Thursday marks the start of golf's major championship season with the 2014 Masters Tournament at Augusta National Golf Club. The groups have been released, and it's close enough to the time to tee off to make some final predictions.
Adam Scott is the defending champion and figures to be a fixture on the weekend leaderboard, but there are plenty of others giving chase. Among some of the season's hot golfers who have yet to win a major are Matt Kuchar, Sergio Garcia and Dustin Johnson.
Seeking to notch the third leg in the career Grand Slam is the game's premier young superstar in Rory McIlroy, along with a cagey veteran in Ernie Els. Three-time Masters winner Phil Mickelson should be a big factor, too.
That's a mere glimpse into what is an excellent field of competitors set to stroll up Magnolia Lane and into one of the most celebrated golf venues and tournaments in the world.
Masters Sunday is always jam-packed with suspense, but the foundation must be established first. Here is a look at some of the marquee pairings, along with predictions for what will happen in the first round.
Note: All statistics are courtesy of PGATour.com.
|Tee Time (ET)||Player 1||Player 2||Player 3|
|8:07 a.m.||Ben Crenshaw||Y.E. Yang||Jonas Blixt|
|8:18 a.m.||Mark O'Meara||Steven Bowditch||Jordan Niebrugge|
|8:40 a.m.||Craig Stadler||Scott Stallings||Martin Kaymer|
|8:51 a.m.||Tom Watson||Billy Horschel||Brendon de Jonge|
|9:02 a.m.||Mike Weir||Matt Every||Roberto Castro|
|9:13 a.m.||Angel Cabrera||Gary Woodland||Ian Poulter|
|9:24 a.m.||Fred Couples||Webb Simpson||Chang-woo Lee|
|9:35 a.m.||Graeme McDowell||Rickie Fowler||Jimmy Walker|
|9:57 a.m.||Zach Johnson||KJ Choi||Steve Stricker|
|10:08 a.m.||Miguel Angel Jimenez||Bill Haas||Matteo Manassero|
|10:30 a.m.||Charl Schwartzel||Jim Furyk||Thorbjorn Olesen|
|10:41 a.m.||Adam Scott||Jason Dufner||Matthew Fitzpatrick|
|10:52 a.m.||Jordan Spieth||Patrick Reed||Rory McIlroy|
|11:36 a.m.||Jose Maria Olazabal||Lucas Glover||Garrick Porteous|
|12:09 p.m.||Vijay Singh||Thomas Bjorn||Ryan Moore|
|1:15 p.m.||Bubba Watson||Luke Donald||Sergio Garcia|
|1:48 p.m.||Phil Mickelson||Ernie Els||Justin Rose|
A Surprise Success Story Soars Up Leaderboard
Last year it was Marc Leishman grabbing a share of the first-round lead with Garcia. Any one of these capable golfers can put together a magical day at Augusta National, but what was most impressive about Leishman is that he hung tough and finished tied for fourth.
Who might do something similar this time around? As borderline impossible as that is to project, there are a couple candidates who stand out.
Let's start with one of the more overlooked young guns in the game in Thorbjorn Olesen. Making his Masters debut proved difficult out of the gates in 2013, but no one played better than Olesen (-10) over the final 54 holes. If not for that opening 78, Olesen may have been the one slipping on the green jacket instead of tying for sixth.
The young Dane is eager to get after it in Georgia, per Nike Golf Europe's official Twitter account:
Not much has gone right for Olesen as of late (two missed cuts entering this event), which makes him the perfect sleeper candidate to at least make a Thursday move on a course that evidently suits his eye.
A legitimate star who is dismissed for his lack of success at majors is Bill Haas. The 2011 FedEx Cup champion has just two top 10s in 11 starts this season but has been outside the top 25 only three times while making every cut.
Haas has never had a top 10 in a major, which is downright shocking and qualifies him as a surprise in spite of an otherwise gaudy resume. Only Brandt Snedeker and Jordan Spieth matched his total of nine top 10s last season, so that shows how steady Haas can be on a consistent basis.
As a five-time winner on the PGA Tour, Haas is bound to at least contend thanks to his strong iron play (ranked 16th in greens in regulation percentage) and overdue status.
Prediction: Haas moves into top three with five-under 67 in Round 1.
Rory McIlroy Keeps Momentum Going
A final-round 65 at the Shell Houston Open kept McIlroy's strong overall form going. The Nike equipment doesn't seem like an issue at all, since the two-time major champion has been impeccable from tee to green.
Putting has given McIlroy the most grief this season, but he showed signs of turning that around in his sensational recent display in Humble. ESPN's Justin Ray points out a noteworthy statistic based on McIlroy's previous major prowess:
Rory McIlroy in last rounds before 2 major wins: 68 at '11 Memorial (finished 5th), 68 at '12 Bridgestone (T5th). Today: 65, T-7th.— Justin Ray (@JRayESPNGolf) April 6, 2014
McIlroy has the uncanny ability to rally from adversity. He blew a four-shot lead at the Masters in 2011's final round and tied for 15th before winning the subsequent U.S. Open by eight strokes:
Check out the reaction he had to his water-bound drive on the par-five 13th on that fateful Sunday approximately three years ago. McIlroy has since bounced back to say the least, ascending to the top of the world rankings and looking like the next Tiger Woods at times before a gradual decline to his current standing of No. 9.
This week presents the opportunity for McIlroy to continue a rather volatile young career in terms of extreme highs and lows, but a win would dismiss a lot of questions about his future. All indications are that the Northern Irish sensation will be in the running for the top prize on Sunday.
Prediction: McIlroy shoots a three-under 69 to be in top 10.
Round 1 Leader: Graeme McDowell
McDowell is a compatriot to McIlroy and has a game that is suited for Augusta National. Even though he missed the cut as a trendy pick last year, the exceptional driving accuracy, often brilliant iron game and clutch putting McDowell has make him a threat at any major.
An incredibly hot start to the 2013-14 campaign with the flat iron has seen McDowell ascend to No. 1 on the PGA in strokes gained putting. That bodes well to say the least for the test McDowell is set to encounter this week on the tabletop-fast greens.
Hitting the ball long off the tee can be advantageous at this course, but it's not essential. Augusta is a shot-maker's course, which is precisely what makes McDowell so dangerous. He has major greatness to draw on, too, from his 2010 U.S. Open triumph.
Although he plays with a visible confidence on the links, it speaks volumes that McDowell is confident heading into Thursday, per the Irish Times' Philip Reid:
I am upbeat. I’ve had a solid start to the season. Everything is in good shape and I’m hitting the ball well, putting well, which is key around here this week. You have to chip and putt well.
The putting gets a lot of emphasis but the chipping and bunker play probably don’t get so much emphasis as keys around this golf course. Chipping and bunker play is huge for me because that means you can take on the flags a bit more.
Who will win the 2014 Masters?
Prediction: McDowell leads after Round 1 with a six-under 66.
These projections for some of golf's biggest names are really just a matter of feel, such as a lot of shots on an actual course are. The field is so deep, and there are so many capable players that a case can be made for just about anyone who is playing well as of late or has had success at Augusta in the past.
As Golf Channel's Jason Sobel stated in his predictions, experience is key at the Masters. Despite Olesen's limited reps at Augusta, what he has done is be successful. The course also favors great iron players like Haas and McDowell, who may not have the best track record but are more than capable to make some noise.
With the favorites headlined by the likes of McIlroy, Scott and Mickelson, this promises to be yet another thrilling Masters Tournament.