- Can a short hitter win the Masters in 2019? What will the winning score be? And will Tiger be a factor on Sunday? SI's golf experts dish their predictions.
The build-up to the Masters is unlike any tournament, with all golfers trying to peak the week they're at Augusta National. Whether it's the discussion around past champions, potential first-time winners and others looking to cement their legacies—there's so much riding on this one tournament.
This year's event features even more compelling storylines than usual. Tiger is looking to cap his comeback, Rory McIlroy is looking to achieve golf immortality, Jordan Spieth is still trying to snap out his slump, Justin Rise is looking to finally claim his first green jacket—and that's just the tip of the iceberg (or maybe azalea?).
With so much to discuss leading into Thursday, SI.com had its Masters team examine the biggest questions leading into the 2019 Masters.
Can a short hitter win the Masters in 2019?
Mark McClusky: A short answer for short hitters: no.
A longer answer for the rest of us: Jack Nicklaus famously called Augusta National the quintessential second shot golf course. And unsurprisingly, he was dead on. Golf stats guru Mark Broadie notes that when it comes to putting together a top–five finish at the Masters, players gain 30% of their strokes on the field on approach shots, and 20% of those strokes off the tee.
But it’s how those two factors interact that’s important. Driving the ball relatively long offers up shorter approach shots, and allows players a better chance to put their ball where it needs to be on the green. Looking at the last 10 winners of the tournament, players like Charl Schwartzel (currently 113th in driving distance) and Danny Willett (currently 115) show up, but they are still driving the ball over 290 yards. Get below that number, and the second shots into the par 5s are just too much to overcome, especially when big hitters are flipping wedges into #13.
The canonical counterexample to Augusta favoring power is Zach Johnson’s win in 2007. But that was a year with low temperatures, storms, and constant wind, which kept longer hitters from reaching the par 5s. It turned into a wedge contest, which was perfect for Johnson. But this year, the weather forecast looks pretty good, and it’s hard to imagine a similar situation.
When you look at the top 5 players on tour this year in Strokes Gained: Off-The-Tee, you get a pretty good list of Masters’ favorite: McIlroy, Rahm, Bubba, Fleetwood, Day. It’s hard to pick against someone as hot as Rory is right now, but I’m feeling very bullish about Tommy Fleetwood.
If there is a first-time winner, who will it be?
Michael Rosenberg: The easy answer is Rory McIlroy, who has been as hot as anybody in the world. But McIlroy has some demons here, and as he showed in his recent World Golf Championship match against Tiger Woods, duels with other elite golfers sometimes get in his head. The next-easiest answer is Dustin Johnson, who seems overdue to win another major and has the length and touch to win. And the next-easiest answer that would probably be Justin Rose, who has played Augusta National exceptionally well over the years, or Justin Thomas, who has not played Augusta National particularly well but will improve that record at some point soon, perhaps even this week.
And yet … I’m going with Rickie Fowler. His major championship history is tortured. His reputation is that of a non-finisher. But last year he closed with a 67 to finish one stroke behind winner Patrick Reed. He showed me something that day. More importantly, he showed himself something. Fowler believes in himself in a way he didn’t two years ago. I think he will win a major this year. He is my pick.
What will the winning score be?
Daniel Rapaport: It depends on the weather. Specifically, whether the rain resumes. There was a significant downpour for virtually the entire afternoon on Monday and it came down pretty hard again again on Tuesday morning. What resulted was, at least in the foot-traffic areas, a mud-fest. All this to say, it's wetter and softer than normal... right now.
There's a good chance it's not like that when play gets going on Thursday. The course drains so well because A. It's really hilly, more so than it looks on television and B. Augusta National just makes things happen, and if they want the course to firm up, you better believe it will firm up. That, combined with a good forecast on Wednesday, should dry things out.
Assuming it doesn't rain a ton more, and winds don't pick up (they're not forecasted to), something around –11 feels like the magic number. Apart from 2016, when it was particularly gusty, the winning score has been between –8 and –18 every year since 2008. For the first time in 13 years, there is one major difference to the golf course this year: 40 yards have been added to No. 5, making it the second longest par 4 on the course at 495 yards. But the players I've spoken to have said the lengthening might actually make the tee shot easier, as guys will just play safely right of the bunkers rather than trying to fit it over them. I don't foresee 5 playing that much harder than in years past, at least not enough to have an effect on the winning score. So I'll go with –11.
What's one offbeat storyline you're looking forward to?
Stephanie Apstein: I am on mock turtleneck watch this week. When Nike announced on April 1 that Tiger Woods would return to the mock turtlenecks in which he won so many tournaments in the early aughts, it seemed as if it might be a joke. But Woods confirmed it this week. “I thought it was a pretty neat look back in the day” he said, before adding, “I was probably in a little better shape back in those days.” So far the reaction to the announcement has been mixed: Brooks Koepka said he went to nike.com as a child and bought several in honor of his hero. Justin Thomas was less enthralled. “To be honest,” he said, "I couldn’t care less what he’s wearing or doing.”
Will Tiger be a factor Sunday afternoon?
Joan Niesen: No—and that's not to say I don't hope I'm wrong. Any Sunday of golf in which Tiger is competing for a win is more fun than the alternative, but it's been a long time since he's won at Augusta, and I think it'll be a while longer. Does the neck strain he suffered last month mean more injuries and health concerns are on the horizon? Who knows. What's more concerning to me is Woods's driving accuracy this year—he's hitting the fairway on 65.2% of drives, and Augusta's tight fairways and abundant trees won't do him any favors—and putting. Plus, the last time Woods won here, the course was a different beast. Still, he's coming off contending in two majors last summer--the British Open and then the PGA—and it would be short-sighted to count him out entirely. I'm not ruling out a top-10 finish on Sunday, but I think Woods will tee off without a realistic shot at overtaking the top of the leaderboard.
Who will claim the green jacket?
Matt Dollinger: My college Daniel Rapaport is picking Justin Thomas, who has struggled at Augusta but has pretty much thrived everywhere else. I’m going in a different direction and taking a player that’s been making headlines of late—but for all the wrong reasons.
Imagine what a green jacket would do for Matt Kuchar. It would give the 40-year-old his first major and put a stamp of validation on a long, successful career. It would wipe away his caddie tipping controversy and the Sergio Garcia brouhaha—both narratives that seem like the antithesis to who Kuchar is as a person and a golfer. And the biggest win of Kuchar’s career would also come in his backyard, giving the St. Simons Island, Georgia native extra incentive to claim his first green jacket.
Kuchar already has two wins this season and has made the cut in his last nine Masters. He’s registered four top-8 finishes over that span and he’s lurked on the leaderboard for several Sunday afternoons, even if he hasn’t closed the deal. Kuchar has the experience, the hot hand and the incentive to put it all together and win the Masters.
And just in case you were wondering, first place at the Masters paid $1,980,000 last year. And, just in case anyone needs any help with that, 10% is $198,000.