By Stephen Delaney Hale | Photos provided by The Augusta Chronicle
Here are some notable players who have the game to win anywhere.
World rankings as of the last week of 2019
Francesco Molinari | World Golf Ranking 18
Francesco Molinari, 37, is the only Italian to win a major championship – the 2018 Open Championship. He has come close other times, including a tie for second in the 2017 PGA Championship and a tie for fifth last year at The Masters.
At the 2018 Open, Molinari won with a score of 8 under, two strokes ahead of multiple major champion Rory McIlroy, former U.S. Open champion Justin Rose and PGA Tour winners Kevin Kisner and Xander Schauffele. Molinari began the day alone in fifth place at 6 under, three shots behind Kisner, Schauffele and Jordan Spieth. In fourth place was Kevin Chappell at 7 under. Six players were tied in sixth place at 5 under, including McIlroy and Tiger Woods. For the final round, Molinari was paired with Woods two groups ahead of the leaders. Molinari began with 13 straight pars, was the only golfer among the leaders who never made a bogey all day, and pulled ahead with birdies at Nos. 14 and 18. The win at the Open Championship moved him to sixth place in the world golf ranking, the highest in his career to date.
In September 2018, Molinari qualified for the European team participating in the 2018 Ryder Cup. Europe defeated the U.S. team 17½ to 10½. Molinari became the first player to go 5-0-0. He famously paired with Tommy Fleetwood to win all four of their fourball and foursome matches. He also won his singles match against Phil Mickelson.
In November 2018, Molinari won the season-long Race to Dubai title on the European Tour, a victory worth $1.25 million. He was named the European Player of the Year, and in December, the Italian received the 2018 BBC World Sport Star of the Year award, a major annual distinction in Europe. He is the first Italian to be so honored. In March 2019, Molinari won the Arnold Palmer Invitational for his third PGA Tour victory. In April 2019, Molinari was the 54-hole leader at the Masters at 13 under, two strokes clear of Tony Finau and Woods, after a 6-under 66 in the third round. Molinari held the lead for two-thirds of the final round, until he reached the par-3 12th hole, where his tee shot found the water, resulting in a double bogey. He found the water again on the 15th, which led to another double bogey to fall out of contention. He finished with a round of 74 and tied for fifth place, his best performance at the Masters. He has six European Tour wins, two more on the PGA Tour, and wins at the 2009 Italian PGA Championship and the Omega Mission Hills World Cup with his brother, Edoardo Molinari.
Phil Mickelson | World Golf Ranking 70
Masters fans don’t give up their heroes easily, and they don’t want to let go of Phil Mickelson, 49. “Phil the Thrill,” also nicknamed Lefty, has won five major championships, including the Masters in 2004, 2006 and 2010. He won The Open Championship in 2013 and the 2008 PGA Championship. He has won 44 events on the PGA Tour and three more in Europe, and he is one of 12 players in the history of golf to win three of the four majors.
Although he had fallen to No. 70 in the world rankings by the end of 2019, the 6-foot-3 natural athlete is known for mastering every part of the game. Part of his allure is his fearlessness, always going not just for the green but for the flag, reminiscent of the style of Augusta’s all-time favorite, four-time champion Arnold Palmer.
He has a dashing persona, somewhat like Palmer, that creates a connection with the people who cheer him on. In 12 Masters starts from 1999 through 2010, Mickelson made 11 cuts, won three times, was third three times and finished fifth twice. He also finished second to Jordan Spieth in 2015.
Mickelson has won this year, at the classic AT&T Pebble Beach Pro-Am, and he has two third-place finishes early this year, moving up from 70th to 55th on the world golf ranking. He is trying to qualify for the U.S. Open and another shot at winning the Grand Slam. Mickelson has finished second at the U.S. Open six times but has never won it – the only link in the Grand Slam he doesn’t have.
Mickelson has said that he would not accept a special invitation if he does not qualify. The U.S. Golf Association, the tournament’s governing body, has granted a special exemption 52 times since 1966. But Mickelson has been adamant in recent interviews that he could not accept a victory that “was given to him.” There are still ways left to qualify, and one of them is to win the 2020 Masters Tournament.
Xander Schauffele | World Golf Ranking 9
Still not a household name, perhaps because most people would be unable to spell it, Xander Schauffele, 26, has been among the best players in the world in the last three years and has risen to No. 9 in the WGR.
Second in the 2019 Masters, a stroke behind winner Tiger Woods and tied with Dustin Johnson and Brooks Koepka, Schauffele has had several good finishes in major tournaments in his short career. In 11 career major starts, Schauffele has finished in a tie for sixth or better five times, including in all three of his U.S. Open starts, and he has been second in the Masters and tied for second in the 2018 Open Championship with Rory McIlroy, Justin Rose and Kevin Kisner, two strokes behind winner Francesco Molinari. He also tied for second at the 2018 Players Championship with Jimmy Walker and Charl Schwartzel, four strokes behind winner Webb Simpson. He finished second three more times, at the 2019 Tour Championship, the WGC-HSBC Championship and at the Sentry Tournament of Champions in January.
Schauffele is young, talented and ready to show the world what he can do. He almost got it done here last year. Perhaps this is his year.
Jason Day | World Golf Ranking 37
Where has Jason Day been? That is one of the most common questions among golf fans in the past couple of years. For a decade, Day, 32, was a mainstay of the International Team in the Presidents Cup and a regular presence in important tournaments around the world, but he has been without a win since the Wells Fargo Championship in May 2018.
Day addressed the problem in May 2019, saying he has been dealing with chronic back problems that seem to be generated by a misalignment of his ribs and back. With two weeks before play began at the 2019 Presidents Cup at Royal Melbourne late last fall, Day informed team captain Ernie Els that he could not play due to a back injury.
“Frustratingly, I’ve been through back problems before, and my medical team decided it best to shut down all practice and play,” he said.
Day was a familiar threat in major championships and won several PGA Tour tournaments from 2011 through 2016 and steadily rose up the world golf rankings. He won the 2015 PGA Championship with 68-67-66-67 to defeat Jordan Spieth by three shots. That set a new record, making Day the first player to finish at 20-under par in a major championship. Later that year, Day won The Barclays and the BMW Championship in the Tour playoffs, which brought him his first world No. 1 ranking, but he soon surrendered it to Spieth.
Day is staging his comeback with several encouraging showings in 2019, including a tie for fifth at The Farmers Insurance Open, a tie for fourth the next week at the AT&T Pebble Beach Pro-Am, a tie for eighth at both The Players and the Travelers Championship and his tie for fifth at the Masters. He had a fourth-place finish at Pebble Beach in February.
He has four top-10 finishes at the Masters, including a tie for second in 2011, third place in 2013 and a tie for fifth last year, two shots behind Woods. His play at Pebble Beach was reminiscent of his game form that placed him among the best in the world in the last decade.
Rickie Fowler | World Golf Ranking 23
Rickie Fowler, 31, formerly a factor in seemingly every tournament and consistently among the most popular figures on tour, has fallen to No. 23 in the world. But he is showing recent signs of his former form.
Fowler’s last victory on Tour was in February 2019 at the wild and woolly Waste Management Phoenix Open, where he was a superstar among the millennial crowd. Two tournaments later, Fowler posted a second place at the Honda Classic, lifting him to No. 7 in the world rankings. He had reached a career high of fourth in the rankings in January 2016 after his victory in the Abu Dhabi HSBC Golf Championship.
Fowler has five wins on Tour, including two very important wins in 2015 at The Players Championship and in the Deutsche Bank Open during the playoffs. He has 11 top-10 finishes in 40 starts in major championships, including two last year: a tie for ninth at the Masters and a tie for sixth at The Open Championship at Royal Portrush in Northern Ireland. Two years ago, he was the obvious gallery favorite as he finished second at the Masters to Patrick Reed. He has had five ties for ninth or better in major championships in the past three years. Fowler has been a popular favorite since he won Rookie of the Year on the PGA Tour in 2010, especially among the younger fans. Wherever he plays, youths come out dressed in his trademark orange outfits and follow his group all day.
All of this points to a crowd favorite whose game is returning. You’ll have a lot of other patrons cheering with you if Fowler is your pick to win the 2020 Masters Tournament.
Article appears in the April 2021 issue of Augusta Magazine.