What’s that sound—is it the soothing ripple of Rae’s Creek? The calming sway of majestic dogwoods and azaleas? The soft squish of spikes padding through the lush lawns of America’s favorite golf mecca? Oh, hell yes: It’s Masters week!
Not a second too soon, sport’s most wonderfully preposterous rite of spring is ready to transport us to the place where synapses stop firing over 4-foot putts, and nerves snap, crackle, and pop like twigs at Amen Corner. Augusta National is golf’s Overlook Hotel—a lavishly decorous setting haunted by history and certain to bring about nerve-jangling horrors. As always, we’re here to get you set for a glorious week of mental carnage, with a heaping side of golf’s own civil war on the menu. Like a shanked tee shot at no. 12, let’s dive in! —Elizabeth Nelson
What’s new at Augusta National?
Nelson: Ever since Tiger Woods first overpowered Augusta National en route to an 18-under-par finish in 1997, the course has grown by leaps and bounds. During that historic performance, it played at a modest 6,925 yards. Now, players will have to navigate 7,545 yards of hilly, verdant track. The big change this year is at the par 5 13th, which has been lengthened by 35 yards, turning a routine birdie hole—which yields its share of eagles—into more of a risk/reward proposition. Candidly, I don’t love this development. Last year Augusta’s keepers similarly increased the 15th hole—Augusta’s second par 5 of the back nine—and the results were zero eagles for the week. Part of the beauty of the Masters is the scorable back nine that allows golfers to catch fire and seize the tournament by the nuts: see Jack Nicklaus’s final-nine 30 in 1986.
At the same time, given the ongoing discourse surrounding players’ ever-increasing distance and attendant equipment controversies, one can understand the need for a club which first opened in 1932 to adapt to modern realities. Still, if I see Rory McIlroy, Jon Rahm, or Tiger Woods (!) laying up instead of going for the green in two in a big spot on Sunday, I’m going to be pouting as I consume my next pimento cheese sandwich.
Who has the most at stake: Rory McIlroy, Jon Rahm, or Scottie Scheffler?
Matt Dollinger: Rahm has never finished higher than fourth at Augusta and hasn’t claimed a major since 2021. While he’s in the conversation for being the best player in the world, it’s hard to make an argument that he actually is no. 1.
That’s because of Scheffler, who is actually the world’s no. 1 player and the Masters’ reigning champ. But a second green jacket might not do much for his legacy, as strange as that sounds. The Masters is the only one of the four majors he’s won. And a win might threaten boredom more than awe this weekend.
Which brings us to the Masters golfer with easily the most at stake this year: Rory bleeping McIlroy. You likely know this stat as well as I do: For all of Rory’s immense talents, he hasn’t won a major since 2014! And while he’s racked up wins at the Open, U.S. Open, and the PGA Championship, the green jacket has remained elusive all these years.
Not that there haven’t been close calls. Rory has top-10 finishes in seven of the past nine Masters and shot a final-round 64 last year to finish runner-up. He led the field in driving distance (318.5 yards) in 2022 and finished tied for second in greens in regulation (69 percent, nice), giving you an idea of the only thing separating Rory from a fancy new sports coat.
If Rory’s putter complies, everything is lined up for this to be his year. And having 18 LIV golfers in attendance to bask in his glory would make the long-awaited career Grand Slam all the more sweet.
What will Tiger do?
Megan Schuster: Look at this face:
Tiger Woods has arrived at Augusta. pic.twitter.com/Vg2AezddqY— PGA TOUR (@PGATOUR) April 2, 2023
Look at the joy, the glow, the effervescence. Sure, photograph any moment at the right angle and you can paint a deceiving picture. But Tiger Woods at Augusta National is the stuff legends are made of, and he sure seems happy to be back at the place he has dominated more than any other golfer.
Now, will this joy translate into a win? Unlikely. As a reminder, Woods was involved in a car accident in February 2021 that left his right leg so battered that doctors considered amputation. Last Masters, it was seen as a miracle that he could even walk the notoriously hilly course, let alone play it. But as we’ve long known, Tiger Woods is no ordinary individual. Not only did he walk Augusta National last April, he made the cut, beating out nearly half the field. And though he hasn’t played much recently entering his week’s tournament, he’s bent this course to his will enough times that he’ll always have somewhat of a home-field advantage.
I’d say a made cut is likely. A top-25 finish would be surprising. Though I thought the same thing going into 2019, and we all remember how that turned out.
Do any of the LIV guys stand a chance?
Dollinger: The PGA Tour better hope not. A LIV-filled leaderboard at Augusta is a worst-case scenario for anyone arguing the Saudi-backed league is just a silly exhibition.
After infamously failing to secure a green jacket of his own during his playing days, Greg Norman has targeted Masters winners while building his LIV field. Six former victors who are now with LIV will be playing this week: Phil Mickelson (2004, 2006, 2010), Charl Schwartzel (2011), Bubba Watson (2012, 2014), Sergio Garcia (2017), Patrick Reed (2018), and Dustin Johnson (2020). On top of that, 11 other LIV players are also in the field.
If there’s one golfer you can expect to not be fazed by outside noise or pick up on any drama, it’s Johnson. The carefree big hitter might be the most revered of any of the departed Tour players, and the Augusta patrons will likely have a hard time rooting against him. DJ’s finished in the top 12 in six of the past seven Masters, including his breakthrough win in 2020. He’s a bit of a sleeping giant, boasting the eighth-best odds overall to win this week, ahead of big Tour names like Xander Schauffele, Collin Morikawa, and Will Zalatoris.
DJ’s played so-so on the LIV Tour, but it’s easy to imagine him flipping the switch with a little extra motivation this week. Speaking of golfers who might be just a little fired up, can we stop for a second and imagine Patrick Reed in the thick of things heading into the weekend? You think he’s not excited to let the 4 Ace flag fly at Augusta National? You think he hasn’t been dreaming about this tournament, and what he would say if he won it, for months?
Then there’s the much quieter Cam Smith. The last time we saw Smith (assuming, like me, you’ve watched LIV golf only in 10-second snippets), he was winning the Open Championship at St. Andrew’s and on the brink of becoming the no. 1 player in the world. Can he reignite the fire after being barred from defending his title at the Players? Or will the return to true competition serve as a rude wake-up call for one of 2022’s hottest players?
With so many LIV golfers in the field, much less former champions, it’s hard to imagine them being completely shut out this weekend. Chances are, at least one will be lurking heading into Sunday. And if someone from the Tour wins, chances are they’ll get a $200 million offer from the Shark to let him try their green jacket on.
Should we be worried about Phil Mickelson?
Schuster: Well, you could certainly interpret this question in a number of ways. Should we be worried about him winning? Sorry to be a total wet blanket here, but no. Despite having three green jackets to his name, Mickelson is an outsized long shot to make noise this weekend. He didn’t play the Masters last year after his comments about Saudi Arabia became public and he said he needed “some time away” from the game. Plus, he hasn’t finished better than T-18 at Augusta since 2015. He enters this year’s tournament with 400/1 odds. And at three LIV events this year, he’s finished T-41 (out of 48 players in Orlando), T-30 (Tucson), and T-27 (Mayakoba). So no, not much of a threat.
Are there other reasons to be worried, though? Mickelson declined to do a pre-Masters press conference this week—which isn’t terribly surprising considering the topics he’d likely be asked about (his absence last year, his being a frontman for the Saudi-backed LIV Golf league, etc). But even with all the drama he’s brought to the table over the past year, Mickelson is still beloved by many in the golf community—especially fans—so to see him pass up the chance to flex his charm was a surprise.
Is there any reason to believe he might stir the pot between LIV and PGA Tour golfers this weekend? Almost as unlikely as him being in contention. Mickelson was asked in March about returning to Augusta and whether there might be any tensions on or off course. He downplayed the chances of any drama (at least on his end), saying he had “no expectations” going in, and that “a lot of the people there that are playing, competing in the Masters, are friends for decades and I’m looking forward to seeing them again.” Whether that tact is shared by others remains to be seen (Augusta patron saint Fred Couples has doubled-down on the spicy comments he made last month about LIV, and specifically Mickelson and Sergio Garcia). But it seems like we could see a relatively quiet return from Phil—which, after everything that’s happened in the past year, would be stunning enough.
How will CBS deal with the LIV players?
Nelson: Six former Masters champions who have subsequently abandoned the PGA Tour for Saudi-backed LIV Golf will be competing this week with their lifetime exemptions, along with 12 other qualifiers from the disruptor league. For those not up to speed, the schism between tours is a nuclear event for the professional golf world, radicalizing even the likes of the laid-back former Masters champion Couples. And the feeling going into this Masters is one of deeply-felt establishment loyalties versus genuine rebel anger. In literally any other sport, this would be an all-systems-go, 20-alarm blaze as a viewership hook: COME SEE FORMER FRIENDS IN SLOW-MOVING, CLOSE-QUARTERED, FORENSICALLY INTENSE COMPETITION! THEY NOW PROFOUNDLY HATE ONE ANOTHER! It’s perfect.
But will CBS and its coverage, led by Jim Nantz, actually dig in? Passive-aggressive to an almost psychedelic extent, the golf world likes to keep its gossip gnarly and nasty but mostly in-house. It will be curious to see whether the longtime partnership between CBS and Augusta National (and that pact’s consummate prestige) emboldens the network to take a critical line on LIV and its manifold apostasies, or whether it goes the other way into appeasement. The PGA Tour is not exactly a humanitarian organization, but LIV is really, exceptionally gross. It would be nice for someone other than McIlroy, and I guess Couples, to make a real public stand. Nantz and Couples were college roommates, so maybe that’s promising.
Which dark horses have potential?
Dollinger: Golf’s three horsemen (Rory, Rahm, Scheffler) are decisive favorites over the rest of the field, but it’s easy to talk yourself into some of the longer shots this year.
It sure seems like the sportsbooks are sleeping on Hideki Matsuyama (+4600 on FanDuel), who won his first green jacket two years ago and finished T-14 last year. A neck injury forced him to withdraw from the WGC-Dell Championships in March, but he followed that up with a solid T-15 showing last week at the Valero Open. This week should feel like a stress-free outing compared to what Matsuyama faced in 2021. He’s finished in the top 15 in six of the past eight Masters, showing he feels at home at Augusta.
I won’t even bother you with an over-the-top, flowery paragraph about how Tiger Woods could magically earn a sixth green jacket. Let’s just pretend I did. He’s +7000 to win.
As for other familiar faces with favorable chances: Tommy Fleetwood (+6000) feels like he’s destined for a breakthrough after learning Augusta’s hard lessons in the past. He’s had three top-20 finishes in the past five years at the Masters and finished T3 at the Valspar Championship last month. With rain in the forecast, it’s hard not to like Shane Lowry (+6500), who is coming off his best Masters finish ever (T3) last year and has finished inside the top five in all four majors. While Rory has been the face of the PGA’s resistance, Lowry has lost a lot of friends to LIV and will likely be a little extra juiced to compete this week.
In terms of newcomers, Sahith Theegala (+13000) has shown tremendous promise but has yet to break through at a major. He’ll be playing in his first Masters this week, which is usually a recipe for disaster (both on the course and at the pro shop checkout), but he has three top-15 finishes in the past three months and could come out hot before the traditional Sunday newbie slide.
Finally, there are good omens, then there’s being invited by Tiger Woods, Rory McIlroy, and Fred Couples to be their fourth during a practice round at Augusta. Who cares what I see? Tiger, Rory, and Freddie see something in Tom Kim (+10000). That’s enough for me.
What are the Full Swing MVPs up to?
Nelson: Golf dorks: You are already with me. The first season of Netflix’s PGA Tour docuseries Full Swing, which dropped in February, has a reasonable claim as a great accomplishment in human history. Featuring eight episodes chronicling the tumultuous 2022 season, the show simultaneously provides a warts-and-all assessment of golf’s surprisingly strange and blinkered ecosystem, and generates reams of empathy for the players who come off the best.
Series MVP Joel Dahmen (crucial quote: “Someone’s gotta be the 70th best golfer in the world”) is regrettably not in the field this week. But co-MVP Tony Finau is, and he’s riding a bit of a hot streak with three recent top-10 finishes and three tour victories last season. Best frenemies Jordan Spieth and Justin Thomas, who memorably anchored Episode 1, are both threats to burnish their legacies: Twinned as always, CBS Sportsline has them ranked as the fifth- and sixth-best betting favorites, respectively. Then there are the debuts: breakout Full Swing star Theegala and LIV convert/sad final-hole choker at last year’s PGA Championship Mito Pereira will both face fabled Augusta for the first time. But really, this whole section is just a glorified ad. Stop what you’re doing right this second—seriously it can’t be more important—and binge Full Swing.
Who’s going to win?
Schuster: Scottie Scheffler. SIGH. I wanted to go wild here, I really did. Dollinger can attest that I tried to talk myself into Brooks Koepka as an answer here, just to feel something. But at this stage, with the form Scottie has now, I’d just feel like an idiot picking anyone else.
Dollinger: Max Homa. If it wasn’t for Scottie Scheffler (which is how a lot of golf debates start right now), Homa would be the hottest player in the world. He’s won twice since September, finished T6 at the Players, and was the runner-up at February’s Genesis Invitational. With his tempo, putting stroke, and personality, he just might be the modern day Fred Couples. And it just so happens Homa is 32 years old, the same age Freddie was when he broke through in 1992 to win his green jacket.
Nelson: It’s going to be Tony Finau, because I know from Full Swing that dreams always come true. Don’t forget he shot a Saturday 64 here in 2019. The guy can make his way around Augusta National.