Ones to Watch Masters 2020

By Stephen Delaney Hale  |  Photos provided by The Augusta Chronicle

As the tournament approaches, Masters fans – and “experts” – spend countless hours picking their favorites to win the year’s first major. A great tradition for decades in the Augusta/Aiken metro area is the Calcutta party where fans gather in homes and restaurants to put a little currency behind their fortune telling.

Here are some picks to consider for your Calcutta – and why.

World rankings as of the last week of 2019


 

Brooks Koepka | World Golf Ranking 1

Brooks Koepka, 29, a native of West Palm Beach, Fla., was named an All-American for three years playing for Florida State before taking his game professional at the European Challenge Tour in 2012, where he won in his first year. Koepka has won 14 professional tournaments worldwide, including seven on the PGA Tour. He claimed his first major championship at the U.S. Open in 2017 at Erin Hills, Wis. He successfully defended his title in 2018 at Shinnecock Hills on Long Island, N.Y., becoming the first golfer to win consecutive U.S. Opens since Curtis Strange in 1988 and 1989. Koepka won his third major at the 2018 PGA Championship at Bellerive Country Club in Missouri, shooting 264 (tying for the major championship record with Rory McIlroy) over 72 holes. His 2018 victories in the U.S. Open and the PGA Championship constituted the first time that someone held both of those since Tiger Woods in 2000. He won his fourth major at the 2019 PGA Championship at Bethpage Black on Long Island. Koepka has won four of the past 10 major championships he has entered, and he finished in a tie for sixth or better in eight of those. He won three times on the PGA Tour last year: The PGA Championship, The WGC FedEx St. Jude Invitational and the CJ Cup @ Nine Bridges in South Korea in October 2018, which is considered part of the recently initiated “wraparound” 2019 PGA Tour season. The PGA of America (not the same organization as the PGA Tour) awarded its 2019 Player of the Year award to Koepka based on his three victories, including a major and a WGC victory. Koepka took over the No. 1 spot in the World Golf Rankings when he won the PGA in May 2019. McIlroy came in second when he won the Tour Championship in Atlanta in August and pulled past Koepka to No. 1 in early February 2020. The 2020 Masters would be a great place for these rivals to establish some distance between them.


 

Justin Rose | World Golf Ranking 8

Justin Rose, 39, is an Englishman born in South Africa who has a very good record at the Masters, just not last year, when he missed the cut. He has five top-10 finishes here in 14 starts. In the 2017 Masters, Rose got off to a good start and then shot 67 on Saturday to claim the co-leadership at 6 under with Sergio Garcia after 54 holes. Although both Europeans shot 1-under 71s on Sunday, it was still a typical Masters final round, full of roaring fans and changing leads. Both players are quite popular with the galleries here and in Europe, and in a see-saw leaderboard, the lead was either tied or changed hands six times during the day. Rose missed a 7-foot birdie putt on the final hole which would have won him the tournament when Garcia also missed his birdie putt from 5 feet. On the first playoff hole, No. 18, Rose made bogey and Garcia claimed his first major victory. At the 2015 Masters, Rose finished in a tie for second with Phil Mickelson behind winner Jordan Spieth. Rose’s and Mickelson’s 14-under 274s were the lowest by a runner-up in Masters history.

Rose also has finished tied for second at The Open Championship in 2018 and tied for third at the PGA Championship in 2012. His lone major victory came at the U.S. Open in 2013.

Rose has 10 PGA Tour victories, starting in 2010 at Memorial. The latest was at the 2019 Farmers Insurance Open. Notable victories in the U.S. include the 2011 BMW Championship during the FedExCup playoffs and the 2012 WGC Cadillac Championship. Rose has eight wins on the European Tour, including the 2002 Dunhill Championship and the Turkish Airlines Open in 2017 and 2018. He moved in and out of the world No. 1 ranking several times throughout 2018 and 2019, usually swapping places with Brooks Koepka. During that time, Rose had three victories around the world and multiple top-five finishes. He won the season-long FedExCup in 2018, which earned him a $10 million prize. Rose was part of the 2018 winning European Ryder Cup team that seized the coveted trophy at Le Golf National near Paris.

 


 

Dustin Johnson | World Golf Ranking 5

The native of nearby Columbia and acknowledged party king of Myrtle Beach, S.C., in his early days, Dustin Johnson, 35, has made himself into a prototype golfer. At 6-foot-4, Johnson is long off the tee and tall out of his shoes, with a long, languid, powerful swing. He has the other shots to go with his prodigious drives and has developed a thoughtful demeanor on the course, where he has demonstrated the ability to shut out the noise when the pressure of the back nine weighs on each player in his own way.

After playing college golf at Coastal Carolina University, Johnson won his first PGA Tour tournament at Turning Stone Resort Championship in upstate New York near the close of the 2008 season. He won again four months later at the prestigious AT&T National Pebble Beach Pro-Am. Showing an increasingly steady game, Johnson finished the 2009 season in the 15th spot on the Tour money list.

In 2010, Johnson defended his AT&T Pebble Beach title by one stroke over David Duval and J.B. Holmes. Later that year, he won the BMW Championship during the Tour playoffs for his fourth career win. Steadily rising, he finished the 2010 season ranked fourth on the PGA Tour money list.

Johnson finished in a tie for second at the 2011 Open Championship and again at the 2015 U.S. Open before winning his first major championship at the 2016 U.S. Open at famed Oakmont Country Club, and he has been among the elite players since that breakthrough. He has six World Golf Championships, second only to Tiger Woods. When he won the WGC-Mexico Championship last year, he became just the third player to post wins in all of his first 12 seasons. The other two: Woods and Jack Nicklaus.

With three big wins to build on in 2016, a major at the U.S. Open, a WGC at the Bridgestone and a playoff victory at the BMW, Johnson reached world No. 1 status in February 2017 at the Genesis Open – and he kept it for 64 consecutive weeks, the fifth longest streak in history.

Johnson was the heavy favorite at the 2017 Masters, but a fall on some stairs at his rental home in Augusta knocked him out of the tournament before it began. In his other appearances at the Masters over the last five years, Johnson has had all top-10 finishes, including a three-way tie for second last year, one stroke behind Woods.


 

Justin Thomas | World Golf Ranking 4

Justin Thomas, 26, hails from Louisville, Ky., where his father is a head golf professional. He attended the University of Alabama, where he won six times for the Crimson Tide. As a freshman in 2012, he won the Haskins Award as the outstanding college golfer. Thomas was a member of Alabama’s NCAA Championship team in 2013.

He turned pro that year and played on the Web.com Tour in 2014, finishing third in the points list after the tour championship. That made him eligible for the PGA Tour, where he notched his first win late in the year at the CIMB Classic in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, by one stroke over Adam Scott. He won the same tournament the following year by three strokes over Hideki Matsuyama of Japan.

Thomas’ breakthrough year of 2017 began with the first tournament of the year. He won the SBS Tournament of Champions in Hawaii, once again by three strokes over Matsuyama. As a 23-year-old, Thomas became a full-fledged PGA Tour star by winning five times in 2017, including his first major at the PGA. That year he also won the week after the Tournament of Champions at the Sony Open in Hawaii. He waited until August for his next win, but it was worth waiting for – a major win at the PGA. He followed that win three weeks later with a playoff win over his close friend Jordan Spieth at the Dell Technologies Championship and capped it all with the CJ Cup in South Korea. All of those wins earned Thomas Player of the Year honors and the FedExCup, and he also earned first place on the PGA Tour Money List for 2017 – a standard that for years was considered the champion golfer of the year in the United States. In 2018, he won The Honda Classic and a World Golf Championship tournament at the Bridgestone Invitational, and although he won three fewer tournaments, his improved consistency brought him a second-straight money list win. He reached the world No. 1 ranking in May 2018 and stayed there for a few weeks.

Thomas came alive during the PGA Tour playoffs late in 2019 with a win at the BMW Championship and a tie for ninth at The Tour Championship. He kept his great play going with a tie for fourth in his next start at the Safeway Open and followed that with a second win in the CJ Cup @ Nine Bridges in South Korea, lifting him into his fourth-place world ranking. He has stayed there with his victory in January at the 2020 winners-only Sentry Tournament of Champions in Hawaii and a tie for third at the famously raucous Waste Management Open in Phoenix.

Thomas simply doesn’t have a weakness, but still has much to prove at the Masters.

 


 

Jon Rahm | World Golf Ranking 3

Jon Rahm, 25, is from Barrika, Basque Country, Spain. He had a noteworthy college career at Arizona State, where his 11 wins is second only to Phil Mickelson’s 16. At 6-foot-2 and 220 pounds, Rahm probably could have played tight end for the Sun Devils. He was ranked No. 1 in the World Amateur Golf Rankings for a total of 60 weeks, the most in the history of the rankings. Turning pro after finishing as low amateur in the 2016 U.S. Open, Rahm won three times at prestigious professional tournaments in 2017 – twice in Europe and once on the PGA Tour. In January, he won The Farmers Open at historic Torrey Pines Golf Club in La Jolla, Calif. After his first win, Rahm split his time with The European PGA Tour, where he got his second professional win at The Irish Open and the DP World Tour Championship in Dubai in the equivalent of the European Tour’s Championship. Posting several high finishes on both sides of the Atlantic, the (almost) always-smiling Spaniard reached a career-high ranking of No. 2 in the world after winning the CareerBuilder Challenge in La Quinta, Calif., in January 2018. Also in 2018, Rahm won The Spanish Open in his home country. He had a spectacular 2019, winning at the Zurich Classic of New Orleans over his longtime mentor and countryman Sergio Garcia and the emerging Englishman Tommy Fleetwood. Back in Europe, Rahm again won The Irish Open, defended his title in The Spanish Open and won the DP World Tour Championship in Dubai to reach his current world No. 3 rank. A big man and a massive striker of the ball, he also has that famed Spanish touch in his short game. Unlike a lot of Spanish greats in the past, Rahm is proving to be highly consistent. Since his tie for third in 2019 U.S. Open, he has finished third another time, claimed four second-place finishes and won three times. Of the 13 tournaments over that stretch, he has missed the top 10 only three times (including an 11th place and a 13th place). After his second World Tour Championship, Rahm was named 2019 European Tour Golfer of the Year.

In his three Masters starts, Rahm has finished tied for 27th in 2017, fourth in 2018 and tied for ninth last year, when he was in the all-star mix of great players in the final round.

 


 

Shane Lowry | World Golf Ranking 19

When the Open Championship returned to Northern Ireland after 68 years in 2019, it was back to the scene of the first hosting of the world’s oldest tournament in that country at Royal Portrush Golf Club in County Antrim. Much to the delight of the galleries and European golf, it was won by Irishman Shane Lowry, 32, of County Offaly in the Republic of Ireland, near Dublin.

Major champions Darren Clarke, Graeme McDowell and Rory McIlroy, native Ulstermen all, competed in a major in their home country for the first time. Clarke, beloved in both parts of his home island, was given the honor of the opening tee shot. He described the event as a watershed moment for Northern Ireland, a nation that hoped this tournament would validate it as having turned away from years of violence pitting those who wanted it to remain part of the U.K. against those who have longed for it to form a union with the Republic of Ireland to the south. There was no disagreement that the decision by the R&A to return to Royal Portrush was a brilliant one.

Probably half of the speculation leading into the tournament was whether then-world No. 3 McIlroy would win in this most ancient tournament in his home country. Months of speculation ended with McIlroy’s first shot, a devastating hook that rocketed off the course and led to a quadruple bogey on his first hole. He later made double bogey at No. 16 and a triple bogey on No. 18, adding up to an 8-over 79 and sure oblivion. Like the mercurial player that he is, on Friday, McIlroy came back with a course record-tying 6-under 65, but he still missed the cut by one stroke. Clarke also missed the cut, and McDowell finished tied for 57th.

So, it wouldn’t be a man from Ulster who would carry the Claret Jug (the affectionate name for The Open Championship trophy), so the whole island gladly cheered on a player from The Republic of Ireland. Lowry would prove worthy of the gold medal also given to the winner.

Lowry won his first major title by six strokes over Englishman Tommy Fleetwood. Before The Open, Lowry had won the 2015 WGC-Bridgestone Invitational in the U.S. and the 2019 Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship. Lowry became the second player from the Republic to win a major championship after Padraig Harrington. With his course-record 63 in the third round, Lowry had a four-stroke lead over Fleetwood going into the final round. In very difficult conditions, not at all unusual for this tournament, Lowry shot a 1-over round of 72 on Sunday with brilliant play in howling winds. The cheers were more steady and forceful than the winds, and Lowry brought the championship home by six shots.


 

Rory McIlroy | World Golf Ranking 2

Rory McIlroy, 30, was voted the 2019 PGA Tour Player of the Year by the other players. He won The Players Championship and the Tour Championship. In that order, the two tournaments would almost surely be rated fifth and sixth in prestige after the four majors, if there were such a ranking. Arguably, the four World Golf Championships (WGCs) could be ranked as tied for seventh, and he won one of those: the HSBC WGC in Shanghai in November. The Players Championship and the WGCs have the strongest competitions all year, and the Tour Championship invites only the top 30 golfers who still have clubs in their hands after the season-ending playoffs named the FedExCup. The Tour Championship is “the finals” of the FedExCup. With that win, McIlroy also won the yearlong FedExCup points competition that includes all of the PGA Tour tournaments. He won $5 million for the Tour Championship and $10 million for the yearlong competition in the FedExCup for a total of $15 million in one day! He also won the 2019 (Harry) Vardon Trophy for the lowest scoring average on the Tour throughout the year. He joined Tiger Woods as the only golfers who have twice won both the cup and the championship in the same year. Brooks Koepka was named the PGA Player of the Year through a point system administered by the Professional Golf Association (PGA) and was expected to win the PGA Tour Player of the Year Award, but it is voted on by the players, and it went to McIlroy. Their resumes were very similar, but McIlroy did not win a major and Koepka won The PGA. It has been 28 years since the two Player of the Year honors were split, which caused a lot of questions and offered a few possible answers. One is the friction between the golfers and the PGA of America. The players largely run the Tour, but the Tour doesn’t run any of the major tournaments. McIlroy is often quoted in his appreciation of the Tour and of how difficult it is to maintain top form over a full year. Koepka has been quoted many times saying there are only four weeks that really count – the ones when major championships are played. The Players and The Tour Championship are player-focused events, while much of the emphasis in every major is on the sponsoring organization. Golf fans are probably in for an epic, decadeslong rivalry between these two so long as they both stay healthy.

The players’ vote probably comes down to popularity. McIlroy is widely considered one of the nicest guys on the Tour, and he is almost always listed when a Tour player is asked to name the ideal foursome to play with. The rarely written but widely held opinion is that they voted for McIlroy just because they like him better.

Nobody needs extra motivation to win the Masters, but McIlroy certainly has it. He has won the other three majors and needs a Masters win to become the sixth player in history to win the Grand Slam of golf – all four majors. He was in the lead going into the back nine in 2011 and then famously failed down the stretch. The galleries are well aware of both facts and will surely be cheering for the jovial Irishman should he be close to the lead on Sunday this year.


 

Tiger Woods | World Golf Ranking 6

In a performance that instantly drew comparisons with some of the greatest of all time in this sport – or any other – Tiger Woods won the 2019 Masters Tournament. The win reverberated around the world as Woods returned as a major championship winner after an 11-year drought, 14 years after his last Masters victory. He struggled through crippling injuries to his body, his personal life and his image, all played out for over a decade in an unrelenting media glare, but somehow he found a way to return to his one-time unassailable dominance of world golf and win his fifth green jacket. Woods won by one stroke over an all-star cast that included four-time PGA Tour winner Xander Schauffele and four-time major winners Dustin Johnson and Brooks Koepka.

Woods started 2018 ranked 544th in the world. Tiger, as he is universally known, gave notice late in the year that he might be carving out a comeback on the strength of a tie for sixth at The Open Championship, a second-place finish at the PGA, a tie for sixth at the BMW Championship during the Tour playoffs and then the 2018 Tour Championship.

In his start before the Masters, Woods tied for fifth (which means reaching the quarterfinals) in the WGC-World Match Play Championship, and then he showed up in Augusta in a confident, relaxed frame of mind – a look that Masters fans recognized.

In a battle of several of the world’s best golfers, it seemed Tiger’s deafening footsteps made others falter while he played the back nine in Augusta in a form to which he was accustomed, winning by two strokes. At age 43, he became the second oldest person to win the Masters. He was one Masters and three years away from the all-time records set in 1986 of six green jackets by then 46-year-old Jack Nicklaus.

During the “wraparound season” played in 2019 but which counts for 2020 statistics, Woods played in the ZOZO Championship outside Tokyo. He won by three strokes over Japanese hero Hideki Matsuyama and by three more over then-world No. 2 Rory McIlroy. The victory matched the record of 82 PGA Tour wins by the fabled Sam Snead.

Woods has been the No. 1 player in the world for the most consecutive weeks and for the greatest total number of weeks of any golfer in history. He has been awarded PGA Player of the Year a record 11 times and has won the Byron Nelson Award for lowest adjusted scoring average a record eight times. Woods has the record of leading the money list in 10 seasons. He leads all active golfers in career major wins and career PGA Tour wins. He is the youngest player to achieve the career Grand Slam and the second golfer (after Nicklaus) to have achieved a career Grand Slam three times. Woods has won 18 World Golf Championships. He was part of the winning American team for the 1999 Ryder Cup and 20 years later was the player/coach for the winning Americans in The Presidents Cup in Australia. In May 2019, Woods was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom, becoming just the fourth golfer to receive the honor.

His next PGA Tour victory will give him the solo PGA Tour wins record. His next Masters victory will give him a share of Nicklaus’ record of six. He trails Nicklaus by three in what is widely considered the most important record in golf – major championship victories. Several years ago, Nicklaus was asked if he thought Woods would ever break his record for majors. Nicklaus answered, “Yes; if he stays healthy. I was very fortunate in my career that I never had a serious injury. If he stays healthy, he will reach it.”

Woods is somewhat healthy now – healthy enough to win here again this year.

 


 

Patrick Reed | World Golf Ranking 12

Patrick Reed, 29, originally of San Antonio, is the 2018 Masters champion, winning by one stroke over Rickie Fowler in a homecoming of sorts. Reed started his college career at the University of Georgia, but after several incidents he was dismissed from the team and moved his prodigious skills to Augusta State University. He is still fondly remembered by many in Augusta because he helped lead the home team to NCAA Division I championships in 2010 and 2011. Reed turned professional, with modest success, after the second collegiate championship. He played in 12 PGA Tour events in 2012 and then earned his 2013 playing card through the Tour’s “Q-School.”

In August 2013, Reed won his first PGA Tour event at the Wyndham Championship in Greensboro, N.C., in a playoff against Jordan Spieth, his third consecutive top-10 finish. In 2014, Reed won early in the season in spectacular fashion at the Humana Challenge in Southern California, shooting 63-63-63 in the first three rounds. A month later, Reed reached a string of accomplishments when he won the WGC-Cadillac Championship at Trump National Doral in Miami by one shot over Bubba Watson and Jamie Donaldson. Reed became only the fifth golfer to earn three PGA Tour wins before his 24th birthday since 1990, joining Tiger Woods, Phil Mickelson, Rory McIlroy and Sergio García, to be followed soon by Spieth. He also became the youngest winner of a WGC event, and the victory moved him to 20th in the world golf rankings. The victory also made Reed the first PGA Tour golfer to post three wins before playing in his first major, the 2014 Masters.

Reed has developed what is perceived from the outside as a significant rivalry with current world No. 1 McIlroy. After leading in FedExCup points going into the 2016 finals at East Lake Golf Club in Atlanta, Reed would finish third to Dustin Johnson and winner McIlroy. That was followed by an epic duel in the singles of the Ryder Cup, where Reed and McIlroy each played some of the best golf ever witnessed. Reed sank a birdie putt on the final hole to win the lead-off match for the eventually victorious USA. At the 2018 Masters, he was paired with McIlroy in the final group. He would dispatch his rival early and later withstood charges by Rickie Fowler and 2015 Masters champion Spieth.

His win here seems at odds with his other finishes in Augusta; his next best finish is a tie for 22nd in 2015. He finished tied for 36th last year, he tied for 49th in 2016, and he missed cuts in 2014 and 2017. In 24 major championship starts, Reed has only three other top-10 finishes. He has seven professional wins, including the 2019 Northern Trust Open, and he finished tied for second in this year’s first tournament at the Sentry Tournament of Champions.

 


 

Patrick Cantlay  |  World Golf Ranking 7

Patrick Cantlay, 27, has moved up a spot to sixth in the WGR since the beginning of the year with good showings at the Shriners Hospitals for Children Open (second place), The Tournament of Champions (fourth) and the AT&T Pebble Beach Pro-Am (T-11). He made his biggest move of the year, from 14th to eighth, when he won the Memorial Tournament presented by Nationwide and hosted by Jack Nicklaus. Every Memorial winner gushes at the sense of honor that washes over him when the great man himself greets him at the back of the 18th green after sinking the winning putt. It is also a prized notch on a player’s resume because it is among the best run, most difficult and deepest fields of all the annual tournaments. Nicklaus designed the course to be similar to Augusta National. It has built its own tradition, and The Memorial ranks very high in the opinion of Tour players. To win it, Cantlay shot a near perfect 8-under 64 to reel in Martin Kaymer, who had a four-shot lead when the day began. Cantlay also finished second last year at the BMW Championship and third at the PGA Championship and tied for ninth at the 2019 Masters. A Southern California guy all the way, Cantlay was born on St. Patrick’s Day in 1992 in Long Beach, Calif. He had a successful amateur career that was first noticed when he won the California High School Championship as a senior. He reigned as No. 1 golfer in the World Amateur Golf Ranking for 55 weeks while he played college golf for UCLA. His amateur career highlights are too numerous to list, but suffice it to say that he was the low amateur in the 2011 U.S. Open and the 2012 Masters after qualifying to play at Augusta by reaching the finals in the 2011 U.S. Amateur.

In less than three full years on Tour, Cantlay has two PGA Tour victories and three second-place finishes and has tied for third twice. Of his three Masters appearances, Cantley finished tied for 47th as an amateur in 2012, missed the cut in 2018 and tied for ninth last year. He ranked fourth on the 2019 PGA Tour money list. From his early success, especially at the Masters, Cantley has the air of a man on the way up.

 

 

Article appears in the November 2020 issue of Augusta Magazine.

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