The road always leads back to Augusta.
After an entertaining three months of golf played on the Pacific shore and Atlantic coast, the golf season officially begins for many at the Masters.
Tiger is back, as you may have heard. Scottie Scheffler has ascended to No. 1 in the world. Other likely contenders have flashed form in recent weeks to provide optimism entering the most anticipated tournament of the year.
Course history matters at Augusta National. So does recent Tee-to-Green ballstriking form. The 7,500-yard par-72 layout has been tweaked yet again with length added to holes 11 and 15. Firm conditions greeted the golfers on Monday but heavy rain is expected Tuesday and a stiff, gusting wind should arrive when the tournament begins in earnest Thursday afternoon.
“It’s playing like it could be a Sunday,” Webb Simpson said Monday. “It’s firm. The ball is running in the fairway as much as I’ve seen in a few years. Greens are already really firm, getting a little brown spots, which we love, but I think they know rain’s coming tomorrow. With the wind coming, it seems like the course will dry out pretty quickly again, but all in all, it’s in really good shape.”
Augusta National is the ultimate ballstriking test, rewarding powerful tee shots and precise iron plays. Scoring on the par-5s is vital. So is not giving shots away with 3-putts on the slick, undulating greens. A sharp short game enables a player to sustain momentum by saving pars and capitalize when they are around the putting surface after two shots on the four par-5s.
While each of those technical aspects is required, the final ingredient demanded is less tangible. Just listen to Cam Smith describe the challenge.
“I feel like I play my best golf when I’m creative,” Smith said. “And, yeah, this course has so many, you know, slopes and stuff, you can work it off the greens firm and fast. And, yeah, just love being creative. Reminds me a lot of Sandbelt golf at home. Yeah, I just love it.”
So, enjoy one of the best weeks of the year. As always, good luck.
Christiaan Bezuidenhout, Brian Harman, Tom Hoge, Luke List, Robert MacIntyre, Francesco Molinari, Ryan Palmer, Danny Willett, Harold Varner III, Cam Young.
2022 Masters Power Rankings
25. Tommy Fleetwood – Finished top-20 in the 2018 and 2020 Masters and arrives in good form with three consecutive top-25s. Gained 8 shots Tee-to-Green at the Players and 3.1 at the Valspar. Also 6th in SG: Around-the-Green and 15th in par-5 scoring.
24. Russell Henley – Returns to the Masters for the first time since 2018 but had consecutive top-15 finishes in his last two appearances. Obviously one of the best iron players in golf, who thrives on the par-5s and ranks ninth in the field SG: Tee-to-Green over the last 24 rounds.
23. Corey Conners – Among the leaders Tee-to-Green at Augusta National over the last four years and his elite ballstriking has produced back-to-back top-10s. Gained at least four shots Tee-to-Green at Valspar and Valero, advanced to the semifinals of the WGC-Match Play. Also handles the longer par-4s.
22. Shane Lowry – Appears to have solved some of the mysteries of Augusta National the last two years, landing in the top-25 each time. Now, he comes to Georgia in premium ballstriking form. Gained at least 5.7 shots Tee-to-Green (and 3.9 shots on approach) in each of his last three starts, finishing 2-13-12.
21. Brooks Koepka – Earned his rankings position on the strength of an outstanding Masters record, major championship pedigree and recent ballstriking resurgence. Missed the cut last year as he hobbled around these hills with a bum knee but enjoyed a trio of top-12s beforehand. Finished 16th or better in three of the last five stroke play starts.
20. Sungjae Im – Finished runner-up in the soft November 2020 Masters, then missed the cut last April. Results have been rather pedestrian to this point over the last two months, but his combination of proximity outside 200 yards (12th) and SG: Around-the-Green (4th) should make him a factor this week.
19. Matt Fitzpatrick – He’s second in the field in par-5 scoring and 10th in scoring on difficult courses. Also limits the 3-putts and has gained shots on approach in six consecutive tournaments. Has made the cut each of the last five years but finished no better than 21st.
18. Adam Scott – Like his ability to hang around and avoid silly mistakes (3rd in 3-putt avoidance) in what projects as a challenging week for scoring. The 2014 champion has made the cut in each of the last five Masters, landing in the top-10 once and top-20 on another occasion.
17. Sam Burns – Masters rookie struggled for three weeks on the West Coast but otherwise has been one of the most consistent players in the world since last May, winning three tournaments and finishing runner-up twice. He’s 10th in par-5 scoring and 3-putt avoidance.
16. Tony Finau – Loves the layout, finishing in the top-10 three of the last four years. Gained 3.9 shots on approach last week at the Valero Texas Open. Also ranks top-25 in scoring on difficult courses and par-5 scoring. If the fairways are soft early in the week his power creates an advantage on key holes at Augusta National.
15. Rory McIlroy – Have to wonder how engaged McIlroy was last week in San Antonio as the unordinary decision to play the week before a major backfired with a missed cut. Avoiding 3-putts (60th) is imperative because his long game is a perfect fit and he’s relished soft fairways in the past. Has three top-10s in the last five years.
14. Viktor Hovland – Tied for 32nd and earned low amateur in 2019 and improved to T-21 a year ago. Ranks 88th in the field in SG: Around-the-Green, which dampens my enthusiasm. Still, he’s sixth in scoring on difficult courses over the last 50 rounds and 20th in SG: Tee-to-Green in the last 24 rounds.
13. Jordan Spieth – Nobody has played Augusta National better since 2014, and he gave hope to the faithful by gaining 10.2 shots Tee-to-Green and closing with a 67 last week in San Antonio. If anybody can find his game here it’s Spieth, but that runner-up at Pebble Beach is his lone top-5 since last year’s Open Championship.
12. Marc Leishman – Sounded confident about the state of his game during a Monday interview, in particular the driver, which has been a weakness at times. His T-5 last year was a third top-15 in the last four starts. Excels here because he’s elite on longer par-4s and on approach shots measuring 200 yards or longer.
11. Louis Oosthuizen – One of the safer plays on the board at 16th in SG: Tee-to-Green over the last 24 rounds. Even when he’s out of kilter can find a way to post a decent Masters result, finishing 29th or better each of the last four years. Ranks ninth in scoring on difficult courses and seventh in SG: Around-the-Green.
10. Joaquin Niemann – Missed the cut in 2018 as an amateur, missed in 2020 due to a positive COVID test and finished T-40 last year. Riviera is a reasonable comp course and he was impressive for four days in winning there. Improved short game (14th over last 5o) is the primary reason he’s primed to contend. He’s fifth in SG: Tee-to-Green over the last 24 rounds.
9. Xander Schauffele – He’s finished T-2 and T-3 in the last two springtime Masters and ranks seventh in the field in scoring on difficult courses. Short game has really suffered (61st) in recent months, however, and just hasn’t performed well in the clutch (Phoenix, Match Play). Gained five shots on approach at Valspar – his best effort since the 2021 U.S. Open.
8. Collin Morikawa – Veered from his comfortable left-to-right ball flight in 2020 (T-44), adjusted last year and finished T-18. Believes he can maneuver a fade off the tee just fine and rely on precision iron play to attack the ultimate second shot golf course. Ranks second in the field in scoring on difficult courses.
7. Patrick Cantlay – He’s just not a fan of Florida golf courses or match play. At least that’s my explanation for a brief cool stretch over the last month or so. Leads the field in par-5 scoring and ranks ninth in SG: Around-the-Green. Finished T-9 in 2019 and T-17 in 2021.
6. Will Zalatoris – The 2021 runner-up is a Tee-to-Green machine who said Monday he’s 15 yards longer off the tee than he was a year ago. His high ball flight and proximity outside 200 yards (3rd in the field) creates the ideal combo to handle the long par-4s and score on the par-5s.
5. Jon Rahm – Feels like the former world No. 1 is flying under the radar amid all the Tiger hoopla and attention on other candidates. His short game is the concern – he’s lost strokes around the green in six consecutive tournaments and ranks 55th in the field. But he’s finished ninth or better in the last four Masters and leads the field in scoring at difficult courses and in proximity outside 200 yards.
4. Dustin Johnson – Watched him play a few holes Monday and he’s swinging nicely, looking especially confident with the driver. Went T-10, T-2, Win in the three Masters prior to missing the cut last year. Gained shots off the tee and on approach in his last two stroke play outings.
3. Scottie Scheffler – Can’t overstate the value of a caddie like Ted Scott, who shepherded Bubba Watson to two green jackets. His wisdom combined with Scheffler’s immense talent and peak confidence should lead to yet another fruitful week on the former site of a nursery. Scheffler is a par-5 killer (2nd in the field) who thrives on difficult courses (5th) and won’t be afraid to contend.
2. Cameron Smith – A two-time winner in 2022, Smith is playing the best golf of his career and returning to a course where his loose drives aren’t penalized and his deft short game is rewarded. Has three top-10s in the last four Masters, including a runner-up in 2020. Ranks fifth in par-5 scoring and 3-putt avoidance.
1. Justin Thomas – If you’re keeping score at home, this is the third consecutive year I’ve picked Thomas to win the Masters. While he’s failed to slide into the green jacket, his ability to go low at Augusta National, elite iron play and exquisite pitching make him a prime candidate to win this tournament at least once in his career. Gained seven shots on approach in two of his last three starts. Ranks in the top-10 in every meaningful category and is the best in the field on par-4s of 450 yards or longer. Inspired by the return of his friend Tiger, this will be JT’s week.