Masters 2019: Rory's Grand Slam, Tiger's 15th major and other early storylines we're watching en route to Augusta National
The 2019 Masters is less than three weeks away, and with it come a slew of delectable storylines. Of course, there's often a discrepancy in what matters before the tournament to what ultimately transpires come the four rounds of competition at Augusta National. A quick refresher on the Tiger Woods-Phil Mickelson practice-round teaser from a year ago, or the sadistic intervention of a flight of stairs the spring before that, will testify as much.
Did that stop us from waxing poetic on what has us tantalized heading into Augusta National? Of course not! Here is a highly unscientific, totally premature rundown of our top 10 storylines for the 2019 Masters.
The silence is deafening for Reed
Danny Willett aside, has there been less pub for a defending champ than Patrick Reed? The 28-year-old has played relatively well this season, logging four top-15 finishes in eight starts. In that same breath, Reed's metrics paint the profile of merely an above-average player (45th in strokes gained, 46th in scoring) who hasn't contended in a tournament since a brief four-hole Sunday stretch at Shinnecock Hills last June. That the tire tracks are still fresh from Reed running the bus over any and all in 2018, it's probably for the best that the divisive figure is staying under the radar.
If Reed did go back-to-back, he'd join Jack Nicklaus, Nick Faldo and Woods as the only repeat Masters champions. Let the theoretical top-five player discussions begin!
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Last ride for Freddie?
We always figured Fred Couples would play in the Masters until he was six feet under; even then, we wouldn't rule him out out of making the Friday leader board.
However, there were whispers during last year's tournament, in which Couples demonstratively battled his recurring back pain to make the cut for the 30th time in 33 tries, that the Hall of Famer was considering hanging up the proverbial spurs. He turns 60 this fall, and as Woods noted last year, Augusta National is becoming "a long golf course for Fred."
To his credit, Couples has been far from a ceremonial player with six top-20s this decade. And unlike last year's injury-riddled lead-up—his Monday practice round was his first time swinging in eight weeks—Couples has played in four PGA Tour Champions events this year, and played well. Still, though the tournament and club don't force anyone to retire, former green-jacket winners are waving goodbye at earlier ages than years past, the course becoming too difficult and the players cognizant of avoiding a "Doug Ford" moment. Couples has become a Masters tradition himself, but even traditions bow to Father Time.
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Can DeChambeau solve his major riddle?
Bryson DeChambeau has won five times since our last visit to Augusta National, moving up to No. 6 in the world. As good as the Mad Scientist has been—and few have been better in the past year—it has not translated to the sport's biggest stages. In his last seven major starts, DeChambeau has three missed cuts, zero top-20s and one driving range outburst.
Before opining that he lacks the temperament or mettle for such an occasion, it's worth mentioning DeChambeau came in T-21 at the 2016 Masters as an amateur and followed it with a 15th-place finish at Oakmont, and one doesn't capture the U.S. Amateur and NCAA Championship sans gumption. He's also only 25. Worth giving the guy a little time to learn the major ropes. The early successes of Tiger, Rory McIlroy and Jordan Spieth have raised expectations for fledgling talents at majors, yet sometimes it takes a few falls from the saddle to learn how to ride.
DeChambeau has the power (eighth in sg/off-the-tee), second-shot dexterity (12th in approach last season) and capability to go low (fifth in birdie average) that are prerequisites at Augusta National. There's also the chance he's built a wind tunnel to recreate the whirlpool effect and treacherous gusts at Amen Corner. If he can keep his fickle short game (104th around the green, 43rd in putting) and occasionally jittery energy at bay, watch out.
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What to make of Rose?
Justin Rose has six worldwide wins and whopping 27 top-10s since August 2017, playing hot potato with Dustin Johnson and Brooks Koepka for World No. 1. And to a contingent of fans, it means bupkis. For superstars, the 52-week calendar is distilled to a four-tournament prism.
Just or not, it's the nature of the beast. Moreover, it is odd that a competitor of Rose's stature—he's been in, or hovered around, the world's top 10 for nearly a decade—has just one major as he nears 40.
The Masters gives him his best chance at adding to that total. He's been particularly close as of late, finishing inside the top 15 in seven of his last eight starts, highlighted by two runner-ups. It does feel like the Englishman is at a crossroads of sorts; players are proving to be formidable well into their 40s, yet all heaters have a shelf life. We never realize when those runs end, but it stands to reason Rose's could be winding down. (Also worth noting: Since Nicklaus' marvelous '86 Masters, only two players in their 40s—Ben Crenshaw and Mark O'Meara—have won a green jacket.)
He enters the Masters as a tournament favorite; it may double as his last best chance at the green jacket. Besides, Jim Nantz has been sitting on, "A Rose BLOOMS AT AUGUSTA!" for years. Time to let that bird out of the cage.
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Are the stars finally aligning for Dustin?
It's been two years since DJ's preordained Masters win went spiraling down a staircase. Though he hasn't been as lights-out as that three-win tear in 2017, he's quietly cobbling together another dynamite start with four top-nine finishes, including a win at the WGC-Mexico, in five starts.
Better yet—well, unless you're one of his competitors—Johnson feels like he's regained his lights-out form.
"I'm getting closer, for sure," Johnson said during the Valspar Championship. "I feel like the swing's starting to feel a lot better. The shot patterns are starting to get more consistent. So now it's the closest I've been to that. I mean back then that was probably the best form I've ever been in and getting injured it's taken a while to get back to that form. Obviously, I played very well in that stretch, but I wasn't as comfortable as I was then kind of throughout the whole bag. But it's getting, it's definitely the closest I've felt to that stage of my career."
As for why Johnson hasn't hit paydirt at the Masters, the common, lazy take circles his short game as the Achilles' heel. Johnson may not be Loren Roberts, but one doesn't post three straight top-10s at Augusta solely off power and finesse. The true inflection point has been Saturdays: Johnson owns a career 73.0 third-round scoring average, 2.25 strokes higher than his Friday mark and 1.43 worse than his Sunday figure. For Johnson to get into the final-round mix, he needs to stop staying pat on moving day.
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What's up with Brooks?
This got lost in the frenzy at Sawgrass, but Brooks Koepka told the Golf Channel that a massive weight loss has him at odds with his game. “When you go from 212 pounds to 190, there’s not as much weight going forward through the ball,” Koepka told the GC's Ryan Lavner. “I don’t have as much feel. I just feel out of sorts.”
That may seem melodramatic given Koepka nearly won the Honda Classic three weeks ago. It's also his only top-20 finish this season, and his performance off the tee has suffered, dropping to 59th in strokes gained/distance after ranking ninth a season ago. Even crazier, the transformation is reportedly spurred by a magazine spread. Though it triggered an unintended consequence, Koepka seems at peace with the decision, saying it's only "four months of my career" that suffered.
Well, four months so far. Koepka's confident the lbs., and his game, will return, and the sharps still have Koepka among the tournament darlings. However, should the effects bleed into the Masters, which Koepka missed last season with injury, that's another animal. The mere premise that Koepka—he of three majors in his last six tries and 10 top-15s in his last 12 starts—could see his chances submarined by a naked photo shoot might cause Brandel Chamblee's head to explode. Frankly, it's a win-win.
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Rules! Rules! Rules!
The assimilation—or should we say resistance—to the revised Rules of Golf has been dominating narrative of 2019, a dispute the heads of golf wish would disappear. As these rules run-ins have intensified, the public has generally sided with the players. However, the tenor of the conversation is slightly changing, fans and media not so much agreeing with the governing bodies and the officials that enforce them, but more so a general malaise about the constant complaining. No other sport has such discord in how it should be regulated; why, many wonder, is this happening?
Because of its eminence, the Masters serves as a forum of all subjects of the game, and with Augusta National chairman Fred Ridley's deep ties to the USGA (former U.S. Amateur champion and USGA president) and various competition committees (along with playing a part in the infamous Tiger Woods drop at the 2013 Masters), the topic will manifest in some form. Players are usually on their best behavior when stepping foot on the venerable property, yet any rules issue will be amplified given the Masters platform. That Augusta National Golf Club does not suffer distractions only heightens this possible clash, but it's a clash that undoubtedly hovers.
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Can Spieth get right?
Last spring Spieth almost completed the greatest charge in Masters history. Three months later, he was five holes away from defending the claret jug. Three weeks from the 2019 Masters, the Golden Child has been one of the worst players on tour this season.
That's not hyperbole. Despite making eight starts, Spieth's 184th in the FedEx Cup standings. He ranks 205th in strokes gained/off-the-tee, 174th in GIR (a category he's dominated over the last five years), 164th in total putting and T-177 in bogey avoidance. That's the portrait of a player battling for his card, not of a Masters favorite.
Conversely, Spieth's name remains on the short list of betting choices, for the tournament has been his personal playground. His five starts at the Masters: T-2/Win/T-2/T-11/3, with that T-11 coming from the penultimate Sunday pairing. Spieth is the consummate "horses for courses" pick.
But Augusta National has never been an analgesic; if anything, it's quite the opposite, exposing what a competitor lacks. And momentum does matter, Angel Cabrera the lone out-of-the-woodwork winner from the past 16 years.
In a sense, there are two outcomes, on the opposite ends of the spectrum, for Spieth. Either the Masters gets him back on the trajectory as one of the game's all-time greats … or his woes continue. And if he can't get right at Augusta, the thought goes, what hope is on the horizon? Without lampooning his plight, Spieth is the most enthralling case study in golf, his ceiling and floor as extensive as anyone in the sport. What happens in those four, or possible two, days at Augusta will be a fascinating watch.
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Tiger going for No. 15
Your eyes do not deceive you. Tiger Woods not THE primary storyline, at the Masters no less. What a time to be alive.
Compared to last year's return of Tiger-mania, when the sport was on the verge of self-combustion at the thought of Woods donning the green jacket, the hype to this season's visit is much more subdued. Part of that fervor was fueled by the 14-time major winner's comeback, teeing it up at Augusta National for the first time in three years, but also by his play, coming close to victory at Innisbrook and Bay Hill to stoke the flames. Now that Woods has been in (relative) good health for more than a year, and more importantly, that he hasn't contended in his selected appearances so far, those flames have been ever-so dimmed.
But to those that say the 43-year-old has become nothing more than a rank-and-file player need to pump the brakes. Woods ranks seventh in strokes gained, fifth in strokes gained/around-the-green, fourth in GIR percentage and 16th in scoring. His driving can still be problematic (70th in strokes gained/off-the-tee), and his wedge game has been unusually suspect (196th in accuracy from 50-70 yards, 122nd from 125 yards and in), but he's still, by most measurements, a top-12 player in the world.
The argument could be made that the circus surrounding Woods at Augusta last year was simply too much. With a bit more breathing room and expectations slightly lowered, Woods could be primed to pounce. Tiger will need to get right with his driver—ditto the putter—and only one player has won the Masters at an older age (we'll give you three guesses, but you'll only need one). But as improbable as it may seem, Tiger Woods winning his 15th major, more than a decade since his last, is very much in play.
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The grail quest
That would be Rory McIlroy, the most exciting player of this generation, playing statistically the best golf of his career (yes, 2014 included), attempting to accomplish something only five players in the modern era have done, at the world's most famous tournament, a tournament which has been his personal house of horrors. Does that do anything for ya?
Only Tiger has won the Masters and Players in the same year, and since Woods pulled that off in 2001, just Spieth has captured a Florida event and the Masters in the same season. Despite his Sawgrass triumph, the whispers remain on his ability to close, as do the demons of last year, when McIlroy had the chance to dispose of Patrick Reed early on Sunday, only to fumble those chances, and the green jacket, away.
But this is a new Rory, a Zen Rory. The Ulsterman has preached patience throughout this 2019 rejuvenation. A patience the Masters, and history, will happily put to the test.