2014 Dark Horses
Photos courtesy of The Augusta Chronicle
It’s easy to pick someone like Tiger Woods or Phil Mickelson or Rory McIlroy to win the green jacket. Any casual golf fan can choose one of the elite players in the field to win a Masters title. But the favorites don’t always win. Entering 2013, McIlroy and Woods were expected to duke it out in Augusta, but instead they each faltered.
In 2013, the Masters proved once again that it’s wise to keep an eye on the Dark Horses. Who could have prognosticated Bubba Watson and Louis Oosthuizen facing each other in a sudden-death playoff? Who could have predicted Sweden’s Peter Hanson leading after 54 holes? With the global reach of golf, international players have proven to be among the best, even if they’re not household names in America. Seventeen of the past 35 Masters titles belong to international golfers, some of whom were underdogs when they won. So don’t be surprised to see several unfamiliar names on the leader board late Sunday afternoon. Here is our list of Dark Horse contenders.
The Dufster, as his legions of fans call him, Jason Dufner lit up the PGA Tour in 2012 with two wins, two seconds and a tie for fourth at the U.S. Open after first getting “major” recognition with a playoff loss to Keegan Bradley in the 2011 PGA Tournament. He topped that in 2013 with another tie for fourth at the U.S. Open and then his first major victory at the PGA Championship. His on-course deadpan persona is apparently a game face that hides what his fellow competitors say is among the Tour’s best wits, making the Dufner among the best liked players. His highest Masters finish in three attempts is a 20th in 2013, but he has five top-fives in majors and he hadn’t won the PGA before either until he pulled it off last year. Somehow, with what appears to be no personality, he is a crowd favorite and that would only grow with a run on Sunday in Augusta.
You might be afraid to see Sergio Garcia get the lead in the 2014 Masters Tournament. It would be scary, like a Greg Norman comeback, but he is showing some real signs of life and it could happen. Garcia won the Commercial Bank Qatar Masters in February with a final round 65 for his 11th victory on the European Tour, to go with eight on the PGA Tour, which took him into the top-10 in the World Ranking (No. 8 as of press time). In December, he won the Thailand Golf Championship by four shots over World No. 3 Henrik Stenson. Unlike certain U.S. Open crowds, the Masters galleries love Sergio’s angst and passion and to be sure he would have them cheering him home while coming down the back nine on Sunday.
With two wins in Europe plus the RBC Heritage the week after the 2013 Masters, Graeme McDowell took 10 weeks off at the end of the year to rest, enjoy the new restaurant he owns in Florida and, oh yes, get married. The 2010 U.S. Open Champion from Northern Ireland had his new wife Kristin Stape by his side and his father Kenny as an amateur partner, as he opened his 2014 season at the scene of his lone major championship at the AT&T Pebble Beach National Pro-Am, where he tied for seventh with a closing 67. G-Mac, as his friends call him, says his marriage and other maturing elements in his life have him in a settled frame of mind, rededicating himself to his place in the world of golf. The best place to start that would be with a second major championship at the 2014 Masters Tournament.
If Jordon Spieth is only a dark horse pick to win the 2014 Masters instead of a favorite, it’s just because he’s so young—not yet 21—and a rookie, which is supposed to be all but insurmountable here. He has won from high school through junior golf, as an amateur and now into the professional ranks. Spieth became the No. 1-ranked amateur in the world after his tie for 21st in the 2012 U.S. Open at the age of 18. As a rookie professional to begin the 2013 season, he made history in his 16th start at the John Deere Classic, winning at age 19, 11 months, 18 days, to become the youngest winner on the PGA Tour since Ralph Guldahl in 1931. Spieth’s brilliant finishes in the FedEx Cup playoffs prompted Captain Fred Couples to make him the first rookie ever picked for the Presidents Cup. In less than a year, Spieth has a victory and four runner-up finishes on the PGA Tour.
Widely recognized as the best putter in the world, that skill alone makes Steve Stricker a threat to win the 2014 Masters Tournament. He finished the 2013 season ranked at No. 8 in the World Golf Rankings thanks to a brilliant run in the FedEx Cup Playoffs where he finished second at the Deutsche Bank Championship, fourth at the BMW Championship and then second at the TOUR Championship by Coca-Cola in Atlanta. Stricker has 12 PGA Tour victories and has twice finished in the top-10 at the Masters Tournament. Stricker has taken up the philosophy that less is better and seems to be producing better results since he cut back on the number of tournaments he enters in order to be able to spend more time with his family and to pursue other interests. Stricker has finished in the top-eight of the U.S. Money List in five of the past seven years and seems rested and ready for 2014.