Do I really need to give you a "preview" of the event? The Masters is the only major held at the same venue every year, Augusta National was the pride and joy of Bobby Jones, Danny Willett is the defending champ, first-timers rarely win the event, blah, blah, blah. You folks know all of this, so let's get on with it.
This year we may see the most wide-open field ever. I know I often say that about the Masters, but this year it could be true. After all, the top of the world rankings are in flux, we have a number of other players who have seen their games return to form over the last few months, and there are decent reasons not to pick the most obvious suspects. So I've chosen an unusually large number of flier picks this year.
The wild card here is the weather. If players see the 20mph+ winds, with 35mph gusts, that have been predicted, the draw could play a much larger part than normal. The shorter hitters have generally performed better in bad weather, despite the lack of truly penalizing rough at Augusta which would put a premium on accuracy. And if the winds get really swirly, the veterans in the field could gain a distinctive advantage.
Several players don't make my list, not because I don't think they can win, but simply because I question their mental readiness right now.
- For example, I suspect Jason Day's mind will still be on his mom, and that may be enough to accentuate his lack of practice. However, if his mom's health improves enough for her to come down for the weekend, all bets are off. I think the emotional boost of playing in front of his mom at Augusta for the first time could actually make him the favorite. I can't bet on that, though.
- Rory McIlroy's best major performances have come in bad weather. Still, with the inward pressure he's putting on himself to complete the career Grand Slam, I think the winds might prove too much for his concentration. I do believe he'll eventually win the Masters... just not this year.
- Rickie Fowler is playing some of the best golf of his career right now, he has a win coming into the Masters for the first time, and he has played well in bad weather Opens before. But I'm a bit concerned about his consistency right now, even though my inclination is to put him on the list.
- And while Paul Casey has a T6 and a T4 in his last two Masters, his Open record is nowhere near as good. I don't like his chances in the predicted conditions.
- I can't find a good reason not to put Dustin Johnson at the top of the list. Can he make the Masters his fourth win in a row? It's hard to believe that he could, yet DJ's current form is unlike anything he's had coming in to past Masters. And when you consider that DJ has played well in bad weather Opens, added to his newfound accuracy with driver and wedges, he has to be at the top of the list.
- Likewise, Jordan Spieth's short but impressive record at Augusta puts him high on the list despite a few cautionary thoughts. The dip in his putting stats is troublesome. And save for his T4 in 2015, Jordan has poor showings in the Open. Since we all know that Jones and MacKenzie modeled aspects of Augusta after links courses, the bad weather could give him an unusually tough time. Nevertheless, it's hard to bet against him.
- My fliers start early. First on the list is Phil Mickelson, who is playing well. Given his play in the Open over the last few years -- three Top2s in his last six starts -- often in poor weather, and the well-known "magical touch" that Augusta seems to have on him, I can see him finding the touch again for a fourth Green Jacket.
- Flier #2 is Jon Rahm. I don't care what the odds against a first-time winner are, Rahm has convinced me he could pull it off. He's a quick learner, and he's in such good form that he might be able to handle the weather.
- Finally, I go for my biggest flier of all: Lee Westwood. Lee has been slowly getting his game back in shape. But it may have gone unnoticed that, in his last 7 starts at Augusta, he has posted two runner-ups (one was last year), a third, a 7th, an 8th and an 11th. His record at the Open over that time hasn't been nearly as good, and he hasn't played much this year. (He's focused on the Euro Tour now.) But that recent record has to be taken seriously.
Yes, I know. Power and success have gone to my head. But I'm still smiling. ;-)