With the arrival of spring there is a familiar anticipation in golf circles.
That being the real start of golf’s 2018 season at Augusta National. The first in the PGA Tour’s coveted four majors, the Masters is the one every pro golfer wants first on his resume.
What makes this year’s event even more looked forward to is the return of Tiger. The four-time winner is really back and he couldn’t have started a charge on the tour at a better time.
He’s played five tournaments so far in the young tour season and has two very impressive top 10s, one a T-5 at the Bay Hill this past weekend — which also saw a long overdue win by Rory McIlroy.
With just three events remaining until the Masters, the formidable names on the tour will either sharpen their games in those tournaments (like the Houston Open) or take some valuable time off to rest and reset.
Here are 20 players we believe have a legitimate shot (providing they all qualify) at donning the Green Jacket on April 8.
20. Gary Woodland
When Gary Woodland topped Chez Reavie on the first playoff hole at the raucous Phoenix Waste Management Open, his victory ended a lengthy four and a half year drought on the PGA Tour. Not that he had been playing all that badly, but he just wasn’t finishing. With that big win, Woodland had his biggest payday and punched his ticket to sixth Masters, where his best finish was a T-24 in 2011 (he missed the cut in a tough 2017). With a win and a T-7 at at the Sony Open, Woodland appears to be ready. However, the 28th ranked golfer in the world has shown some chinks in the armor lately, which is why he doesn’t appear higher in this ranking. Since his triumph in Phoenix, he’s missed the cut at the Valspar and Pebble Beach, with a T-49 at the Honda Classic his best finish. One stat, though, that makes him a favorite is 3rd overall rank for hitting greens in regulation at a healthy 72.76 percent.
19. Brendan Steele
Steele kicked off the 2017-18 season with a bang, winning his third PGA Tour event at the Safeway Open on Oct. 8, 2017. It was also a successful defence of the title he won in 2016. This time around, the 34-year-old Californian and 40th ranked golfer in the world clipped Tony Finau by two strokes to claim the trophy. That win and a T-3 at Phoenix have vaulted him into 7th in the FedEx Cup standings too. Most impressive about Steele has been his relative consistency this season. He hasn’t missed a cut and his worst finish was a T-49 at the Genesis Open, where he was +1, otherwise every other round varied from 1-under to his 15-under at the Safeway. We gave Woodland a 19th ranking here due to his no. 6 position the tour’s overall rankings, with a couple of performance stats that stand out. One is greens in regulation, where he is 7th at 71.7 percent and an 8th in birdie average at 4.41 per round.
18. Brian Harman
If a trophy was given out for consistency, Harman’s might already be on it for the current PGA Tour season. The world no. 22 already has an astounding six top-10 finishes on the tour, his best a solo third at the Sentry Tournament of Champions, where he finished nine strokes back of winner Dustin Johnson. He’s only played one Masters in his career, missing the cut in 2015, but we think he might be poised for a breakthrough after a couple of decent finishes in major tournaments last year. In a 2017 year that saw him win his second tour event at the Wells Fargo, Harman finished a personal best T-2 at the U.S. Open and then tied for the 13th at the PGA Championship. This season he is ranked 14th on the tour’s overall ranking and 15th in the Fed Ex. What has really helped his game, and makes him dangerous at Augusta is his greens in regulation percentage of 72.81, which is second best overall.
17. Paul Casey
In recent years, the Europeans have been dominant at the Masters, with England’s Danny Willett donning the Green Jacket in 2016 and Spain’s Sergio Garcia a long awaited one in 2017. Could Englishman and tour veteran Paul Casey make it a trifecta? With his performance so far in this PGA Tour season, we see no reason why not. He is ranked 12th in the world golf rankings and fifth in the overall tour ranking, while winning at the Valspar, finishing T-7 at the CIMB Classic and T-8 at Pebble Beach. That victory at the Valspar marked just his second on the tour (he has 13 European tour wins, though) and first since 2009 at the Shell Houston Open. The 40-year-old native of Gloucestershire has been oh so close at the last three Masters, finishing T-6 in 2015, a career best T-4 in 2016 and a solo sixth last year. With five total top 10s in 11 Masters, perhaps Casey is on the verge of taming Augusta.
16. Patrick Cantlay
We love an underdog and a great comeback story and for that reason we would like nothing better than seeing Patrick Cantlay have the Green Jacket put on his slender form by defending champ Sergio Garcia. The 25-year-old former NCAA top golfer has had to overcome a ton of adversity in his short career, including a debilitating back injury that severely limited his tour starts in 2013-14. The other thing he had to overcome was the tragic death of his caddy and longtime friend Chris Roth in early 2016. He persevered and so far in this PGA Tour season he has shown he belongs. Ranked 34th in the World Golf Rankings and 15th in the tour’s overall rankings, Cantlay won his first tournament in November at the Shriners Hospitals for Children Open. He beat Alex Cejka and Kim Meen-whee in a playoff. In addition to that victory, he finished T-4 at the Genesis Open in February. In his only appearance at Augusta in 2012, Cantlay was low amateur and finished tied for 47th.
15. Rickie Fowler
Fowler should be much higher on this list, considering he actually has 18-1 odds of winning the Masters (fifth best). For all his pedigree (four PGA Tour wins, two European) and his potential (seven top 10s in majors since 2011), Fowler has left us wanting more on too many occasions. And that goes for the Masters, where in 2014 he shot a superb 67 on Saturday to get within two strokes of the lead, only to fire a disappointing 1-over 73 on Sunday and finish in a tie for fifth with Matt Kuchar. Despite not owning a single major, yet, we still like Fowler’s chances this year, particularly on the heels of Sergio Garcia’s triumph last year — which was his first major. This season, Fowler has played some really good — and really mediocre — golf. The world’s no. 8 golfer won the Hero World Challenge, finished solo second at the OHL Classic and T-4 at the Sentry Tournament of Champions. But, he also missed the cut at the Farmers Insurance Open and the Honda Classic. It’s a toss up, where he’ll finish.
14. Patton Kizzire
Pressure does funny things to people. Some people thrive when faced with it, others fold. We’re going to put Montgomery, AL native Patton Kizzire in the former category. Kizzire, ranked 52nd in the world and second in the FedEx Cup standings, has won twice on the tour already this season (his first victories ever), the first at the OHL Classic and the second at the Sony Open. As for a clutch win in pressure conditions, Kizzire, like the rest of the field, had to play 36 holes on Sunday at the OHL Classic after weather wiped out the third round. He shot 66-67 in those two Sunday rounds, just good enough to hold off a hard-charging Rickie Fowler, who posted 67-67 to finish second. The yoke of pressure was also firmly on Kizzire’s shoulders at the Sony Open, when James Hahn carded a ridiculous 62 to tie him for the lead and send it to a playoff. It then took him until the sixth playoff hole, sinking a birdie putt, to finally vanquish Hahn for the title. With four top-10s this season, Kizzire is one to watch.
13. Rafael Cabrera Bello
It could be the first ever Spaniard to Spaniard pass of the Green Jacket if Rafa Cabrera Bello wins his first major and first PGA Tour event at Augusta. And if he does win, the Las Palmas born Bello will join select Spanish company which includes defending champ Garcia, Jose Maria Olazabal and the late, great Seve Ballesteros. Bello is not without some pedigree, having won three European Tour events and competed in 18 majors, with his best finish a tie for fourth at last year’s Open Championship. This will be the world’s 21st ranked golfer third Masters, with a T-17 in 2016 being his lone finish (he missed the cut in 2017). He has played seven events on the PGA Tour and has three top-10s coming into the Masters, while he also has three top 10s in six European Tour events. Of note, from a statistics perspective, Bello is sixth on the PGA Tour in Greens In Regulation, hitting them 71.83 percent of the time.
12. Alex Noren
A Swede has never won the Masters and given our choice, Noren may win a Green Jacket before countryman Henrik Stenson. Noren is currently ranked third overall in the PGA Tour All-Around rankings, 17th in the world and 18th in the FedEx Cup standings. Noren has been pretty good on the PGA Tour this season, never missing a cut and posting a T-2 at the Farmers Insurance Open and finishing solo third at the Honda Classic. He hasn’t been as prolific over on the European Tour in six tournaments, recording two top 25s and again not missing a cut. He does have nine career European Tour victories, his most recent the BMW PGA Championship in August 2017. Statistically, Noren is positioned well to score low at Augusta, currently ranked fourth on the PGA Tour in scoring average at 69.456 strokes per round. Stockholm must be proud of its native son.
11. Jordan Spieth
Since winning his first Masters in 2015 and first of three majors, Spieth’s record at Augusta has been checkered. That is why we aren’t putting him top 10 here, even though he is ranked fourth in the world. Problem is he hasn’t really golfed all that well, yet, and is sitting a dismal 84th in the tour’s all-around rankings. Other than a T-3 at the Hero Golf Challenge (an unofficial event), he has two ninth place finishes and has also missed two cuts in eight tournaments. Back to the Masters, Spieth blew up huge trying to defend his title in 2016, allowing a five-stroke swing starting at Amen Corner on Sunday, eventually finishing T-2 to Danny Willett. Last year, Spieth was within two strokes of the lead after the Saturday round, but shot a 3-over 75 and finished tied for 11th. Now, even though we’ve been a little harsh on Spieth, he is a favorite here by virtue of winning last year’s Open Championship and being the owner of three major championship titles.
10. Sergio Garcia
It’s tough to win the Masters — even tougher to be a repeat champion. In his 19th try, Garcia finally got to wear the famous Green Jacket, as well own his first major after competing in 77 total major tournaments. The affable Spaniard’s best finish before that was a T-4 in 2004 but mostly he’d known misery at Augusta, missing the cut on six separate occasions. As of Wednesday, Garcia is ranked 10th in the world and has played but three in three PGA Tour tournaments. But, he has done quite well, finishing tied for seventh at the World Golf Championships – Mexico Championship and following it up with a strong solo fourth at the Valspar, shooting a final round 65 to climb well up the leaderboard. On the European Tour side, Garcia kicked off his season there by winning his eponymous foundation’s Andalucia Valderrama Masters tournament. If he’s in contention on Masters Sunday, he’ll be dangerous.
9. Tommy Fleetwood
We like Fleetwood at no. 9, considering he is ranked 12th in the World Golf Rankings and that he is coming off his best finish at a major in 2017, a T-4 at the U.S. Open. The young Brit from Southport has had a good season on both the PGA and European Tours this season. His best finish on the former was a solo fourth at the Honda Classic, while on the latter he has four top 10s in six tournaments, including a victory (his fourth on the Euro Tour) at the Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship. Performance-wise, Fleetwood is a very admirable fifth on the PGA Tour All-Around ranking. This comes from being ninth in scoring average (69.647 strokes per round) and 27th in birdie average with 4.05 per round. In his only appearance at the Masters, in 2017, Fleetwood missed the cut. But, that may not be a hindrance to one of the tour’s most consistent players.
8. Jon Rahm
Beefy Jon Rahm is part of the new breed coming out of Spain and like Rafa Cabrera watched with a mix of hopefulness and maybe envy as countryman Sergio Garcia broke a long, painful drought at Augusta in 2017. For his part, the 6’2″, 220 lb. Rahm, who is all of 23, finished tied for 27th in his first Masters. The Barrika, Spain born Rahm has been great on both tours in a little over a calendar year’s time, winning twice each on the PGA and European circuits. Those would include recent victories at the PGA Tour’s CareerBuilder Challenge in January and the DP World Tour Championship in Dubai last November. On the PGA Tour side, he also finished solo second to Dustin Johnson at the Sentry Tournament of Champions two weeks before CareerBuilder. Rahm, who is ranked no. 3 in the world and is seventh on the PGA Tour’s all-around rankings, has 16-1 odds of winning the Masters.
7. Jason Day
Depending on how one looks at Day’s career, he is either poised for greater things at major tournaments or doomed to a plethora of top 10 finishes. Day, ranked no. 11 in the world and currently eighth in the FedEx Cup standings, broke through in 2015 for his first major championship triumph, winning the PGA Championship. He hasn’t fared well at the Masters lately, though, finishing T-22 last year. His best finishes at Augusta were a solo third in 2013 and a T-2 in 2011. An 11-time winner on the PGA Tour, the Aussie star has played very well in limited events this season. He won the Farmers Insurance Open and followed it up with a tie for second at Pebble Beach. Day has been excellent in the All-Around rankings, sitting ninth based on being ranked 11th in driving distance (312 yards per drive), fourth in birdie average (4.75 per round) and 11th in scoring average (69.730 strokes per round). Could this be Day’s year, finally?
6. Justin Rose
It’s already been one heck of a PGA Tour season for world no. 5 Justin Rose. And due to his success on the greens the odds are 14-1 that he’ll emerge victorious at Augusta. In five official events on the tour, he has a win at the World Golf Championships – HSBC Champions and three top 10s, including a solo third at last weekend’s Bay Hill Invitational. That outstanding output has put him solidly in sixth spot in the FedEx Standings and eighth in the PGA Tour’s All-Around ranking. And on the European Tour side, he has another win at the Turkish Airlines Open and two more top 10s in five events. His recent Masters history suggests that Rose is on the brink of adding a Green Jacket to his 2013 U.S. Open championship. He lost in a playoff to Sergio Garcia in 2017, which was preceded by a tie for 10th in 2016 and a T-2 in 2015. What will help him come early April will be his ability to go low (he is third in scoring average at 69.282 strokes per round) and to post timely birdies (sixth with 4.70 per round).
5. Phil Mickelson
The Mick, at 47, is enjoying a real renaissance of a season. The PGA Tour’s veteran superstar already has a win under his belt, the World Golf Championships – Mexico Championship, as well as four other top 10s. The oldest man in the field at the WGC event, Mickelson broke a 96-tournament winless streak to win his 43rd overall PGA Tour event. And he did it in high style, beating Justin Thomas — who caught him in the last round with a superb 64 — in one playoff hole. Ranked way down at no. 18 in the world, but third in the FedEx standings, Mickelson will roll into Augusta looking for his first Green Jacket since winning his third in 2010. His best finishes since were a T-3 in 2012 and a T-2 in 2015. He has used his great short game to score eighth best on the tour (69.511 strokes per round) and record the third best birdie average at 4.77 per round. We like the Mick to win, especially if he has a lead or is within a shot on Saturday.
4. Rory McIlroy
All Rory McIlroy needs is a Green Jacket to complete a personal tour slam that includes a U.S. Open, Open Championship and two PGA Championships. After ending a lengthy — by his standards — drought with a convincing triumph at Bay Hill this past weekend, McIlroy has been made a 10-1 favorite to finally get to put on the famous coat. He held off Bryson DeChambeau, Justin Rose, Henrik Stenson and Tiger Woods by firing an amazing 64 in the final round to win it by three strokes. That win boosted him way up in the FedEx Standings to 24th and six full spots in the World Golf Ranking from 13th to seventh. We would have ranked McIlroy higher, if not for his tepid start to the 2018 season. He missed the cut at Pebble Beach and at the Valspar Championship, sandwiched around a tie for 20th at the Genesis Open and a mediocre T-59 at the Honda Classic. He’ll be a force to be reckoned with in a few weeks.
3. Tiger Woods
Will his oft-injured body hold up to the rigors of the tour, or will Tiger succumb to yet another setback? The tour needs Tiger more than he needs the tour, but there is no mistaking that with yet another revision to his swing, the PGA Tour’s biggest draw is back, baby. Woods has made a miraculous climb back up in a World Golf Rankings he once ruled for 683 consecutive weeks earlier in his career. Ranked as low as 656th in 2017, he has jumped all the way up to 105th, with no sign of stopping. After missing the cut at the Genesis Open, Woods followed it up with a solo 12th at the Honda Classic, a tie for second at the Valspar and lastly a T-5 at the Bay Hill Invitational on Sunday. He last won a Masters in 2005 and hasn’t topped a major since winning his 14th at the U.S. Open in 2008. With his revamped swing has come a few bugs, which have kept him at no. 91 in the PGA Tour All-Around ranking, yet he is an impressive fifth in scoring average at 69.474 strokes per round. If Tiger, who has the best odds to win at 8-1, smells blood in the water on Sunday at Augusta, look out.
2. Dustin Johnson
The way he has played lately, world no. 1 Dustin Johnson should be a lock to win his first Masters. He has followed up a great 2017 that saw him win four PGA Tour events, with yet another victory in the young 2018 season at the Sentry Tournament of Champions in January. He has also registered a T-2 at both the World Golf Championships – HSBC Champions and the AT&T Pebble Beach Pro-Am. A look at his Masters participation also shows a significant trend in better finishes year-over-year. In 2015, he finished tied for sixth and in 2016 he was T-4 (he didn’t partake in 2017 after taking a spill down some stairs at home and injuring his back slightly). And in case anyone is wondering how Johnson was given 10-1 odds to win recently, one need only look at his performance rating (he is 2nd All-Around). He is first in Eagles (one per 51.4 holes), first in birdie average (4.95 per round) and first in scoring average (68.843 shots per round). Go D.J., Go.
1. Justin Thomas
We think there will be a changing of the guard at Augusta this year and we feel Louisville native Justin Thomas has the best shot to capture his second major after winning the final major of 2017 at the PGA Championships. He is the world’s no. 2 ranked golfer, but is also first in the PGA Tour’s All-Around Ranking and first in FedEx Cup points. The 24-year-old has been busy on the tour this season, competing in nine events and winning both the CJ Cup @ Nine Bridges and the Honda Classic. Thomas also has a solo second at the World Golf Championships – Mexico Championship and a T-9 at the Genesis Open. He’s shown good power off the tee, sitting eighth at 312.5 yards per drive, while also showing finesse around the greens (7th in birdie average with 4.56 birdies per round). Thomas has 10-1 odds of winning and we believe he has the all-around game to come out on top at the Masters.