AUGUSTA, Ga. — It’s not that difficult to look at the 87 players practicing ahead of the 83rd Masters and figure out who among them are the six amateurs competing this week. It has nothing to do with the quality of their swings or how they play the game; all of them can launch towering tee shots and have the raw talent of those playing for pay. Nor is it the equipment they play that stands out (although the carry bags are a pretty good give away).
Nope, the way you can spot the six luckiest bastards on the property is by the looks on their faces. Each carries a semi-permanent grin as they walk anywhere around Augusta National, as if they’re the living, breathing incarnation of a Howdy Doodie marionette … who is visiting Disney World … and allowed to eat all the ice cream he wants.
“This place is amazing, what else can I tell you,” said Alvaro Ortiz, the 21-year-old from Mexico as he passed by the clubhouse on Tuesday. I know Oritz wasn’t running—that’s forbidden here, remember—but I wouldn’t describe him as walking either. It more resembled floating.
Come Thursday, however, those grins will slowly start to wash away as the first round begins in earnest and the anticipation of playing in the Masters is replaced with the reality of playing in the Masters. Suffice it to say, Augusta National is no muny course.
The question then emerges, as it does every year: Who among the amateurs will be playing just 36 holes and who will have the luxury of playing 72? Eight times in the last nine years a player has made the cut and taken home the low amateur trophy on Sunday.
Who then is the most likely to join Fred Ridley and the new Masters champ in Butler Cabin? Here’s a peek of the six candidates alphabetical order.
Devon Bling, 19, Ridgecrest, Calif.
How he qualified: U.S. Amateur runner-up
Odds of making the cut: 30-1
Skinny: The UCLA sophomore attended the Monday practice round at the Masters with his teammates a year ago after they competed in a college event hosted by Augusta University, dreaming of one day playing the course. A year later, here he is. His college results this season have been so-so, but he hopes his innovative preparation for this week will pay off. It’s tough not to root for the UCLA sophomore, who is playing this week in the memory of his mother, Sara, who passed away six years ago. “She’ll be with me—always,” said Bling, his mom helping encourage him to take up the game and dreaming along with her son that he would some day play at Augusta. “She’s always with me every day.”
Victor Hovland, 21, Norway
How he qualified: U.S. Amateur champ
Odds of making the cut: 5-1
Skinny: Hovland dominated the field at Pebble Beach last August en route to claiming the Havemeyer Trophy and living up to the hype he carried with him upon arriving at Oklahoma State in the fall of 2016. Since his victory, he’s had a fine college season for the Cowboys as the team attempts to repeat at the NCAA championship this spring. The collegiate junior, who will be Norway’s first golfer to compete in the Masters, will likely turn pro at the end of this season. He’s played in three PGA Tour events since last fall, making his first cut in March at the Arnold Palmer Invitational.
Takumi Kanaya, 20, Japan
How he qualified: Asia-Pacific Amateur champ
Odds of making the cut: 20-1
Skinny: Kanaya has quite the resume for someone so young. He was the Japan Amateur champion at age 17 and in 2017 he finished second at the Japan Open. Many compare him to countryman Hideki Matsuyama, who also won the Asia-Pacific Amateur to earn a Masters invite and who also attended Tohoku Fukishi University. They work with the same coach, and Kanaya has played practice rounds with Matsuyama this week in hopes that he’ll be ready come Thursday.
Kevin O’Connell, 30, Jacksonville, Fla.
How he qualified: U.S. Mid-Amateur champ Odds of making the cut: 25-1
Skinny: The Minnesota native was a talented college player at North Carolina who turned pro in 2011, but couldn’t get past the mini-tours. He regained his amateur status in 2015, but was thinking of giving pro golf another shot when he happened to win the U.S. Mid-Am title last fall. He scrapped plans for European Tour Q school in order to take advantage of the Mid-Am champ’s Masters and U.S. Open invites, and moved to Florida this winter in an attempt to sharpen his game for this upcoming stretch of events. O’Connell has going for him the fact he’s played pro golf, but must fight the difficult history of Mid-Am champions only making one cut at the Masters in the 30-plus years they’ve been invited to compete.
Alvaro Ortiz, 23, Mexico
How he qualified: Latin America Amateur champ
Odds of making the cut: 8-1
Skinny: The former Arkansas standout will be the first Mexican to compete in the Masters since 1979, a great source of pride to him and his country. He won the LAAC in January, so he’s only had a few months to prepare for the Masters. But he’s made the most of his time, visiting Augusta National five separate times, each visit coming with a purpose: “The first two times I came here it was with my dad and the first time I was just trying to enjoy it, trying to soak everything in and I was kind of spectating, pretty much, looking at every hole, looking at the trees, asking about the maintenance of the course and the members and everything. …The last three times I came with my coach, Justin Poynter, and he made me chip like a thousand balls from every hole. We chipped everywhere, from everywhere to every single pin to every single position, from each bunker, from each blade of grass, literally. We just chipped and putted every day for a long, long time, taking three hours per nine, just doing that and just working on that and feeling comfortable around it.”
Jovan Rebula, 21, South Africa
How he qualified: British Amateur champ
Odds of making the cut: 16-1
Skinny: Rebula just might have the biggest rooting section among the amateurs as he’s a junior at Auburn. The nephew of Ernie Els has picked his brain for course knowledge, and hopes that having played at the British Open at Carnoustie last July (where he missed the cut) and being the only amateur with major-championship experience will help him.