2018 Masters: 10 golfers to watch at Augusta

Tiger Woods, Justin Thomas, Rory McIlroy will be paired together at the 2018 Genesis Open. Getty Images

2018 Masters: 10 golfers to watch at Augusta

Professional

2018 Masters: 10 golfers to watch at Augusta

Here are 10 players to watch for the 2018 Masters, which will be held at Augusta National from April 5-8:

JERSEY CITY, NJ - SEPTEMBER 30: Jordan Spieth of the U.S. Team reacts on the 12th green during Saturday four-ball matches of the Presidents Cup at Liberty National Golf Club on September 30, 2017 in Jersey City, New Jersey. (Photo by Sam Greenwood/Getty Images)

Sam Greenwood/Getty Images

10. Jordan Spieth

OWGR: 4
Best Masters finish: 1 (2015)
Last three Masters: 1, 2, T-11
So far this year: No wins and battling the putter, but consistency of effort remains strong and he left Riviera (T-9) feeling bullish about his game. In the top 20 in five of six early 2017-18 starts and three top 10s.
Why he could win: Had his worst Masters finish last year and still was in the second to last group with a chance to win Sunday. Iron play had been strong until the WGC-Del Technologies Match Play where he struggled. But Spieth’s passion for the course, attention to detail and confidence when he arrives in Augusta makes him dangerous, especially if he can whittle down the “checklist” of thoughts on the greens.
Holding him back: Putting. The flatstick has been Spieth’s only early season issue and the numbers on short putts were dreadful (172nd in strokes gained putting). If those struggles come with him to Augusta National, where the putter was just so-so in 2017, he’s in trouble. But there’s a good bet the reigning British Open champion finds something on the greens and relishes not being a favorite coming in.


Dustin Johnson-Masters-Back injury-PGA Tour-Wells Fargo Classic

Michael Madrid-USA TODAY Sports

9. Dustin Johnson

OWGR: 1
Best Masters finish: T-4 (2016)
Last three Masters: T-6, T-4, WD
So far this year: Won the Sentry TOC at Kapalua in dominant fashion, finished second at Pebble Beach and has cooled off a bit since, though he did post a strong 64 at Riviera and a T-7 in Mexico City.
Why he could win: Was the overwhelming favorite last year before slipping on hardwood floor stairs and hurting his back. Johnson is healthy now, his overall game is as strong as ever, he’s surrounded by a strong team that keeps his schedule sane and, best of all, they have rented him a one-story house this year.
Holding him back: Mediocre wedge approach play, a vital component for someone who hits the ball as long as Johnson does. He’s currently 62nd in strokes gained approach-the-green. Putting has been improving, so any tightening up of approach-shot precision should get him in contention.


NEW YORK, NY - APRIL 10: Sergio Garcia of Spain takes a selfie with fans outside of the New York Stock Exchange (NYSE) a day after winning the 81st Masters tournament during the Master's winner media tour throughout New York City on April 10, 2017 in New York City, New York. (Photo by Stan Badz/PGA TOUR)

Stan Badz/PGA TOUR

8. Sergio Garcia

OWGR: 9
Best Masters finish: 1 (2017)
Last three Masters: T-17, T-34, 1
So far this year: Singapore Open win squelched any concerns about equipment switch from TaylorMade to Callaway. Last fall won the Andalucia Valderrama Masters in Spain after post-Masters lull, finished T-7 in Mexico City, fourth at the Valspar and won four matches in Austin.
Why he could win: Defending champion seems to be happier than ever after marriage and a child on the way. His ability to figure out the greens at Augusta National last year bodes well for repeat success. Appeared to have figured out new ways to attack a course that sometimes gave him fits.
Holding him back: Luck of the draw? Distractions due to fatherhood? Stressing over the Champions Dinner menu? There isn’t much to find fault with for Garcia as he does not appear to have lost a step. His short game stats through the match play suggest he needs to tighten things up around the greens, though. And he did admit to pressing a bit in the months after his Masters win. But those days seem behind him, making a strong title defense likely.


Feb 15, 2018; Pacific Palisades, CA, USA; Rory McIlroy reacts after teeing off the 12th hole during the first round of the Genesis Open golf tournament at Riviera Country Club. Mandatory Credit: Orlando Ramirez-USA TODAY Sports

Orlando Ramirez-USA TODAY Sports

7. Rory McIlroy

OWGR: 7
Best Masters finish: 4 (2015)
Last three Masters: 4, T-8, T-7
So far this year: Strong start in Europe with a T-3 in Abu Dhabi, second place in Dubai but came to life with a resounding Honda Classic win.
Why he could win: Power, confidence, maturity and desire to join the career Grand Slam club has his busier-than-normal pre-Masters schedule finally paying off with the Honda performance. Lackluster match play doesn’t mean much as Augusta is the centerpiece of his year. When the course is rain-softened, few other players can overpower the lengthened ANGC like McIlroy. Driving the ball beautifully and his draw shot shape is still preferred off the Augusta National tees.
Holding him back: Putting inconsistency is concern at a course that demands touch, but a putting consultation with Brad Faxon seems to have taken what were solid fundamentals and steered him away from getting too mechanical. McIlroy avoided the big number in last year’s T-7, but in the ’14 and ’16 Masters, posted 77s that took him out of the hunt. Also needs to tighten up approach play (93rd in strokes gained).


Feb 3, 2018; Scottsdale, AZ, USA; Rickie Fowler hits his tee shot on the 10th hole during the third round of the Waste Management Phoenix Open golf tournament at TPC Scottsdale. Mandatory Credit: Allan Henry-USA TODAY Sports

Allan Henry/USA TODAY Sports

6. Rickie Fowler

OWGR: 8
Best Masters finish: T-5 (2014)
Last three Masters: T-12, MC, T-11
So far this year: Solid and steady start with a second-place finish in his return at Mayakoba, a win at the Hero World and T-4 at Kapalua along with MCs at the Farmers and Honda. He doesn’t get enough credit for his consistency (at least when you throw out his play at Torrey Pines). A T-14 at the Arnold Palmer showed some signs of life but contending in Houston would make his prospects brighter.
Why he could win: The 29-year-old is entering his peak years and while he faces questions about sealing the deal on Sundays, Fowler’s still a young player by modern standards and has that Players win to remind us he has can perform under pressure. Early season stats show his short game is as good as anyone’s. Was in the second to last group at Augusta last year and led field in putting.
Holding him back: Final-round 76 that included bogeys at the last three holes in 2017 helped fuel narrative that he has trouble on Sundays. Hit just 38/72 greens for the week and still contended. Ballstriking has been stellar this year, but needs to get the putter going. Fowler is currently 127th in strokes gained putting.


Justin Rose of England gestures for people to move from his line of sight during the final round of the 2017 WGC-HSBC Champions golf tournament held at the Sheshan International Golf Club in Shanghai, China, Sunday, Oct. 29, 2017. Justin Rose took advantage of a record-tying collapse by Dustin Johnson and rallied from eight shots behind to win the HSBC Champions.(AP Photo/Ng Han Guan)

Ng Han Guan/AP Photo

5. Justin Rose

OWGR: 5
Best Masters finish: 2 (2015, 2017)
Last three Masters: T-2, T-14, 2
So far this year: Has followed his strong fall — a win at the WGC-HSBC Champions in Shanghai — with top 10s on the PGA Tour at the Farmers (T-8), API (3) and Valspar (T-5). Seems like all systems go with no side effects from last year’s heartbreaking Masters defeat.
Why he could win: Was as good as Garcia in every way last year and only lost in sudden-death. Veteran has many solid Augusta memories and is as good as any player at building his season around the majors. Has a stable team, low drama in his approach and all the makings of a winner in Georgia.
Holding him back: Theoretically the putter, but Rose is currently fifth in strokes gained and has been let down by iron play and scrambling around the greens in 2018. He still has the power (308.1 avg. in ’18) and overall wisdom to deal with Augusta and a well-stated belief that a green jacket is in his future. He was one swing away from wearing one last year and seems primed to repeat the effort.


LAHAINA, HI - JANUARY 04: Justin Thomas of the United States reacts during the first round of the Sentry Tournament of Champions at Plantation Course at Kapalua Golf Club on January 4, 2018 in Lahaina, Hawaii. (Photo by Sam Greenwood/Getty Images)

Sam Greenwood/Getty Images

4. Justin Thomas

OWGR: 2
Best Masters finish: T-14 (2014)
Last three Masters: T-19, T1-4, T-22
So far this year: After brilliant fall nibbled around the edges early in the season before breaking through with a Honda Classic win, second at the WGC-Mexico City and semifinal performance at the WGC-Dell Match Play.
Why he could win: The PGA champion has never been outside of the top 25 at the Masters, but he’s also never been better than T-19. With a major on his resume, seems poised to take things to another level. Has distance and putting prowess that bodes well for success at Augusta National.
Holding him back: Struggled hitting greens over the weekend after strong start in 2017. Otherwise there is little to fault in his Masters record or in his early season stats except maybe needing to chip a bit better. He’s shown maturity and overall prowess which, combined with course familiarity, will allow him to take things to the next level.


AUSTIN, TX - MARCH 25: Bubba Watson of the United States reacts to his birdie on the first green during his final round match against Kevin Kisner of the United States in the World Golf Championships-Dell Match Play at Austin Country Club on March 25, 2018 in Austin, Texas. (Photo by Gregory Shamus/Getty Images)

Gregory Shamus/Getty Images

3. Bubba Watson

OWGR: 21
Best Masters finish: 1 (2012, 2014)
Last three Masters: T-38, T-37, MC
So far this year: A third win at Riviera propelled Watson back into the limelight and Masters contention given that he won on the West Coast in 2014 before going on to capture his second green jacket. Add the WGC-Dell Match Play win — that looked downright effortless, and it’s clear Bubba is back.
Why he could win: Power, creativity and an affinity for the golf course are enough to propel Watson when he’s in the right frame of mind. Physical issues that he won’t detail seem to be resolved after he lost weight and confidence. Putter came alive at Riviera.
Holding him back: Frame of mind coming into the week, wedge play when he misses greens. Watson can get easily annoyed and his comments are worthy of monitoring. But returning to his favorite place in golf, he embraces all things Augusta National, starting with Sunday’s Drive, Chip and Putt where he always participates in the trophy ceremony. A happy, focused Bubba is still better than just about any player on the grounds during Masters week, even if he’s currently a woeful 205th in strokes gained around-the-green.


MEXICO CITY, MEXICO - MARCH 04: Phil Mickelson gives a thumb up to fans as he holds the Gene Sarazen Cup after winning the World Golf Championships-Mexico Championship on a playoff hole at Club De Golf Chapultepec on March 4, 2018 in Mexico City, Mexico. (Photo by Rob Carr/Getty Images)

Rob Carr/Getty Images

2. Phil Mickelson

OWGR: 18
Best Masters finish: 1 (2004, 2006, 2010)
Last three Masters: T-2, MC, T-22
So far this year: Scored his first of three straight top 10s on the West Coast Swing and notched his first tournament win since the 2013 British Open, taking the WGC-Mexico City in sudden death over Justin Thomas.
Why he could win: Three-time champion is 47, still has power and a strong short game, currently second on the Tour’s list of strokes gained putters. His ability to rise to the occasion when seemingly lost — see last year’s Presidents Cup — always makes him dangerous at Augusta National. He nearly won here in 2015 and The British Open in 2016, so he still can handle majors. Has also appeared to repair the approach-play issues that have plagued him in recent years (fourth in strokes gained).
Holding him back: A resurfacing of the odd mood Mickelson displayed at the match play that he called whiney. The winless drought, bad iron play and overanalysis of his swing appears behind him. He has the “W” that was essential in his mind and must be considered a favorite.


AUGUSTA, UNITED STATES: US golfer Tiger Woods (R) is awarded his green jacket by 2004 champion Phil Mickelson of the US at the 2005 Masters Golf Tournament Championship 10 April 2005 at the Augusta National Golf Club in Augusta, Ga. Woods claimed his 4th Masters title by defeating fellow American Chris DiMarco in a one-hole playoff. AFP PHOTO/Roberto SCHMIDT (Photo credit should read ROBERTO SCHMIDT/AFP/Getty Images)

ROBERTO SCHMIDT/AFP/Getty Images (2005)

1. Tiger Woods

OWGR: 104
Best Masters finish: 1 (1997, 2001, 2002, 2005)
Last three Masters: T-40 (’12), T-4 (’13), T-17 (’15)
So far this year: Understandably erratic debut at Torrey Pines, missed cut at Riviera, finished 12th at the Honda Classic then posted strong weeks at Valspar (T-2) and the Arnold Palmer Invitational (T-5).
Why he could win: Four-time champion’s greatest feat may be the T-4s in 2010 and 2013 in starts off layoffs, reinforcing what special ties he has with the course even when he’s rusty. Power is back, as is the short game. Chipping yip discussion is over and nerves do not appear affected by age.
Holding him back: Tee shots. The distance is back but the accuracy has still been problematic as he buttons up all other parts of his game statistically. There will be the wayward drives off the first tee and a few other headscratchers, but such erratic tee shot accuracy is also not fatal if Tiger feels he can overpower the par-5s again. His local knowledge and recall of great moments here has to be a confidence booster.

(Note: A version of this list ran in the April 2017 issue of Golfweek.)

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