It’s almost here.
That’s right, the grandest golf tournament in the world and the first major championship of the PGA Tour season is only one month away.
World No. 1 Johnson is the early betting favorite to capture his first green jacket. Hopefully, he is renting a house without stairs this time.
Will Woods be ready after missing last week’s Arnold Palmer Invitational with a neck strain?
Will Spieth have time to get his game together? It seems to be a complete mess right now.
Will McIlroy complete the career grand slam by winning the Masters for the first time? Or will we have a first-time majors champion celebrating on the 18th green at Augusta National Golf Club on Sunday for the fifth consecutive year?
Here’s everything you need to know one month before the Masters, including top contenders, not-so-familiar names to know, comeback candidates and a couple of big changes at the course:
Will Tiger be ready?
All eyes are on Tiger Woods, the four-time Masters champion, who missed last week’s Arnold Palmer Invitational, a tournament he has won eight times, because of a neck injury.
It appears Woods will try to give it a go this week at The Players Championship. The PGA Tour announced that Woods, 43, will be available at a news conference following his practice round at TPC-Sawgrass on Tuesday morning. He is slated to be in marquee group with defending champion Webb Simpson and Masters champion Patrick Reed come Thursday.
On March 4, Woods unexpectedly withdrew from the Arnold Palmer Invitational, citing a neck strain that apparently had been bothering him for a few weeks. He said in a social media post that he had “been receiving treatment, but it hasn’t improved enough to play. My lower back is fine, and I have no long-term concerns, and I hope to be ready for the Players.”
In three tournament starts this year, Woods tied for 20th at the Farmers Insurance Open, tied for 15th at the Genesis Open and tied for 10th at the WGC-Mexico Championship.
While Woods hasn’t won at Augusta National since 2005 and has played there only once in the previous three seasons, no one draws bigger crowds or louder roars amid the towering pines than him.
Casey has five top-10 finishes in 12 appearances at Augusta National and four straight top 15s after rallying for a tie for 15th following opening rounds of 74-75 in 2018. Nine of his past 16 rounds at Augusta were in the 60s; he was 9 under through 16 holes on Sunday last year before settling for a 65. He was runner-up at Pebble Beach and tied for third at the WGC-Mexico Championship this season.
The former world No. 1 seemed to be in a good place until withdrawing after only six holes at the Arnold Palmer Invitational because of troubles with his back. He won twice on Tour in 2018 and had back-to-back top-5s at the Farmers Insurance Open and AT&T Pebble Beach this season. The Australian needs to avoid putting up big numbers early at Augusta National. He was 6-over after two rounds in 2017 and 2-over before the weekend in 2018.
DeChambeau has a relatively small sample size at Augusta National, finishing tied for 21st as low amateur in 2016 and tied for 38th last year. He won three times and had six other top-10s on Tour in 2018 and won the Shriners Hospitals for Children Open in November.
Finau will be remembered most for famously dislocating his left ankle — and then popping it back into place — while celebrating an ace during the Par 3 Contest a year ago during his first Masters. Even more impressive was his string of six straight birdies on the back nine on Sunday to finish in the top 10 and earn an invitation for 2019. He was runner-up at the WGC-HSBC Champions in October.
Is this the year the 30-year-old sheds the label of being the best player in the world without a major championship? He answered questions about his ability to close in big moments by going 6-under in the final 11 holes at Augusta National last year, finishing one shot behind champion Patrick Reed. Fowler has four top-12 finishes in his past five Masters appearances. Fowler already has won the Waste Management Phoenix Open and finished second at The Honda Classic this season.
The current world No. 1 has 20 career Tour victories — but only one major championship. He finished in the top 10 in his past three Masters appearances; he missed 2017 after slipping on the stairs of his rental house. He seems to have figured out how to make his way around Augusta National. After a so-so California swing, Johnson had a dominant five-shot victory at the WGC-Mexico Championship.
The 28-year-old already has won three majors, but he still is seeking his first top-10 at Augusta National. He improved in each of his first three Masters appearances, before missing 2018 with a wrist injury. Koepka was runner-up at The Honda Classic a week ago. Along with being comfortable on the course, Koepka seems more comfortable off the course, suddenly offering strong on opinions on everything; he has been critical of Sergio Garcia and slow play.
McIlroy is a green jacket away from becoming the sixth man to win a career grand slam in the Masters era. He said last week at the Honda that the pursuit of the last piece of the puzzle has worn on him. He is the only player to finish in the top 10 at Augusta National in each of the past five years, and he has six sub-70 scores in his past 21 rounds there. He has piled up five straight top-10s in PGA Tour events and was again in contention at the Arnold Palmer, where he finished T-6. He ranks first in shots gained off the tee (1.304) and shots gained overall (2.585).
The three-time Masters champion is attempting to become the oldest major winner at 48 years, 9 months and 29 days. His victory at Pebble Beach and runner-up finish at the Desert Classic earlier this season suggest “Lefty” still has something left in tank. His past three finishes at Augusta are cause for concern: tied for 36th, tied for 22nd and missed cut.
After an opening-round 75 in 2018, Rahm worked his way into contention at the Masters, until his second shot on the par-5 15th on Sunday landed on the bank of the green and rolled back into the water. The Spaniard finished fourth, four shots behind Reed. He has five top-10s in PGA Tour events this season.
Whether you love him or hate him, it was hard not to appreciate Reed’s ability to hold off Fowler, Spieth and Rahm last year. He’ll attempt to become the first Masters repeat champion since Woods in 2001-02. Reed has only one top-10 in six events this season and only one top-5 — fourth at the U.S. Open — since slipping on a green jacket.
Few players have been as consistent at Augusta National as Rose, who is the No. 2 player in the world. The Englishman has 11 top-25s and five top-10s in 13 appearances there. The two-time Masters runner-up finished tied for 12th last year after failing to hold a two-shot lead over Garcia in the final five holes of the Sunday round in 2017. Rose won the Farmers Insurance Open earlier this year.
The former world No. 1 has slipped to No. 24 in the rankings and hasn’t had a top-10 finish in his past 12 starts, dating back to August 2018. In seven events this season, Spieth has missed two cuts and finished outside the top 50 three times. The Masters always seems to bring out Spieth’s best, however. The 2015 champion and two-time runner-up missed two cuts in Tour events before rallying to finish third at Augusta a year ago.
Thomas steadily improved in his first three Masters appearances; his best finish was a tie for 17th in 2018. He blew a four-shot, 54-hole lead in the final round of the rain-soaked Genesis Open because of his putting. The 2017 PGA Tour player of the year is too talented — especially when he gets hot — not to be a factor, though.
The two-time Masters champion won three times on the PGA Tour in 2018, before struggling late in the season. He has one top-5 (fourth at the Phoenix Open) in five starts this season. Watson leads the Tour in driving distance (318.5 yards), and he is hitting 70 percent of greens in regulation, but his putting has been shaky. He has missed the cut in six of the previous eight majors.
Obviously, Woods’ health will go a long way in determining whether he is a factor a month from now. The four-time Masters champion and 14-time major winner hasn’t had a top-10 at Augusta since finishing tied for fourth in 2013. Of course, he only has teed it up in the Masters two times since then, finishing tied for 17th in 2015 and tied for 32nd last year. His best finish this season was tied for 10th at the WGC-Mexico Championship.
Names to know
You have a month to learn these names that might not be so familiar:
The Oklahoma State All-American from Norway won the 2018 U.S. Amateur at Pebble Beach in dominant fashion, trailing for only one hole in six matches covering 104 holes. He is ranked No. 3 in the world among amateurs.
Before last week’s Arnold Palmer Invitational, the Duke graduate had made one cut in his previous nine Tour events. He won the Desert Classic with three rounds of 65 or better and finished tied for 10th at Bay Hill.
The 27-year-old sank a 15-foot putt on the final hole to hold off Fowler and Koepka to earn his first PGA Tour victory at The Honda Classic two weeks ago, then he finished in a tie for sixth at the Arnold Palmer. The former University of Georgia golfer had two top-5s last season.
O’Connell, the 2008 ACC Freshman of the Year at North Carolina, unsuccessfully tried to earn his Tour card three times at Q school before regaining his amateur status. He won the U.S. Mid-Amateur to earn a Masters invitation.
Hey, remember me?
Don’t sleep on these recognizable names who are suddenly playing pretty good golf.
Charles Howell III
The Augusta native will be back at the Masters for the first time since 2012 and is playing some of his best golf at age 39. He won the RSM Classic in November, and he has seven other top-25s in 10 Tour events.
Poulter hasn’t finished in the top 40 at Augusta since tying for sixth in 2015. He has five top-25s in six Tour events this season to go with three top-10s on the European Tour.
The 2013 Masters champion has three top-10s this season, matching his total in 21 Tour events in 2018. He was runner-up at the Farmers Insurance Open.
Singh, the 2000 Masters champion, finished sixth at The Honda Classic with two rounds below 70. Singh, 56, finished 49th at the Masters in 2018.
On the bubble
The Masters field figures to be unusually small for the second time in as many years. The 2018 field of 87 players was the smallest in 21 years. There are only two more weeks for players to qualify for the Masters via the top 50 in the Official World Golf Ranking; the cutoff comes after the WGC-Match Play in Austin, Texas, on the last day of March. Players who haven’t qualified can also get in by winning one of the next four PGA Tour events.
Here are some the players currently on the bubble who haven’t yet qualified for the Masters:
The South Korean moved up to No. 50 in the world rankings this week after tying for 10th at the Arnold Palmer by closing with a pair of 69s. He is seeking his fourth invitation to Augusta.
The Irishman has played only four events this year, including a win at Abu Dhabi on the European Tour and missed cuts at Pebble Beach and this past week at the Arnold Palmer. He sits at No. 45 in the world rankings.
The Sony Open runner-up is on the right side of the line for now — No. 49 in the world rankings — and is tantalizingly close to earning his first Masters invitation.
Reavie sits just outside the automatic qualifiers at No. 53 in the world rankings. He piled up three top-10s early this season before struggling as of late.
The two-time Masters runner-up played in Augusta every season from 2005 until 2017, but he is in danger of missing the field for the second straight year. He currently sits at No. 62 in the world rankings.
Changes at No. 5
The par-4 fifth hole at Augusta National, affectionately known as Magnolia, has been lengthened from 455 yards to 495 yards.
Construction began right after last year’s Masters to build a new fifth tee across Old Berckmans Road, which has been closed to traffic since 2015, to lengthen the fifth and ease patron congestion between the fourth green and fifth tee.
Players now will have to carry their tee shots 313 yards on the fifth hole to clear two vast bunkers on the left side of the fairway.
The 11th hole remains the longest par-4 on the course at 505 yards. The fifth and 10th now are tied for the second-longest par 4s.
The fifth hole was the sixth-most difficult hole in last year’s Masters, with an average score of 4.16.
First on the tee
Augusta National welcomed its first two female members, former U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and retired investment banker Darla Moore, in August 2012.
This year, female amateurs will play at Augusta National for the first time in competition. An international field of at least 66 players from at least 23 countries will compete in the 54-hole Augusta National Women’s Amateur from April 3-6.
The first two rounds will be played at Champions Retreat Golf Club in nearby Evans, Georgia. Players with the 30 lowest scores will play the final round at Augusta National. (All players, regardless of whether they make the cut, will play a practice round at Augusta on April 5).
The women’s field includes Jennifer Kupcho, the top-ranked amateur in the world and reigning NCAA champion. Kupcho, from Westminster, Colorado, is a senior at Wake Forest.
World No. 2 amateur Andrea Lee, a junior at Stanford, also has committed to play.