The Masters green prognostication jacket is out of the closet. Ready for a changing of the guard? It’s here and this year’s champion will be a first time major winner.
First, the usual suspects. Tiger’s body is breaking down and he’s withdrawn. Phil’s body appears to be giving him more difficulty than in the past and while he’s overcome some significant arthritic issues, age is becoming a factor. I love watching Phil compete, but he is 43 and will turn 44 in June, and from a major winning standpoint, players hit the wall at 44 (see data from golfmajorchampionships.com below). Phil still has game and usually turns it on at Augusta no matter what type of form he’s showing in the preceding weeks. That being said, of all the majors contested since Willie Park won the first Open Championship in 1860, only eight have been won by a player older than 43, making Jack Nicklaus‘ victory in the 1986 Masters, at age 46 all that more impressive. Look for a top-10 finish for Phil.
Augusta National is the premier horses-for-courses venue and picking the winner is the easiest of all the majors because course familiarity is a huge advantage and some of the entrants are aging past champions who have no chance The contest also boasts the smallest field of all the majors with 97 entrants in 2014. The other majors routinely field more than 150.
I love the newer younger cast of characters because they all have great ability and are dynamite when they get hot, but each has a distinct weakness that prevents dominating performances from week-to-week. Come Sunday evening, the tournament will pit four players head-to-head: Rory McIlroy, Matt Kuchar, Adam Scott, and Jason Day. Let’s take them in reverse order.
Jason Day will win The Masters this year.
He’s been so close with a 3rd in 2013 and a T-2nd in 2011 and it is now his time. Jason hit’s it a long way, knows the course very well, and has finally got his mind right. I loved the way he kept his cool and closed at the WGC Accenture when Victor Dubuisson kept getting up-and-down out of trash cans, dumpsters, and desert cactus against him in the final. Day’s weakness is his ability to control his distances under pressure. He’s adjusted with a repeatable pre-shot routine and doesn’t deviate based on the situation. Alan Shipnuck’s piece at Golf.com on Day is must reading for students of the mental game. Day’s visualization techniques are more in-depth than any I’m aware of. His fascination with Navy Seals training and affinity for hitting the gym are sounding Tiger-esque and I would caution him about taking too extreme an approach. But for this week, as long as his sore thumb holds up, he wins his first major.
Adam Scott and Matt Kuchar will tie for second. Scott is the horse for this course, has Steve Williams on the bag for steadiness and sense of purpose, and has the full compliment of tools. He’s susceptible to getting on bogey runs which are protracted and seem to come at terrible times under pressure. Yes, he pulled through last year in an epic moment for self and country, but his fellow Aussie will edge him out. In the back of Scott’s mind has to be the upcoming ban on anchoring and how he will adjust. Is it starting to affect his current work with the flat stick?
Kuchar plays well at Augusta, knows the course intimately, and has the temperament. He won THE PLAYERS Championship, which is just as hard as a major, and is also ready. Kuchar’s achilles heel is his driving distance. He’s also mediocre in GIR and the fact that he’s so highly rated year after year in scoring average is a testament to his lights out short game and putting. This new closed stance and slightly over the top move is supposedly getting the job done, but doesn’t bode well for the right to left ball flight needed at Augusta and will be just enough to hold him back. Down the line shots at Shell indicate he’s made a slight correction from last week at Valero but still looks too closed to me. Hopefully it helps him.
Rory McIlroy finishes alone in 4th. The Northern Irishman is starting to look like Phil Mickelson from a roller coaster perspective. When hot, there’s nobody better, but when his driving is off, it affects his mindset and his total game suffers. Physically, he’s got the tools to be the best player in the world and is a multiple major winner. He’s still young and it still may happen. Now I need to see a serious run with no final round collapse.
Value picks for your Calcutta. Look for Zach Johnson to make a run. The 2007 champion had a great 2013 season, is hitting fairways and greens in 2014, but has slipped to 68th in total putting.
Nobody wins in his first attempt at Augusta, but I look at these three making their Masters debut to have an impact. Jordan Spieth has the guts and the game to win a major-now. Billy Horschel got real hot this time last year and has the confidence to contend. Harris English has all the physical tools but needs more time under the gun. Missing from the conversation is Jimmy Walker who’s leading the Tour in FedEx points and has three wins under his belt. He kills it of the tee, putts great, but is only 86th in scrambling, which is a must have around Augusta. While he’s shown steady improvement over the last five years, I don’t look for him to make a move in his Masters debut until he gets some experience chipping to these greens.
Masters Sunday is one of my favorite days of the year. Play golf in the morning and settle into exciting final round coverage in the afternoon; I can’t wait. Good luck in your pools!