Nobody saw Danny Willett coming two years ago, Sergio Garcia wasn’t among the favorites last year, and who bought Mike Weir (2003), Zach Johnson (2007), Trevor Immelmann (2008) or Angel Cabrera (2009) in their Calcutta parties? Usually it’s the stars who win The Masters, but sometimes its fading stars and a couple of times a decade its players you have to admit you hadn’t ever heard of. Here’s a few Dark Horse picks by the Augusta Magazine staff – but they really aren’t that much of a stretch. They are all proven winners.
He was not on anybody’s radar when he won The Masters in 2012 with a miracle shot out of the woods on the second playoff hole (No. 10), defeating Louis Oosthuizen (who had earlier scored a double eagle 2 on the second hole). He was highly rated at the time of his second Masters victory in 2014, by two strokes over rookie Jordan Spieth. After a good 2016 season, including a win at the Northern Trust Open on famed Riviera Country Club in Los Angeles, Watson didn’t win again for 24 months until he won on the same course in February 2018, now called the Genesis Open. Clearly a throwback to an earlier age in golf, most of Bubba’s 10 PGA Tour wins have come at classic old courses including three times at Riviera and twice at Augusta National. He is among the longest hitters on Tour and among the few who continue to work the ball, curving it right or left to fit the hole. Changes in modern equipment, primarily in the golf ball that is now made to fly farther but much straighter, have taken that once vital skill out of the game for most players. A baffling two-year slump starting in winter 2016, Bubba had fallen to No. 117 in the world golf rankings as he teed it up at Riviera in February this year. Four days later he was No. 10 in Ryder Cup points. When he posted his third win at Riviera he joined an Augusta group of great players from earlier times: Ben Hogan, Arnold Palmer, Lloyd Mangrum and Macdonald Smith. Riviera and Augusta National are very difficult and traditional courses with many sharply turning holes. Sounds like courses made for Bubba.
Maybe you weren’t following his first victory at the Kazakhstan Open on the European developmental Challenge Tour in 2011, his first win as a professional. His first win on the main European PGA Tour came two years later at the prestigious (in Scotland anyway) Johnnie Walker Championship at Gleneagles. But the whole golf world became aware of Fleetwood after his breakout 2017 season. He won three times last year, in January at the Abu Dhabi HSBC Golf Championship. His final round 67 beat Dustin Johnson and Pablo Larrazabal by a stroke. In March, it was Fleetwood’s turn to lose to Johnson by a stroke in the WGC-Mexico Championship. He played in all four major championships for the first-time last year and posted a 4th-place finish in the U.S. Open and missed the cut in his first Masters. In July Fleetwood won the Open de France and in November won the European Tour’s year-long points championship, The Race to Dubai. Already in 2018, he has defended his win at the Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship, firing six birdies in the last nine holes. Fleetwood is known for two characteristics, he is rarely in trouble on the course and most of his wins and high finishes have come from shooting very low scores on the final nine on Sunday. There is a tournament in Georgia in April every year in which those two attributes will get noticed.
Stinson has 11 victories on the European PGA Tour, six on the U.S. Tour, three on the European developmental Challenge Tour and one each on the Asian and Sunshine tours. He ended 2017 in 9th place in the World Golf Rankings. He has twice won the European year-long points competition, the Road to Dubai, and has captured the year-long FedEx Cup in the U.S. once – winning both of them in 2013 when he finished in style by also taking both tour’s final, the PGA Tour Championship played at East Lake C.C. in Atlanta and the DP World Tour Championship, Dubai. He became the first male from Sweden, or any of the Nordic countries, to win a major at the 2016 Open Championship at Royal Troon with a major championship record score of 264. It was an epic head-to-head battle with Phil Mickelson. Playing together in the third round, Stenson pulled six strokes ahead of third place with Mickelson just one stroke back. Stealing the television coverage from the rest of the field on Sunday, Mickelson shot a dramatic 65 while Stenson answered with a 63, tying Johnny Miller’s 40-year-old record in a major championship. It was as if there were no other players in the world’s oldest championship. Mickelson finished 11 ahead of third place. Stenson twice earned the distinction of European Tour Golfer of the Year (2013 and 2016). In 2016 he took the Olympic silver medal home from Rio de Janeiro, finishing two strokes behind gold medalist Justin Rose. Inexplicably, just about the only tournament where the tall (6’ 2”) Swede does not have a stellar record is The Masters, where his best finish is a tie for 14th among his 14 starts and four missed cuts. We are certain that this champion on five continents intends to answer that question soon.
Who’s to say that miracles don’t happen in Augusta – Phil Mickelson hasn’t won since his (British) Open Championship in 2013 but he is playing like the Phil of old early this year. As the Tour turned to Florida, Phil had just posted finishes of a tie for 6th or better in his last three tournaments – at Riviera (T-6), Pebble Beach (T-2) and Phoenix (T-5). In that run Phil has suffered a few too many poor shots, but his great ones are as stellar as ever.
Tiger Woods also last won in 2013, at the World Golf Championship – Bridgestone Invitational, two weeks after Mickelson’s last victory. But between them they have seven green jackets and few players have ever whipped the galleries into the kind of frenzy that accompanied all seven of their victories here. They both believe they are going to win more tournaments and they both love this one the most. “Experts” counted Jack Nicklaus out in 1986, Jose Maria Olazabal in 1999 and Ben Crenshaw in 1995 – they were all labeled as washed up in the week before they added another green jacket to their wardrobe. In Woods/Mickelson heydays here, the winning strategy was to hit it as far as the ball would go, get the gallery to help you find it and then execute the shortest shots to the green. Today’s golf balls go farther and straighter putting Dustin Johnson, Rory McIlroy, Bubba Watson, Jason Day and a platoon of even younger players not just way long off the tee, but they don’t have to go looking for it – it’s almost always in the middle of the fairway, maybe consigning these two players to a game that has passed them by – maybe. Early in 2018 Phil is giving signs that his game is coming back, and Tiger Woods’ career has been surprising us for 21 years.
Article appears in the April 2018 issue of Augusta Magazine.