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FILE - This April 5, 2006 file photo shows bright yellow flowers in the shape of the United States adorn the lawn at the clubhouse during practice for the 2006 Masters golf tournament at the Augusta National Golf Club in Augusta, Ga. The coronavirus pandemic has killed thousands, forced most everyone to hunker down in their homes, and shut down sporting events around the world. The Masters was not immune to its wrath. (AP Photo/David J. Phillip, File)

Return of an April Tradition

2021 Masters Preview

Photo Credit: David J. Phillip

A lot can be said of the year 2020. For most of us, we’d prefer to leave it behind and move forward. For golf, it brought many ups and downs. Golf’s global tours collectively did an amazing job. The Masters is always an annual talking point for the golfing community, 2020 perhaps more than ever. Held in the Fall during November for the first time in history, without patrons and as the final major of the year. The tournament committee at the Augusta National Golf Club did an incredible job, running a smooth and thrilling event.

As 2021 appears to be headed in the right direction toward a level of normalcy, so too will The Masters. Returning to its customary position in both the PGA Tour and major championship schedules over the second weekend in April and as the first major championship of the season. It won’t be quite as electric as a pre-pandemic Masters, however Augusta National Chairman Fred Ridley announced on January 21st that patrons would be allowed but in a reduced capacity, and the Drive, Chip, and Putt Championships along with the Augusta National Women’s Amateur would go ahead as scheduled.

Choosing a winner this year seems nearly impossible. The PGA Tour has seen an array of players from multiple generations raise the question as to whether they’ll either add to a major tally or finally break through to become a major champion for the first time. Although the full field will not be finalized for another week or so, it is safe to assume there will be a couple of surprising additions in the next two weeks.

Photo Credit: Michael Madrid

First, we take a look at three past champions who stick out. All three have won their Masters titles since 2015. It seems like forever ago we were watching Jordan Spieth win his maiden Masters in 2015, the year following his loss to Bubba Watson. Spieth has returned to form in 2021 and most notably seems comfortable again with the putter. He has notched three top 5 finishes in his past 5 starts including two 54-hole leads. Secondly, we look at 2018 Masters Champion, Patrick Reed. Reed plays one of two ways: well or a missed cut, more so the former as his statistics would suggest. Since the November Masters he has notched three top 10s, including a decisive victory at Torrey Pines this January in California. In his nine appearances on the 2021 calendar, he has finished inside the top 25 on all seven occasions he has made the cut. Although not the most popular golfer, Reed plays with grit, determination and confidence which cannot be denied. Lastly, world number 1 and reigning Masters Champion, Dustin Johnson. Despite his past two performances at The PLAYERS and WGC in Florida, Johnson has been a threat in every event he has played. In five events from the beginning of November, Johnson was a combined -70 at an average of 68.5. Johnson’s -20 score at The Masters in November eclipsed the prior scoring record of -18 held by Tiger Woods (1997) and Jordan Spieth (2015). His prodigious length off the tee and precision into the greens make Johnson a formidable opponent at any venue. It would shock nobody to see him become just the fourth player in Masters history to defend his title.

Three young stars looking to add to their solitary major titles and all in outstanding form are, Justin Thomas, Colin Morikawa, and Bryson DeChambeau. Each has a single major championship, Morikawa and DeChambeau most recently with wins in the 2020 PGA Championship and 2020 US Open. Justin Thomas was victorious at Quail Hollow in the 2017 PGA Championship but recently impressed with his victory at TPC Sawgrass in The PLAYERS Championship. All three players are exceptional tee to green, consistently three of the best and all ranking inside the top 5 on the PGA Tour in ‘Strokes Gained: Tee to Green’. The largest question looming is on the greens, statistically the weakness in each of their games, particularly Colin Morikawa who ranks 185th in putting. All three players have victories within the past month, Thomas as mentioned at The PLAYERS, DeChambeau the week prior at the Arnold Palmer Invitational, and Morikawa the week prior to DeChambeau in the WGC event at Concession Club in Florida. It would be hard to say which has an advantage over the other. Thomas’ all-round game and consistency, Morikawas’ impeccable iron play, and DeChambeaus’ prodigious length off the tee. One thing we can be certain of is each has every chance of adding the Green Jacket to their major collection!

No Masters tournament can be without discussion surrounding Rory McIlroy and his pursuit of the career Grand Slam. Rory has had his chances at Augusta and it is a course which should ideally fit his towering ball flight. I find it hard to imagine Rory won’t win at Augusta during his career but statistically 2021 would not indicate this will be the year he dons the Green Jacket. Rory hasn’t won since November of 2019 and only ranks inside the top 10 in one statistical ‘Strokes Gained’ category on the PGA Tour and that is off the tee. Rory will need to sharpen his approach game and see some form with the putter if he is going to feature heavily on the weekend. Perhaps with less form and anticipation of a big performance, Rory can come out victorious on Sunday and become the 6th player in history to complete the career Grand Slam.

Two players of note from very different generations are in search of their maiden major titles. Xander Schauffele has risen fast to become one of the most established young players in the world, featuring on nearly every leaderboard of every event he plays. He ranks relatively highly in all ‘Strokes Gained’ categories on the PGA Tour and his well-rounded game will serve him well at Augusta. He has posted five top 5 finishes in his past 10 starts on the PGA Tour and finished runner-up at Augusta to Tiger Woods in 2019. From a different era but also in search of his maiden major championship is 48-year-old Lee Westwood. Westwood has seen a recent career resurgence and has many wondering if he can become a major champion at the most unlikely time in his career. Westwood held 54 hole leads at both the Arnold Palmer Invitational and The PLAYERS Championship. Although his performance last week at The Honda Classic did not mirror the prior two weeks, it was his ability to recover well from some early final round errors to finish in 2nd at the Arnold Palmer and The PLAYERS which has people talking. It is a given he will do what is needed from tee to green, the question always looms as to whether his short game will hold up around the lead on Sunday. Regardless, Westwood would be a popular champion and one I would be happy to see crown in two weeks.

Last on my list of contenders for this year’s Masters is Tony Finau. Finau has had a number of near misses over the past twelve months to capture his second PGA Tour title. For a player as accomplished as Finau it is hard to believe his lone victory came in Puerto Rico back in 2016. In his seven seasons on the PGA Tour he has notched 44 top 10s at a rate of 25.14% with over $22 million in career prize money. In 2021 alone, Finau has had three 2nd place finishes and five top 10s. No single person will feel a greater sense of relief and accomplishment than Finau if he was able to capture his second title and first major championship in two weeks.

There are a host of players I haven’t discussed who have shown significant potential over the past couple of months, but as we all know every player who has qualified ultimately has the game to be right there headed to the final nine holes on Sunday afternoon. The Masters is without question my favorite golf tournament of the year and I will be firmly planted in front of the television when coverage begins!

Written by
Brad Smith
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Written by Brad Smith