Why These 5 Players Could Surprise the Golf World and Win the Masters

Michael FitzpatrickFeatured ColumnistFebruary 15, 2016

AUGUSTA, GA - APRIL 05:  A close-up of the main scoreboard during the Drive, Chip and Putt Championship at Augusta National Golf Club on April 5, 2015 in Augusta, Georgia.  (Photo by Andrew Redington/Getty Images)
Andrew Redington/Getty Images

Golf fans have always been known as intense debaters. And these spirited disagreements are not reserved to only big-ticket items such as who is the greatest golfer of all time or what is the best major championship performance ever.

These debates get right into the minute details of the game such as whether or not a ball moved a fraction of a centimeter, whether greens rolling at 12 on the stimpmeter are too extreme for a certain degree of slope or how a particular type of grass will impact putts differently at 9 a.m. compared to 5 p.m.

Having said that, the one debate you will never hear raging among golf fans is whether or not it is too early to begin discussing the Masters.

Be it three days after the conclusion of the last year’s Masters or 24 hours before the start of this year’s tournament, Augusta is always front and center in the minds of golf fans around the world.

We are now seven weeks out from the 2016 Masters, and players will really begin preparing for the first major of the year in less than two months as the tour heads east for the Florida swing.

The early favorites to win the Masters are quite easy to identify: Jordan Spieth, Rory McIlroy, Jason Day, Rickie Fowler and Bubba Watson, with a few additional names such as Phil Mickelson, Dustin Johnson and Justin Rose possibly thrown into the mix.

But the Masters has certainly provided us with more than a few surprises through the years, and here are five players that may send the Augusta National tailors scrambling late on Sunday afternoon at the 2016 Masters.

Hideki Matsuyama

At the young age of 23, Hideki Matsuyama already has three top-10 finishes at major championships, including a fifth-place finish at last year’s Masters in just his third professional appearance at Augusta National.

The Japanese golfer broke through for his first PGA Tour win back in 2014 at the Memorial Tournament but went winless during the 2015 season, although he did record nine top 10s and finished 16th in the FedEx Cup point standings.

But Matsuyama once again found his way into the winners' circle a little over a week ago at the Waste Management Phoenix Open where he was able to hold off Fowler in a dramatic sudden-death playoff.

While Matsuyama hit a number of solid shots down the stretch in Arizona, it was his ability to sink virtually every big putt that separated him from Fowler at TPC Scottsdale.

The current world No. 12 certainly has the length and ball-striking ability to contend at Augusta.

But rarely has a Masters champion earned a green jacket based solely on power and ball-striking. More often that not the tournament comes down to which player is able to drain more big putts on Sunday afternoon.

If Matsuyama is somehow able to carry his putting performance from TPC Scottsdale over to Augusta National in April, he will have an excellent shot at becoming the first Asian-born player to win the Masters.

Paul Casey

Paul Casey is currently in the midst of one of the most impressive comebacks seen from any player in the past decade.

Casey finished the 2009 season as the seventh-ranked player in the world golf rankings. By the end of 2010, he was eighth in the world.

However, by 2011 he had dropped to 20th, and by the end of 2012 he had inexplicably dropped to 122nd in the world.

But over the past three years Casey has slowly crept back into the top 30 in the world rankings.

He finished the 2013 season ranked 87th, moved up to 75th by the end of 2014 before making a big leap to 22nd in the world by the end of last season.

Casey won the European Tour’s KLM Open in late 2014 and recorded six top-five finishes during the 2015 season, including second place at both the Northern Trust Open and the Travellers Championship.

He also recorded a T6 finish at last year’s Masters

The 38-year-old Englishman has always been an excellent striker of the ball, but he has struggled with his consistency on and around the greens.

However, combine the fact that he has been trending in the right direction for several years now with his T6 finish at Augusta last year as well as his current ranking of 39th on tour in strokes gained putting, and Casey may just be in the process of putting everything together at the right time for the 2016 Masters.

Back when Casey’s game was at its best in the late 2000s, he had recorded three top-20 finishes in a row at Augusta between 2007 and 2009, so it is clear that his game is a good fit for Augusta National when he is on.

Ian Poulter

Ian Poulter tied for sixth at last year’s Masters and has three top-10 finishes in his past six appearances at Augusta.

What Poulter lacks in distance he makes up for on and around the greens. The 40-year-old Englishman has demonstrated an uncanny ability to make big putts in the most pressure-packed situations at the Ryder Cup, which is something American Ryder Cup fans still have nightmares about.

Although Poulter has so far been unable to carry his Ryder Cup performance over to the majors, one would have to assume it is only a matter of time before he finds himself in a position where he needs to make some big putts down the stretch in order to secure his first major championship title.

Of all the majors, Poulter has performed best at the Masters during the past five years.

So if he is going to break through anywhere, chances are it will be at Augusta National where winners are almost always forced to make pressure packed putts late on Sunday afternoon.

If Poulter can somehow ride his Ryder Cup confidence down Magnolia Lane in April, well, let’s just say that all of our social-media feeds will be filled for months on end with images of the 40-year-old out and about in his brand new green jacket.

Branden Grace

Branden Grace has not performed particularly well at Augusta National in the past, missing the cut in his last two Masters appearances.

However, Grace finished the 2015 season with top-five finishes at both the U.S. Open and PGA Championship and has been on a torrid run over the past several months with six consecutive top-10 finishes, including a win at the Commercial Bank Qatar Masters.

The 27-year-old South African is currently averaging more than 300 yards off the tee on the European Tour and is ranked within the top 30 on the European Tour in driving distance last season.

Grace ranked fifth on the European Tour in greens in regulation during the 2015 season and currently ranks within the top 20 in GIR in 2016.

Combine his power and ball-striking skills with a ranking of fifth on the European Tour in putts per GIR last year and it is clear that the current world No. 10 possesses a very complete game.

If Grace is able to extend his current hot streak into early April, he will have an excellent chance at becoming just the third South African to wear a green jacket.

Brooks Koepka

Koepka tied for 33rd at his first Masters appearance last year and finished off the year with top-10 finishes at both the Open Championship and PGA Championship.

The 25-year-old native of Florida captured his first PGA Tour title at last year’s Waste Management Phoenix Open just three months after winning for the first time on the European Tour at the Turkish Airlines Open.

Koepka can be considered a prototypical modern-day major championship golfer. He has a very high ball flight and bombs it off the tee, averaging 307 yards per drive so far in 2016.

Koepka also hits a lot of greens in regulation, ranking 25th on tour in GIR this season and 17th on tour in GIR last season.

Koepka, who is currently ranked 16th in world, was solid on the greens during the 2015 season, ranking 17th on tour on strokes gained: putting. But he has been a bit off with his putter so far in 2016, ranking 113th on tour in SGP.

If Koepka can sort out his putter during the Florida swing, and combine that with his power and high ball flight, he could roll down Magnolia Lane possessing the exact combination of skills needed to win at Augusta National.

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