Showtime in Augusta - Golfers to watch

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Masters 2021
Posted on
April 7, 2021
M. James Ward in
Estimated reading time: 11 minutes

The trio of Jack Nicklaus, Gary Player and Lee Elder will lead the way Thursday morning as the 85th Masters gets underway. Winning the Masters is a legitimate goal for any golfer and the clash of up-and-coming players versus those that have faced the pressure cooker of Augusta National with a green jacket on the line is what makes the first major championship of 2021 a compelling one to watch.


Estimated reading time: 11 minutes


The glory days of Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson -- two men who won a combined eight tournaments -- is moving into the realm of permanent shadows from the past. Woods is now recovering from a serious car accident from several weeks ago and Mickelson is facing the ice-cold fact that as a 50-year-old golfer his wherewithal to play at a world class level for four consecutive days is likely over.

This year's event pits seasoned veterans -- men looking to continue a stranglehold on snaring the sport's most celebrated events versus a younger generation of players -- with various meaningful accomplishments and showcasing various locations throughout the globe. 

The Masters is the only major championship held at the same venue each year. The last time a first-time entrant into the event won came 42 years ago when Fuzzy Zoeller claimed the top position.

The depth of talent throughout the broader golf world has clearly noticeably grown since that time and while familiarity with the course still plays an issue of importance the wherewithal for such newer players to emerge is not an improbability as it was inthe past.

Here are the key players that merit attention for this year's Masters.


Dustin Johnson

The world-ranked number one player and defending champion has not been playing up to his usual fine form in recent weeks. Johnson was unable to win his group play during the WGC-Dell Technologies World Match-Play event and prior to that his two stroke play events had him making the cut but being far from contention. Dustin was scheduled to play at last week's Valero Texas Open but pulled out in order to spend time preparing for his green jacket defense.

Even with those lackluster efforts -- make no mistake about Johnson's mind numbing talent.

Winning the Masters in consecutive years would place him alongside the likes of Jack Nicklaus, Nick Faldo and Tiger Woods as the only other players to do so. Johnson winning would also validate the immense talent he has considerably demonstrated since turning professional in 2007.

For the 36-year-olf the moment is now present to add the final layer to his resume -- claiming additional major championships. This Masters could well prove to be the point where DJ moves into a record setting mode and seeks ultimate ratification in being mentioned as one of the game's all-time best players.


Showtime in Augusta - Golfers to watch
(AP Photo/Jeff Chiu)

Brooks Koepka

After his most recent surgery to his right knee, the likelihood Brook Koepka would be able to play in this year's Masters was seriously in jeopardy.

Koepka has opted to compete and the focus will clearly be on him given his most recent record in golf's biggest events.

Since 2017 -- there have been 15 majors played -- with Koepka competing in 13 of them. His cumulative score in all those attempts is -83. The next closest golfer is Dustin Johnson at -37. Koepka has demonstrated a capacity to play his finest golf on the biggest of stages -- golf's major championships.

The four-time major winner has never won at Augusta but finished in a tie for 2nd in 2019.

Koepka won earlier this year during the Florida golf swing and the bigger question is can his knee handle the hilly terrain of Augusta National for four days of competition? If the 30-year-old is able to do so his track record in major championship play could well mean adding a green jacket to his sterling career.


(AP Photo/Jeff Chiu)

Justin Thomas

The 27-year-old has faced a challenging year in 2021. During the Sentry Tournament of Champions in Hawaii he uttered an offensive gay slur after missing a short putt during the event. The uproar he faced was considerable -- key sponsors opted to end their relationship with him.

Thomas won The Players Championship this year and already has a major championship under his belt -- winning the PGA Championship in 2017.  His win at TPC / Sawgrass was remarkable -- firing a 132 total on the weekend to gain the victory.

This will be his 6th time playing in the Masters and he has only one top ten finish to his credit but his efforts have improved with each succeeding time. Thomas has won 14 times on the PGA Tour and has shown a dogged quality when in contention for big time championships.

This week at Augusta could very well provide the catapult he has long sought to separate himself from the other upper echelon players. 


(Mark Humphrey/AP)

Jordan Spieth

After winning The Open Championship in July of 2017 for his 3rd major championship, it appeared Jordan Spieth was on a pathway heading into the upper reaches of golf stardom. Then the bottom fell out. Spieth's game deteriorated to where at the beginning of 2020 he was ranked 82nd in the world -- he has improved dramatically to 38th and has regained the critical elements of momentum and confidence in coming to Augusta this week.

Spieth's first professional win since 2017 at last week's Valero Texas Open was the culmination of the quality play that he has shown commencing with the Waste Management event in Scottsdale in late January.

For the 27-year-old reclaiming the green jacket this year would be the ultimate redemption after his implosion in 2016 when holding the final round lead before rinsing his approach shots at the par-3 12th thereby providing the opening for Englishman Danny Willet to claim the victory.

Spieth's renaissance at this year's event could be the perfect vehicle to jettison away that painful memory.


Showtime in Augusta - Golfers to watch
(AP Photo/David J. Phillip)

Bryson DeChambeau

Winning last year's US Open propelled Bryson from being a contender to a golfer with real standing. Much of the focus has centered around the prodigious lengths he can hit his driver to but DeChambeau has far more in his arsenal than high flying long tee shots.

The 27-year-old has competed in several Masters but his best finish came as a first time entrant as an amateur when he finished in a T-21st and was low amateur. 

DeChambeau has opted to move away from sheer bulk with an emphasis on increasing his already warp-like clubhead speed. Bryson has been practicing with a new 4.5 degree driver, but its usage remains problematic for this year's event.

Much was expected from DeChambeau at last November's Masters but he limped home with a T-34th position.

Much more is expected this year. 


(AP Photo/Jeff Chiu)

Rory McIlroy

In 2011, McIlroy had the Masters lead heading into the final nine holes but a badly hooked tee shot at the 10th sent him plummeting down the leaderboard. Rory would make amends quickly with a spectacular performance at the US Open at Congressional winning handily. 

McIlroy has been a steady player in recent years at Augusta finishing in the top ten in six of the last seven events. The issue has been maintaining consistency from one round to the next.

Rory's effort to improve his putting and wedge play has been a real plus but the ultimate examination rests with Augusta National and its treacherous contoured putting surfaces.

A win at Augusta and McIlroy would join the exclusive career grand slam winners club -- becoming just the 6th to do so.

The 31-year-old has not won since the WGC-HBSC Champions event in China in November, 2019. Doing so at Augusta would end that streak and push Rory into the rarified air of true greatness.


Showtime in Augusta - Golfers to watch
(AP Photo/Jeff Chiu)

The young guns

Hard to ignore the reality -- younger players are now front and center and nothing would cement that better than receiving the green jacket. Among those players are the likes of Viktor Hovland -- two wins and seven top-15s in 12 starts this season. Texan Scott Scheffler is showing form that has gotten considerable attention -- most recently as runner-up in the WGC-Dell Match Play event two weeks back.

At the front of this line is Colin Morikawa -- winner of last year's PGA Championship and a WGC event in Florida in March. Morikawa's iron play is exceptional and once in contention can be tough to shake. The broader issue for the 24-year-old and the others is how much a lack of familiarity with Augusta National will impact their performance. 

Matt Wolff is also in the conversation and his high finishes in last year's PGA and runner-up at the US Open show he has the game to play at the highest of levels. 

Rounding out the group is 23-year-old South Korean Sungjae Im -- who finished T-2 in his Masters debut. There is also his fellow countryman Kim Si-woo who was the youngest ever winner of The Players Championship in 2017 at age 21. In years past, when people discussed top tier players from South Korea the focus was mainly on the top tier women. No longer.


Showtime in Augusta - Golfers to watch
Collin Morikawa (AP Photo/Jeff Chiu)

Lee Westwood

On the flip side of the age chart is Lee Westwood. The Englishman turns 48 later this month and has been playing extremely well with back-to-back runner-up finishes at Bay Hill and The Players Championship, along with a solid showing at the WGC-Match Play event.

Westwood will likely be selected to Team Europe for a record tying 11th time in the scheduled Ryder Cup Matches set for late September in Wisconsin.

But the most serious golf hardware missing, thus far, is winning a major championship.

Westwood has finished in the runner-up slot twice at Augusta along with twelve top-5 placements in the four majors combined. In 2020 he captured the European Player-of-the-Year award. At his age most golfers would be shifting attention for the Champion Tour at age 50. Yet, Lee has the golf game to match what Sergio Garcia accomplished with his first major win when the Spaniard claimed the 2017 green jacket.

Westwood had been dogged throughout his career when contending in major championships. In a number of circumstances, it has been a combination of his wayward play and the excellence of others that have often prevented him from victory. This week could well prove to be the ultimate vindication for a golfer who has waited a very long time for that to happen, However, to do that he will need to eclipse the record of the previous oldest winner of the Masters -- Jack Nicklaus at age 46 in 1986.


(Adam Davy/PA Wire)

Jon Rahm

Becoming a father for the first time last week was a milestone in Jon's young life but his desire to be reckoned with on the golf course now shifts to this week's event.

Other Spaniards have climbed the Augusta mountain -- Sergio being the most recent one. 

The 26-year-old has finished in the top 10 for the last three Masters and is quite comfortable with the setting and the stakes involved.

Part of the issue for Rahm is maintaining composure when things do go awry. Being a father may prove to be the needed balancing act and have him overcome past potholes which have derailed his efforts when in contention.

The Spanish connection to the Masters is well documented -- Rahm would like to see another chapter added to that storyline and seeing the green jacket draped around his shoulders.


(AP Photo/Kamran Jebreili)
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About M. James Ward

A GWAA and MGWA member, the 66-year-old from the USA has covered golf in all facets since 1980, notably the major championships and other high level events. He has played over 2,000 courses globally and has competed in USGA Championships.

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