Masters 2017: Contenders and outsiders to watch, from Johnson to Luck

Scott Murray
Dustin Johnson’s form makes him a merited favourite, but no favourite has won at Augusta for 12 years. Photograph: Eric Gay/AP

1 Dustin Johnson

Once prone to buckling spectacularly with the majors in sight – think Pebble Beach in 2010, the Open at Sandwich or those three putts on the final green at Chambers Bay – the big man is fast becoming expert at calmly getting the job done. His confident march to the 2015 WGC-Cadillac at Doral was the first sign of a new inner serenity; his tranquil closing out of the 2016 US Open at Oakmont despite a wholly unfair rules brouhaha established the point, as well as finally breaking his major duck. On a run of three Tour victories in a row, and the current holder of three of the four WGC titles, the only worry is the fate of the most hotly tipped at Augusta National; no favourite has won since Tiger in 2005.

World ranking: 1. Odds: 5-1 fav. Best Masters: Tied fourth (2016).

2 Jordan Spieth

By his own exceptional standards, Spieth has been quiet since blowing up around Amen Corner last year. He wasn’t involved at the business end of any of 2016’s subsequent majors and he has added a couple of relatively low-key Tour victories, at the Dean & DeLuca Invitational and this year’s AT&T Pebble Beach Pro-Am. Spin it another way, though. The ludicrously precocious Spieth is still only 23; those two titles make him the second player in post-war history after Tiger Woods to win nine times on Tour; and his record at Augusta National is beyond exemplary: three visits, two ties for second place, and one wire-to-wire, record-tying, 18-under-par win. If anyone can put that quadruple-bogey meltdown at 12 behind him, it’s the level-headed Texan.

World ranking: 6. Odds: 6-1. Best Masters: Won (2015).

3 Rory McIlroy

McIlroy hasn’t recorded a Tour victory in his injury-hit season, though he came close at the Arnold Palmer Invitational, rebounding from an opening-day 74 with a third-round 65 and a final-day surge that might have borne fruit had his putter not failed him the very second he joined the leaders. The flat stick remains McIlroy’s achilles heel; those make-or-break six-to-eight footers never drop with the same monotonous regularity of peak-era Tiger or Spieth in his 2015 pomp. Time off injured spent working on his short game may pay dividends, though, and it’s not as though McIlroy is totally bereft of moxie when standing over the crucial putts: witness the street-fighting determination at last year’s Tour Championship that saw off Ryan Moore in a tense play-off and whipped the FedEx Cup from big Dustin’s grasp.

World ranking: 2. Odds: 7-1. Best Masters: Fourth (2015).

Rory McIlroy has suffered an injury-hit season but will hope time off spent working on his short game may pay off. Photograph: Eduardo Verdugo/AP

4 Hideki Matsuyama

Along with Rickie Fowler, Sergio García and the perennial Masters nearly man Lee Westwood, the 25-year-old from Japan is the best man currently competing yet to win a major. He has been knocking at the door in the big events, albeit with slightly tentative taps: Mickelsonesque charges up the leaderboard have been ultimately stymied by his putter’s tendency to go stone cold at inopportune moments. A resounding win at last October’s WGC-HSBC in China, when he ended seven clear of the field, plus victory in the recent Phoenix Open suggest this could be his breakthrough year. If he converts more of the many chances he sets up into birdies, he could be nigh-on unstoppable.

World ranking: 4. Odds: 14-1. Best Masters: Fifth (2015).

5 Jason Day

Under normal circumstances, Day would be almost certain to take a serious tilt at this Masters. In the past 19 months he has won the PGA, two FedEx Cup play-off events, the Arnold Palmer Invitational, the WGC-Match Play and the Players, the unofficial fifth major. Adding a Masters to his CV would hardly seem implausible: he already has second, third and 10th-placed finishes at Augusta National to his name in six visits. But these are not normal circumstances for the former world No1: his mother is seriously ill with lung cancer and golf is understandably not his prime concern right now. Having withdrawn from the Match Play, his participation is in question. However, should he play it’s worth remembering that serious personal concerns can be overcome: Jack Nicklaus won in 1966 soon after the death of a childhood friend in a plane crash while Tiger Woods won the 2006 Open in the immediate wake of his father passing.

World ranking: 3. Odds: 16-1. Best Masters: Tied second (2011)

Jason Day’s golf is not his main concern at the moment, given his mother’s serious illness. Photograph: Eric Gay/AP

HEADING FOR A FALL?

Danny Willett

It’s been a miserable year for the defending champion, missing the cut at the Honda Classic and in Abu Dhabi, and failing to make any impression at the WGC-Mexico and the Match Play, other than to get the seat of his trousers handed to him in the latter, 6&5 by Bill Haas. His best finish has been a tie for fifth at the Maybank in Kuala Lumpur, but even that comes with a miserable asterisk: he led by three going into the final round before shooting a hope-jiggering 73. Yet he should approach this week without fear of failure. Should the worst happen and he misses the cut as defending champ he’ll join an elite club: such a fate has also befallen Jack Nicklaus, Nick Faldo, Ben Crenshaw and José-María Olazábal. It happened to Seve twice. Not bad company.

World ranking: 17. Odds: 50-1. Best Masters: Won (2016).

THE AMATEURS

Curtis Luck

The 20-year-old Aussie claimed last year’s US Amateur with a spectacular eight-hole winning run, and will know the title serves as a staging post to a fine Masters career: recent winners Bryson DeChambeau and Matthew Fitzpatrick have made waves at Augusta, while past winners Tiger Woods, Phil Mickelson, Mark O’Meara, Craig Stadler, Jack Nicklaus and Arnold Palmer didn’t do too badly either. Odds: 250-1

Curtis Luck won last year’s US Amateur title. Photograph: Phelan M. Ebenhack/AP

Stewart Hagestad

A friend of Jordan Spieth and Justin Thomas, Hagestad decided early that he was “not as good as they are” and embarked instead on a successful career at a real estate firm in Manhattan. The 25-year-old still plays a bit, though, and won last September’s US Mid-Amateur after finding himself four holes down with five to play. The win fulfilled his dream of playing at Augusta, where he is determined to “legitimately contend”. Odds: 1,000-1

Justin Thomas

A major champion in waiting, with three wins on Tour this season already, plus a near miss at the WGC-Mexico. His poor final-round 72 in the latter tournament was punctuated with the sort of green-bothering, club-throwing tantrums frowned on at any pitch-and-putt around the world, never mind Augusta National. But maybe these things are better out than in: remember poor Tom ‘Towering Inferno’ Weiskopf, internalising his rage and running up 13 at the short 12th in 1980.

World ranking: 8. Odds: 25-1. Best Masters: Debut.

THE CLEVER BETS

Jon Rahm

Fuzzy Zoeller remains the only debutant to win, the beneficiary of Ed Sneed’s famous collapse over the last three holes in 1979. (Horton Smith and Gene Sarazen won on debut too, in 1934 and 1935, but those were the first two tournaments, a fact that slightly undercuts the feat.) History is against Rahm, then. But form isn’t: he tied for third at the WGC-Mexico and pushed Dustin Johnson all the way in the Match Play final. Finding the green with a drive over water in that match, when four down with six to play, proved he can step up on the big occasion.

World ranking: 14. Odds: 20-1. Best Masters: Debut.

Justin Thomas

A major champion in waiting, with three wins on Tour this season already, plus a near miss at the WGC-Mexico. His poor final-round 72 in the latter tournament was punctuated with the sort of green-bothering, club-throwing tantrums frowned on at any pitch-and-putt around the world, never mind Augusta National. But maybe these things are better out than in: remember poor Tom ‘Towering Inferno’ Weiskopf, internalising his rage and running up 13 at the short 12th in 1980.

World ranking: 8. Odds: 25-1. Best Masters: Debut.

Justin Rose

Danny Willett ended a 17-year wait for a European winner last time round, so according to London bus theory, another European will triumph this week. After McIlroy, the world rankings suggest Henrik Stenson (5) and Sergio García (11) are best placed, but the former has never finished in the top 10 here, while the latter has only three top-ten finishes in 18 starts. Justin Rose is next on the European rank, and the Olympic gold medallist, likes it at Augusta: he shot the lowest non-winning score in Masters history in 2015, outgunned by Jordan Spieth, and arguably should have won in 2007 before blowing his chances on 17. A quiet threat.

World ranking: 13. Odds: 25-1. Best Masters: Tied second (2015)

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