The field for the 2018 Masters is the smallest in 21 years, with a grand total of 87 players on tap to tee it up at Augusta.
But, just because it’s a small throng doesn’t mean there have been any, or many, notable exclusions.
It is certainly one of the more hyped Masters events in recent memory, what with the return of Tiger Woods to a semblance of former glory and Rory McIlroy rounding into form and looking for the fourth piece to the Career Slam.
This impressive group has a little something for every golf fan, from former champs (Bubba Watson, Jordan Spieth, Woods, Sergio Garcia, Phil Mickelson and even Mike Weir) to current power players (Justin Thomas, Dustin Johnson, Rickie Fowler) and up-and-comers (Bryson DeChambeau, Patton Kizzire and Xander Schauffele).
The handicapping, now that it’s Wednesday, will continue unabated until the first swing on the first tee. We’ve already detailed just who we think has a legitimate shot at winning, too.
But what of the little known or lesser lights, who, given a window of opportunity, couldn’t also shock a few of us with a big win? Here are 15 we’ve tabbed as dark horses entering this very special Masters.
15. Francesco Molinari
Not far down the list in the official World Golf Ranking at no. 27 is Italy’s Francesco Molinari. A veteran of the European Tour and the winner of six events, four in Europe, two on the PGA Tour, Molinari has been solidly unspectacular this season. He has four top-25 finishes on the European Tour and a top-10 on the PGA Tour, which was 8th at the unofficial Hero World Challenge event last December. We like him because he is a grinder who has steadily made more cuts, more money and had more top-10s and top-25s year over year. He had an excellent 2017, making 17 of 25 cuts, including the Masters (where he finished T-33). His best overall finish, in our opinion, was a tie for second at the PGA Championship, followed by a respectable T-12 at the BMW Championship. He had five top-10s in 2017 and has been hanging around the fringes long enough.
14. Ross Fisher
Like fellow European Tour opponent Francesco Molinari, world no. 36 Ross Fisher is another of those guys we hear about every once in a while, but who doesn’t hold our thoughts long. He’s won five times on the European Tour and was good enough in 2010 to be on the European Ryder Cup team that beat the U.S. In terms of the four majors, he’s had limited success, the best finish being a solo fifth at the 2009 U.S. Open. The lanky Brit has been to five Masters, his best finish at T-15 at the 2011 event and his most recent a T-41 at the 2017 Masters. This season on the European Tour, Fisher finished second to Tommy Fleetwood at the Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship, ahead of notables Rory McIlroy, Henrik Stenson, Paul Casey and Dustin Johnson. Otherwise, he hasn’t played much in North America, yet, which may not be a bad thing heading onto the hallowed grounds at Augusta as one of the more anonymous names.
13. Jason Dufner
The 2013 PGA Champion hasn’t had a memorable ride the last few seasons, but that doesn’t mean he hasn’t played decent golf. And at 41, the time may never better for Cleveland born Jason Dufner. A five-time winner on the tour, including last year’s Memorial and that PGA Championship, Dufner has had the most limited success at the Masters. But there is a first time for everything. In seven appearances at Augusta, Dufner has made the cut five times and finished T-20 in 2013, his best year. In 2017, he made the cut but joined list mate Francesco Molinari in a tie for 33rd. This season on the PGA Tour, the world no. 49 has missed just one cut and owns five top-25s, his best effort a T11 at the Sentry Tournament of Champions. Dufner is another one of those lunch pail guys we can’t help but root for.
12. Kiradech Aphibarnrat
To say that Bangkok born Aphibarnrat is stout would be a huge understatement. The 5’8″, 229 lb. European and Asian Tour regular enters just his second Masters, hot on the heels of a pretty good showing at both the World Golf Championships – Mexico Championship (T-5) and the World Golf Championship – Dell Technologies Match Play (also a T-5). A four-time winner on the European Tour and three-time champ on the Asian Tour, Aphibarnrat could easily eclipse the T-15 showing at the 2016 Masters. He didn’t get the world no. 30 ranking for nothing, particularly with his play at the Dell Match Play, where he beat Charles Howell III before succumbing to eventual winner Bubba Watson in the quarter-finals. At the Mexico Championship, he fired a 65 on Sunday — the second best round that day — to get himself within three strokes of eventual winner Phil Mickelson. He’ll be a fan favorite at Augusta.
11. Tyrrell Hatton
Hatton, a European Tour regular since 2014, announced himself fairly loudly in 2016, then didn’t make a cut at a major in 2017. He finished tied for fifth at the 2016 Open Championship and followed it up with a T-10 at the PGA Championship. Hatton played fairly well on the PGA Tour in 2017, finishing T-4 at both the Honda Classic and the Arnold Palmer Invitational and in this young season owns a T-3 at the World Golf Championships – Mexico Championship and a T-9 at the World Golf Championships – Dell Technologies Match Play event. His best finish on the European Tour was a solo third at the Omega Dubai Desert Classic, two shots back of second place Rory McIlroy and three behind winner Haotong Li. Hatton has a fire in his belly and has a bit of a beef with former champ Phil Mickelson, who he says got preferential treatment from officials before winning the Mexico Championship. Let the games begin.
10. Kevin Kisner
If Kisner’s superb run at the WGC – Dell Technologies Match Play event is any indication, a breakthrough at Augusta may not be all that far-fetched. The Aiken, S.C. native and University of Georgia alumnus, ranked 25th in the world, beat Matt Kuchar, then Ian Poulter in the quarter-finals and Alex Noren in the semis before falling 7&6 to Bubba Watson in the final. That was no mean feat, disposing of all those talented golfers to get there. As far as his go at the PGA Tour this season, Kisner had a T-4 at the RSM Classic last November and four top-25s otherwise. Performance wise, his game is tight, as he sits 11th in driving accuracy percentage (265 fairways hit of a possible 381) and is 31st in birdie average with 109 birdies in 27 rounds. This will be his third Masters after finishing T-37 in 2016 and T-43 in 2017.
9. Xander Schauffele
The kid from La Jolla with the cool name jumped into the pro golf world with both feet in 2017, winning his first ever PGA Tour event, the Greenbrier Classic and then later shocking everyone — including himself — by beating Justin Thomas in the Tour Championship. He continued his roll into the 2017 season with a T3 at the CIMB Classic and has since had four more top-25s. As far as majors go, Schauffele was excellent in his first one, the 2017 U.S. Open. He shot a bogey-free 66 his first round — the first rookie to ever do so in his national championship debut — and went on to finish tied for fifth. At the Open Championship, Schauffele was T-20 and he missed the cut at the PGA Championship. Those victories last year guaranteed his first foray into Augusta and the no. 26 ranked golfer in the world will look to capitalize on his rapid ascent so far.
8. Pat Perez
It may not seem like much, but Pat Perez’s T-18 at last year’s Masters was sort of a breakthrough. The 42-year-old tour veteran hadn’t been to Augusta in the seven previous golf seasons, so just making the cut was a victory. The world’s 21st ranked golfer had varying success in this century’s first decade, then kind of faded. He hurt his shoulder a couple of years ago and missed much of the 2015-16 PGA Tour season. He kicked off the 2018 season with a victory at the CIMB Classic, four strokes over runner-up Keegan Bradley. Perez has since had two more top-10s and two top-25s to roll into the Masters playing sound golf. What may set him apart going into this weekend are his technical skills. He is currently sixth on the tour in driving accuracy (hitting 321 of 451 possible fairways), fifth in greens in regulation percentage (72.5 percent) and fifth in birdie average (4.72 per round).
7. Charley Hoffman
Hoffman, ranked no. 28 in the world, is another of those 40-something golfers (he’s 41) whose time is now to win a major. The San Diego native enters the 2018 Masters with a solid PGA Tour resume this season, including a solo second at the Hero World Challenge and four more top-25s. This will be his fifth entry into the Masters, with his best finish ever being a tie for ninth in 2015. Last year, he shot a 7-under 65 to take an early four-stroke lead at Augusta. He followed it up with a 75 to remain in a tie for top spot after two rounds and on Saturday was in command of the lead until a bogey at 14 and a double bogey at 16 put him two shots back entering Sunday. He couldn’t shake the missed opportunity on Sunday, shooting a dismal 78 to finish T-22. However, later in the year, Hoffman posted his best ever finish at a major last year, placing solo eighth at the U.S. Open. He could be classified a prohibitive favorite, but we like him as a dark horse.
6. Marc Leishman
If Aussie Marc Leishman can’t get motivated by the large crowds that will follow his playing partner Tiger Woods on Thursday, nothing will. The world’s no. 16 golfer will in Woods’ opening round threesome and be witness to the former great’s first action at Augusta in a while. Leishman has been pretty good this tour season and heads into his sixth masters on the heels of four top-10 finishes, the latest a T7 at the Arnold Palmer Invitational. Historically, Leishman did his best work at Augusta in 2013. He was the co-leader after day one and kept himself in the hunt on Friday and Saturday. He was two strokes off the pace on Sunday, but shot a 72 to finish in a tie for fourth, four strokes behind eventual winner and fellow Oz native Adam Scott. Maybe this is the year another from Down Under dons the Green Jacket.
5. Ian Poulter
Poulter is Johnny-Come-Lately to the 2018 Masters, earning the last tournament spot on the last possible day with a win at the Houston Open this past weekend. It was his first win on any tour in nearly six years and was a good follow-up to a T-5 at the Dell Match Play event the weekend before. Otherwise it’s been a bit of a mixed bag in his 2018 PGA Tour year. In 2017, Poulter’s best finishes were a T-2 at the Players Championship and solo third at the Canadian Open. The 42-year-old Brit has never won a major, but does have seven top-10s, including three at Augusta. His best finish, too, came in 2015 (T-6), which flies in the face of the argument that older golfers can’t get it done. Only two Brits have won the coveted Green Jacket, the last being Danny Willett and before him Nick Faldo (three times). Could it be world no. 29 Poulter’s turn?
4. Henrik Stenson
Sweden’s top golfer has had a rollercoaster ride on the PGA Tour the last year and a half. The 2016 Open Championship winner and world no. 14 Stenson rode the edge, for sure. During the 2017 tour season, he had three early top-10 finishes only to miss the cut, in succession, at the Arnold Palmer, Houston Open, Masters and Zurich Classic. He got off the Schneid and was T-16 at the Players, but again missed the cut at the U.S. Open. After three top-25s in a row, he finally won the Wyndham Championship, his sixth on the PGA Tour. This season, Stenson has been great, save for missing the cut at the Valspar Championship. He tied for second at the WGC-HSBC champions event, was solo fourth at the Arnold Palmer and was T-6 at the Houston Open to roll into the Masters playing sound golf. He turns 42 on the first day at Augusta and a good birthday would be that famous green jacket.
3. Hideki Matsuyama
Many might argue that the last four or five golfers on this list are actually favorites, but considering their individual histories, and how small and talented the field is, they are dark horses. Matsuyama, ranked sixth in the world, is one of them. He’s danced around the edges in his first six stabs at the Green Jacket, finishing as low amateur in 2011 and adding a solo fifth in 2015, a T-7 in 2016 and a tie for 11th last year. The 26-year-old from Ehime, Japan had a great 2017 PGA Tour season, defending his Phoenix Open title and winning the Bridgestone Invitational in August. He had three top-10s in five events to start this year’s tour season off well, but has faltered a bit lately. However, he is still among the top 10 according to the World Golf Ranking, so he does have the game to win it at Augusta.
2. Matt Kuchar
If there could only be on golfer from this list that we could openly cheer for, it would the ever-smiling, affable Matt Kuchar. If anyone deserves to pull on that green coat, it’s him. Kuchar hasn’t won a tournament in a while, but is still the 20th ranked golfer in the world and has been spot on in four of the last six Masters. He tied for third in 2012, his best finish, then was T-8 in 2013 and T-5 in 2014. Last year, Kuchar shot a superb final round 67 to finish in a tie for fourth, four strokes behind Sergio Garcia. This tour season, the Georgia native has five top-10s, including a T-5 at the Phoenix Open and tie for eighth at last weekend’s Houston Open. Kuchar, who has never won a major, is one of the most popular players on the tour and is long overdue to break his majors hex.
1. Bubba Watson
We know, it’s a bit of a stretch to say that a two-time winner at the Masters is a dark horse, but hear us out anyway. The man with the homemade swing last won at Augusta in 2014, but has since missed the cut in seven out of 15 majors, including the 2017 Masters. His best finish, too, was a T-21 at the 2015 PGA Championship. That, in a nutshell, is why we consider him a dark horse. On the flip side, he is still the 19th ranked golfer in the world and has two wins on the tour this season already. He won the Genesis Open in mid-February and then topped the field at the World Golf Championships-Dell Technologies Match Play a week and a half ago. He’s the biggest bomber on this list, ranked third in average driving distance at a whopping 316.2 yards per drive and he’s got a good approach game going too, ranking 22nd in greens in regulation at 70.25 percent. Third time’s a charm?