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Tuesday, March 11, 2014

Has the Major Picture Changed?

Back in January I took an early look at possible major contenders this year. Things have changed a bit since then -- Jimmy Walker has picked up a third win, for example, as has Patrick Reed while some other players are dealing with injuries. With only 4 tournaments left between now and the Masters:
  1. the Valspar Championship
  2. the Arnold Palmer Invitational
  3. the Valero Texas Open
  4. the Shell Houston Open
I feel that it's appropriate to reassess the landscape and see how our expectations may have to change in the next month.

Scott wins 2013 Masters

Our first consideration is injuries. Justin Rose is still dealing with a shoulder injury, Tiger's back injury has become more of an issue, and both Nick Watney (back injury) and Jason Day (thumb injury) withdrew from WGC-Cadillac. Dr. Ara Suppiah, a doctor who works with several of the tour pros (though not Tiger), told GC that he was certain Tiger was following all of the protocols this kind of injury required and that Tiger would have enough time for his back to heal before Augusta.

Personally, I find Jason Day's injury to be the most worrisome of the bunch. I've found nothing about his status and, while a player might be able to play through back spasms, a thumb injury can shut that player down completely and require surgery. Given his win since my earlier post and how well he was playing, this could seriously change the complexion of things at Augusta if he can't play.

Bubba Watson's resurgence also changes what we might expect. After being MIA for most of the last two years, Bubba picked up a win at Riviera plus 2 runner-ups and a T3 in his last few events. He's starting to look like the guy who won the 2012 Masters again! That's good news.

Jimmy Walker's third win also puts him in the role of a favorite with many folks. He's been a bit too erratic for me to do so but, given his length off the tee and his ability to handle pressure, he could certainly factor into this Masters.

However, for me the biggest change is the number of young players (under 25 years old) who we've seen qualify for Augusta in the last few months, and especially in the last month or so. Patrick Reed has picked up a couple of wins, of course, but we've also seen Russell Henley and Harris English get back into the winner's circles. In addition to these 3 players, according to this December 16 listing at Yahoo! Sports, we've got some other under-25s already qualified to compete (and I may have missed some):
  • Thorbjorn Olesen
  • John Huh
  • Derek Ernst
  • Jordan Spieth
  • Hideki Matsuyama
  • Victor Dubuisson
  • Matteo Manassero
And of course there's Rory McIlroy. And these are just the under-25s! Rickie Fowler and Branden Grace are already 25, Jason Day's 26, and Billy Horschel and Sang-Moon Bae are 27, just to give you an idea of how much youth is in this field. AND THE FIELD ISN'T COMPLETE YET!

Here's my point: The typical Masters champion's average age is 32. (Adam Scott was 32 and Bubba was 33, in case you didn't know.) But I think you can make a good case that this year we will have a very young winner, perhaps even a player making his first appearance at the Masters. Other than the very first Masters, only Fuzzy Zoeller ever accomplished that task.

I'm unwilling to make any picks yet -- in particular, I want to see what kind of shape Jason Day and Tiger are in when we get to Augusta. But I think we could be in for a huge shock when this year's winner slips on that green jacket.

At least, that's how it looks to me with 4 weeks yet to go.

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