What is that we hear? Could it be the sound of piped-in bird calls and the soft twinkle of Dave Loggins’s “Augusta (The Theme From the Masters)?” Are those the dulcet tones of Jim Nantz coming to us live from Butler Cabin? Is it finally THAT time of year?
Ladies and gentlemen (formerly just gentlemen), it is! It’s Masters time. So please allow us to prepare you for our annual procession to the land of pimento cheese and par 3 challenges, back-nine shootouts and Sunday meltdowns. Who will contend for the fabled green jacket, and whose chances will wash away in the watery abyss of Rae’s Creek? Will the defending champion (Hideki Matsuyama) and the 2019 champion (some guy who shares a nickname with a big cat) even be able to tee it up? Before you can say “game-time decision,” here are the story lines to watch for and the men to wager on, all delivered with the seamless precision of a Phil Mickelson treatise on geopolitics. No! Wait!! A Phil Mickelson gap wedge. That’s what we meant to type. The excitement is already getting to us. Without further delay, here’s a preview unlike any other. —Elizabeth Nelson
Tiger Woods Is Actually Back. What Can We Expect?
Matt Dollinger: Let’s not sugarcoat how surreal this is. Fourteen months ago, Tiger Woods almost died. He got into a single-car accident that nearly cost him his life. He suffered severe leg injuries. But doctors said he would eventually be able to walk again. Judging by the wreckage, it seemed hard to believe. Maybe he’d be able to play nine holes with his kids one day, but the idea of him playing professional golf again seemed implausible. To suggest that he could compete at a major golf tournament again, much less the Masters just a little more than a year later, seemed exponentially more far-fetched than his previous comeback in 2019, which is already widely viewed as the greatest feat in the history of the sport.
It wasn’t neccessarily a reflection on Tiger or his willpower that we assumed he’d never play on the Tour again. It was an acceptance of what seemed like reality. Mortality. The greatest golfer of all time has left our mouths agape since he was 2 years old on The Mike Douglas Show. Some 40 years later, how is it possible he is still doing it? How is an athlete who has overcome so much adversity still catching us off guard and leaving us in awe?
Barring a late setback, Tiger Woods is playing in the 2022 Masters. As a golf fan, that’s an incredible sentence to write. And he isn’t just hitting a ceremonial tee shot. He’s playing “phenomenal” according to Fred Couples, who joined him for a practice round. He’s bombing his driver on both the range and the course. And he’s even nailing the driving range picker just to show off how dialed in he really is. If that kind of play doesn’t give you goosebumps, or at least some form of deja vu, these photos from Tiger’s Monday practice round will do the trick:
The crowds for Tiger's PRACTICE round at The Masters pic.twitter.com/t2fXSRJNgJ— Front Office Sports (@FOS) April 4, 2022
When Tiger is striping the ball and has his short game on a string, the rest of the field is historically pretty screwed. Especially at Augusta, where he’s won five times. How will his surgically repaired leg hold up against the endless undulation and hills of Augusta National? That seems to be the biggest question of the tournament (outside of: What are those?!). But considering we’ve watched Woods do the impossible repeatedly, including winning the 2008 U.S. Open on a torn ACL, it seems downright foolish to count him out again. Then again, part of me feels naive to assume he’s really back. Fourteen months removed from a near-tragic wreck, Tiger Woods is back in our lives and has a Thursday tee time at Augusta. Whether he wins, misses the cut, or has to withdraw is almost besides the point. Tiger Woods has done the impossible again. It probably won’t be the last time, either.
What’s Really Going on With Phil Mickelson?
Megan Schuster: Isn’t that a question for the ages? If you’re someone who waits for Masters week to turn your attention to golf, allow me to catch you up: Phil has been going through it. I don’t say that sympathetically, because his current predicament is entirely of his own making. But he’s embroiled himself in an all-time strange situation nonetheless.
Mickelson has been in the news for his attachment to, and comments about, the forthcoming Super Golf League—a breakaway league funded by Saudi Arabia’s Public Investment Fund. The PGA Tour has naturally opposed this venture, doing everything in its power to retain players (from raising purse numbers to introducing the Player Impact Program to, as one member detailed last month, saying anyone who considered playing in that league would be “banned” from the Tour). But Mickelson has been a vocal—and quite controversial—proponent.
Back in February, author and golf journalist Alan Shipnuck released a portion of an interview for his upcoming biography on Mickelson in which Phil heavily criticized the PGA Tour and detailed the fact that he was continuing to work with the SGL and Saudi Arabia—despite the latter’s history of human rights abuses—in an effort to pressure the Tour into making massive changes. Soon after his quotes were released, Mickelson issued a hasty apology and said he was stepping away from golf for a while (though there is some question over whether that step away is a result of a suspension). And in late March, Augusta National confirmed that he would not participate in this year’s Masters.
So Phil isn’t playing the Masters for the first time since 1994, and it doesn’t sound like he’s been especially chatty with his fellow golfers as of late—or at least not Bryson DeChambeau, who said Monday that his messages to Phil have gone unanswered.
Bryson confirms no Phil Mickelson proof of life! #bonesaw pic.twitter.com/5VfSyDtvJy— Bunkie Perkins (@BunkiePerkins) April 4, 2022
Where do things go from here? That’s a question only Phil and PGA commissioner Jay Monahan can answer. But unless there’s some form of reconciliation soon, it probably can’t be anywhere good.
Who Is Scottie Scheffler and How Is He the No. 1 Player in the World?
Dollinger: If you’ve never heard of Scottie Scheffler, don’t worry, he won’t be offended. Up until a couple of months ago, the 25-year-old had never even won on Tour. But then the Texan with the solid game and slippery footwork strung together three victories in five tournaments to suddenly become the world’s new no. 1 golfer. “I never really got that far in my dreams, to be honest with you,” Scheffler said after winning the WGC Match Play tournament last month. “I never really made it that far.”
Scheffler flew under the radar all the way to the top of the world, but he’d shown plenty of promise before. It’s the leveling up that’s caught everyone off guard. In two months, Scheffler somehow went from a rising star to the Man. Tiger Woods previously held the record for the shortest time between his first win and becoming the world’s no. 1 at 252 days. Scheffler did it in 42. There’s nothing spectacular about Scheffler’s game, but there are also no holes in it. He rarely blinks. He’s finished T8 or better in every major except the Masters, and he finished T18 last year and T19 the year before in his debut. No one is necessarily expecting Scheffler to continue his hot streak with a win at Augusta, but it might be this weekend’s least surprising outcome at the same time. Scheffler’s even-keeled demeanor and steady swing made him a threat at any tournament. But now that he’s gained the confidence to close? We could be witnessing the transformation of a star.
Speaking of stars, they may be aligned for Scheffler to win this weekend, but the world’s new no. 1 isn’t letting the success go to his head. Mainly because the general public, which is still coming to grips with his meteoric rise, won’t let him:
Scottie Scheffler on Golf Channel just now with a reminder of how fringe famous (at best) pro golfers are, including the World No. 1— Christopher Powers (@CPowers14) April 4, 2022
"The guy who picked me up in the cart this morning called me Xander, so that brought me back down to earth real quick."
What Can We Expect From Hideki Matsuyama?
Nelson: Matsuyama’s Masters victory a year ago vaulted the 30-year-old Japanese star past elite-player status and into the realm of global icon. There is no exaggerating the significance of the first men’s major champion from golf-crazed Japan, and in a sport frequently lacking diversity, the symbolism of Matsuyama’s win at Augusta reverberated far beyond his home country.
Hideki’s triumph was historic, inspiring, and fun to watch; and it wasn’t a fluke. A precision ball striker with a first rate short game, Matsuyama always made sense as a potential green jacket winner, even with his sometimes less-than-premium putting. He bullied Augusta National on moving day last year, carding a 65 that included a 6 under par back nine, a staggeringly locked-in stretch that ultimately made the difference in the tournament. Any time that guy shows up, he can separate himself from the field.
Matsuyama’s form of late has actually been better than it was heading into the 2021 Masters. He won the Zozo Championship in October last year and the Sony Open in January, outdueling Russell Henley in a playoff. But then the injury bug bit and decided to stick around for a while. Hideki withdrew from the Players in March with a bad back, and then again from the Valero Texas Open last week, this time citing issues with his neck. All indications are that he intends to give his title defense a go, but it’s difficult to feel optimistic about the rigors of what might be a chilly Augusta with those sorts of ailments. Regardless, if this isn’t his week, he’ll have others. Matsuyama’s history-making days aren’t over by a long shot.
Bryson DeChambeau: Are You OK?
Schuster: It seemed to be only a matter of time before Bryson’s notoriously long range sessions came back to bite him, and sure enough, that happened early this year. DeChambeau suffered a hairline fracture in his left hand that took him out of some tournaments after the Farmers Insurance Open in January. And then, while in Saudi Arabia for its invitational, he slipped during a ping-pong match and tore a labrum in his hip—an injury that would keep him sidelined until the WGC Match Play event in late March.
DeChambeau comes into Masters week having finished T58 at the WGC and missing the cut at the Valero Texas Open, so it’s clear his health—or at least his game—isn’t where he would want it to be coming into a course and tournament that suits his new style of play extremely well. But DeChambeau said this week that it’s a nice surprise that he can play the Masters—even if he’s going against his doctor’s advice to do so. “I didn’t know I’d be ready in time to be here,” he said. “Frankly, I’m surprised I’m this far along. It should’ve been four months of just, ‘See ya later.’”
Who Are the Dark Horses to Watch?
Dollinger: Will Zalatoris might be the most electric player on Tour now that Bryson DeChambeau has vacated the throne (those things are terrible for your back anyways). It’s a funny changing of the guard when you consider DeChambeau built himself into golf’s version of Godzilla while the 175-pound Zalatoris can be lost on a putting green if he’s standing behind the flag. But the 25-year-old is up to no. 29 in the world after notching nine top-10 finishes since the start of 2021, including a solo second-place finish in his Masters debut last year, when he lost to Hideki Matsuyama by just one stroke. Zalatoris has yet to win on Tour, but he’s seemingly around constantly (sound familiar? See: Scheffler, Scottie.).
He’s long off the tee (17th on the Tour in driving distance), an incredible ball-striker (9th in greens in regulation percentage), and every putt he hits is must-see TV—for better or for worse. He’s listed at +3200 to win on FanDuel, but with his putting demons possibly lurking, and with the back nine on Sunday serving as the ultimate trial by fire, it’s tough to say how comfortable he’ll be on golf’s biggest stage.
Another name to consider, unless you’re asking about a drop: Daniel Berger (+4800). The 28-year-old has trended in the wrong direction in his four Masters starts (T-10 in 2016, T27 in 2017, T32 in 2018, MC last year), but he’s the type of gritty and accurate golfer that tends to fare well on this course. He’s finished T12 or better in all four majors and he may have learned enough lessons around Augusta to put it all together this year.
And finally, it wouldn’t be a real Masters preview without a tip of the cap to the darkest horse of all, 64-year-old Bernhard Langer. No, I’m not saying the two-time Masters champ is a threat to win his third green jacket (+100000 would be nice, though), but he’s +150 to make the cut, according to BetMGM. Langer is still in incredible shape and he’s been playing this course for 40 years. He knows every nook and cranny. He missed the cut last season, but he’s made it in sixof the past nine years. He’s the oldest finisher in tournament history (T29 in 2020 at age 63) and he could very well break his own record again. Bet against him at your own risk.
Which Top Odds-Holder Has the Best Chance?
Schuster: According to FanDuel, the top five favorites to win the Masters are Jon Rahm (+1200), Cameron Smith (+1500), Justin Thomas (+1300), Dustin Johnson (+1500), Scottie Scheffler (+1500).
For as much as we’ve praised Scheffler in this piece, I have a hard time believing he will get it done this weekend, if only because his history at Augusta National is so limited. He’s played the Masters just twice and admittedly had very solid tournaments both times, finishing T19 and T18. But this course rewards people who know it well, and there are a few names in this group who fit that bill: Justin Thomas (who finished fourth in 2020 and has four top-five finishes on Tour already this season), Dustin Johnson (who of course won the strange November Masters in 2020), and Jon Rahm (who’s been top-10 in each of his past four Masters appearances).
Out of those three, I’d probably lean Rahm, as he’s had an unreal last three months of ball-striking. But I’ll also never be the one to count out a red-hot, determined JT.
Rory, Are We Doing This Thing or Not?
Nelson: Five men have won golf’s modern career Grand Slam: Jack Nicklaus, Gene Sarazen, Ben Hogan, Gary Player, and Tiger Woods. Rory McIlroy was supposed to be the sixth. At just 25 years old, McIlroy went wire-to-wire to bag the 2014 Open Championship—completing the third leg of the career slam—and many assumed the majors that a green jacket was a foregone conclusion. Fast-forward eight years and we’re still waiting. Despite masterful stretches of golf, including a fourth major at the 2014 PGA and a stint as world no. 1 in 2020, McIlroy has yet to seal the deal down south, as Tobias Fünke might put it.
Rory is my absolute favorite player, and I’m rooting hard for him this year. But with a missed cut at last week’s Valero and the insane pressure exerted on him by people like me, it’s difficult to approach this week with an overflow of confidence. Perhaps that’s for the best. Maybe he gets a break and a certain guy named Woods takes up all of the media oxygen, allowing Rory to concentrate on his game and leave behind the career Grand Slam narrative. Maybe it’s one of those weird weeks when he putts lights out. Maybe he’s too exhausted to care after chasing after his adorable toddler Poppy or explaining the world to Phil Mickelson. McIlroy is still a young man, but the challenge of finishing the career Grand Slam just gets harder with every passing year. To paraphrase the Coen Brothers: Let’s just take care of this right here, in Augusta.
Who Actually Will Win?
Nelson: Collin Morikawa. The 25-year old won the PGA Championship and the Open Championship in his first starts there, sending a chill through the spine of the conventional wisdom that one has to “learn” to win a major. Experience undoubtedly helps, but as Morikawa demonstrated, talent and temperament trump experience. And now he has experience, too. It may or may not be this year, but Morikawa will win a Masters. It’s just a matter of when.
Schuster: Jordan Spieth. I’m so sorry to do this. Truly, I feel like Charlie Brown, and this prediction is my football. But I’m doing it anyway. The only thing more cathartic for me than Tiger winning this tournament would be Spieth winning it, so here I am, typing before you all, ready to get hurt again.
Dollinger: Justin Thomas. If a Tiger Woods victory is too much of a fever dream, maybe Jupiter’s other favorite son can finally break through at Augusta. Thomas has made all six cuts in his Masters career but has only one top-10 finish (fourth place in 2020). That said, he’s capable of going low (he’s shot a 68 or better at Augusta in each of the past four years), and he has the game (most GIR at the Masters in the same span) and the moxie to win. Augusta isn’t usually a place to make a name for yourself, it’s a place where you cement yourself. JT has had an incredible start to the season, but he has only one real major under his belt and zero since 2017. It could be time.