For a Masters with its smallest field in two decades, it feels like just about every pairing has its own layer of interest, but a few stand out among them. Here are eight of the more intriguing groupings to watch during the first two rounds from Augusta National.
All tee-times are Augusta times, with AEST in parentheses
10:09am (12:09am Friday): Hideki Matsuyama, Patton Kizzire, Paul Casey
Nobody started the season hotter than Kizzire, who picked up his first two career US PGA Tour victories at the OHL Classic at Mayakoba last November and the Sony Open in Hawaii in January. Both times, Kizzire showed some grittiness down the stretch, specifically on the greens, holing key putts to come out on top. The Auburn University alum ranks 20th on tour in strokes gained/putting, part of his game that will surely be tested on Augusta’s tricky greens. But it is Kizzire’s first Masters start, and only his fourth appearance in a Major championship. It will be intriguing to see how the rising star handles this type of arena.
Casey, however, has been here plenty of times before, as he makes his 12th start in the Masters and his 56th in a Major championship. His track record at the Masters is as good as anyone who’s yet to win it, including five top-10s, four of those T-6 or better and three coming in his past three appearances at Augusta. After finally breaking through and ending a long US Tour win drought at the Valspar just a few weeks ago, perhaps an even bigger breakthrough is on tap this week as the 40-year-old Englishman continues to search for his first Major.
Then there’s Matsuyama, who, at age 26, already has five tour victories, including three in 2017. Most believe Matsuyama’s best is yet to come, and if his history at the Masters is any indication, Augusta National could be the spot for his maiden Major win. In six Masters appearances, Matsuyama has finished T-11 or better three times. If he’s at full health, the world No.6 can beat anyone.
10:42am (12:42am Friday): Tiger Woods, Marc Leishman, Tommy Fleetwood
With Tiger having stolen the spotlight from essentially everyone at Augusta, several of the better players in the world arrived with little fanfare. Two among them are Marc Leishman and Tommy Fleetwood, who both show up near the top of the leaderboard seemingly every time they tee it up. But their under-the-radar days will be no more come Thursday and Friday when they will find themselves paired with a certain four-time green jacket winner…
Meanwhile, what’s left to say about Tiger that hasn’t been said? He’s playing well, he’s healthy, he’s smiling and he looks like a completely new man. Hell, he’s even buried the hatchet with Phil Mickelson. Let’s just hand him the green jacket now. OK, so Woods winning the Masters for a fifth time is hardly a lock, even if bookmakers like his chances. The key will be driving the golf ball well, something he hasn’t done during this comeback, or in any of his most recent comebacks for that matter. If he can conjure up some magic this week, this group will be a LOUD one to watch.
10:53am (12:43am Friday): Sergio Garcia, Justin Thomas, Doc Redman (a)
The amateurs who qualify for the Masters always provide a level of intrigue, and that’s certainly the case with Doc Redman in 2018. After finishing 62nd out of 64 in the US Amateur’s strokeplay qualifying, the American put on an incredible performance in matchplay, eventually winning an epic championship tilt over Doug Ghim on the 37th hole. Winning the low amateur this week would be another underdog story of sorts for Redman, as he ranks 34th in the World Amateur Golf Ranking, well behind fellow 2018 Masters amateur participants Joaquin Niemann (No.1) and Ghim (No.4).
Before Tiger’s promising return, it was once again going to be Thomas’ year after the reigning US PGA champion ripped off two wins before March and then nearly another in heroic fashion at the WGC-Mexico Championship. Thomas looked in fine form again the the WGC-Dell Match Play before eventually running out of gas and falling to Bubba Watson in the semi-finals. While it’s just his third Masters appearance, it’s safe to say Thomas has shown enough in the last year to make him a popular pick this week, with a win allowing him also to become No.1 on the world ranking.
As is the case with the aforementioned Fleetwood and Leishman, is feels like Garcia is quietly lurking in the shadows as he preps to defend his title. If the Spaniard were to go on to win, he’d become just the fourth player in the tournament’s history to win back-to-back, joining the elite company of Jack Nicklaus, Nick Faldo and Tiger Woods. No easy task, but with a T-7 at the WGC-Mexico and a solo fourth at the Valspar already this season, Garcia’s game appears to be in a good spot.
11:04am (1:04am Friday): Bubba Watson, Henrik Stenson, Jason Day
Of our eight favourites, this is the only group that features three Major champions, and all three have put together a fine few months leading into Augusta. Stenson is the only of the trio that has yet to win in 2017-’18, although he’s certainly come close, finishing T-2 at the WGC-HSBC Champions back in October, solo fourth at Bay Hill and a quiet T-6 last week in Houston. He’s never finished in the top-10 at the Masters, but in 12 tries he’s finished in the top-25 six times. As we saw at the 2016 British Open, if the Iceman gets the putter rolling, he’s got as good of a chance as anybody in the field.
We’re probably getting a bit heavy with the “under-the-radar” guys, but Day is another who seems to be getting overlooked. After looking like the former world No.1 during the West Coast Swing (a win at Torrey Pines, T-2 at Pebble), he’s come back to earth, finishing T-22 at Bay Hill and getting bounced early at the WGC-Match Play. Day’s got a new set of irons in the bag this week, and his history at Augusta (two top-threes, five top-25s) suggest he could emerge on Monday morning and grab the second Major we all thought he’d have by now.
Then there’s Watson, the horse for the course who has already won twice this season and looks like the Bubba that captured everyone’s imagination during his two prior wins at Augusta. A few equipment changes have certainly helped, but Watson also appears to be in a great frame of mind, which should scare his fellow competitors this week.
1:27pm (3:27am Friday): Phil Mickelson, Rickie Fowler, Matt Kuchar
Like the Watson/Day/Stenson group, this one too has a few Majors in it, but they all come from Mickelson. As for Fowler and Kuchar, despite being 10 years apart in age, they are both in a similar spot, searching for their first Major that they’ve both had plenty of good chances at it already. For Kuchar, there was no better chance than last year’s devastating second-place finish to Spieth at the British Open, one that will no doubt motivate Kuch to get it done sooner rather than later. Then there’s Fowler, who has come close, but never that close. His seven top-five finishes at Majors is obviously impressive, but it’s starting to look like more as a negative than a positive on his resume. He ‘should’ win one at some very soon, but the doubts are certainly beginning to creep in.
If Fowler can look to anyone who had to wait a long time for his first Major, and received plenty of criticism because of it, it’s Mickelson, who didn’t get it done until he was 34, but then exploded for four more. Like fellow southpaw Bubba, Lefty has also won on tour prior to all three of his Masters victories, and his game looks as good as ever.
1:38pm (3:38am Friday): Adam Scott, Rory McIlroy, Jon Rahm
By his standards, it’s been a lacklustre few years for Scott after his epic 2013 Masters victory. He has quietly improved this season, though, finishing inside the top-25 three times and making six of his seven cuts. As we’ve seen from past champions like Fred Couples and Angel Cabrera, Augusta has a way of bringing certain players back to life, so it’ll be fascinating to see how Scott fares this week.
Remember Rahm? The No.3 player in the world is another that enters the week discreetly, having not finishing inside the top-10 in five starts since his victory in January at the CareerBuilder Challenge. But he did make all of those cuts, and still ranks second in strokes gained/off-the-tee, a stat that leads you to believe the rising star from Spain could absolutely contend at Augusta. After a disappointing, sometimes too-emotional season in last year’s Majors, Rahm shows up this week with a little more experience under his belt.
Until he wins the green jacket, the career Grand Slam questions will follow McIlroy everywhere he goes, and one has to think he’s had enough of them. If he performs the way he did at Bay Hill, and the way he has at the Masters of late (four straight top-10s), there’s no reason McIlroy can’t get it done.
1:49pm (3:49am Friday): Jordan Spieth, Alex Noren, Louis Oosthuizen
While his only appearance was a missed cut a year ago, it’s hard to not think Noren is poised for a Major breakthrough this week at Augusta. A nine-time European Tour winner, the 35-year-old Swede has still yet to earn his first US Tour victory, but he’s given himself multiple opportunities this season, finishing third or better three times.
Oosthuizen’s appearances in America are few and far between, but when he does come around, he shows up. This is especially true in Majors, as the South African has finished T-2 or better five times in 37 Major championship starts in his career. You can never count out Oosthuizen, who holds the grand slam of runner-ups in Majors.
Don’t look now, but Spieth may have righted the ship over the weekend at the Houston Open, finishing T-3 after posting a final-round 66 that he thought could have been a 64 or 63. It almost seems silly to say “watch out” for Spieth this week, but after going through some serious putting woes, he could definitely surprise some by figuring it all out at Augusta.
2pm (4am Friday): Justin Rose, Dustin Johnson, Rafa Cabrera Bello
Cabrera Bello will understandably be overlooked in this group, but he shouldn’t be, because up until this past week, the Spaniard had been playing some of his best golf, making eight straight cuts and finishing in the top-10 three times. He’s also one of the more under-appreciated iron players on tour, ranking seventh in strokes gained/approach-the-green this season. He hasn’t performed outstandingly well in Majors during his career, but there wouldn’t be a better week to start than at the Masters.
The entire world seems to be picking Rose this week, and for good reason, as the Englishman has finished second in two of the past three years at Augusta in addition to three other top-10 finishes. Rose has been a fine player for most of his career, but has really saved his best golf for his late 30s, and needs to start capitalising on that in the form of another Major victory.
Last but not least is the No.1 player in the world, Johnson, who should be in quarantine for the next two days and away from all stairs and hardwood floors. If so, he’ll probably just lap the field in typical DJ-fashion, reminding everyone who the real best player on the planet is.