Masters 2019: McIlroy, Rose, Johnson... Woods? Who will win the unpredictable major?
|Date: 11-14 April Venue: Augusta National|
|Coverage: Watch highlights of the first two days before live and uninterrupted coverage of the final rounds on BBC Two, with up to four live streams online. Live radio and text commentary of all four days on BBC Radio 5 Live, BBC Radio 5 Live Sports Extra, BBC Sport website and mobile app. Full details click here.|
Logic suggests it should be the easiest to foretell, but of the four majors the Masters is often the most unpredictable.
This is despite it having the smallest field and being played at the same course every year. But heading into the 83rd edition of golf's most glamorous tournament, none of the world's top 11 players have won at the Augusta National.
Indeed, the highest-ranked Masters champion is the 43-year-old Tiger Woods. Currently the world's 12th-ranked golfer, the most recent of his four Augusta titles came 14 years ago.
Remarkably, Bubba Watson and defending champion Patrick Reed are the only other men in the top 20 who own a Green Jacket. Alister MacKenzie's masterpiece is a course that can confound when identifying Masters winners.
- 'I left my youth behind' - When Tiger met the Masters
- The Cut podcast: Gimmes, grasses, Gallacher and Gmac
But we still feel compelled to favour the chances of the biggest names. Woods will carry the usual hype and expectation and will exude that familiar and persuasive quiet confidence throughout the build-up.
There is reason to like his chances of a victory that would reignite the sport like no other. His last major round was a 64 that brought a runner-up finish at the 2018 US PGA Championship.
But those Bellerive heroics were eight months ago. Since then Woods has won his 80th PGA Tour title at the Tour Championship but not done much else, other than beating Rory McIlroy to reach the recent WGC Matchplay quarter-finals.
Woods' putting has been inconsistent and that needs rectifying this week, but he remains a brilliant iron player, which is a key component at a course where simply finding the putting surface is not quite enough.
More often than not the correct portion of a green needs to be located to have a chance with putter in hand.
A common thread through recent champions has been impressive statistics from tee to green. Watson and Adam Scott led this category in strokes gained in their wins in 2012 and 2013 respectively.
While we remember to emphasise short-game significance, pure ball striking is the underrated commodity at an Augusta course where a further 40 yards has been added to the card with the extension of the par-four fifth.
So step forward McIlroy, who leads the PGA Tour strokes gained stats this season for his prowess in this classification.
Furthermore, the maturity of his recent Players Championship win suggests he is, at last, ready to win the only major to have eluded the Northern Irishman's career to date.
Patience and perspective are his new buzzwords, which is just as well because the implications of a McIlroy Masters triumph are immense. He has been coming here trying to complete the career grand slam since 2015.
This is his last chance before turning 30 and what an achievement it would be to place himself alongside Woods, Jack Nicklaus, Gary Player, Ben Hogan and Gene Sarazen with a victory this week.
It is McIlroy's 11th Masters and he has finished top 10 in the past five. This year he has been on the leaderboard in every event he has played and his Sawgrass victory ended a year-long drought.
McIlroy is one of three outstanding UK candidates. Justin Rose has at some stage led the Masters after each of the first three rounds and tied with Garcia in 2017 before losing their play-off.
That was one of two Rose runner-up finishes at Augusta in the past four years. An increasingly steely competitor, the Olympic champion, who won the US Open in 2013, knows how to get the job done - especially on classic courses.
Rose's English compatriot, Tommy Fleetwood, is the other standout UK hope. His ball-striking statistics fit the bill, he putts well on slick greens and possesses plenty of deftness with his short game.
He is top five in strokes gained for scrambling on the PGA Tour this season and will have learned plenty from the hullabaloo that went with accompanying Woods in the first two rounds last year.
Another reason to like his chances is the fact that he has not won a major before. An Augusta curiosity is that its tournament often yields a first-time major winner.
Since Nicklaus' historic sixth win in 1986, only four players have claimed a Green Jacket having won one of the the other three majors beforehand. Sandy Lyle (1988) and Nick Faldo (1989) had both triumphed at the Open prior to their wins.
Vijay Singh in 2000 and Angel Cabrera nine years later had won the US PGA and the US Open, respectively, before their Augusta successes.
So does this mean we should discount the chances of major champions such as Francesco Molinari, Dustin Johnson, Justin Thomas and Brooks Koepka this week?
Of course not - they are all potential winners. But it does mean the likes of Fleetwood, Xander Schauffele, Bryson DeChambeau, Rickie Fowler, Jon Rahm and Paul Casey should not feel inhibited by their lack of major victories.
And Masters winners can come from further down the rankings than the positions occupied by that elite list of players.
Spieth, who has descended the standings at an alarming rate, showed some signs of stirring in Texas last week and is an Augusta specialist, never having finished lower than 11th in four visits.
The three-time major champion boasts an Augusta stroke average of 70.05, the lowest in the field, and has topped the leaderboard in nine of his 20 rounds.
South Africa's Louis Oosthuizen was runner-up in 2012, beat par on all four days last year but has never won in the US. Could a Green Jacket fit his stocky shoulders?
A similar question could be raised over the chances of Australians Marc Leishman, who came close in 2013, and Cameron Smith, who was fifth last year.
Yes, history encourages us to assemble a lengthy list of potential winners. It tells us how tough it is to predict an Augusta outcome - but it also suggests we are overdue a well-backed winner.
Let's go with the latter scenario - a 2019 champion from golf's top table. Discounting all the above caveats at my peril, I'm plumping for McIlroy, Rose or Dustin Johnson to buck the modern Masters trends.