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Everyone You Should Watch At The Masters Not Named Tiger Or Phil

It’s Masters week, which means that it’s time to cancel your weekend plans, turn the dulcet tones of Jim Nantz’s voice up as loud as your television and neighbors will allow, and watch — in its piano-saturated glory — golf’s most popular event.

The 82nd installment of the Masters will be the smallest field since the mid-1990s, and it will be the most competitive in at least the past decade. There are 10 players with shorter than 20-to-1 odds to win the tournament (two more are at 20-to-1 exactly), according to the Westgate Las Vegas SuperBook as of Tuesday. That’s the most of any Masters since at least 2008, according to ESPN Stats & Information Group.

Tiger Woods, a golfer you might have heard of, is in that group, as is another familiar name: Phil Mickelson. But they aren’t the only players worth paying attention to. Below, I’ve highlighted the other marquee players you should look out for, as well as the under-the-radar players who could find themselves in a green jacket by Sunday night.

The big hitters

Dustin Johnson (odds to win: 12-to-1): Johnson entered Augusta last season having won three consecutive tournaments. He was among the favorites to win. Then he fell down a flight of stairs.

This could be the year he exorcises those what-could-have-been demons.

The 33-year-old is tied for the PGA Tour lead in par-4 scoring average and leads the tour in par-5 scoring average. He’s also No. 1 in total strokes gained, a metric that measures each shot a player takes based on how much it reduces his expected score on a given hole, relative to the field average. And Johnson’s putting has been sensational; he ranks in the top 15 in strokes gained with the putter. With an ostentatious ability to drive the ball — he leads the tour in strokes gained off the tee — Johnson owns five of the tour’s 50 longest drives this season, providing ample opportunities for attendees to crow “mashed potatoes.”1

Johnson has owned the longest holes at the Augusta National Golf Club, with a career mark of 46 under par on par-5s, according to ESPN Stats & Info. To compete this weekend, though, he’ll need to improve on par-4s, on which he’s a career 44 over par.

Bubba Watson (odds to win: 16-to-1): The two-time Masters champion enters this weekend as arguably the player on tour in the best form.

After going more than 40 events without a win, he has won twice in the past two months — at the World Golf Championships-Dell Technologies Match Play and the Genesis Open. The same guy who was contemplating retirement last season during a rapid weight loss is now vying to become the ninth player to win the Masters at least three times.

The 39-year-old’s unorthodox style feels tailor-made for rounds under the Georgia pines. The course allows him to attempt 45-yard hook shots with a pitching wedge, for example, and to uncork his 316.2-yard drives. And because he annihilates his tee shots, Watson has over his career played the par-5s at the Masters 65 under par, according to ESPN Stats & Info.

The short game has traditionally held Watson back, but he has moved from outside the top 140 in strokes gained on shots approaching the green and with the putter last season to inside the top 80 in both this season.

Rory McIlroy (odds to win: 12-to-1): With a roaring final-round 64, McIlroy won the Arnold Palmer Invitational last month, his first victory since the fall of 2016. Then came shots of vodka with the media.

A win this weekend would complete the career Grand Slam for the 28-year-old. Since 2014, only Jordan Spieth has led more rounds in major tournaments than McIlroy has — and no player save for McIlroy can claim four top-10 finishes at Augusta over the past five years.

After an injury-riddled 2016-17 campaign, McIlroy has surged up the leaderboard in a number of metrics, ranking in the top 25 in total strokes gained, strokes gained off the tee and strokes gained with the putter. His drives are averaging a blistering 314.1 yards, a top-five mark on tour.

To win, McIlroy will have to improve on holes 10, 11 and 12, where he’s a combined 26 over par since the final round in 2011, according to ESPN Stats & Info.

The kids

Jon Rahm (odds to win: 20-to-1): It can be easy to forget that Rahm is 23 years old — and not only because he has the face of a 35-year-old accountant. “Rahmbo” has been so good so fast that he’s the highest-ranked player to not have a major championship to his name, according to ESPN Stats & Info.

Rahm’s putting has improved mightily: He’s jumped from No. 49 in strokes gained with the putter and No. 66 in putts per round last season to No. 32 and No. 13, respectively, this season.

He cranks the ball 306.7 yards off the tee, which makes him No. 23 on tour. But he ranks much higher in strokes gained off the tee — second — because whether he’s blasting his driver or using another club, he’s effective in maximizing his first shots, covering 67.5 percent of hole yardage with his tee shots. Club selection is paramount at Augusta, particularly off the tee — will Rahm’s skills there and his improved putting help him notch a win?

Jordan Spieth (odds to win: 10-to-1): Last weekend’s final-round 66 at the Houston Open gave Spieth’s supporters a reason to be optimistic about Augusta, where Spieth’s track record ranges from the sublime to the five-alarm tire fire.

In the aggregate, though, Spieth has been dominant at the Masters: In his four starts, he hasn’t finished lower than 11th; three times, he ranked in the top 10. In 2015, he became the fifth-ever wire-to-wire winner and tied the all-time lowest winning score (270, -18). Since 2015, Spieth has been 20 shots or better than any other player at majors, according to ESPN Stats & Info.

But Spieth has fallen off a cliff with his putter. In each of the past three seasons, he ranked 42nd or better in strokes gained with the putter. In 2018, he’s No. 185. But that hasn’t stopped him from attacking the longer holes on tour; he ranks in the top 20 in par-4 and par-5 scoring average. With a win, Spieth would be just the third player to claim four majors before his 25th birthday (the other two are Woods and Young Tom Morris). He turns 25 in July.

Justin Thomas (odds to win: 10-to-1): Had he turned in a stronger performance last month, Thomas could have entered this weekend as the top player in the world. Should he win this weekend, few would question his place atop the global leaderboard.

The 24-year-old has won an astonishing seven times since the start of the 2016 season, more than any player on tour. But the occasionally profane Kentucky native has struggled in his two previous appearances at Augusta, where he’s never shot in the 60s or finished in the top 20.

However, Thomas comes into the tournament with much more momentum this time around. He has jumped from a No. 45 ranking a season ago to No. 5 this season in percentage of yardage covered by tee shots, largely because his drives are averaging 312.5 yards, the longest average distance he’s posted since he turned pro.

The Europeans (and one Canadian)

Paul Casey (odds to win: 20-to-1): The 40-year-old is one of the the least-discussed veterans in this year’s field, and though he has repeatedly demonstrated his poise at majors, he’s never quite managed a win.

Casey has finished in the top 10 at each of the last three Masters, and he has logged top-10 marks at every major at least once in his career.

This season, only Sergio Garcia, Johnson and Casey rank in the top five in both strokes gained tee to green and total strokes gained. The Englishman has also notched a win stateside this year at the Valspar Championship, though it’s possible his victory was overshadowed when a certain someone on a comeback tour finished tied for second.

Alex Noren (odds to win: 40-to-1): The Swede hasn’t finished outside the top 36 all season, racking up three top-10 finishes. In search of his first major victory, Noren has come to the right place. Eight of the last 11 Masters winners had never won a major before taking home the green jacket, according to ESPN Stats & Info.

Noren cut his teeth on the European Tour, where he won five times between July 2016 and May 2017. He enters this weekend ranked in the top 20 in total strokes gained and in strokes gained with the putter, on approach, and from tee to green.

Justin Rose (odds to win: 12-to-1): Rose has been a perennial contender at Augusta, and this could be the year he finally breaks through and wins a green jacket. He has finished in the top 10 in the tournament each of the last three years, twice coming in second, and over the last three Masters combined, he has the best score relative to par of anyone on the tour. Rose has ended up in the top 25 in 10 of his 12 starts at the Masters, which is an absurd success rate. Among players with at least five starts at the tournament, only Tiger Woods and Ben Hogan have made the top 25 more consistently.

Adam Hadwin (odds to win: 150-to-1): A Canadian made the list! Hadwin has finished among the top 20 in every tournament he’s played in since early February. If he can withstand inconsistencies off the tee (he ranks No. 129 in strokes gained off the tee) and on the green (No. 131 in strokes gained with the putter), his approach game can do most of the work (No. 22 in strokes gained on shots approaching the green, No. 7 in strokes gained around the green). This year also marks the 15th anniversary of Mike Weir’s improbable victory at Augusta to become the first Canadian man to win a major. Hadwin has finished in the top 10 three times so far this season, and like Weir, he’s deft with the short game.

Footnotes

  1. Please don’t.

Josh Planos is a writer based in Omaha. He has contributed to The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times and The Washington Post.

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