The Masters Tournament is serious business at Augusta Magazine, but the tournament itself is about enjoying the week and admiring the world’s greatest golfers. To help our readers size up the field we offer our best estimates of which golfers from around the world are playing at the highest level coming into the tournament and which ones can stand the pressure of “the back nine at Augusta.” For your consideration, and perhaps your office pool, here are our 2015 Ones To Watch.
In four starts at the Masters, Jason Day, a 27-year-old Australian, tied for second in 2011 and was third in 2013. He also has three high finishes in his four U.S. Opens: a second in 2011, a tie for second in 2013 and a tie for fourth last year. After making birdie on the 72nd hole in the 2011 Masters, Day was tied with fellow Aussie Adam Scott as they both prepared for a playoff. That was before Charl Schwartzel made birdie on the last four holes to win by two. He also finished second in the 2011 U.S. Open and tied for second there again in 2013. On the PGA Tour, Day has a 2010 victory at the HP Byron Nelson Championship and a February 2014 win for his first World Golf Championship tournament at the Accenture Match Play Championship. Day finished 2014 as No. 8 in the World Golf Rankings. Day seems to thrive on two things: the Masters and rollicking multiple contender finishes. Day has been in the middle of the fray on Sunday in Augusta and several other important tournaments and has always responded with great play. A man of considerable confidence, he is sure to believe he can prevail at the Masters this year.
The 2010 PGA Tour Rookie of the Year, Rickie Fowler has been “the next big thing” for several years now and has come very close to breaking through into the top echelon of world golf. Fowler tied for fifth at the 2014 Masters in what proved to be a warm-up for his major finishes. He tied for second at both the U.S. Open at Pinehurst, N.C., and in the (British) Open Championship at Royal Liverpool. In the lead much of the day, Fowler played very well in a thrilling duel with Phil Mickelson and Rory McIlroy at the PGA Championship before finishing third as yet another victim of the Irishman’s stunning season-ending run. Fowler is only the third player behind Jack Nicklaus and Tiger Woods to have finished in the top 5 in all four majors in one calendar year, but is also the only one of the three not to win one of them. Fowler finished 2014 as No. 10 in the World Golf Rankings. His talent and composure are not in question. That combination could well net Rickie Fowler a major championship soon.
Getting hot on the PGA Tour will win you a lot of money. Getting hot in the last four playoff tournaments will make you rich. Billy Horschel had 14 top-10 finishes over the past two years, including winning the 2014 BMW Championship, the Tour Championship the following week and with it the FedEx Cup. Horschel banked a hefty check for finishing tied for second during the second of four tournaments in the PGA Tour Playoffs at the Deustsche Bank Classic in Boston in September. The next week he won $1,440,000 by winning the third event, the BMW Championship at Lake Forest, Ill., and then another $1,440,000 by winning a final event at the Tour Championship at East Lake G.C. in Atlanta. Those finishes gave Horschel the points to win the season-long FedEx Cup and its $10 million prize. That was about $14 million in three weeks. His wife said she was very happy. The wins also earned him the No. 13 spot on the World Golf Rankings. Two days after the Tour Championship, Horschel became a father for the first time and the whole family was very happy. Horschel was unbeatable at the end of the PGA Tour schedule last year. Can he get that hot again at the Masters near the beginning of this year?
The World No. 1 needs only the Masters to complete his career Grand Slam of the four major golf tournaments. Already in 2015 his final round, bogey-free 66 left him one stroke out of a playoff with Frenchman Gary Stal at Abu Dabi in January and he won the Omega Dubai Desert Classic on February 1. At that point, McIlroy’s last seven finishes on the European Tour were 1-1-1-2-2-2-1. The 25-year-old from Northern Ireland had a world-class year in 2014, winning both the (British) Open Championship and his second PGA Championship. Those two major wins compliment his 2011 U.S. Open victory, where he set a record score of 16-under-par on his way to an eight-stroke victory and his first PGA win in 2012 at Kiawah Island’s Ocean Course. In 2012, at the age of 23, McIlroy won four times in the U.S. and twice in Europe, won the money list on both continents and was voted Player of the Year by his peers on both sides of the Atlantic. Those record scores come with a personality and a pair of smiling Irish eyes that the galleries can’t resist. It’s fun to have a dominant player again, especially one who seems to be enjoying himself out there. McIlroy is in great form early already this year. And that form is to knock the ball farther and straighter off the tee than anybody ever has and then to display a short game as masterful as his drives. Since the Masters is played on the course that everyone feels is made for him, McIlroy is the odds-on favorite coming into the Masters this year.
The beloved three-time Masters champion had a significantly off-year in 2014 and early 2015 has not seen him improve his game. Mickelson tied for 24th in his first tournament of 2015 at the Humana Challenge in La Quinta, Calif., and missed the cut in his second, the Waste Management Phoenix Open. Mickelson hasn’t won since the 2013 (British) Open Championship. Mickelson led the 2013 U.S. Open after three rounds but lost to Justin Rose by two strokes. It was his sixth runner-up finish at the U.S. Open, an event record he would surely rather not have. After the round, Mickelson called the loss heartbreaking. But just when nobody expected it, including Mickelson, a month later he won the (British) Open at Muirfield in Scotland. MIckelson’s modern American-style game is thought not to be suited to British golf that is played low, out of the wind and even along the ground. But four birdies over the last six holes gave him a three-stroke finish and, before he knew it, he was holding the famed claret jug trophy, symbol of his fifth major championship victory. Now he lacks only the U.S. Open to fill out his career Grand Slam. Mickelson has 42 wins on the PGA Tour and is already a member of the World Golf Hall of Fame. In the 12 Masters Tournaments from 1999 through 2010, Mickelson posted 11 top-10 finishes, including his three victories—2004, 2006 and 2010. In the mold of Arnold Palmer, Mickelson thrills the galleries with his daredevil shots that either win it for him or doom him to another second place finish. His “go-for-broke” attitude has won him the hearts of the Augusta galleries, even if it has probably lost him a couple of green jackets. There is nothing more exciting than when Mickelson is making birdies (and eagles) on the back nine on Sunday in Augusta.
Justin Rose won twice in 2014 on the PGA Tour, at the Quicken Loans National in June and two weeks later at the Scottish Open. Those were nice wins, but they can’t compare with his victory in the 2013 U.S. Open Championship at famed Merion Golf Club near Philadelphia. When it seemed that everyone thought Phil Mickelson would finally win his elusive U.S. Open Championship, the 32-year-old (at the time) Englishman hit the kind of precise long iron shots and sank the crucial putts it takes to win the hardest of the majors. He became the first Englishman to win the American Open since the great European leader Tony Jacklin did it in 1970, 10 years before Rose was born. Everyone predicted great things for Rose since his dramatic hole-out for a tie for fourth place at the Open Championship at the age of 18, but his first major was a long time coming. He won the WGC-Cadillac Championship in 2012 and, when he finished second to Tiger Woods in the 2013 Arnold Palmer Invitational, he reached to No. 3 in the World Rankings. Rose has become a consummate professional and a scourge to American players in their Ryder Cup defeats. He has never missed a cut in nine Masters Tournaments and has two top-10 finishes here, including a tie for eighth in 2012. Another near perfect back nine like he displayed at Merion might earn Rose a second major championship.
Ranked No. 3 in the World when he won the 2013 Masters Tournament, Adam Scott comes to Augusta this year in the same spot in the world and with every chance of winning again. His victory two years ago was especially significant because it made him the first Australian to win the Masters, a country that ranks behind only the U.S. and Great Britain for golfing success over the professional era of the last century. Scott finished tied for second here in 2011 and tied for eighth in 2012 before a triumph for himself and his country in 2013. With the typical exciting Masters finish, Scott put together back-to-back 3-under 69s on the weekend at the 2013 Masters, including a birdie on the 72nd hole. That birdie was matched by Angel Cabrera, forcing a playoff with the Argentine. Scott won with birdie on No. 10. Between them they earned 74 birdies during the week. His victory was the continuation of Scott’s great play over several years. Following the Masters win, he had top-five finishes in two other majors and won the Barclays as part of the FedEx Cup PGA Tour Playoffs. He then went home to win the Australian PGA Championship and the Australian Masters. In what was reported to be a close vote, and even though Tiger Woods had five wins in America compared with Scott’s two, the members of the PGA Tour voted Scott as their 2013 Player of the Year. He earned the No. 1 World Ranking in May of 2014 before ceding it to Rory McIlroy in August. There is no weak spot in Scott’s game—at least until the PGA Tour’s ban keeps him from using his long putter. He has 13 top-10 finishes in major championships but only one victory. When he is playing well, Adam Scott can win anywhere.
Rookies are supposed to wait their turn and put in a few years learning the greens at Augusta National. Then 20-year-old Texan Jordan Spieth skipped all that and held the lead by two strokes through the seventh hole on Sunday at the 2014 Masters Tournament. Playing in the final group with Bubba Watson, Spieth lost his two-stroke lead when he made bogey at both Nos. 8 and 9 while Watson made birdie at both. Spieth could never challenge the lead on the back nine and finished tied for second in a nice debut appearance here. Spieth has won at every level of competition from high school through junior golf, as an amateur and now in 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 2013 and he played for Captain Tom Watson on the 2014 U.S. Ryder Cup Team. In November 2014, he won the Emirates Australian Open by six strokes. Perhaps he was just born calm, but Spieth seems to have a steady presence about him on the golf course, especially for a player so young. But young people are winning important tournaments around the world and 2015 could be the year for Jordan Spieth’s first major championship victory.
Once the terror of the fairways, Tiger Woods has been beset by injuries and personal challenges in the past few years. But who would we be to say that the Tiger might not prowl again? Woods did not play in the Masters last year for the first time since 1994, primarily because of back surgery a few weeks before the tournament. At press time, Woods has played in only two tournaments year. He missed the cut by 12 shots after a 73–82–255 at the Phoenix Open on January 30 and withdrew after 11 holes at Torrey Pines, Calif., his favorite course since childhood, with “tightness” in his back. He said it was not related to the surgery he had last spring. He was No. 70 in the World Golf Rankings thus not eligible to play in the World Golf Championship at Doral in March. Woods said in mid-February his game was not acceptable for tournament golf and that he would not play again until he felt like it was. He won five times on the 2013 PGA Tour, but his last victory in a major tournament was the 2008 U.S. Open Championship and his last Masters victory was a decade ago in 2005. It wasn’t so long ago that every other golfer feared to play against Woods and he seemed to be able to will himself to win. Now at 39, whether he’ll win four more major titles in his career to tie the legendary Jack Nicklaus is probably more a factor of will than ability. There was a time when Tiger Woods pulled off the dramatic shots when he needed them and made all the crucial putts. When he does again, he will win again.
It would be hard to find a more popular figure with the fans in Augusta than Bubba Watson, now wearing his second green jacket for his Masters victory last year, following his first in 2012. He’s just as daring and even longer off the tee than Phil Mickelson, plus Watson is from, where else with that name, the South—and he’s a former Georgia Bulldog! Watson fashioned a spectacular playoff victory here in 2012 over South African Louis Oosthuizen. That final round included two of the greatest shots in all of the Masters’ 76-year history. Oosthuizen made double-eagle two on the par-5 second hole. On the second playoff hole, Watson put on a left-handed hook shot out of the trees the likes of which no one has ever seen, incredibly setting up the winning birdie putt. He went the next 41 tournaments without a victory, even making two late bogeys at Phoenix on February 2 in 2014 to give way to Kevin Stadler by one stroke. But he pulled off a great win at the Northern Trust Open on the classic Riviera C.C. in Los Angeles in February of 2014 and had two other high finishes to revive his outlook coming into the 2014 Masters. This lefty is another natural at Augusta National and another victory by Watson would be a gift for his galleries and put him in rarified company on the list of multiple Masters winners with Jimmy Demerit, Gary Player, Sam Snead, Nick Faldo and Phil Mickelson with three
Most folks can pick a favorite out of a list of the game’s big stars, but who was thinking about Charl Schwartzel to win the Masters in 2011 or Angel Cabrera in 2009? For every Arnold Palmer or Ben Hogan who wins here there’s a George Archer or a Trevor Immelman, nobody saw coming. The real fun is picking a not-yet-famous player to win one who then goes on to build on his Masters victory and grabs for himself a place among the game’s best. For example, Tom Watson was no favorite coming into the 1977 Masters. He had won a British Open two years earlier, but this was the first time Watson took on the great Jack Nicklaus coming down the stretch. He beat the Golden Bear. Watson then went on to make a habit of it, winning the admiration of the world of golf.
So for those of you who prefer to root for the underdog, here’s our list of 2015 Not-So-Dark-Horses.
With a breakout year in 2014, Frenchman Victor Dubuisson is a match-play star and a rising threat tobecome a factor on the European PGA Tour. Dubuisson lost in a playoff to Jason Day in the WGC Accenture Match Play in February 2014 and finished tied for fifth at the Volvo World Match Play last October. He had top-10 finishes in both last year’s (British) Open Championship and PGA Championship. Last November Dubuisson tied for second with Rory McIlroy and Justin Rose, two strokes behind winner Henrik Stenson at the DP World Championship-Dubai, and followed that up with a tie for fourth at the Abu Dhabi HSB Golf Championship in January. Dubuisson also exhibited a nearly perfect putting stroke as a rookie helping lift the European Ryder Cup Team to victory. Whenever the U.S. seemed sure to finally win a hole, Dubuisson would sink yet another long putt or drop another unlikely chip shot. The soft spoken Dubuisson is a true dark horse for his first year here. He’s a dark horse who can putt and that can go a long way at Augusta National.
In 2014, German golfer Martin Kaymer won the U.S. Open at Pinehurst by eight strokes and also took home the Players Championship trophy. He won the PGA Championship in 2010. Kaymer sank a putt on the 18th hole on the final day of the Ryder Cup in 2012, which successfully overturned a four-point deficit to the United States at the start of the final day’s play and retained the cup for Europe. Kaymer finished the year ranked No. 12 in the World Golf Rankings and has been rated as high as No. 3. When he wins, Kaymer often runs away from the field, something that has been done a few times at the Masters.
Dark Horse Chris Kirk broke through the gate last year with a win during the PGA Tour playoffs at the Deustsche Bank Classic and a T4 in the Tour Championship. He is on his way to his second Masters after finishing 2014 at No. 20 in the World Golf Rankings. Kirk won his first PGA Tour event in 2011, the Viking Classic, and got his second in the 2013 McGladrey Classic, qualifying him for his first Masters last year. Kirk’s win at the Deutsche Bank Championship in Boston jumped him from 17 in FedEx Cup rankings to first, but he was passed in the next two weeks by the streaking Billy Horschel. Kirk was born in Knoxville but grew up in Woodstock, Ga. He played college golf at the University of Georgia and was a member of the 2005 NCAA Division I Men’s Golf Championship team along with Kevin Kisner, Richard Scott and Brendon Todd. Just being a winning Dawg should be enough to make him very popular in Augusta in April.
Already in 2015, the popular Matt Kuchar has tied for third at the Sony Open in Hawaii and tied for second at the Humana Challenge in back-to-back weeks this past January. He tied for fifth at the 2013 Masters and tied for third here in 2012. Kuchar has had several memorable Masters experiences. Masters fans remember him as the always smiling Low Amateur in the 1998 Masters at the age of 19 and a student at Georgia Tech. He has finished tied for third, eighth and fifth in the last three Masters tournaments. In 2013, Kuchar won his seventh PGA Tour event at the RBC Heritage at Harbor Town in Hilton Head, S.C., shooting a final round 64, including a chip-in birdie from a bunker on the 18th hole to come from four shots behind to take a one-stroke victory. That same year he won the Accenture Match Play and Jack Nicklaus’ Memorial tournament. Flashing that brilliant smile, Kuchar was the PGA Tour’s leading money winner in 2010 and won the 2012 Players Championship. Kuchar would make a very welcome winner at the Masters.
It might be a stretch to call Henrik Stenson a dark horse since he finished last year ranked No. 2 in the world. He does most of his best work in Europe, but Stenson did tie for second at the 2014 U.S. Open and a few weeks later tied for third at the PGA Championship. He next took down a big one overseas, winning the DP World Tour Championship-Dubai (for the second year in a row) by two strokes over Rory McIlroy and Justin Rose. He also won the U.S. Tour Championship and the Deutsche Bank Championship during the PGA Tour playoffs in 2013. That year he won the year-end championships in both Europe and the U.S. and the yearlong points championships on both tours, the first golfer to run both tables. Both from Sweden, he and his wife Emma, a former member of the University of South Carolina Golf Team, live in Lake Nona (Orlando) with their three young children. Stenson has to be figured a threat in any golf championship.
This article appears in the Masters 2015 issue of Augusta Magazine.