Analysis: Breaking down the favorites at the Masters
The Masters begins Thursday at Augusta National, and here are five golfers who can win the tournament and five who can but won't.
Five who can win
Best Masters finish: Fourth (2015)
>> Even with Phil Mickelson and Tiger Woods poised to contend, you could argue the most compelling winner could be McIlroy. The Northern Irishman has at least one victory in the other three majors, and a win at Augusta would put him in an exclusive club with Woods, Jack Nicklaus, Ben Hogan, Gene Sarazen and Gary Player — those who have the career grand slam. McIlroy has the game to win here. Not only did he lead for the first three rounds in 2011 before an infamous collapse to 80 on Sunday, but he also has top-10 finishes in the last four Masters. Plus, his win two weeks ago at Bay Hill meant something. “Feel like I couldn't come in here with better form,” he said. That's daunting.
Best Masters finish: First (2004, 2006, 2010)
>> When Jack Nicklaus won his 18th and final major at Augusta as a 46-year-old in 1986, it seemed an improbable one-off. But Mickelson is quick to point out, “The longevity of careers are different.” Should he somehow snag his fourth green jacket, he would eclipse Nicklaus as the oldest Masters champion. Now, he's playing well enough to do it, and he perpetually is comfortable here. Even as he struggled with his game over the past five years, he managed to tie for second at the 2015 Masters. He still has all the shots. He still has the most moxie. His self-belief might be unparalleled. Why not?
Best Masters finish: First (2015)
>> Spieth has recorded 16 career rounds at the Masters and has led the tournament after exactly half of them. Yes, his 2018 hasn't lived up to the standards he sets for himself, with his first top-five finish coming in Houston in the week leading into Augusta. Still ... “I will never underestimate him,” Mickelson said. “He's an extremely rare talent and has so much game.” Before Spieth's 25th birthday, he already has three major championships. His four finishes at Augusta: tied for second, first, tied for second, tied for 11th. It'd be more of a surprise to see a leaderboard with Spieth's name not on it than with Spieth atop.
Best Masters finish: First (2012, ‘14)
>> For much of 2016 and '17, Watson seemed lost. He went winless for two full years and tumbled to 98th in the world rankings — a disappointment for a player of his talent. But Watson's two wins this season have restored his confidence, and there may not be a player in the field whose game is more suited to win here: a left-hander who can hit a giant cut, which shapes the ball perfectly on the par-5s, which he turns into tiny little par-4s. Who knows if Watson will ever win a major other than this one? But his game and history here make him a contender each time he shows up at the Masters.
Best Masters finish: First (1997, 2000, 2001, 2005)
>>From 2005-2011, Woods couldn't be yanked off the leader board here, finishing no lower than tied for sixth. Now, it's improbable that he's poised to return to that spot - but he is. Injuries forced him to miss the Masters in 2014, ‘16 and ‘17, and he has been candid about how difficult those days were. “Dark,” he called them. Now, after he contended in his last two events, there's a real sense that he's back. After playing a practice round with Woods Tuesday, former Masters champ Fred Couples assessed the situation thusly: “The sound of the ball is unreal.” That would be an apt description of what it would be like should Woods contend on Sunday afternoon.
Five who can but won't
Best Masters finish: Tied for second (2011)
>>For all his talent and accomplishment, Day is still a little enigmatic. The Australian is a former world No. 1 who nearly won this tournament in his debut seven years ago — and yet has finished 20th or worse three of the past four years. He has broken 70 — a must for a champion here — just twice in his last 18 rounds at Augusta. No longer in his 20s, is it possible that Day has just the 2015 PGA as a major championship?
Best Masters finish: First (2017)
>> Garcia's 2017 Masters was compelling and inspiring. The narrative that he could put aside all the animosity he once felt for this place - and it was real - made for a wonderful story, one he furthered by naming his firstborn child Azalea this spring. But it's also hard to imagine Garcia putting as he did a year ago, and it's still tough to escape his overall record here. His win was tremendous, but in 18 previous Masters, he had more missed cuts (five) than top-10 finishes (three). Even with the win, Garcia's cumulative score over 66 rounds at the Masters: 49 over.
Best Masters finish: Tie for fourth (2016)
>> Johnson's ability is undeniable, and his length makes him a factor at Augusta because he can easily reach all four par-5s in two. Yet even as he has become a major champion — winning the 2016 U.S. Open — and risen to the top spot in the world rankings, Johnson hasn't managed much success in the Masters. In 26 career rounds at Augusta, Johnson has broken 70 just four times — astonishing for someone of his talent. Throw in the freak accident — slipping at his rental home — that cost him an appearance in last year's event, when he might have been the favorite, and the aura around the azaleas doesn't feel right for Johnson.
Best Masters finish: Tied for 14th (2014)
>> Stenson, who beat Mickelson in a memorable duel at the 2016 British Open, is widely regarded as one of the — if not the — best ball-strikers in the game. He arrives in Augusta coming off two strong finishes: fourth in Orlando and tied for sixth in Houston. Yet as accomplished as he is, his Masters record is horrendous. In 12 appearances at Augusta, he has never posted a top-10 finish.
Best Masters finish: Tied for 22nd (2017)
>> Thomas should be the kind of player to jump on here — long enough, savvy enough, seasoned enough and hot enough. His last three results have been a win at the Honda, second to Mickelson in Mexico and fourth at the Match Play, where he admitted the chance to move into the top spot in the world rankings rattled his brain a bit. But his Masters record — a small sample size, for sure — is sketchy. In two tournaments, he has never broken 70.