While we’re not sure that ‘Masters fever’ is an actual medical condition, we do know that the number of golf fans in the world tends to increase without exception every single April.
This is when the first and arguably most prestigious of the sports’ four majors is hosted in Augusta, Texas, in the unique form of the U.S. Masters. A tournament that transcends an entire sport, the Masters turns casual fans into fanatics for at least four days every year, while continuing to create narratives that beggar belief.
This year is set to be no exception, with pundits drooling over what is one of the strongest and most open Masters’ fields in history. Below, we’ll preview this most prestigious of events, while asking which players are likely to compete for the coveted green jacket?
The Masters – Who are the Favourites?
Prior to last season’s Masters, the bookmakers were predicting something of a precession in Augusta. After all, world number one Dustin Johnson arrived in Texas as the biggest tournament favourite since the halcyon days of Tiger Woods, fresh from his maiden Grand Slam triumph at the U.S. Open back in 2016.
An unfortunate tumble down the stairs on the eve of the tournament left Johnson unable to compete, however, blowing the tournament wide open in the process and altering the course of the season as a whole.
Johnson is still haunted by this experience, while he has failed to claim another major win since that fateful day. As a result, he arrives at August as the co-favourite alongside Ulsterman Rory McIlroy and perennial contender Jordan Spieth, while his status as world number one is also under threat from USPGA champion and rising star Justin Thomas.
History is also against Johnson, and in more ways than one. No player ranked number one in the world has won at Augusta since 2002, for example, while the 33-year old Johnson also has a poor record at the Masters. Although he ultimately finished T-4 in his last start in 2016, he has yet to contend for the title deep into the final Sunday.
There are also question marks surrounding Spieth and McIlroy, however, with the latter plagued by doubts about his mental strength and ability to thrive on the biggest of stages. Sure, the Ulsterman has won three majors during his relatively short career, but the last of these came at the USPGA tournament in 2014. Even more alarming is the fact that the course at Augusta is perfectly suited to McIlory’s powerful game, which is borne out by four consecutive, top-10 finishes and a scoring average of 71.82 during this time.
McIlroy has struggled to build on this platform to achieve Masters success, however, while his failure to convert the 54-hole lead in 2011 also hints at some form of mental fragility. Still, he was in blistering form when winning the recent tournament at Bay Hill, and will at least enter the competition in suitable form.
When it comes to Spieth, an altogether different issue exists. In short, the young American seems to be the ultimate big tournament performer, having won the green jacket in 2015 and sandwiched this with two runner-up finishes despite not always being at his best.
Still, he tied eleventh in 2017 and has struggled for form over the last 12 months, with the issues on the green having been well-documented for some time. In fact, Spieth currently ranks 185th in strokes gained while putting, and while a recent win in Houston will have boosted his confidence it’s fair to say that he has arrived at the Augusta National in better form.
Why we Should Look Elsewhere for our Winner
Ultimately, the problems plaguing Johnson, McIlroy and Spieth is a blessing for neutrals, as this is what has helped to create such a competitive and evenly-matched field. With this in mind, we wouldn’t be surprised if the ultimate winner came from outside this core group of initial favourites, particularly with so many big names in contention for the ultimate prize.
Take Justin Rose, for example, who can be backed at 14/1 despite nearly winning last years’ installment and claiming the runner-up spot in two of the last three years. The Englishman, who seemed in control last year after seizing the lead on the tournament’s 67th hole, has also claimed consecutive top-five finishes at Innisbrook and Bay Hill recently and arrives at Augusta in good form.
Still, critics will claim that Rose has yet to win at the Masters despite placing in the top 25 for over a decade, with comparisons being made to the similarly consistent but unsuccessful Ernie Els.
We can’t discuss this years’ contenders without mentioning the legendary Tiger Woods, who is incredibly priced at 12/1 to win by bookmakers (he was 50/1 and longer at the end of last year). The four-time Masters winner has fought back valiantly from injury and a swathe of personal issues to return to Augusta, however, hitting from with a second-place finish at the Valspar Championship last month and following this up with a similarly close call at Bay Hill.
Of all the players in Augusta, a fit and confident Woods has the game to win, with his powerful driving and ball striking technique remaining second to none. It’s hard to escape the fact that his last major triumph came at the U.S. Open in 2008, however, while he hasn’t even competed at this level since missing the cut at the USPGA in August 2015.
A win here may just be beyond the American, although a victory for Woods would arguably represent the greatest comeback in the history of the sport.
This leads onto the aforementioned Justin Rose, who is arguably best-placed to capitalise on his rivals obvious frailties at this years’ Masters. After all, the man has been in incredible form during the last 16 months, while it’s surely only a matter of time before he supersedes Johnson as world number one. He’s now priced at a competitive 12/1 to win his maiden Master title and second consecutive major honour, and cement his place as the best player in the modern game.
The Last Word
Even Thomas is surrounded by some uncertainty, however, with his only poor performance during the last 16 months or so coming at the 2017 Masters. Still, he remains the man to beat at Augusta this time around, but there’s no doubt that he’ll face to fight off stern competition if he’s to prevail.
We haven’t even mentioned defending champion Sergio Garcia, for example, or the rejuvenated Bubba Watson (who’s in great form and loves playing at Augusta). A Watson win would certainly appeal to romantics, as would a long-overdue triumph for the returning Woods.
If you think with your head, however, recent form and history suggest that Justin Thomas and Rory McIlroy will be the most likely contenders, with Spieth’s ability to rise to the biggest of occasions placing him firmly in the mix.