Probably in contrast to many places around the world that are indelibly linked to an annual event, the people of Augusta, Ga., and the surrounding area, really adopt the Masters Tournament as a meaningful, and fun, part of their lives.
A big reason for that is because the Masters really is among the coolest events in the world. And, if you want to make a friend for life, invite a golfing friend to go with you.
Each winter people around Augusta come up with their favorite, or favorites, to win the tournament. Some people base their predictions on a player’s past performance here, some on his success over the last year or so, some because “his game fits the course” or some other profound reasoning that defies objection, and many “because he’s cute.” That last one proves accurate about as often as any of the others.
Also, each year, we at Augusta Magazine try to give our readers a window into which golfers we think have the best chances of wearing a bright new green jacket as the sun fades over Augusta National on another Sunday at the Masters.
It’s an axiom that “the stars of the game win the Masters,” but that doesn’t allow for the unpredicted victories of Danny Willett, Charl Schwartzel, Trevor Immelman, Mike Weir and several others – all excellent players but none pre-tournament favorites.
A better case can be made that multiple Masters winners are drawn from the greatest of the game: Jack Nicklaus (six green jackets), Tiger Woods (four), Arnold Palmer (four), plus three-time winners Sam Snead, Gary Player, Nick Faldo, Phil Mickelson and Jimmy Demaret or the great list of two-time Masters Champions Horton Smith, Byron Nelson, Ben Hogan, Tom Watson, Seve Ballesteros, Bernhard Langer, Ben Crenshaw, Jose Maria Olazabal and Bubba Watson.
There isn’t a name on that list that isn’t either in The World Golf Hall of Fame or on the way there.
We humbly offer 10 names that we proclaim as our Ones to Watch – and because there are just so many great players around the world in these remarkable times, another six players on our Not-so-Dark-Horses list.
There is nothing like the thrill of the chase on the back nine on Sunday at Augusta but for every Tom Watson and Ed Sneed in 1979, there’s an unknown Fuzzy Zoeller and for the world’s top two in 1987, Seve Ballesteros and Greg Norman, there was local hero Larry Mize.
Who’s your Ones to Watch in 2019?
Brooks Koepka became the World No. 1 ranked player in October 2018 when he won the CJ Cup, a PGA Tour event played in South Korea. He shot to the top of the world rankings, with three victories in three of the last seven major championships: The 2017 U.S. Open at Erin Hills in Wisconsin, the 2018 U.S. Open at Shinnecock Hills on Long Island and the 2018 PGA Championship at Bellerive Country Club. Koepka played collegiately at Florida State University before joining the European Challenge Tour and graduating to the European Tour and eventually to the PGA Tour. His total score of 264 in the 2017 U.S. Open tied Rory McIlroy’s all-time lowest score of any major championship in history. In three starts at The Masters his lowest finish is a tie for 11th in 2017. He had to withdraw from the 2018 Masters after wrist surgery. Koepka is sure to use that forced medical withdrawal as motivation to seize the 2019 Masters Tournament as his chance to win four out of eight consecutive major tournaments.
Justin Rose traded the No. 1 and No. 2 world ranking spots with Bruce Koepka five times over six months at the end of 2018 and the start of 2019. He won the 2018 FedEx Cup Playoffs and its $10 million prize. He “rose” to No. 1 after the 2019 Desert Classic in California in January and got a firmer grip on the title by winning the next week at the Farmers Insurance Open at Torrey Pines Golf Course in La Jolla, Calif. He has 10 victories on the PGA Tour, 12 on the European Tour and seven other victories on five other worldwide tours. In 2013, Rose became the first Englishman to win the U.S. Open since Tony Jacklin in 1970 and the first Englishman to win a major since Nick Faldo in the 1996 Masters. Rose won the men’s Olympic Gold Medal in the 2016 Summer Olympics 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. His Masters record is good and getting better with five top-five finishes in 13 tournaments, including a tie for second with Phil Mickelson by two strokes to Jordan Spieth in 2015 and a playoff loss to Sergio Garcia in 2017. Rose just keeps getting better and he keeps getting better here.
Dustin Johnson started 2019 ranked No. 3 in the world after having given up the No. 1 ranking to Brooks Koepka during the fall season of the PGA Tour. Through May 6, 2018, Johnson had held the No. 1 ranking for 64 consecutive weeks, the fifth longest streak in PGA Tour history. He won it back four weeks later by winning the FedEx St. Jude Classic and retained it for another 13 weeks, lost it the next week and got it back a week later. He won the 2016 U.S. Open at Oakmont Country Club after tying for second at both the 2011 and 2015 U.S. Open Championships. He has five World Golf Championships. Johnson has ranked among the top-five longest drivers on the PGA Tour from 2008 through 2015.
With his win in the 2018 Tour opening Tournament of Champions, Johnson became the third player in history to win a Tour title in each of his first 11 seasons, and his victory in Saudi Arabia this February extends that streak to 12, joining Jack Nicklaus (17) and Tiger Woods (14). Johnson has 19 PGA Tour victories. In his last three Masters starts, Johnson finished in ties for sixth, fourth and 10th last year. He was the odds-on tournament favorite the week of the 2017 Masters but a fall on a stairway leaving his residence for a practice round forced him to withdraw. There can be little doubt that he will be among the pre-tournament favorites this year.
Justin Thomas finished 2018 ranked No. 4 in the world based on a brilliant record over the past three years. Thomas came out on the Tour in 2016 and won two tournaments that year. He had a break-out year in 2017 when he won five times on the PGA Tour, a run that included his first major championship, the PGA Championship at Quail Hollow in Charlotte by two shots. At the first tournament of the calendar year, Thomas won the SBS Tournament of Champions and the next week, during the first round of the Sony Open in Hawaii, Thomas became the seventh player in PGA Tour history to shoot a 59 and went on to win the tournament by seven strokes. At the Dell Technologies Championship during the Tour Playoffs he became just the fourth golfer to win five times, including a major, in a PGA Tour season before the age of 25 since 1960, joining Jack Nicklaus, Tiger Woods and Jordan Spieth. After finishing runner-up to Xander Schauffele at the Tour Championship he claimed the FedEx Cup and it’s $10 million prize. Last year Thomas won The Honda Classic in February and the World Golf Championship Bridgestone Invitational in August by four strokes. He reached the World No. 1 ranking for four weeks last year. His best finish in his three Masters Tournaments was a tie for 17th last year.
Jon Rahm, 24, finished the year ranked No. 6 in the world – after earlier having reached No. 2 – and began the new wrap-around season from November through February with six straight top-10 finishes, including a win at the Hero World Challenge in December against an elite field. He followed a fourth-place finish in the 2018 Masters with a win in his home country’s Spanish Open. He also tied for fourth in last year’s PGA Championship. Most everybody loves Spanish golfers for their go-for-broke style of play and their infectious charm on and off the course and Rahm comes from that same Seve Ballesteros kind of mold. Rahm averages almost five birdies per round and usually has one or two rounds in a tournament without a bogey. An ardent Arizona State University sports fan, where he graduated with a degree in communications, Rahm has earned over $12 million in prize money in just over two years of professional golf. He has two wins in Europe and two in the USA. He’s a streaky player, usually following good tournament results with better ones, and he’s hot already this year. When you are rooting for him at Augusta National in April, his nickname is Rahmbo.
Francesco Molinari, 36, was named World Sport Star of 2018 at the BBC Sports Personality of the Year Awards in December, topping an online vote that included U.S. gymnast Simone Biles, Czech skier and snowboarder Ester Ledecka, and Ukrainian boxer Oleksandr Usyk. He became the first golfer to claim the award in 18 years since Tiger Woods in 2000. Molinari made history in 2018 as he became the first Italian major golf championship winner at the 147th Open Championship at Carnoustie, Scotland by two strokes over the impressive runner-up field of Rory McIlroy, Kevin Kisner, Justin Rose and Xander Schauffele. That major win was followed by a flawless Ryder Cup performance in which he became the first ever European player to win five out of five matches – including a singles win over Tiger Woods. He has represented Europe in three winning Ryder Cup Matches, in 2010, 2012 and 2018. Adding to his list of accolades in 2018 was his first ever PGA Tour victory at the Quicken Loans National at TPC Potomac just outside of Washington, D.C., and a win at the European Tour’s flagship BMW PGA Championship, all culminating in his claiming the European Tour’s season long Race to Dubai crown – the European equivalent of the season-long American points championship, The FedEx Cup. He finished the year ranked No. 7 in the world. The Italians are as flamboyant as the Spaniards so look for Francesco to make some noise at the 2019 Masters Tournament.
Northern Ireland’s Rory McIlroy, who will turn 30 in May, finished 2018 ranked No. 8 in the world. The Northern Irishman has come oh-so-close to winning the Masters and needs only a win here to complete his Grand Slam of major golf championships. He won the 2011 U.S Open, (setting a tournament record score of −16, since tied by Brooks Koepka in 2017), the 2012 PGA Championship (with a tournament record margin of 8 strokes), The 2014 Open Championship, and the 2014 PGA Championship, by one stroke over Phil Mickelson. Along with Jack Nicklaus, Tiger Woods and Jordan Spieth he is one of four players to win three majors by the age of 25. He was world No. 1 in the Official World Golf Ranking for 95 weeks around his major championships victory streak. Until now McIlroy has split his time among the world tours but announced late last year that he will concentrate almost full-time on the U.S. PGA Tour. He hasn’t finished worse than a tie for fifth in the last three Open Championships, including a tie for second last year. In Augusta, McIlroy held a one stroke lead standing on the 10th tee of the final round in 2011 but a horrendous back side 43 left him in a tie for 15th. In the last five Masters, McIlroy has finished T8, 4, T10, T7 and T5. He is among the best in every phase of the game, leading the PGA Tour in driving distance in 2018 with a 320 yard average, and he has all the other shots – except a mysteriously balky putter. On the greens McIlroy seems to make all of them or none of them, but he’s the only one in the field playing the Masters to complete a Grand Slam and that will be his motivation here until he wins it.
Tiger Woods is no longer a “ceremonial golfer” as his measuring stick, the great Jack Nicklaus, once described himself at the end of his career. Injuries and personal problems derailed what was on the verge of proving him the greatest golfer in the history of the sport. After several years of injuries, aborted comebacks and disappointing scores, most wags that owned a press pass had written off Tiger’s chances of ever equaling or passing Nicklaus’ gold standard of 18 major championship victories – Tiger has 14. But when he won the Tour Championship in Atlanta at the end of last year, Woods fired a warning shot that his marathon race with Jack is still on. A victory at the 2019 Masters Tournament would give him his fifth here, once again second only to Jack at six. Tiger Woods might be the greatest athlete to ever play Tour level golf, but the strength and creativity of his mind have been rivaled by Nicklaus. The great golfer, and flippant philosopher, Lee Trevino, once said that, “Jack won because he knew he was going to win, and so did everybody else.” Just change the names from Jack to Tiger and you have the stories of the two greatest careers in golf. Jack was 40 when he won his 17th major and 46 when he won his last. Tiger turned 43 in December. If it were anybody else in golf, nobody would be asking the question as to whether he will win the 2019 Masters, let alone win four – or five – more major championships to tie or exceed the uncatchable. But this isn’t “anybody else.” This is Tiger Woods and if his body will hold up, his mind surely will.
Patrick Reed is among the pure talents in the world of golf. Reed, who played the No. 1 spot on the Augusta State University NCAA Division I Golf Championship teams of 2010 and 2011 (with a 6 – 0 record in match play), displayed all that talent when he won the 2018 Masters Tournament on a day when he faced down the likes of Ricky Fowler (by 1 stroke), two-time Masters Champion Jordan Spieth (by 2), budding phenom Jon Rahm (by 4), and having started the day paired with superstar and nemesis Rory McIlroy. What he displayed more than his talent was his remarkable force of will that has been almost visible in several of his most prominent victories. His will to win was never more on display than during the legendary Reed vs. McIlroy epic leadoff singles match in the 2016 Ryder Cup – the leaders of their teams all week and the match both teams needed to win. They produced what many cite as perhaps the greatest nine holes of head-to-head golf ever played. McIlroy was one-up through No. 4 and then made birdie on Nos. 5, 6, 7 and 8 – but was caught by Reed who played the same four holes in eagle-birdie-birdie-birdie. The two were a combined 9-under over four holes. One behind on the 18th, McIlroy stuffed his approach to 10 feet, setting up a putt that would likely send the match to extra holes – a putt he never got to stroke because Reed dropped a longer birdie putt to win the match. That sparked a Sunday route by the American team that ended with a final score of 17 – 11 and the U.S. team taking back the cup. In addition to his victory in the Masters last year, Reed finished fourth at the U.S. Open and he tied for second in the 2017 PGA Championship. Patrick Reed is at his best on the biggest of stages, especially when he feels he has something to prove. Matadors stare into the bull’s eyes to challenge them. Don’t do that to Patrick Reed on a golf course.
Article appears in the April 2019 issue of Augusta Magazine.