The Masters is soon upon us, and for those in the cold climes, we’ve already gotten the clubs out of storage, rid them of cobwebs, bought a dozen new balls, taken some achy swings on the range and made those initial forays down thawing fairways. As spring comes out of hibernation the annual rite of golf, the Masters, bursts into the golf spectrum like a supernova. Azaleas, Magnolia Lane, Rae’s Creek, Amen Corner and the green jacket combine for the game’s ultimate field of dreams.
There is a cherished certainty to the Masters, its home the gracious and graceful Augusta National Golf Club. We know what to expect every year—plenty of birdies and eagles, round-killing double bogeys, dramatic lead swings and a brilliantly stormy march through the back nine on Sunday where all the greats of the game have made their mark.
There is another cherished certainty that we all play into—we don’t know who is going to win, but we love to make a prediction and maybe put down a few bucks on the outcome, even if it’s just a five-spot with a friend. While golf isn’t a big betting entity at the Las Vegas sports books, it has gained some momentum over the last 10 years, and the current crop of highly competitive players makes the betting prospects for this year’s tournament diverse and appetizing.
This we know about picking a winner: He has to be long off the tee (at least long enough) and be precise with his irons, has to have one heckuva short game, be able to putt lights out, and most important of all, has to have steady nerves to manage his game and enough nerve to take on a challenging shot on the back nine on Sunday when winning is on the line. It’s a tall order to join the greats of the game. Here’s who we think have the best chances to claim victory when the tournament concludes on April 8.
The Best Bets
10. Sergio Garcia
This is a sentimental choice, just like Garcia’s playoff victory in the 2017 Masters was a sentimental culmination to his career. Only three players have won the Masters back-to-back: Tiger Woods, Nick Faldo and Jack Nicklaus. We are talking iconic players here, and Garcia never made it into that category despite a spectacular start as a 19-year-old when he finished second to Woods in the 1999 PGA Championship.
But Garcia is an accomplished player with nothing to apologize for in his career. He won three times last year and was the European Tour player of the year. Can he do it again? We have watched him hover around the upper echelons of the game his whole life, watched him win the 2008 Players Championship, watched him spearhead Europe in the Ryder Cup. For him, it almost always comes down to the putter. If the putts drop, his chances soar.
9. Jason Day
It just seems like Jason Day is ready to wear a green jacket even though he didn’t win a single tournament in 2017. After a combined eight victories in 2015 and 2016 and becoming No. 1 in the world, a bad back, injuries and his mother’s cancer diagnosis held him back and he dropped out of the world top 10 in 2017.
With his mother seemingly healthy after lung cancer surgery, 2018 offers a fresh start. His best two finishes at Augusta were a while ago—he tied for second in 2011 and placed third in 2013. That 2011 finish was the only time Day broke 70 in the final round at Augusta. He said in 2017 that his mother’s illness turned him away from the game, broke his concentration and stinted his desire. But a desirous Day is a dangerous Day. He’s got all the tools for Augusta. If he uses them properly, he’s going to be on the leaderboard.
8. Hideki Matsuyama
This man will become the first player from Japan to win a major championship and over the last three Masters his name has been on the classic Augusta leaderboard many times. His highest finish, in 2015, was fifth.
Matsuyama’s distinctive swing, with the pause that refreshes at the top (à la Bob Murphy, but twice as powerful) seems suited to Augusta where his natural draw is the natural fit. And he always seems under control, even though he seems rather perplexed by every shot he hits. One hand comes off the club and you think it’s going miles wide of the green, only to end up 10 feet from the pin.
Matsuyama has five PGA Tour victories, two on the European Tour and will surely overtake Isao Aoki as Japan’s most successful player. Aoki never won a major, losing a stretch battle for the 1980 U.S. Open title to playing partner Jack Nicklaus at Baltusrol. Matsuyama is a better ball striker, and is going to win one of those stretch battles.
7. Rory McIlroy
Picking McIlroy is a dicey prospect, but you can’t rule out this prodigious talent. McIlory, who has four major championships and only lacks the Masters for a career Grand Slam, failed to win anywhere in 2017 (well, he did get married). He was hampered by a rib injury that caused him to take considerable time off. Assuming that he’s fully healthy, he then becomes fully viable as a Masters champion.
His best finish was fourth in 2015, but he is rather infamously known for blowing a third-round lead in 2011 by shooting an ignominious 80 in the final round. Let’s just say it didn’t sabotage his career. He romped in the U.S. Open that June for his first major. If he manages his prodigious length off the tee and his putting is fine-tuned, there’s no way he shouldn’t contend.
6. Rickie Fowler
He’s a very popular player with a very nice Tour record, but upon closer examination Fowler has only won four times. In 2014 he finished fifth in the Masters and no worse than third in the other majors, seemingly a harbinger of great things to come. He’s been a contender, but hasn’t been able to close the deal.
Fowler has already shown that he’s capable of playing Augusta National, though in his seven appearances he has shown a propensity to throw in one bad round a tournament. In 2016 that was an 80 in the first round that caused him to miss his only cut there.
At least two things will need to go his way to win his first major at the Masters—he will have to avoid big numbers and will have to putt better, especially the shorter ones where he has always been a little suspect. There may be no more popular winner if Fowler dons green.
5. Jon Rahm
We don’t know yet how good this 23-year-old Spaniard is going to be. He came to Arizona State without speaking English. He left Arizona State speaking fluently and impressing everyone with his powerful, controlled game. ASU alumnus (and three-time Masters winner) Phil Mickelson, whose brother Tim coached the golf team, has no doubt about Rahm’s future. “Jon doesn’t have weaknesses,” Mickelson said after Rahm won the Farmers last year. “Every part of his game is a strength. I think he’s one of the best players in the world. There’s an intangible that some guys have, where they want to have the pressure put on them, they want to be in that tough position. They want to have everything fall on their shoulders. He has that.”
Rahm made his debut in the Masters last year, finishing 27th. There’s no reason not to expect a higher finish and a green jacket fit for Rahm’s wide shoulders.
4. Justin Thomas
The PGA Tour’s 2017 player of the year was more than impressive—he was downright dominant. Thomas had five victories in the wraparound season, a 59 in the Sony Open last January, his first major at the PGA in August and a victory in the Tour playoffs at the Dell Technologies Championship in September.
He’s only played the Masters the past two years, finishing tied for 22nd in 2017, but this is the tournament he relishes more than any other. It’s the emotional component, the desire he will have to control. Thomas is a very aggressive player, and being aggressive at Augusta can pay off handsomely or drown dreams.
There’s no doubt he has a complete game and drives it crazy long considering he’s a mere 145 pounds. There’s no doubt he’s up for hitting the challenging shot. He hit three of them in the final round of the PGA, icing the victory with a magnificent 7-iron to the water-surrounded par-3 17th hole for birdie. Measure him for a green jacket. He’ll eventually wear one.
3. Justin Rose
Justin Rose just looks like a winner. Last year he had a shot at his first green jacket, losing to Sergio Garcia in a playoff. In 2015 he tied with Phil Mickelson, finishing second to Jordan Spieth.
We know Rose has what it takes to win a major: after all, he pulled off a two-stroke victory at the 2013 U.S. Open at Merion, beating out Mickelson and Jason Day, becoming the first Englishman in 43 years to win that championship. He also has two victories in World Championship Golf events. Rose’s journey from heralded amateur to struggling professional to top-10 player in the world is great testimony to the sort of fortitude the Masters demands. He has an impressively positive attitude that helps a lot when the vagaries of Augusta National start nipping at the scorecard.
He handled the playoff loss to Garcia last year with his usual class. He said if he had to lose, it was Garcia that he would prefer to lose to. Class generally pays off at the Masters.
2. Jordan Spieth
As long as he plays, this young superstar will always rank among Masters favorites. With a magical short game and a maestro’s putter, Augusta National will be his for the taking for a couple of decades to come. This tournament—and this golf course—have suited Spieth since he first played in 2014. In only four appearances, he has one victory (2015) two second-place finishes (2014 and 2016) and his 11th-place finish last year. He famously blew a five-stroke lead on the back nine on Sunday in 2016, hitting two balls in the water on the devilish par-3 12th for a quadruple bogey seven, but most of his Masters memories have been pleasant ones.
Spieth has a sneaky long driver. He isn’t going to be outdriving Dustin Johnson, but he won’t be too far behind him, and that means he can reach all of Augusta’s par-5s in two. He should have a lot of two-putt birdies on them. And if he has to lay up, his wedges will get him close enough for birdie nearly every time.
Spieth already has one green jacket. There’s a good chance he could eventually have an entire closet-full.
1. Dustin Johnson
Johnson lapped the field at the Sentry Tournament of Champions at the start of 2018, looks to be clearly the world’s No. 1 player and ticks all the boxes when it comes to the attributes required for victory at Augusta National.
He came into last year’s Masters as the betting favorite, having won three straight tournaments earlier in the season, then he slipped walking down stairs in his rental house, injured his back and had to withdraw just before his opening round. But a fully fit Johnson is a physical masterpiece, and he appears more than capable of painting a masterpiece at Augusta National. His best finish in seven appearances is fourth in 2016, but he’s dramatically improved his short game over the last two seasons, and that will serve him extremely well.
Given that he is one of the longest drivers on the Tour (he nearly aced a 400-yard par-4 in January) his wedge play is critical to his success, especially when many other players will be hitting two or three clubs more into Augusta’s perilous greens. Combine a big hit with a soft touch and that equals success at the Masters.
The Tiger Factor
If Tiger Woods is as healthy as he looked at the start of his season, then his return to the Masters in April for the first time since 2015 is highly promising. This much can be said about his chances to win—you can’t pick him and you can’t ignore him.
In the three events he has played through the Honda Classic in February, the four-time Masters champion looked better than he has in the last four years, taking bold swipes at the ball like the Tiger of old and not the old Tiger. Back surgeries had short-circuited one of the all-time greats in his early 40s—he last won the Masters in 2005. Jack Nicklaus famously predicted when Woods was a teenage amateur phenom that he would win 10 Masters. It isn’t going to happen.
He made the cut at the 2018 Farmers, his first cut on the PGA Tour in 29 months, finishing three under par and in a tie for 23rd. He missed the cut at the Genesis Open, then flirted with the leaderboard at the Honda Classic, where he drew massive galleries. He finished at even par and 12th on a very tough course. Importantly, Woods’ short game seemed to be clicking, and that had been a big question mark the last four years.
There seems little doubt that a healthy Woods can win again. Pros who have played with Woods (Justin Thomas, Rickie Fowler and others) are impressed. He took enough outright slashes at the ball in the Hero World Challenge in December to suggest that some sort of mini-medical miracle has taken place. Now it’s a question of getting tournament tuned.
His psychological fortitude is unparalleled, and there is no tougher player to face on the back nine on Sunday than Tiger Woods. That toughness seems to be there. He ground out his scores and seemed well grounded doing it.
We always keep our eyes on Woods. Now we’ll keep our eyes on him at Augusta.
The Long Shots
Nothing heralded Schauffele’s extraordinary rise in 2017. He tied for fifth in the U.S. Open, won the Greenbrier in July, the Tour Championship in September and was rookie of the year. This will be his first Masters.
The reigning U.S. Open champion put on a virtuoso performance at Erin Hills in 2017, driving it long and straight, hitting plenty of greens and making birdie putts, a game that could translate to Augusta. Last year, at his third Masters, he played the par-5s in 10 under.
Leishman was a first round co-leader at the 2013 Masters, eventually posting his best-ever finish of fourth. His most impressive major was the 2015 Open Championship at St Andrews where he shot 64-66 to make the playoff with winner Zach Johnson and Louie Oosthuizen. Today he is playing at his best.
Harman’s 5-7, 150-pound frame doesn’t match up to some of the physical specimens he’s facing, but he’s overcome a lot to get to where he is in the game. And he knows the heat of a Sunday major, shooting 72 in the final round of the U.S. Open last year to finish tied for second. Harman has one appearance in the Masters.
By mid-2016, Perez had only one victory since turning pro in 1997, and after shoulder surgery, he was wondering if he would even have a career. Now, with two recent victories, he’s playing the best golf of his life and has a top-20 ranking. Maybe, just maybe.
Jeff Williams is a Cigar Aficionado contributing editor.