mickelson: No course in major championship golf treats past winners, or the elderly, better than Augusta National. This being the 30th anniversary of Jack Nicklaus’ win in 1986, it would be somewhat of an homage to the Golden Bear if Phil, at 45, won his fourth green jacket. Besides the fact that this course seems to bring the best out in him even when he’s a little off, his current form would rank amongst the best he’s ever brought down Magnolia Lane. Since 2004, Mickelson has led the Tour in scoring average four times going into the Masters and in two of those years (2004, 2006) he won. We’ll have to wait and see this year, because nobody in golf is better at the one stat that matters most, score.

5. Jordan Spieth: As only three men have successfully defended a Masters title, history is against the 22-year-old Texan, but so were the odds of a 20-year-old finishing second in his debut at Augusta and then winning at 21. The difference between his form last year and this year has more to do with him being fifth on this list, as he hasn’t had a top-10 finish on Tour since winning the Tournament of Champions. Miscues to the left off the tee - a no-no at Augusta - and some sloppy iron play will put a great premium on his scrambling.

4. Justin Rose: Although he has never been known as a great putter, the Englishman has a marvelous record in Augusta. In 2015 he hit it longer and straighter and hit just as many greens as Spieth, but he lost by four shots because he couldn’t keep pace (who could?) with Spieth in holing out. Like Adam Scott, Rose is so good tee-to-green that he needs only an average week with the putter to win a green jacket.

3. Jason Day: The No. 1 player in the world has won in his last two starts and like Spieth, Day nearly won in his debut at the Masters, finishing second in 2011. Unlike Spieth, though, Day has dominant length, as evidenced by his field-leading 326-yard average at Augusta last year. His only weakness is an occasional lack of control with his irons, which is why in spite of being the longest off the tee last year, he ranked near the bottom of the field in greens hit in regulation.

2. Rickie Fowler: In the past, Rickie’s inconsistency with his irons has hurt him at Augusta and put too much pressure on his short game to save par and given him too few looks at birdie. But his iron play is much improved, as is every other aspect of his game. He leads the Tour in the all-around category and is tied for first in par-5 scoring average along with… Adam Scott.

1. Adam Scott: The year began with many questions about his putting, all of which he has answered with his best work on the greens since he led the PGA Tour in putting back in 2004. Add to his improved work on the greens, his brilliance from tee to green, he is almost without peer and especially so on a golf course that puts a premium on versatility and trajectory. Since its inaugural tournament in 1934, no major has had more repeat winners than the Masters and Adam Scott is my pick to be the 18th such player in history to accomplish the feat.

Getty Images

LAAC returning to Casa de Campo in 2019

By Randall MellJanuary 20, 2018, 8:23 pm

The Latin America Amateur Championship will return to Casa de Campo in the Dominican Republic in 2019 (Jan. 17-20), event organizers announced Saturday in Chile, where this year’s championship is underway.

The LAAC champion receives an invitation to play the Masters at Augusta National Golf Club every spring.

The champion is also exempt into The Amateur, the U.S. Amateur and any other USGA event for which he is eligible to compete. The champion and players who finish runner-up are also exempt into the final stages of qualifying for The Open and the U.S. Open.

The LAAC was founded by the Masters, the R&A and the USGA, with the purpose of further developing amateur golf in South America, Central America, Mexico and the Caribbean.

The championship got its start in 2015 with Chile’s Matias Dominguez winning at Pilar Golf in Argentina. In 2016, Casa de Campo hosted, with Costa Rica’s Paul Chaplet winning. At 16, he became the first player from Central America to compete in the Masters. In 2017, Chile’s Toto Gana won the title at  Club de Golf de Panama.

Getty Images

Beef's beer goggles: Less drinks = more wins

By Randall MellJanuary 20, 2018, 6:07 pm

An offseason spent soul searching is apparently paying quick dividends for Andrew “Beef” Johnston, who is in contention to win Sunday at the Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship.

Johnston acknowledged he was “burning the candle at both ends” last year, playing both the PGA Tour and the European Tour, but he told reporters Saturday that it wasn’t too much golf that hindered his efforts.

It was too much “socializing.”

“I'm a social person,” Johnston said. “If you go out with friends, or you get invited to something, I'll have a beer, please. But I probably had a few too many beers, I would say, to be honest. And it reflected in my golf, and I was disappointed looking back at it. I want to turn that around and have a good season.”

Johnston posted a 6-under-par 66 Saturday, moving into a tie for sixth, three shots off the lead. He said he arrived in Abu Dhabi a week early to prepare for his first start of the new year. It’s paying off with a Sunday chance to win his second European Tour title.

“Last year was crazy, and like getting distracted, and things like that,” Johnston said. “You don't know it's happened until you've finished the season. You’re off doing things and you're burning the candle at both ends. When I got back from last season, sort of had time to reflect on it, I sort of said to myself, 'You've got to keep quiet and keep disciplined and get on with your work.’”

Full-field scores from the Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship

Johnston finished 189th last year in the PGA Tour’s FedEx Cup standings. He was 116th in the European Tour’s Race to Dubai.

Johnston’s fun-loving personality, his scruffy beard and his big-bodied shape quickly made him one of the most popular and entertaining players in the game when he earned his PGA Tour card before the 2016-17 season. Golf Digest called him a “quirky outlier,” and while he has had fun with that persona, Johnston is also intent on continuing to prove he belongs among the game’s best players.

His plan for doing that?

“Just put the work in,” he said. “I didn’t put enough work in last year. It’s simple. It showed. So, just get down, knuckle down and practice hard.”

Rory McIlroy at the 2018 Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship Getty Images

McIlroy making big statement in first start of 2018

By Randall MellJanuary 20, 2018, 3:40 pm

Rory McIlroy marched the fairways of Abu Dhabi Golf Club Saturday with that fighter pilot stride of his, with that confident little bob in his step that you see when he is in command of his full arsenal of shots.

So much for easing into the new year.

So much for working off rust and treating these first few months of 2018 as a warmup for the Masters and his bid to complete the career Grand Slam.

McIlroy, 28, is poised to announce his return to golf in spectacular fashion Sunday at the Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship.

With back-to-back birdies to close his round, McIlroy put up a 7-under-par 65, leaving him just one shot off the lead going into the final round.

“It’s good,” McIlroy said. “I probably scored a bit better today, short game was needed as well, but I hit the ball very well, so all in all it was another great round and confidence builder, not just for this week but obviously for the rest of the season as well.”

McIlroy can make a strong statement with a win Sunday.

If he claims the title in his first start of the year, he sends a message about leaving all the woes of 2017 behind him. He sends a message about his fitness after a nagging rib injury plagued him all of last year. He sends a message about his readiness to reassert himself as the game’s best player in a world suddenly teeming with towering young talent.

After his first winless year since 2008, his first full season as a pro, McIlroy is eager to show himself, as well as everyone else, that he is ready to challenge for major championships and the world No. 1 title again.

“It feels like awhile since I’ve won,” McIlroy said. “I’m really looking forward to tomorrow.”

Full-field scores from the Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship

A victory would be all the more meaningful because the week started with McIlroy paired with world No. 1 Dustin Johnson and reigning European Tour Player of the Year Tommy Fleetwood.

McIlroy acknowledged the meaning of that going into Saturday’s round.

“That proves I’m back to full fitness and 100 percent healthy,” he said. “DJ is definitely the No. 1 player in the world right now and one of, if not the best, drivers of the golf ball, and to be up there with him over the first two days proves to me I’m doing the right things and gives me confidence.”

It’s worth repeating what 2008 Masters champ Trevor Immelman said last month about pairings and the alpha-dog nature of the world’s best players. He was talking about Tiger Woods’ return at the Hero World Challenge, when Immelman said pairings matter, even in off season events.

“When you are the elite level, you are always trying to send a message,” Immelman said. “They want to show this guy, `This is what I got.’”

A victory with Johnson in the field just two weeks after Johnson won the Sentry Tournament of Champions in an eight-shot rout will get the attention of all the elite players.

A victory also sets this up as a January for the ages, making it the kind of big-bang start the game has struggled to create in the shadow of the NFL playoffs.

Johnson put on a tour-de-force performance winning in Hawaii and the confident young Spaniard Jon Rahm is just a shot off the lead this week at the CareerBuilder Challenge on the PGA Tour. Sergio Garcia is just two off the lead going into the final round of the Singapore Open. Tiger Woods makes his return to the PGA Tour at Torrey Pines next week.

To be sure, McIlroy has a lot of work to do Sunday.

Yet another rising young talent, Thomas Pieters, shares the lead with Ross Fisher. Fleetwood is just two shots back and Johnson five back.

McIlroy has such a good history at Abu Dhabi. Over the last seven years, he has finished second four times and third twice. Still, even a strong finish that falls short of winning bodes well for McIlroy in his first start of the year.

“I have never won my first start back out,” McIlroy said.

A strong start, whether he wins or not, sets McIlroy up well for the ambitious schedule he plans for 2018. He’s also scheduled to play the Dubai Desert Classic next with the possibility he’ll play 30 times this year, two more events than he’s ever played in a year.

“I’m just really getting my golf head back on,” McIlroy said. “I’ve been really pleased with that.”

A victory Sunday will make all our heads spin a little b it with the exciting possibilities the game offers this year.

Getty Images

Garcia 2 back in weather-delayed Singapore Open

By Associated PressJanuary 20, 2018, 3:06 pm

SINGAPORE - Danthai Boonma and Chapchai Nirat built a two-stroke lead over a chasing pack that includes Sergio Garcia and Ryo Ishikawa midway through the third round of the weather-interrupted Singapore Open on Saturday.

The Thai golfers were locked together at 9 under when play was suspended at the Sentosa Golf Club for the third day in a row because of lightning strikes in the area.

Masters champion Garcia and former teen prodigy Ishikawa were among seven players leading the chase at 7 under on a heavily congested leaderboard.

Garcia, one of 78 players who returned to the course just after dawn to complete their second rounds, was on the 10th hole of his third round when the warning siren was sounded to abruptly end play for the day.

''Let's see if we can finish the round, that will be nice,'' he said. ''But I think if I can play 4-under I should have a chance.''

The Spanish golfer credits the Singapore Open as having played a part in toughening him up for his first major championship title at Augusta National because of the stifling humidity of southeast Asia and the testing stop-start nature of the tournament.

Full-field scores from the Singapore Open

Although he finished tied for 11th in Singapore in 2017, Garcia won the Dubai Desert Classic the subsequent week and was in peak form when he won the Masters two months later. He is feeling confident of his chances of success this weekend.

''I felt like I hit the ball OK,'' Garcia said. ''My putting and all went great but my speed hasn't been great on this green so let's see if I can be a little more aggressive on the rounds this weekend.''

Ishikawa moved into a share of the lead at the halfway stage after firing a second round of 5-under 66 that featured eight birdies. He birdied the first two holes of his third round to grab the outright lead but slipped back with a double-bogey at the tricky third hole for the third day in a row. He dropped another shot at the par-5 sixth when he drove into a fairway bunker.

''It was a short night but I had a good sleep and just putted well,'' Ishikawa said. The ''greens are a little quicker than yesterday but I still figured (out) that speed.

Ishikawa was thrust into the spotlight more than a decade ago. In 2007, he became the youngest player to win on any of the major tours in the world. He was a 15-year-old amateur when he won the Munsingwear Open KSB Cup.

He turned pro at 16, first played in the Masters when he was 17 and the Presidents Cup when he was 18. He shot 58 in the final round to win The Crowns in Japan when he was 19.

Now 26, Ishikawa has struggled with injuries and form in recent years. He lost his PGA Tour card and hasn't played in any of the majors since 2015. He has won 15 times as a professional, but has never won outside his homeland of Japan.

Chapchai was able to sleep in and put his feet up on Saturday morning after he completed his second round on Friday.

He bogeyed the third but reeled off three birdies in his next four holes to reach 9-under with the back nine still to play.

Danthai was tied for 12th at the halfway stage but charged into a share of the lead with seven birdies in the first 15 holes of his penultimate round.