Johnson the Masters favourite as McIlroy and Spieth seek Augusta atonement
The Masters is endowed with the mythical capacity to confirm brilliance, bestow redemption or fulfil precocious promise, and golf’s elite are preparing once more for one of the standout events of any year.
World number one Dustin Johnson – a victor in each of his last three starts – will carry the weight of expectation on his broad shoulders as he goes in search of a second career major and first green jacket, while Rory McIlroy and Jordan Spieth are seeking to atone for past Augusta sins.
Japan’s Hideki Matsuyama has the hopes of a nation and indeed a continent resting with him as Asia’s leading contender.
Jason Day and Henrik Stenson have yet to slip on one of the most coveted items of tailoring in the sporting world, but both are equipped to handle the white-hot heat of an April Sunday in Georgia.
There is no guarantee the next champion will emerge from the group of tournament favourites, though, with a number of former winners and promising youngsters all vying to claim the first major of 2017.
We assess the form, past performances and chances of the top six in the world rankings and the best of the rest, as patrons, pimento sandwiches and azaleas prepare to form the backdrop to four days of guaranteed drama.
"Hit it hard, go find it and hit it hard again."
That was the mantra of the late, great Arnold Palmer, a four-time Masters champion who passed away in September.
Of the game’s active heavyweights, Dustin Johnson perhaps most closely resembles, or at least channels the attitude of, the man they called ‘The King’.
At 32, Johnson has finally begun to deliver on his early career promise, winning his first major at the 2016 U.S. Open and climbing to the top of the world rankings.
Able to bomb it long and, crucially to maximizing his chances of Augusta success, draw the ball on demand, the Columbia native has been getting steadily closer to a green jacket, finishing tied sixth in 2015 and tied fourth last year, meaning he will deservedly start among the favourites this time around.
Can Dustin Johnson make it 4 in a row? He’s the favorite heading into Augusta: https://t.co/eYoBBIb3Gupic.twitter.com/3D8LQByU9a
— PGA.COM (@PGAcom) March 31, 2017
With four majors to his name at the age of just 27, Rory McIlroy should have little to prove to anyone.
But Europe’s best player is well aware he will never be deemed to have fulfilled his enormous potential without slipping on the green jacket at least once.
McIlroy’s task is made more complicated by the demons of his 2011 collapse at Augusta, when he sat atop the leaderboard at the end of each of the first three days and started Sunday four shots clear of the field, only for a dramatic collapse that saw him card 80 and slump to tied 15th.
The Northern Irishman responded by winning the U.S. Open at Congressional two months later, and also has two US PGA Championships and one Open Championship to his name, but there is no denying McIlroy has unfinished business in Georgia.
Placing tied eighth, fourth and tied 10th in the last three years indicates he is more than capable of finally exorcising his Magnolia Lane demons.
Ordained as a future major champion from a young age, the Masters looked a likely stage for Jason Day to realise those predictions, as he claimed a share of second behind Charl Schwartzel in the wake of McIlroy’s demise six years ago.
The Australian went close again by placing third in 2013, before finally getting it done at the US PGA Championship in 2015, one of his 13 top-10 finishes at majors since 2010.
He earned a share of 10th at Augusta last year, and has always remained relevant when he has attended the tournament, finishing tied 20th and tied 28th in 2014 and 2015 respectively.
It remains to be seen what Day’s mindset will be at this year’s Masters, the 29-year-old having withdrawn from the WGC-Dell Technologies Match Play after announcing his mother is undergoing treatment for lung cancer.
Japan is yet to produce a major champion. Indeed, South Korea’s YE Yang, who denied Tiger Woods at the 2009 US PGA, remains Asia’s only winner of one of golf’s four biggest prizes.
The latest man charged with ending Japan’s wait is 25-year-old Hideki Matsuyama, who won four times in the space of five tournaments late last year and also claimed the Phoenix Open title in February, climbing to a career high of fourth in the world.
The low amateur on his Masters debut in 2011, he has been in the mix at Augusta in each of the last two years, finishing fifth in 2015 and tied seventh last year.
Results of tied 10th, tied sixth and tied fourth at the U.S. Open, Open and US PGA between 2013 and 2016 serve as further evidence of Matsuyama’s potential.
Which player, in this year’s Masters field, has scored best over Amen Corner (minimum 10 rounds)?
— The European Tour (@EuropeanTour) March 30, 2017
Well played if you said Hideki Matsuyama (0.21 shots better than the field average on Amen Corner) pic.twitter.com/PRee6n1lJx
— The European Tour (@EuropeanTour) March 30, 2017
Henrik Stenson has an axe to grind with Augusta National Golf Club, but the grudge is entirely of the Swede’s own making. The Masters is the only major at which he is yet to finish in the top 10 at least once.
Crowned Open champion after a thrilling duel with Phil Mickelson at Royal Troon last year, Stenson has gone close at the U.S. Open, earning a share of fourth in 2014, and also contended at the US PGA, finishing third in 2013 and tied third a year later.
But his best showing in Georgia to date saw him grab a share of 14th in 2014, Stenson missing the cut three times between 2006 and 2011.
Unlike the other men occupying the top spots in the world rankings going into this year’s Masters, Stenson is well aware that time is fast running out for him to settle his Augusta score.
"Of course, I’m on the back nine of my career," he said in early March.
"I’m not going to play forever, I know that much."
Stenson will hope missed cuts in his last two events, the Arnold Palmer Invitational and Shell Houston Open, will not preclude him from producing a strong showing in Georgia this week.
McIlroy’s Masters scars may have been eased by the balm of four subsequent major wins and the passage of time, but Jordan Spieth’s mental wounds are likely to be red raw when he steps onto the first tee this year.
Tying second on his Masters debut in 2014, big things had been expected of the Texan within golf circles before he announced himself to the wider sporting world by marching to his first major success with a four-stroke, wire-to-wire triumph at Augusta in 2015, followed by U.S. Open glory two months later and near misses at that year’s Open and US PGA.
Seemingly tailor-made to tame Augusta, Spieth looked on course to retain his green jacket last year, leading after each of the first three rounds and remaining firmly in command, sitting five shots clear after the front nine on Sunday, until unexpected misery struck.
Bogeys at 10 and 11 were bad enough, but it was the cardinal sin of dumping two balls in the water at the par-three 12th, where Spieth took a quadruple bogey, that allowed England’s Danny Willett to steal in and snatch victory away from the defending champion.
Spieth, who missed the cut in Houston last week, claims to have moved on from that debacle after returning to play the course privately, but every pair of eyes, on both sides of the ropes, will be firmly fixed on the 23-year-old this year.
"I feel strongly about the way that I’m striking it. I’ve hit the ball better this year than I probably did all of 2016." – @JordanSpiethpic.twitter.com/KlLEhBVpM0
— Titleist (@Titleist) 14 February 2017
IN-FORM RAHM LEADS CHASING PACK
A clutch of likely contenders occupy the places from seventh to 50th and beyond in the rankings, among them former Masters champions Schwartzel, Mickelson, Adam Scott and Bubba Watson, as well as major nearly men Lee Westwood and Sergio Garcia, the former the owner of a particularly painful record of five top-10 finishes at Augusta since 2010 without success, including a share of second last year.
But Jon Rahm is the name on everyone’s lips after the 22-year-old Spaniard pushed Johnson all the way in the final of the WGC-Dell Technologies Match Play, climbing to 12th in the world on the eve of the Masters.
As for the other members of the next generation, take your pick – Rickie Fowler, Brooks Koepka, Patrick Reed and Justin Thomas represent the cream of the young American crop, while Europe can also look to Tyrrell Hatton, Matthew Fitzpatrick and Thomas Pieters for a possible future winner.