The first round of golf’s premier major event is underway and we can’t wait to see how it all plays out.
Now, there was some shocking news Wednesday night about world no. 1 Dustin Johnson, who took a nasty tumble at his rental home in Georgia and injured his lower back. His agent believes he’ll play and he is slated to tee off in the final group with former champ Bubba Watson and Jimmy Walker at 2:03 Thursday.
The PGA Tour needs Johnson at this event, as he has been hotter than anyone on the circuit, winning three consecutive tournaments (that he was entered in) in a row leading up to the Masters, the last being the World Match Play two weeks ago.
With Johnson in the fray, there are several great players on the tour who have never won, and some dark horses without a Green Jacket who bear watching this weekend. Here are 10 to keep an eye on.
10. Jon Rahm – Spain
The golf world surely benefits when it’s up and coming young stars put their stamp on the game. Jon Rahm Rodriguez has jetted up the rankings this year, and at the tender age of 22 could be a Masters champ. The Barrika, Spain native came to prominence last year as the low amateur (T-23) at the U.S. Open and turned pro immediately after. An Arizona State product, Rahm played several tournaments in 2016, with a T3 at the Quicken Loans National and a T2 at the Canadian Open being the highlights. He sizzled at Torrey Pines in January, winning his first PGA Tour event by three strokes over Charles Howell III, including a Sunday low round of 65. Since then, he bumped his world ranking to no. 12 with five more top-10 finishes. Rahm was T5 at the Pebble Beach Pro-Am, T3 at the World Golf Championships in Mexico, lone second at the World Golf Championships Match Play to Dustin Johnson and finally T10 at the Shell Houston Open. A fast riser who isn’t intimidated.
9. Kevin Kisner – USA
Kevin Kisner will no doubt have a vocal throng at this, his second Masters, as he grew up in nearby Aiken, S.C. and played his collegiate golf at the University of Georgia. The world’s 37th ranked golfer turned pro in 2006, but up until 2015 hadn’t yet made a name for himself. Kisner had six top-10s in 2015, winning over $3 million in prize money. He finally broke through in the 2016 season, winning the RSM Classic and earning an invite to Augusta. He had a T37 in his first go around and would scuffle a little after that before posting another of his six 2016 top-10s at the Dean And Deluca Invitational. So far in the 2017 season, the 33-year-old has played it tight with three top-10s, highlighted by a T2 at the Arnold Palmer Invitational last month. He has told anyone who’ll listen that he wants to contend this year, telling the Augusta Chronicle, “To me, it doesn’t do much to finish 40th in golf tournaments. So I’m here to get in contention and maybe have a chance on Sunday. I feel great, man. The game’s good. I’ve just got to go do it now.”
8. Curtis Luck – Australia
With a last name like that, we had to include Perth, Australia born Curtis Luck. The world’s no. 1 amateur, who will turn pro after all is said and done at Augusta, will tee it up with the best at the Masters, including countryman Jason Day. The world’s no. 3 ranked player had some really nice things to say about his pony-tail wearing fellow Aussie. “He reminds me of me growing up, because … he obviously turned pro at a young age,” Day said. “If he’s mature enough, which I think he is, he’s ready for it. He’s not afraid, which is a good thing. And at such a young age, to have maturity and not be afraid is a lethal combination. The talented 20-year-old is also the reigning U.S. Amateur champion as well as the Asia-Pacific Amateur champion, making him a dangerous relative unknown heading into golf’s first major of the 2017 season.
7. Russell Henley – USA
There is nothing like rolling in hot to the Masters. Macon, Georgia native Henley is another local favorite like Kevin Kisner who played golf at the University of Georgia and comes into Augusta after winning the Shell Houston Open last weekend. Henley fired 10 birdies in the final round (65) of the Houston to beat runner-up Sung Kang by three strokes and earn a ticket to his fourth Masters. With his third win on the tour, Henley went from 117th in the world all the way up to 61st. A pro since 2011, Henley has been fairly consistent but looking for the big breakthrough to put him in the conversation for Presidents Cup and Ryder Cup invites. He has played 11 events in the 2011 season and already has three top-10s, one off his career high four, which he attained in 2015 and 2016. With just a shade under $2 million in prize money already, he should eclipse the $2.6 million he earned in 2014.
6. Justin Thomas – USA
Thomas is another one of those outta-nowhere guys on the PGA Tour. A pro since just 2013, the Louisville, KY born 23-year-old is now the world’s seventh ranked golfer, ahead of luminaries Rickie Fowler (no. 8) and Adam Scott (no. 9). Pretty heady territory for the long-hitter who played his college golf at Georgia rival Alabama. Thomas broke out in a big way during the 2016 PGA Tour season, winning his first tournament, the CIMB Classic, which he also successfully defended this season. And he had to beat Scott (2016) as well as veteran Hideki Matsuyama to repeat. Earlier this year, Thomas continued his ascent up the golf rankings with wins at the SBS Tournament of Champions (three strokes ahead of Matsuyama) and a whopping seven stroke victory over second place Justin Rose in the Sony Open in Hawaii a week later. Also included in that victory at Waialae Country Club was a stunning 11-under par 59 in the first round. He should contend this weekend, to say the least.
5. Hideki Matsuyama – Japan
Now we get into the meat and potatoes of players to watch. There is a very talented quintet of players who have yet to don that Green Jacket and Japan’s Hideki Matsuyama, who has teased in the past at Augusta and seems primed to make a run at it. A tour pro since 2013, the Ehime, Japan born Matsuyama is ranked no. 4 in the world and has played some good (and some not-so-good, he doesn’t putt well) golf in his short career. He has four wins since turning pro (all in the past four years) and would have more, had he been able to close it out in two events this season. As mentioned above, he was runner-up twice to Justin Thomas at the CIMB Classic and SBS Tournament of Champions. Those two second-place finishes sandwiched a win at the World Golf Championhips, a T6 at the World Cup of Golf (Euro Tour) and another victory at the Hero World Challenge (an unofficial event). Matsuyama won his other PGA event at the rowdy Phoenix Open, beating Webb Simpson in an exciting four-hole playoff (he also won at Phoenix in a playoff in 2016).
4. Rickie Fowler – USA
The man with the colorful clothing has yet to win a major. Yet. After a superb 2014 season, where he finished T5 at the Masters, T2 at both the U.S. Open and Open Championships and was T3 at the PGA Championship, many thought Fowler would be a majors champ, sooner than later. However, in the intervening years, while he won three events on the PGA Tour and two on the European Tour, he has been a mess at the majors. He was T12 at the 2015 Masters and missed the cut at Augusta in 2016, as well as missing the cut at both the 2015 and 2016 U.S. Opens, killing the significant buzz he generated in 2014. Lately though, Fowler has gotten his game back on track and is looking like a serious contender to win his first Green Jacket. He has six top 10 finishes this season, including a win at the Honda Classic in February and a T3 at last weekend’s Shell Houston Open. Look for those brightly colored togs to be front and center at Augusta on Sunday.
3. Jason Day – Australia
It’s been a while since world no. 3 Jason Day made any kind of impact at the Masters. He was solo third in 2013 and his other best finish was a T2 in 2011. If any golfer is due a majors breakthrough, it might be the popular Aussie, who by his own admission is “a little bit unprepared” for this year’s Masters. Talk about getting into the heads of other golfers with designs on the Green Jacket. However, judging by his 2017 season so far, such an admission is warranted. His best finish in the calendar year on the tour was a T5 at Pebble Beach, otherwise he has been in the also-rans pack in five other events. Even still, Day had the killer instinct in 2016, winning three tournaments on the tour, including the Arnold Palmer, the WGC Match Play and the fifth major at the TPC. Day was also solo second at the PGA (the only major he has won, in 2015) and had six other top 10s. Expect him to keep up with the pack this weekend, maybe even leading it by Sunday.
2. Rory McIlroy – Northern Ireland
None other than golf legend Gary Player has handicapped the Masters by winning it and completing his career Grand Slam (which Player has also done, among a group that includes Tiger Woods, Jack Nicklaus, Ben Hogan and Gene Sarazen). “I’ve said all along that I think Rory will win this week,” Player, 81, told BBC Sport Northern Ireland’s Stephen Watson. He’s had his problems here which we all did but that’s under his belt now.” The world’s second-ranked golfer heads into Augusta having just got his 2017 season rolling in March, with a T7 at the World Golf Championships in Mexico and a T4 at the Arnold Palmer. In the last three Masters, McIlroy has finished top-10, including a solo fourth in 2015. If he is to win, he’ll have to conjure up some of the magic from his two big victories in 2016, the Deutsche Bank and the Tour championship.
1. Dustin Johnson – USA
We hope that nasty tumble he took down the stairs of his Augusta area rental home doesn’t derail Dustin Johnson’s quest to win his first Masters and second major of his career. The world no. 1 announced himself as a golfer to be reckoned with in 2016, winning the U.S. Open and finishing top 10 at the Masters (T4; his best finish) and the Open Championship (T9). The reigning PGA Tour Player of the Year has been on a dream roll heading into the weekend, having won the last three tournaments he was entered in. He was tops at the Genesis Open in mid-February, then victorious at the WGC in Mexico and the WGC Match Play championship in late March. As well, he was solo third at Pebble Beach, T3 at the Hero World Challenge and T6 at the SBS Tournament of Champions. Winning the Masters for the first time in his career — if his wonky back holds up — could pave the way for a monster year.