The first major championship of 2019 is almost upon us, with Augusta National ready to play host to the Masters.
An in-form Rory McIlroy is set to begin the tournament as the bookmakers’ favourite, as he once again seeks to complete a career Grand Slam by winning the only major that has so far eluded him.
However, the last four winners at Augusta have all been first-time major winners, with Jordan Spieth, Danny Willett, Sergio Garcia and Patrick Reed all upsetting the odds to various degrees.
Ahead of this year’s tournament, three Omnisport writers risk making fools of themselves by picking out their players to watch.
On Monday …
It’s Masters week. pic.twitter.com/uGXDUVXJhr
— PGA TOUR (@PGATOUR) April 8, 2019
My favourite: Francesco Molinari
Molinari needs merely a green jacket to complete his transformation from also-ran to golfing superstar. Strong in every facet of the game and with a steely resolve to boot, he has never really shone at Augusta, but finished 20th 12 months ago, indicating he has worked out how to play one of the most demanding courses in the game. He will not be fazed by the pressure, or being paired with some of the high-profile Americans, having schooled all and sundry during Europe’s Ryder Cup success last year.
Likely challengers: Dustin Johnson, Justin Rose and Jordan Spieth
Not many surprises here, with the world’s two leading players and a man who has four top-three finishes at Augusta. Spieth is in the middle of a dreadful run of form, however, slipping down to 33rd in the world rankings. He has not finished in the top 10 Stateside since last year’s Masters and his PGA Tour record in 2019 reads Missed Cut (MC), Tied-35, T45, T51, T54, MC, T24 and T30. Nevertheless, turning on to Magnolia Drive is likely to raise his spirits and a strong first round could see his game and confidence come flooding back.
Johnson has finished in the top 10 at Augusta in his last three appearances and already has five top-10s on the PGA Tour in 2019. He is the world number one and in great form. He should go close.
Rose, like Johnson, is a model of consistency. He won the Farmers Insurance Open in January and followed it up by finishing T8 at the Players and T9 at the WGC-Dell Technologies Match Play. He has never missed the cut at Augusta and finished runner-up in 2015 and 2017.
Outside bet: Keith Mitchell
Winning at Augusta may be a tall order on his debut but Mitchell is a man in form and could sneak into the top 10. He claimed his maiden PGA Tour title at the Honda Classic in March and backed it up a week later by finishing T6 at the Arnold Palmer Invitational. An alumnus of nearby University of Georgia, the big-hitting Mitchell will not lack support.
— The European Tour (@EuropeanTour) April 7, 2019
My favourite: Rory McIlroy
For one reason or another it has never quite happened for McIlroy at the Masters and you have to question whether his several near-misses over the years owe more to a psychological barrier than anything else, particularly after he blew a four-shot lead with an 80 in the final round of the 2011 event. However, the Northern Irishman has not finished outside the top 10 in any of his appearances in 2019 and earned a fine win at The Players Championship last month. The weight of completing the career Grand Slam still weighs heavily on his shoulders, but McIlroy is undoubtedly the man to beat this weekend.
Likely challengers: Justin Rose, Brooks Koepka and Francesco Molinari
Given Rose’s consistent brilliance in recent years, it remains a surprise that the Englishman still only has one major [the 2013 U.S. Open] to his name. He certainly knows how to perform at Augusta and, having been a distant second to Spieth in 2015, he came agonisingly close to glory two years ago when he was edged out by Sergio Garcia in a memorable last-day duel.
Koepka has no real previous at Augusta, but has won three of the past six majors he has appeared in, repeatedly outperforming more fancied names.
Molinari had a memorable 2018, making a major breakthrough at The Open and winning all of his matches in Europe’s Ryder Cup hammering of the United States. He remains in fine form and finished third at the WGC-Dell Technologies Match Play.
— The European Tour (@EuropeanTour) April 7, 2019
Outside bet: Tony Finau
A year ago, Finau almost failed to tee off at Augusta after a tumble when celebrating a hole-in-one during the par-three contest led to a nasty dislocated ankle. The American somehow recovered to put himself in contention during the opening two rounds and eventually placed 10th. Top-10 finishes followed at the U.S. Open and Open Championship and, while his 2019 form has hardly been sparkling, he has shown he has the mettle to compete in majors.
My favourite: Jordan Spieth
I understand this looks silly. Since last year’s Masters, Spieth has managed just one top-10 finish and even that featured an alarming slump as he tied for ninth in The Open having shared the lead heading into the final round. However, the Texan has challenged for the green jacket on all five of his previous visits to Augusta. On the one occasion he finished outside the top three in 2017, he was only two off the pace with 18 holes to play. Nobody has managed a lower 72-hole score at Augusta and it would be no surprise to see Spieth in contention once again.
Likely challengers: Rory McIlroy, Francesco Molinari, Brooks Koepka
It would take a brave man to back against McIlroy finishing outside the top 10, at the very least. A Masters win has so far eluded him, but he ticks every other box in terms of form, major pedigree and the ability to put together impressive rounds at Augusta, where his last five appearances have brought finishes of T8, 4, T10, T7 and T5.
Molinari’s record at Augusta is underwhelming, yet he has transformed into a different player after linking up with renowned mental-performance coach Dave Alred. You would now expect the Italian to thrive under the unique pressure the Masters brings.
As for Koepka, the fact he has won three of the last six majors he has appeared in – including two of the last three – has to make him a serious contender. In addition, his Masters record – T33, T21, T11 – is trending in the right direction.
Outside bet: Matt Kuchar
The last four Masters have been won by players who were previously without a major triumph. Veteran American Kuchar looks the best bet to continue that run. He has finished inside the top eight at Augusta four times in the last seven years and is clearly in form after reaching the final of the WGC-Dell Technologies Match Play. Kuchar also claimed PGA Tour wins in November and January. This could well be his time.