A tradition unlike any other is set to take place this week as golf's brightest stars return to Augusta National's hallowed grounds.
Every year, the term "dark horse" is on pundits' lips, trying to uncover a sleeper to slip on the green jacket at week's end. Obvious favorites Jordan Spieth, Dustin Johnson and Rory McIlroy are expected to contend this week, but there are a number of players trying to win a major championship for the first time.
Hideki Matsuyama has risen to No. 4 in the world rankingsbut has yet to win a major.
Despite his modest major championship record, mainly because he's only25 years old, Matsuyama presents Japan its best chance of gaining a Masters champion.
Had this tournament been in February, Matsuyama would have emerged asthe unrivaled favorite. From the Japan Open in October to the Phoenix Open in February, Matsuyama collected five worldwide wins with two runner-up finishes sprinkled in the mix.
As it stands, Matsuyama is coming off four uninspiring finishes, inwhich he has failed to crack the top 20. Putting has become a problem for the phenom lately, but the law of averages meanthe would cool offa bit at some pointanyway.
Aside from Spieth, few young golfers can boast the same type of success at Augusta as Matsuyama over the last couple of years. Spieth, of course, has a win and a runner-up, but Matsuyama has also impressed with afifth-place finish (2015) and T-7 (2016) in his last two attempts.
Despite his great recent form at Augusta, Matsuyama has broken70 just twice in 18 rounds there. Some of that has to do with the recent lengthening of the course that has made scoring, especially on the front nine, more difficult.
Style of play
Matsuyama's rhythmic, slow swing has become famous for the lag at its apex. CharlesBarkley probably wonders how Matsuyama pulls off the trick so successfully. Patience is key at Augusta with its subtle undulation changes, tricky angles and slick putting surfaces.
Matsuyama, who runs hot and cold with the short stick, has just one round over par at Augusta during the last two years. He has been hitting the ball farther and straighter off the tee recently. His iron game has always been solid, so his chances rest on the state of his short game.
Contender — Forget his most recent starts (missed cut, T-25, T-41 and T-51)because Matsuyama is one of the favorites entering the week. With two top-7 finishes in his last two starts at Augusta, Matsuyama should be confident about his abilities to slip on a green jacket sooner rather than later.
Everyone on Tour is trying to figure out how to beat Dustin Johnson right now, but Matsuyama might be the man to do it.