Springtime technically begins when the calendar changes to March 20th.
For myself -- and for sports fans around the world -- spring does not truly start until we hear those two words spoken in that symbolic calm tone of CBS Sports’ lead golf announcer, Jim Nantz, when he welcomes us all with “Hello, Friends.” The broadcast shows the beautiful greens and fairways of ‘Amen Corner’ and Magnolia Lane, while goose bumps raise instantly as Nantz reminds us all that it is time for the Masters Tournament.
As it is every year, this tournament is the first major of the PGA season. Just like spring, it’s a new start, a time where golfers throughout the sport can begin fresh in a new season. The 79th edition of the famed classic will open this Thursday at Augusta National Golf Club in Georgia. The field of golfers is stacked, with some of the best to ever swing the clubs, mixed in with the game’s rising stars.
The Masters is one of the most popular sporting events every year. It is sure to be a hot topic around the water cooler all week, so get you prepared for those discussions, I’ve listed all of the best storylines that make up the 2015 Masters Tournament.
When the world’s #1 ranked golfer laces up his cleats Thursday morning, Rory McIlroy will be looking to accomplish the toughest feat in golf, winning the Grand Slam. Missing only the green jacket to complete his trophy case with his fourth and final major victory, Rory enters as the favorite this week, and with good reason. Since he won his first major at only 22 years old, he has taken the sport by storm, quickly becoming the face of a sport desperate for a new superstar. With his incredible accuracy and length off the tee box, he is sure to draw one of the biggest crowds at Augusta.
The keys for him this weekend will be whether he can putt in tough conditions and how he handles the par-5 holes. With a chance of thunderstorms all weekend, McIlroy will need to stay in control of his putter and not take it on the roller coaster ride we’ve seen before. The greens will be tough, especially when wet, so he will need to be in control of his short game to get him as close to the hole before he putts as possible. With a career 21-under on the long holes at this course, he will need to take advantage of his drives and birdie the par-5 more often.
While he has dominated in the other three majors, this tournament has always escaped him. In 2011 he became the youngest player to ever lead after the first round of play. He played well that year but fell off in the later rounds. His best finish here is 8th. His other placings have been all over the board, from a missed cut in 2010, to 40th place in 2012, proving that this course is the one set of holes where his game can be incredibly unpredictable. Could this be the year he completes the Grand Slam? It’s one of the hardest feats to accomplish, and with the field he’s going up against, it’s going to be that much harder.
Tiger’s Out of the Cage
The sport’s biggest icon had started only two tournaments in 2015 and did not finish in either event. After shooting an 82 in the 2nd round of the Phoenix Open and withdrawing in the first round of the Farmers Insurance Open, the four-time Masters Champion Tiger Woods decided to take time off from the sport and the professional tour. While many doubted he would come back this year, Woods announced last week that after a two-month hiatus, he will tee it up at Augusta and aim for not only his 5th green jacket, but his 15th major championship as well.
After missing most of last year and falling outside the top 100 world rankings, Tiger will step onto a course he has dominated for the past two decades. This will be his 20th time playing in the Masters and in these previous trips he has missed only one cut while finishing in the top-5 eleven times. This is likely his last chance at turning his career around and no one has the flare for dramatic comebacks like Woods. His shot ten years ago to sink the chip on the 16th hole is the most memorable shot in Master’s history. The countless fist pumps, all of the drained putts and of course the monster drives from the tee box, are the foundation of his legacy, and if he can at least make the cut and finish in the top-25, it might just give him enough momentum to get back in the sport competitively and start making the leaderboards nervous.
If he doesn’t make the cut, or is forced to withdraw from another injury, it might be the end of Tiger as a golfer.
Two of the past three seasons, Bubba Watson has added two new pieces to his wardrobe. One of the most popular golfers on tour, he won the 2012 and 2014 Masters Tournament, collecting two green jackets in doing so.
When he takes the head cover off his driver on the first hole, he looks to do what only Tiger Woods, Nick Faldo and Jack Nicklaus have done in the past, win back-to-back Masters. This season Watson has three top-3 finishes and has landed in the top-15 in all five events. A player of consistency, Bubba has made the cut in all six appearences in this tournament.
He will be the biggest threat to Rory this weekend, and for a guy who has had so much success at Augusta, he should be considered the favorite.
Adam Scott already has one green jacket, and Thursday when he gets to the first green, his caddy will pull out a familiar friend from his golf bag. With the PGA Tour banning the long putter starting next year, Scott has switched to a regular-sized club throughout this season so he can get use to the feel. This weekend is different, stating that the Masters is, “Too important to keep experimenting with the short putter,” so Scott will instead go back to the long putter.
We have seen what he is able to do with this club when he drained a 20-ft birdie putt on the final hole of the 2013 Masters to force a playoff, and then sink a 12-ft birdie putt to win the event on the next hole. In 13 events at Augusta he has made 11 cuts and finished in the top-10 four times. He is consistent with his old-style putter and he has made clutch shots on the course before. Look for him to make a real run at the leaderboard.
This weekend some of the best golfers will be looking for a victory in a tournament they haven’t won. Names like Lee Westwood, Dustin Johnson and Henrik Stenson have played this course many times but have yet to be fitted for a jacket. Could we have a first-time winner this year? Here are the favorites in the field if we do.
Jimmy Walker tied for 8th place in last year’s tournament and finished top-10 in three of the 2014 majors. He is the only player with two PGA tour wins this season, winning the Valero Texas Open by 4 strokes and the Sony Open in Hawaii by 9. It will be his second trip to this event, but he is playing superb golf right now. Winning the Valero Open in his hometown proved that he isn’t going to get rattled in pressure moments. If he gets near the leaderboard in the final day, he could make a run in this event.
Jordan Speith is one of the favorites in Las Vegas this weekend, opening up at 9/1. Coming off a playoff loss at last weekend’s Shell Houston Open, he looks to bounce back in a tournament that he led last year down the stretch before back-to-back bogeys on Sunday, which cost him a green jacket. He finished with a share of second place, three strokes behind Watson. This year he won the Valspar Championship on March 15th for his first victory since July, 2013. The world’s 4th ranked golfer also ranked 2nd in total birdies with 389 last year. He will need to make plenty of those as this field of competition can get under par in a hurry. If he can take advantage of his distance on the par 5 holes and score well there, he has a real chance at the leaderboard come Saturday and Sunday.
Lee Westwood has the best 5-year aggregate score in the sport and he’s ahead of second place by five strokes. He has the longest streak of cuts made and has finished in the top-10 in 4 of his last 5 events. The Masters runner up in 2010, he has 23 PGA tour wins, with his most recent coming in April 2014 at the Maybank Malaysian Open. He has played in 15 Masters and made the cut in 12 of them. Westwood flirted with the final pairing in his last five trips, finishing 2nd, 11th, 3rd, 8th and 7th respectively. This could be the year he makes the jump and wins the tournament.
Runner-up in 2011, Jason Day is a 12/1 favorite this weekend. In four Masters events he has a 2nd and 3rd place finish and has never ended higher than 20th. He is a serious threat to the McIlroy and Watson this weekend.
Dustin Johnson, ranked 7th in the world, has now won a PGA tournament event in 8 concecutive years. The only other players to do that are Tiger Woods, Jack Nicklaus and Arnold Palmer. Last year no one had a better approach game than Dustin and with one of the longest and straightest drives from the tee box, he will need solid rounds on Thursday and Friday to have a chance in the weekend play. He has made 4 cuts in 5 trips to Augusta, finishing as high as 3rd in 2013. I don’t expect another missed cut from him like last year, if anything, I imagine him in the final group come Sunday.
Henrik Stenson, currently ranked 2nd in the world, has played in nine Masters and has missed the cut three times. Those rounds are in the past as he is now 2nd in total driving and 3rd in final round scoring. Although he is 0-35 in major tournaments, he just needs that one big win to break the drought. He could do that this weekend.
Keegan Bradley and Rickie Fowler are two of the most popular golfers on tour right now. Coming off a month where he played rounds with Michael Jordan and Tom Brady, Bradley who won the 2011 PGA Championship, enters the Masters having missed the cut last year. His best finish at Augusta is 27th. Fowler on the other hand has done very well in this tournament, even though the 12th ranked golfer in the world has yet to win a green jacket. In 2014 he finished in the top-5 in all four major events, which only Nicklaus and Woods have done previously. He is winless in his 20 major appearances but has made the cut in all four trips to the Masters.
Sergio Garcia entered this season coming off a 2014 campaign that saw him finish 2nd in scoring average. Currently ranked 8th in the world, Sergio brings the 2nd best up and down game to Augusta. He will be looking to break his 0-65 majors streak. He missed the cut last year, and his best finish was in 2004, when he tied for 4th.
Seven golfers have made the cut in each of the last 5 years: Lee Westwood, Adam Scott, Fred Couples, Matt Kochar, Nick Watney, Bill Haas and Steve Stricker. All of them will be in the field this weekend, so it’s worth paying attention to see if any of the seven can make it six in a row.
While we’ve covered the young golfers who are looking to earn their first Masters win, the field will also feature plenty of players who have already won the event and have earned lifetime exemption into the field.
Phil Mickelson only had two top-10 finishes in 2014 and this season his best place so far was tied at 17th. He then missed back-to-back cuts for first time since 2012 but the three-time Masters champion, who won in 2004, 2006 and 2010, has always excelled at this course. He has played in 22 Masters and made the cut 20 times, missing only in 1997 and 2003. Everyone remembers his three straight third-place finishes between 2001-2003 before getting “the monkey off of his back,” and since then the pressure has been off. He has had a wide range of finishes in the last five years however, ranging from 3rd to 54th. You can never count Lefty out of a major, although at this point of his career a top-10 finish would likely be a victory.
Fred Couples is a staple at the Masters. After winning in 1992 at 13 under par, the now 55 year old golfer brings his 57 PGA Tour wins to an event he has played 30 times. In all those appearances, he has only missed the cut twice, and in the past five seasons he had finished between 6th and 20th place, earning a good paycheck every event. While his last PGA win was back in the 2003 Shell Houston Open, Couples might have one more magical weekend for us to watch in amazement.
Ben Crenshaw is a 2-time Masters Champion who hasn’t won a major since the 1995 event in Augusta. He has played here 43 times, making 25 cuts with two wins, two second-place finishes, and two third-place finishes. He is going to be playing in his final Masters event and when he picks up his ball for the final time on the 18th green, whether it is on Friday or Sunday, it will be an emotional moment for golf fans that have watched him in this tournament for over four decades. It would be one great Cinderella tale if he were to not only make the cut, but also make a run on Sunday.
It’s a wide open field this weekend and with all of these storylines unfolding, it’s can’t miss television.
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