By: Evan Lachnit, KCOU Sports
April could very well be considered one of the best months for sports along with October. April brings the Final Four and NCAA Championship game, MLB Opening Day and the start of the NHL and NBA playoffs. The month also brings the tradition unlike another and that, of course, is the Masters.
The Masters is always compelling and is a must watch, but this year’s tournament might be the most talked about and awaited Masters in quite some time. Coming in there are so many questions that we wait to be answered. How will Tiger perform having not played since the first week of February when he looked just awful and not even close to competitive? Can Rory McIlroy complete the career grand slam and continue his dominance at the majors? Can Dustin Johnson keep up his great play since his return from a leave of absence? Will the American young guns, like Spieth, Fowler, and Walker breakthrough in a major? Those are some of the major talking points, but there are even more than that.
This year’s tournament kicks off Friday morning and here is what to look for and players to watch throughout the weekend.
It is hard to argue that the biggest story heading into this weekend is not Tiger Woods. The last two times we saw Woods in a competitive round of golf it was just, to put it simply, sad. He shot the ball all over the course at the Waste Management in Phoenix and his chipping looked as if he had just picked up the game of golf. In that tournament, he missed the cut and finished in dead last at 13 over par. The next week Tiger made it through 11 holes at the Farmers Insurance Open before withdrawing. It may have been the lowest we have ever seen Tiger. People even began to question if Tiger Woods would ever return to golf. Of course he is, and what better place for him to return than Augusta National. I will not make the argument that Tiger will win this tournament, because I don’t think he has a chance. Saying that, I do not think he will play awful. I do believe that he will make the cut and play well, and I do not think a top 15 is out of the question.
Rory McIlroy dominated the golf world last summer. He played nearly perfect golf in the months of July and August. He also picked up his first ever Open Championship in that time span when he left the field in his rearview mirror from the start. He then went on to win his second PGA Championship in August at Valhalla. The only missing piece now for McIlroy to complete the career grand slam is a Green Jacket. McIlroy has said that his main focus over the winter months has been trying to work on things that he will need to win the tournament. He will also have to try to extract the demons that he has at Augusta from the 2011 tournament when he self destructed on the back nine Sunday afternoon. He is the odds-on favorite to win the tournament and for good reason. If McIlroy does indeed win the tournament, we will have to start looking at him in the same light we did Tiger 15 years ago.
If McIlroy does not win the tournament, do not be surprised if it is one of a handful of Americans that have been playing very well of late. Dustin Johnson has played tremendously since returning from his six month leave of absence from the tour in February at the Farmers Insurance Open. Besides missing the cut at the Honda Classic, he has played superb in four of his last five tournaments. He tied for fourth, sixth, second, and won the World Golf Classic at Doral. He has the hot hand and new found confidence. He also has one of the longest drives in the game which is always helpful.
Another American that is very hot is Jimmy Walker. Walker dominated the field two weeks ago at the Valero Texas Open. He also won at the Sony Open earlier this January. Walker leads the PGA Tour in birdie average carding 4.70 birdies per round. He also has the 17th ranked drive on the tour averaging 301.4 yards per drive. He is also ranked first in the FedEx Cup standings and is the tours money leader.
Rickie Fowler has played outstanding of late at majors finishing in the top five of all four majors last year. That includes a tie for fifth at the Masters last season. Concerning for Fowler is the fact he has struggled thus far in 2015. He did have a top 12 finish at the WGC-Cadillac but only has one other top 30 finish since January. Fowler has shown that he has the mentality to compete in majors, the question is if he has it in him to take that next step.
Do not sleep on others such as J.B. Holmes, who is coming off of a great comeback victory at the Shell Houston Open. You can never count out Phil Mickelson either. Of course, he has three green jackets and his style of play suits the course very well. That is why another leftie and defending champion Bubba Watson is one of the favorites heading in to this weekend as well. The two-time champion of the Masters is ranked second in average drive and has the second most eagles this season on tour. He also feasts on par fives and that is key at Augusta. He shot eight under last year when he won the tournament and if he can repeat that, he will be tough to beat.
One European that should be in contention is Henrik Stenson. Stenson is currently the number two player in the world and finished in the top five in the three PGA events he has played in this year. He finished tied for 14 at the Masters last year and finished in the top four at both the U.S. Open and PGA Championship. Stenson has the highest scoring average on the tour averaging a 69.3 strokes per round. He also is ranked second in greens in regulation this season. That, along with driving, are the keys to success in this tournament. Stenson should be a player that is in the hunt on Sunday.
The player that I believe will take home the green jacket is Jordan Spieth. Spieth has played some of his best golf lately and finished second at the Masters last year. Since the AT&T Pro-Am at Pebble Beach, his worst finish is tied 17 at the WGC-Cadillac. In his last three tournaments, he has had three top two finishes and won the Valspar Championship. Spieth is third in scoring average on the tour and sixth in birdie average. Spieth has been close in past majors, and I think he is ready to take that next step and wear the green jacket Sunday evening.