Answering the biggest questions in the lead-up to the Masters.
Every week, SI.com's Daniel Rapaport will be answering four of the biggest questions from the week in golf. This week's edition will focus on the year's first major, the Masters. To submit questions for the following week's column, simply tweet at @Daniel_Rapaport or @SI_Golf.
Finally, Masters week is upon us. All eyes this week will be on Tiger Woods, who is making his first start at Augusta National since 2015. Tiger's return to the Tour since his one-year absence for spinal fusion surgery has been quite impressive, and he's spoken about feeling like he can win the tournament. Are you buying that he has a legitimate chance to win? And what would qualify as a good week?
First and foremost, let's take a moment to appreciate the exchange we're having right now. Six months ago, it seemed more than likely that Tiger wouldn't even tee it up at Augusta this year, and now we're having a non-ridiculous discussion about whether we can expect him to contend come Sunday. That's a testament to how healthy he's looked and how genuinely impressive his game has been, as well as a healthy dose of Tiger-mania. The golf world wants so desperately for him to be a factor again, so when he's showing signs of life, his bandwagon is always going to have tremendous momentum. But this time around, the hype is based in reality rather than faith or nostalgia.
Now, to the question. Does Tiger have a chance to win at Augusta? Sure he does. Anytime a 14-time major champion and 79-time PGA Tour winner has finished in the top five of his last two events, he has a chance. And Tiger's record at Augusta is nothing short of astounding—along with the four victories, he has eight other top-six finishes and has never missed the cut at the event as a professional. He knows this course better than any other (except for maybe Torrey Pines or Bay Hill) and has found a way to be competitive even when his game is in shambles. In 2015, he showed up at Augusta having missed the cut in two of his previous four events—one of which included a career-worst second-round 82 at the Waste Management Open—and withdrawn from the other two. Still, he managed to finish a more-than-respectable T-17th.
There is no reason to believe Tiger won't be in, say, the top 15 come Sunday. He took the two previous weeks off and should be well-rested, and he'll certainly have a game plan for how he wants to attack the course with his current fitness and skill set. I would caution against picking him to win this week, however, and it has nothing to do with the current state of his game. If history is any indication, winning a regular Tour event has served as a prerequisite: Tiger’s first win of the season has never come at a major.
Tiger's game is good enough to win right now—he was one putt away from a playoff at the Valspar—but it's hard to see his first win since 2013 coming in a major. The field this week is, of course, an elite one, and major golf courses will expose any weakness in your game. That's not to say Tiger has any glaring weaknesses (though his driver dispersion might qualify), but he has spoken about not being quite as sharp as he'd like to be in all facets of his game. The winner this week will need to do everything well, and while Tiger will almost certainly get back to the point where he can play a near-flawless week, I just don't see it happening this soon.
As for what would constitute a good week, the answer Tiger would give you is probably different than the one you're going to read here. Woods has seen enough from his game to proclaim that he's come to Augusta "just to win," and it looks like the short-lived days of him being satisfied simply to complete four rounds are over. Expect to see him return to the guarded, hyper-focused Tiger this week, as opposed to the more friendly and open Tiger 2.0 we've seen of late. He truly expects to win this week, so anything short of that will leave him unsatisfied. For the rest of us, anything inside the top-10 should be considered an impressive showing. This is his first start in a major since the 2015 PGA, and a top-10 would serve as further proof that Woods is very much a threat to win majors going forward.
I'm looking to place some wagers this week. Apart from the headliners and favorites (Tiger, Phil Mickelson, Rory McIlroy, Dustin Johnson, Jordan Spieth, etc.), who are some sleepers that I should be aware of?
The first order of business here is to stay away from any player making their Masters debut. Since the tournament began in 1934, only three players have ever won a green jacket in their first appearance at Augusta. (Horton Smith did it in 1934, though that doesn't count because literally everyone in the field was making their first Masters start.) Gene Sarazen accomplished the same feat the following year, but he was one of the world's best players and for some reason didn't compete in the first Masters, which was actually called the Augusta National Invitational until taking its current name in 1939.
That leaves Fuzzy Zoeller as the only player in the modern era to win in his first Masters; he did so by beating Tom Watson and Ed Sneed in a playoff in 1979. So in the last 38 Masters, no first-time competitor has won. That logic eliminates the following players from consideration: Wesley Bryan, Austin Cook, Harry Ellis, Tony Finau, Dylan Frittelli, Doug Ghim, Patton Kizzire, Satoshi Kodaira, Haotong Li, Yuxin Lin, Yusako Miyazato, Joaquin Niemann, Matt Parziale, Doc Redman, Xander Schauffele and Shubhankar Sharma.
After discarding those guys and past champions who don't play regularly on tour anymore (Larry Mize, Ian Woosnam, Vijay Singh, etc.), your options narrow quite a bit. If you're looking for a pick outside the 10 guys Vegas pegs as having the best odds, two guys I like a lot are Jon Rahm (30–1) and Paul Casey (27–1).
Rahm's odds are surprisingly good when you consider he's the No. 3 player in the world and one of the best drivers of the ball on the planet. That'll help him take advantage of Augusta's four gettable par-5s. And if there's one thing the fiery Spaniard doesn't lack, it's confidence. Don't expect him to blink if he plays his way into one of the final pairings on the weekend. Casey won his last stroke-play start at the Valspar and has finished in the top six in each of his last three Masters starts. He has long been a world-class player, and it wouldn't be surprising at all to see the 40-year-old finally break through at a major.
Side note: For the record, my pick this week is Bubba Watson.
I'm a Masters newcomer. What should I know about Augusta as a golf course? What kind of players typically succeed?
Welcome to the best week in golf and, in my opinion, the greatest annual event in sports.
The Masters is the only one of golf's four majors that doesn't change its venue on a year-to-year basis, which has led to Augusta National’s reputation as the sport's most iconic course. It's a hilly layout designed by famed Scottish architect Alister MacKenzie, and the course has been given multiple facelifts since its 1933 opening to keep up with modern equipment and players. It's not the most challenging golf course off the tee as it allows players to spray their drivers a little bit. There's room to miss, so long as you don't mind hitting shots through trees from the pine straw that lines most fairways.
Traditionally speaking, Augusta's biggest challenge is its undulating greens and mowed-down areas surrounding the putting surfaces. The greens are, by and large, multi-tiered. Shots that are only a few yards off can end up leaving 80-foot putts or finishing off the green altogether. The greens themselves, made of bent grass, are arguably the best of any course the pros play all season. They're also some of the fastest. The carpet-like surfaces allow you to roll in your share of putts, but efforts with the wrong speed will be punished. That's led to a conventional wisdom that you need to be an above-average putter to win the Masters, but recent history has actually told a different story:
Don’t buy the myth about needing to be a good putter at Augusta.— Timothy Frank (@FantasyGolfMan) April 2, 2018
Season SGP rankings:
‘17 Sergio 168th
‘14 Bubba 110th
‘13 Scott 103rd
‘12 Bubba 156th
‘11 Schwartzel 101st
‘10 Phil 133rd
‘08 Immelmann 191st
"At Augusta you don't need to putt great, you need to not waste any shots, no three putts, hole everything inside five feet," McIlroy told BBC Sport in February.
I'm picking up what he's putting down. Excellent iron play is probably more important than putting expertise these days at Augusta National, which is a classic "second shot golf course." You need to be able to shape the ball both ways, which makes it easier to hit shots that can end up on the right tier of the fairways and greens. That's absolutely crucial.
I'm not a Tiger fan, but I'm looking for some players to root for this week. Who are some non-marquee guys that have compelling stories?
Where to begin? Ted Potter Jr. might be a good place—Potter Jr. is a mini-tour legend who toiled away for years on golf's less-than-glamorous minor-league scene before getting his PGA breakthrough in 2013. He estimates that he's won roughly 60 mini-tour events if you count all the one- and two-day events for modest prizes on tours you've never heard of. Potter pulled off one of the bigger upsets in recent memory when he stared down Dustin Johnson to win the AT&T Pro-Am at Pebble Beach earlier this season. If you're not already sold, watch one interview of Potter's and you'll understand his appeal. He is about as un-country club as it comes.
Another guy is Ian Poulter, the fiery Brit who has rubbed American golf fans the wrong way in recent Ryder Cups. Poulter's game came off track in 2017, when at one point he ranked outside the top 200 in the world, but he has battled back to relevance. He believed he'd done enough to get into this year's Masters with his fifth-place finish at the WGC-Dell Match Play, but he ended up one spot outside the top-50 benchmark that comes with automatic entry into Augusta. That left one avenue for him to get into the field: win last week's Houston Open. He did exactly that in one of the grittiest performances of the 42-year-old's career.
Other nice storylines:
• Rory McIlroy is seeking to complete the career grand slam, something only five other players have done in the modern era (Gene Sarazen, Ben Hogan, Gary Player, Jack Nicklaus, Woods).
• Shubhankar Sharma is a 21-year-old Indian player who received the first special invite from the tournament committee since 2013.
• Matt Kuchar now holds the title of "best player to never win a major" after Sergio Garcia removed himself from the list at last year's Masters. The 39-year-old top-10 machine is still looking for his first major championship.
• Justin Thomas has a chance to become the third American to reach World No. 1 before his 25th birthday. He'd join Spieth and Woods.
• Bryson DeChambeau approaches the game through a data-driven, scientific lens, and all his irons are the same length.
• Want to feel old? Asia-Pacific Amateur champion Yuxin Lin is the youngest player in this year's tournament at 17. His birthday is October 12, 2000.
• U.S. mid-Amateur champion Matt Parziale is a 31-year-old fireman from Brockton, Mass.
The Masters brings together the world's best players, legends of the past and amateurs who have a day job. There's a guy for everyone to root for.