As March arrives golf fans around the world await, with fond anticipation, The Masters and make their predictions on who will don the green jacket.
Residents of Augusta, Aiken, S.C. and the surrounding area already have most of their plans made. Those who have badges for the tournament are making party plans and inviting people who will remember the experience for a lifetime. Those who don’t have access to the tournament are making vacation plans. Those in the restaurant, hospitality industry hire more temps than during the Christmas runup and prepare for what is often half of their profit for the year. Golf fans love The Masters and they love to predict who will add a bright new green jacket to their wardrobe come another climactic Sunday afternoon – especially those headed for local pre-tournament “Calcutta” parties where they will get to put their money behind their intuition.
One Masters tradition, this is the 30th consecutive year, is Augusta Magazine’s own predictions of their favorites. Last year three of the four major championship winners did so for their first time: Sergio Garcia at the Masters; Brooks Koepka at the U.S. Open; and Justin Thomas at the PGA Championship. Only Jordan Spieth added another major to his collection, the Open Championship in July. The following are our predictions for the 2018 Masters Champion – followed by a few of our “sleepers” and some who could have made the first list. The order is alphabetical, not prophetic.
Dustin Johnson, 33, was No. 1 in the World Golf Rankings heading into the Pebble Beach Pro-Am in early February and had held that ranking for a total of 51 weeks. In spite of his athletic 6’ 4” frame and his reputation for being able to drive the ball as far as anybody, when he chooses to, over the year leading up to that tournament Johnson ranked only 94th in the world driving distance category and 44th in the fairways in regulation off the tee – categories that are traditionally figured as big advantages at The Masters. The categories in which he was rated as the best in the world over that span were: number of eagles, average number of birdies per round, scoring average and the top of the heap in the world rankings – all also counted and all also things you would like to have for The Masters. He tied for sixth and fourth respectively in the 2015 and 2016 Masters and was the odds-on favorite last year when he slipped on stairs in his rented Augusta home just two days before the 2017 Masters and had to withdraw with a back injury that lingered for most of the year. A Columbia, S.C., native and Coastal Carolina alum, Johnson has 12 top-10 finishes in major championships including his one major victory in the 2016 U.S. Open at famed Oakmont Country Club near Pittsburg. If he plays here the way he did in the 2018 SONY Tournament of Champions in which he won by eight strokes, Johnson would almost surely take his second major championship.
Jon Rahm, 23, won’t disappoint Spanish golf fans who look for that fiery disposition and a deadly golf game. Before him, 2017 Masters Champion Sergio Garcia readily showed his emotions throughout his 20-year career playing here and around the world. And 1980 and 1983 Masters Champion Severiano (Seve) Ballesteros smiled and grimaced, danced, ran and twisted his body along with the flight of his ball on his way to five major championship victories (including three Open Championships) and into the hearts of sports fans across the globe. In his Hall of Fame career, fellow Spaniard Jose Maria Olazabal also showed some fire, especially in his many (mostly winning) pairings in the Ryder Cup with countryman Seve Ballesteros. The formidable duo still hold the record for the most points by a pairing in Ryder Cup history with 12, counting 11 wins, two losses and two draws. But Jon Rahm is a force all his own. Rahm reached No. 2 in the world in mid-winter 2018, after his victory in the Career Builder Classic in La Quinta, Calif., at the end of a four-hole playoff with Andrew Landry. Jon Rahm also did something that few top young golfers accomplish — he actually stayed at Arizona State University until he earned his degree in 2016. Rahm has every shot and at just 23 and already No. 2 in the world rankings, if he keeps up his steady improvement over the past few years, he doesn’t have far to go. A win at the 2018 Masters Tournament would take him to the top.
The 2015 Masters Champion, 2014 almost champion (2nd), and with a stunning forfeiture of the back nine lead in 2016, there is no bigger favorite this year than Jordan Spieth. With 10 PGA Tour victories in the past three seasons, he can count among them three of the four major championships: the 2015 Masters and U.S. Open and the 2017 Open Championship. His victory at Royal Birkdale in Southport, England earned Spieth a pairing with Jack Nicklaus as the only two golfers to win three of the four major championships by the age of 23 and his 2015 victory made him the youngest U.S. Open winner since Masters founder Bobby Jones in 1923. That’s pretty good company anywhere but especially in Augusta. Although he was born, raised and still lives in Dallas, Texas, Spieth is the son of Shawn and Christine Spieth, both natives of Pennsylvania. He has two younger siblings, Steven and Ellie. Steven graduated from Brown University where he played college basketball and last summer played for his hometown Dallas Mavericks 2017 NBA Summer League team. Ellie has grown up with disabilities and Jordan has credited her with “keeping him grounded and focused, as well as keeping the game of golf in perspective.” In his first year on Tour, 2013, he founded the Jordan Spieth Family Foundation. Spieth has used his younger sister Ellie as an inspiration, and through his work, his foundation provides awareness and financial assistance to special needs children, military families and youth golf. How can you not root for that?
In 2016 Jordan Spieth was asked about the cadre of very young stars on the PGA Tour. Paraphrased, his answer was, “there’s another one coming,” referring to his longtime friend and rival Justin Thomas. As part of the PGA Tour’s “Wrap Around” tour, Justin Thomas got his 2017 season off to an early start with a win in the CJ Cup in Korea in late October 2016. He won five times last year, including the PGA Championship in Charlotte for his first major championship victory. He also won the season-long FedEx Cup, and the $10 million that goes with it, after coming in second to Xander Schauffele at the season-ending Tour Championship in Atlanta in September. In January 2017, Thomas opened the year with a victory in the SBS Tournament of Champions and a week later, in his opening round at the SONY Open in Hawaii, Thomas became the seventh player in PGA Tour history, and the youngest, to shoot a 59, making eagle on his first and last holes. He also equaled Johnny Miller’s 1973 single round record of 63 in the U.S. Open. It was good of Spieth to warn us that Thomas was coming our way. We all know it now.
Rory McIlroy has garnered so many accolades since his first victory on the European Tour at the 2010 Dubai Desert Classic, by one stroke over Justin Rose, that there is not enough room to list them here. When McIlroy and The Masters are mentioned together it is usually for his back nine collapse in the 2010 tournament, having led after each of the first three rounds and still ahead by a stroke with just nine holes to play. The career worst 43 that followed dropped him into a tie for 15th. McIlroy earned four major championship titles by the age of 24: the 2011 U.S. Open, the 2012 and 2014 PGA championships and the 2014 Open Championship at Royal Liverpool. Since his British victory McIlroy needs a green jacket to become the sixth player to win the Career Grand Slam of golf’s four major professional tournaments. In both 2012 and 2014 McIlroy led the money winning lists and was named Player of the Year in both the U.S. and Europe. Now 28, he could be said to be the point man in a platoon of brilliant young golfers including Jordan Spieth, Justin Thomas, Rickie Fowler, Jason Day, Hideki Matsuyama and several more on their way up. Golf is indeed fortunate that these brilliant players also excel in their sportsmanship, their strict commitment to the self-regulating rules of golf, a bond of friendship among each other, respect and gratitude toward the galleries of people who come out to see them and a unanimous commitment to philanthropy. In 2016 McIlroy admitted that he succumbed to the pressure to win The Masters and join the immortals of the game who have accomplished the Grand Slam: Gene Sarazen, Ben Hogan, Gary Player, Jack Nicklaus and Tiger Woods. McIlroy could silence the question and join that pantheon this year, or surely some year soon.
Rickie Fowler is about the most popular guy anywhere – especially with children who follow him like the Pied Piper. In 2015, Fowler was announced as an official ambassador for PGA Junior League Golf, a program owned and operated by the PGA of America. He has four PGA Tour victories, including the 2017 Honda Classic and the 2015 The Players Championship often termed “The Fifth Major.” His Players win came in a four-hole playoff with Kevin Kisner and Sergio Garcia after what had to be among the lowest scoring three player back nines in history. At Augusta Fowler tied for 5th in 2014, tied for 12th in 2015 and tied for 11th last year. He’s not just popular with the kids. With the number of beautiful women he has been photographed with, and his $30 million in golf purses and much more in advertising revenue, Rickie must be among the most eligible bachelors in the world as well.
With their playoff last year, Justin Rose and Sergio Garcia gave us the first truly gripping final round in the Masters in nearly half-a-decade. During the third-round last year, Rose made birdie on five of the last seven holes to shoot a -5, 67 and tie Garcia for the lead and put himself in the final pairing on Sunday. It was a rollicking fun day on Sunday last year with Garcia moving three ahead after the first three holes and Rose catching them with three birdies in a row at Nos. 6, 7 and 8. They would trade leads and tie each other three more times on the back nine – and that is how regulation play ended at No. 18., where both missed makeable birdie putts that would have won the tournament. Garcia would not miss his birdie putt on the first playoff hole. He also tied for 2nd with Phil Mickelson in 2015, four strokes behind Jordan Spieth. But there should be no tears for Rose, who won the gold medal in the 2016 Summer Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro. With that victory Rose joined Hall of Fame members Gary Player, David Graham, Hale Irwin and Bernhard Langer as one of only five golfers to win official tournaments on all six continents on which golf is played. Rose also got his second World Golf Championship victory in the HSBC-WGC China last October, which counts toward 2018 money ($1,666,000) and the same number in critical FedEx Cup points. Rose has very little to prove at Augusta National with five top-10 finishes here, including the past three years.
Since the 2016 PGA Championship, where he tied for 4th, Hideki Matsuyama has posted 16 top-5 or better finishes, including five victories, two of which came in World Golf Championships. In an aborted attempt to win the same tournament three years in a row, Matsuyama had to withdraw at the start of his title defense at the Waste Management Phoenix Open in early February. At the time his injury, which was not considered a long-term hinderance, he was ranked sixth in the world. Is his game a fit for the Augusta National? In the past three Masters he has finished tied for 11th, tied for 7th and 5th.
Like most on our list of Ones to Watch, Jason Day has already produced a lengthy stay as the No. 1-ranked golfer in the world; for him it has been a total of 51 weeks. He first broke into the world Top 10 (9th) with his runner up performance in the 2011 U.S. Open. In February 2014, Day won his first World Golf Championship title, the WGC-Accenture Match Play Championship, and would win it for a second time in 2016, beginning his first term as World No. 1. Day won his first, and so far only, major tournament at the 2015 PGA Championship and a few weeks later during the PGA Playoff season Day won the BMW Championship. He also won the 2016 Players Championship. Day has a good record at The Masters, if a bit inconsistent. He tied for 2nd in 2011, finished 3rd in 2013 and tied for 10th in 2016. However, in his other four appearances he had to withdraw in 2012 and finished in a tie for 20th or higher in 2014, 2015 and 2017. Like most of the new crop of superstar golfers, Day is prodigiously long off the tee and has all the other shots when his game is on. Day had three significant victories in 2016 but none the next year. Already in 2018 he won The Farmers Insurance Open for the second time. If that means he’s got his game back it’s not good news for the rest of the Tour.
Always the bridesmaid, 2017 was the year that Sergio Garcia finally won a major tournament and it was the Masters in a playoff with 2013 U.S. Open winner and longtime friend and European Ryder Cup teammate Justin Rose. After a rain-softened course allowed some low scores, Garcia shot a one-under 71 and was tied for 4th, six strokes back of Charlie Hoffman. Leads change quickly at Augusta and after the second round Garcia’s 69 had him tied in first with Hoffman (75) Rickie Fowler (67) and Belgian Thomas Pieters’ 68. Rose stood three strokes back after an even par round, where he was in a four-way tie with Ryan Moore (69), perennial gallery favorite Fred Couples (70) and Garcia’s fellow Spaniard John Rahm (70). Garcia (70) and Rose (67) fashioned a tie for the lead after Saturday’s round, but it was by just one stroke in front of Rickie Fowler (71). To say they remained tied with matching 69s by the end of the round Sunday would belie a tumultuous trading of leads and great golf shots all afternoon.
Sergio was playing well coming into the tournament, winning the Omega Dubai Desert Classic in February. The year before he had won the AT&T Byron Nelson (in his wife Angela’s home state of Texas) and followed that with three fifth-place ties in succession, which included both the U.S. Open at famed Oakmont C.C. in Pennsylvania and the Open Championship at Royal Troon in Ayrshire, Scotland. This season he has already won the Andalucía Valderama Masters Hosted by the Sergio Garcia Foundation and the SMBC Singapore Open in January. Sergio and his new wife Angela, a former University of Texas golf team member and Golf Channel correspondent, are expecting their first baby in March. We hope all goes well and his expanded family is a positive motivation for Sergio.
Article appears in the April 2018 issue of Augusta Magazine.