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.