The game of golf has been led by men of great talent and great character all of whom have exemplified the ethical standards so much a part of the game—integrity, respect, honesty—in addition to their outstanding athleticism. There were Old and Young Tom Morris of St. Andrews, Scotland, and into the next century were Ted Ray, Harry Vardon and Francis Ouimet, Gene Sarazen and Bobby Jones followed in time by Sam Snead, Byron Nelson, Gary Player, Jack Nicklaus and Arnold Palmer. And the list goes on. All of these iconic athletes were admired as much for their honorable approach to golf as for their skill. It was the great Bobby Jones’s philosophy that golfers are far more important than the scores they shoot—that it is their character by which they will be identified as much as by how well they play the game. And like these great men who came before, today’s field is comprised of a group of young golfers who continue that tradition: Jordan Spieth, Rory McIlroy, Jason Day, Bubba Watson, Henrik Stenson, Rickie Fowler and many more, each puts respect for his competitors and a reverence for the game ahead of his own dream of wearing the green jacket of a Masters champion. It is a tribute to the legacy of the game and to those great players who over the past century and a half have set the standard.
Jason Day graduated from “Next Big Thing” status by winning the 2015 PGA Championship with a 20-under score, the first player to finish with that total in the history of major championships. Day won four other times last year including two of the events in the FedEx Cup Playoffs. He entered the Tour Championship as the FedEx Cup points leader but was overtaken by Jordon Spieth who won the tournament, the cup and wrestled back the World No. 1 ranking, leaving Day in second place at the end of the year and dropping Rory McIlroy to third. Day also shared the 56-hole lead in both the U.S. Open, where he was beaten by vertigo, and the Open Championship, where he finished fourth, two inches short of the cup on his 72nd hole, which would have put him in the playoff. Everyone says Day is the nicest guy on Tour, with the possible exceptions of Spieth, McIlroy and Rickie Fowler. Day cracked up the seasoned PGA media corps when he told them, “It’s like if Jordan and Rory had a baby and it was me.” What he said makes some sense in that he has McIlroy’s length, almost, and Spieth’s touch, maybe when he’s really feeling it. When this baby is hot, he has proven he can win.
Rickie Fowler emerged from his “rising star” image with victories at two “near majors,” last year in the Players Championship and during the Tour Playoffs at the Deutsche Bank Championship. Fowler’s Players victory came in a thrilling playoff with Sergio Garcia and Kevin Kisner. Fowler played the last four infamous holes at TPC Sawgrass in 5-under! Neither Kisner nor Garcia did anything but play great golf coming down the stretch, both making birdies on Nos. 16 and 17, but Fowler was just more brilliant. The course was designed to mimic the way Augusta National amplifies the roars of the crowd and there were never more stunningly loud cheers than at the 2015 Players. In September, Fowler struck again with a one-stroke win over Henrik Stenson at the Deutsche Bank Championship in the second of the Tour’s playoff tournaments. The win lifted Fowler to No. 6 in the world. In 2015, four players age 27 or younger, Fowler, Jason Day, Rory McIlroy and Jordon Spieth had multiple victories on the PGA tour. With those four 20-somethings leading the way, the game of professional golf is in well-trained hands for years to come.
Sergio Garcia failed to win at all in 2015, but his fine play still ranked him at No. 11 in the world for the year. He had two brilliant second-place finishes last year: a loss in a playoff at the Players Championship to Kevin Kisner and winner Rickie Fowler, and the wrap-around season CIMB Classic in November 2014. In his career, Garcia has 28 worldwide wins, including eight on the PGA Tour, highlighted by the 2008 Players Championship. He has another 11 European Tour wins, five on the Asian Tour and five more around the world. Remarkably, Garcia has 20 top-10 finishes in major championships, including three at the Masters and nine at the Open Championship. Who can forget his sheer exuberance in the 1999 PGA Championship where he literally chased Tiger Woods after hitting a massive cut shot from directly behind a tree, then ran down the fairway, skipping and jumping, trying to get a view of a ball he had last seen lying on a tangle of roots. Among his peers, Garcia is highly regarded for his accurate shot making and for his tenacity. This is one golfer who plays to the whistle and thrives on the pressure.
Dustin Johnson had just one victory on the PGA Tour last year, but it came in a World Golf Championship in the Cadillac Championship in early March. It was Johnson’s fifth start of the season following a six-month personal hiatus from the PGA Tour, during which time he and his fiancé, Paulina Gretsky, announced the birth of their first child, Tatum. In June, Johnson held a share of the lead after three rounds of the U.S. Open. Making birdie on No. 17, he was one stroke behind Jordon Spieth. After a brilliant second shot to within 12 feet on the par-5 No. 18, he needed to make his eagle putt for an outright win. Stunning the golf world, Johnson three-putted to tie for second. Johnson has nine PGA Tour victories, including two in the PGA Tour Playoffs and two World Golf Championships. Johnson, 32, is among the longest drivers on the PGA Tour, having ranked at No. 4 or better in that statistic since joining the Tour in 2008. A roller-coaster early career seems to be giving way to the motivated mission of an athlete with all the physical gifts to compete with anyone on any course.
Many considered the polite young Zach Johnson from Cedar Rapids, Iowa, to be a one-hit-major wonder with his 2007 Masters victory. He won his green jacket by a margin of two strokes over Tiger Woods, Retief Goosen and Rory Sabbatini on a cold, windy day that was as tough to watch as it was to play. The wind kept the cheers subdued except for Woods’s eagle at No. 13, which for a few moments brought the near-frozen gallery to life. In July 2015, Johnson beat Louis Oosthuizen and Marc Leishman in a four-hole playoff to win the Open Championship at St. Andrews for his 12th PGA Tour win and second major championship. He became only the sixth golfer to win majors at Augusta and St. Andrews, joining Sam Snead, Jack Nicklaus, Nick Faldo, Seve Ballesteros and Tiger Woods. All who have watched Johnson in the past few years have seen the emergence a confident professional who believes he can take any tournament, beat any field. It may sound a bit arrogant—and he’s really not—but you won’t win the Masters if you don’t have a deep-seeded belief in yourself.
Another of the nicest people in sports, full of that effervescent Irish charm, Rory McIlroy needs only a Masters Championship to earn the coveted career Grand Slam of golf, having won the 2011 U.S. Open, the 2012 and 2014 PGA Championships and the 2014 (British) Open Championship at Royal Liverpool. In his third Masters in 2011 (he’s still only 26 years old), McIlroy held the 63rd hole lead standing on the 10th tee on Sunday, but shot a 7-over 43 on the back nine and finished tied for 15. His best finish here has been a fourth last year. When his game is at top form, as the Europeans say, he dominates golf courses and world-class fields. McIlroy can produce driving exhibitions that probably rank as the best combined distance and accuracy in the history of the game. When hitting drives in that stratospheric zone, the rest of his game rises to that level and he seems to never miss a crucial putt. Who’s more talented, McIlroy or Jordon Spieth? Probably McIlroy. Who’s more consistent and composed? Usually Spieth. Who wins when they are both at their best? We can only hope we get to see that on the next 20 Sundays at the Masters.
Australian Adam Scott turned professional in 2000 at the age of 20 and won his European PGA Tour card in his first eight tournaments. The next year, in his first start, Scott captured his first professional victory at the Alfred Dunhill Championship in Johannesburg, South Africa. Of all the Australian luminaries in the world of golf, none had won the Masters until Scott did in 2013, when he finished the year ranked No. 2 and rose to No. 1 early the next year. Scott won the 2004 Players Championship among his eight other PGA Tour victories to go with nine European Tour wins and 12 other victories around the world. He opened 2016 with a tie for 56th at the Sony Open in Hawaii. One high finish usually wouldn’t be looked at too closely, but Hawaii was the first time Scott was subjected to the new rule against “anchoring” his putter shaft against his body. There has been speculation as to whether Scott can overcome being forced to abandon his highly successful putting method of the past 15 years. No doubt that speculation will only grow as the Masters approaches, unless he quiets the question with a victory before he gets here.
2015 Masters Champion, U.S. Open Champion, Tour Champion and Player of the Year, Jordan Spieth, age 22, is a clear favorite to become only the fourth to claim back-to-back Masters Championships in 2016 (Jack Nicklaus, ’65-’66, Nick Faldo, ’89-’90, Tiger Woods, ’01-’02). He is ranked No. 1 in the world early in 2016 and he has everything going for him: a very good driver of the ball (if not the longest), a great ball striker, a near Mickelson “bag of tricks” shots around the green, he rarely misses a makeable putt and every round he drops a bomb from outside 30 feet. Spieth also has the mind for the game—analytical, tempered and resolute. He’s also handsome, witty and widely acclaimed as “a great guy.” He has been the best at every level of golf since he dropped all the other sports for golf at the age of 10. Jordan Spieth is probably the best golfer alive today and it’s a privilege to witness what he does on a golf course and off it. And we already know how his blonde hair shines above his green jacket. No doubt he is planning to add to his wardrobe.
Henrik Stenson was rated No. 5 at the end of the year after a remarkable run of near misses. While his last victory was his last tournament in 2014 at the DP World Tour Championship Dubai, of his 25 starts in 2015, Stenson finished in the top four nine times, six of those times in second place, including three of the four playoff tournaments. Three years ago Stenson won both the FedEx Cup in the U.S. and the Race to Dubai, the European Tour points championship, the first golfer to win both in the same year. In winning both, he also won both season-ending tour championship tournaments, a feat he calls his “double-double” because with the two closing tournament wins he won four championships. According to the PGA Tour statistics, in 2015 Stenson ranked No. 1 in total driving, No. 1 in greens in regulation and No. 1 in putting from five feet—he missed two out of 63 all year. That sounds like a winning combination here. Something most fans can connect with: Stenson turns 40 on Masters Tuesday.
Two-time Masters Champion, 2012 and 2014, Bubba Watson continues to rank among the best in the world. Watson has nine other professional wins, including a World Golf Championship, the 2014 HSBC in Shanghai, China, five regular PGA Tour victories and several high finishes in top level tournaments. Watson finished the year ranked No. 4 in the world. Among the longest hitters in the history of the game, he is also much more accurate than most long-ballers. A decade ago the formula for Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson was to hit it as far as you could, go find it and hope you could hit it again—theoretically making enough birdies to offset the occasional unplayable shot. Watson may have been the first to turn the page now being read by Rory McIlroy, Jason Day and Dustin Johnson. Their book says that you walk 330 yards to find your ball safely in the middle of the fairway and quite close to the green. Is Watson starting an every-other-year string like Arnold Palmer who won the Masters in 1958, ’60, ’62 and ’64? With his game and the Augusta National made for each other, 2016 looks like a regular rotation for Watson after 2012 and 2014.
Don’t Count These Guys Out
Golf is a tough game and it’s played on a four-inch course between your ears. So sometimes it’s hard to guess whether a player is a rising or a shooting star. Here is Augusta Magazine’s list of players who could make their careers this week or put it emphatically back on track. Two of them grew up in the Central Savannah River area, going to the tournament since they were kids. One was playing in an amateur tournament in Aiken County less than two years ago, one of them came very close to winning here four years ago and another has won here three times—but has been a little shy on victories for a while. If you are at a Masters week party and someone asks you to pick a winner that nobody else has picked, any one of these guys might end up making both of you look pretty good.
Like a comet, young Englishman Matthew Fitzpatrick (age 21) has blazed from a good finish at the Junior Invitational at Sage Valley G.C. in Graniteville, S.C., in spring 2014 to his first European Tour win at the British Masters last October, following a second-place finish to Danny Willett at the Omega European Masters in July. He was named European PGA Tour Rookie of the Year in 2015. Fitzpatrick played for Northwestern in U.S. collegiate golf. He was the low amateur and winner of the Silver Medal in the 2013 Open Championship and later that year won the U.S. Amateur, which earned him invitations to the 2014 Masters Tournament, U.S. Open, the Open Championship and the Walker Cup. The U.S. Amateur win took him to the top of the World Amateur Golf Rankings. He was invited to the 2016 Masters from his place on the World Golf Rankings at the end of 2015 at No. 42.
Kevin Kisner has been a Masters fan all his life—growing up 16 miles to the east in Aiken, S.C. Kisner’s parents are Masters patrons and going to “the tournament” is part of life in Aiken. Kisner made a remarkable and steady climb to the top of the professional golfing world in 2014 and 2015, finishing last year ranked No. 17. Kisner won the RSM Classic on Sea Island, Ga., at the end of 2015 and posted a remarkable four second-place finishes last year, including playoff losses to Rickie Fowler at the Players Championship and Jim Furyk at the RBC Heritage—another favorite “hometown” tournament. A member of a University of Georgia national championship team, Kisner’s galleries will be full of Aiken friends and Dawg fans. His game is up to the test and nobody is more sure of that than Kisner himself.
Still the beloved favorite of many Augusta patrons, Phil Mickelson has fallen a bit out of favor with the rest of the golf world during what has been one of the longest dry spells of his career. He stood at No. 34 in the rankings at the end of the year. That’s a long fall from his past two-plus decades in the top-10—having spent more than 700 weeks there. A disappointing missed five-footer kept him out of a playoff in February at Pebble Beach, but it did lift him into the top-20. Even though he finished second at the Masters last year, four strokes behind Jordan Spieth, and tied for second at the 2014 PGA Championship, his last win of any kind was the 2013 Open Championship at Muirfield, Scotland. Mickelson started winning on the PGA Tour as an amateur 25 years ago. He has won 42 events, five of them major championships, including the 2004, 2006 and 2010 Masters. But the gallery still loves Phil the Thrill and for them he will still be the favorite to win this year to tie Arnold Palmer and Tiger Woods with the second-most green jackets at four.
Louis Oosthuizen tied for second in both Opens, the U.S. and British, in 2015 in remarkable fashion. At the U.S. Open, he made birdie on five of the six closing holes, shot 29 on the back and missed a playoff when Jordan Spieth made birdie at the last. At St. Andrews in July, Oosthuizen made a four-hole aggregate playoff with Australian Marc Leishman and American Zach Johnson where Johnson’s 1-under was one stroke better than Oosthuizen. He made double-eagle at No. 2 in the final round of the 2012 Masters Tournament but lost a playoff to Bubba Watson. He did have a happy ending at the 2010 Open Championship at St. Andrews where he won by seven shots. With a deadly putting stroke and one of the sweetest swings in the world, Louis Oosthuizen has already proven he can finish a Masters in first place—at least tied for it.
All of Augusta cheered as Hephzibah native and Evans resident Vaughn Taylor won his third PGA Tour tournament and first in 11 years in a dramatic comeback victory over Phil Mickelson at the Pebble Beach Pro-Am in February. One of the multitude of perks that comes with winning on the PGA Tour—like for instance, $1.26 million—is an invitation to play in the Masters. Taylor played in the Masters three times from 2006 to 2008 and was a serious contender in 2007. He had the lead after making birdie in the cold wind of the third round in 2007 and started the fourth round just two strokes back, ultimately finishing in a tie for 10th. Taylor is a truly great putter and there will be a throng of Augusta College Jaguars and Hephzibah High School Rebels cheering him around the course.
This article appears in the Masters 2016 issue of Augusta Magazine.