2017 Masters Preview: Early storylines to watch

We are a mere 32 days from the Masters.

We have seen a flurry of stars winning early and often in 2017, meaning the storylines are already abundant as we head into the year’s first major.

Spieth’s return

Standing on the 10th tee on Sunday of last year’s Masters, Jordan Spieth held a five-shot lead and was closing in on defending his title at the ripe age of 22. Spieth was on cruise control, with his spectacular short game and putting making it look impossible for the star to let anyone back into the championship. But bogeys on the 10th and 11th brought indecision  as the star headed to the venerable short par-3 12th, the same hole that ended his hopes in the 2014 championship. Spieth rinsed not one but two shots along with his lead, his quadruple-bogey seven dropped him behind Englishman Danny Willett, who was putting together a masterful closing 67. For Spieth, the collapse was heartbreaking and led to his second runner-up finish at Augusta in three visits.

Spieth’s play was solid for the rest of 2016, but never spectacular. The change of the calendar year has led to stellar play from the two-time major champion. So far in 2017, Spieth has yet to finish outside the top 25 in six starts, a stretch which included a runaway win at Pebble Beach and two other top-three finishes. The young Texan will head to the Masters in top form and should be the favorite given his exemplary record at Augusta, where he has finished T2-1-T2 in his first three career starts.

The Career Slam

Golf’s preeminent superstar, Rory McIlroy, will continue his quest for the career Grand Slam at Augusta, the course that seemingly fit his game better than  any major venue. Since his back-nine collapse in 2011, we have not seen McIlroy in contention late on Sunday. Last year, McIlroy shot a brilliant 2-under 70 on Friday to climb into a Saturday final pairing with Spieth. Saturday was a day to forget, as McIlroy struggled to a 77 and tumbled out of contention.

McIlroy turned heads with his scorching early-round play at the WGC-Mexico Championship, where he held the 36-hole lead in his first start back from a rib injury. McIlroy will continue to hone his tournament chops over the next four weeks, making starts at the Arnold Palmer Invitational and WGC-Match Play in hopes of picking up a win before Augusta.

The young and the majorless

The youth movement in golf is undeniable. The only thing missing from the resume of many of the game’s young stars is a major championship.

Hideki Matsuyama: The end of 2016 saw Matsuyama put together a dominant run in which  the Japanese star won an astounding four tournaments in five events. The momentum carried over into 2017, when Matsuyama racked up a runner-up finish at the Tournament of Champions and defended his title at the Waste Management Phoenix Open to move to No. 4 in the world rankings, a career high. Matsuyama’s pinpoint tee-to-green game has served him well at Augusta, where he has recorded top-ten finishes in the past two Masters.

Justin Thomas: Thomas has made the leap in the last 4 months, defending his CIMB Classic crown in October to earn himself a spot in the Tournament of Champions. In Hawaii, Thomas earned his place in the discussion of golf’s most promising young stars by blitzing the field in back-to-back events winning the Tournament of Champions by three shots and the Sony Open by an astounding seven. Thomas has proven to have the extra gear that all of golf’s elite players possess and his prodigious length and improving wedge game make him a great fit for Augusta.

Rickie Fowler: Many expected Rickie Fowler to become the player to breakthrough and earn his first major win in 2016. Instead, we saw Willett, Dustin Johnson, Henrik Stenson and Jimmy Walker all earn their maiden majors while Fowler fluttered to missed cuts in the Masters and U.S. Open (bouncing back with good finishes at the Open Championship and PGA). This year, expectations are lower and Fowler’s play has been stellar, landing a win at The Honda Classic and a top-five at the Waste Management.

Jon Rahm: The Spanish sensation was finishing up his senior season at Arizona State during last year’s Masters. Since turning professional in the summer of 2016, Rahm has become a force on the PGA Tour and has quickly become one of the 10 best players in the world (yes I said that). Rahm earned his first victory at Torrey Pines and nearly added another at the WGC-Mexico. While Masters rookies have never fared well at Augusta, Rahm is perhaps the most polished and talented player to make his debut at Augusta in sometime. (Spieth?)

The best without a major

While there are many young stars vying to earn their first major, there are a few that are running out of time to add one  to their  Hall of Fame-caliber careers.

Sergio Garcia: The Spaniard’s 2017 got off to a good start with the star earning his 25th professional victory at the European Tour’s Omega Dubai Desert Classic and moving back into the top 10 in the world rankings. Garcia’s major championship career has been plagued with close calls and disappointing weekend rounds. Garcia’s life and attitude have never been better and if his putter gets hot, few are better.

Lee Westwood: Much like Garcia, Westwood’s major championship career has been defined by disappointing final rounds and a balky putter. Most had written the old Englishman off before a surprising runner-up at last year’s Masters, his seventh top 10 at the event. Westwood also went on to earn a spot in Sunday’s final pairing at the U.S. Open. The 43-year-old has been equally impressive in 2017, recording five top-28 finishes before returning to a course at which he’s had plenty of success.

A career of close calls

The current World No. 1 Dustin Johnson and the man he replaced, Jason Day, will each head to Augusta looking for major championship No. 2 at a venue where they have each come close to winning. Johnson has finished in the top six each of the last 2 years without making any putts. He’s the best player in the world right now from tee-to-green and when he is passable on the greens he is unbeatable.

Meanwhile, Day has had a forgettable start to 2017.  Assuming he doesn’t have any unforeseen ailments ( a big assumption), he will be in the field at the Arnold Palmer Invitational and the WGC-Match Play. Day won both events last year, making it a good chance  to build momentum for the Masters, where he has notched two top-three finishes in his career.

Phil

The gift that keeps giving is the three-time Masters champion, Phil Mickelson, who will look to become the oldest Masters champion of all-time at age 46. Phil’s play hasn’t been great in 2017, as his driver has been suspect to say the least. Luckily, Augusta’s wide sweeping fairways allow Phil to spray the ball and its complex green surrounds reward his creative style of play. Hopefully his strong play at the WGC-Mexico will signal the start of a run and Lefty will get into top form for Augusta.

Big Cat….

I want to go here but until he can sit through a press conference, this is all he is getting.

32 days and counting until the Masters. More storylines will pop up over the next four weeks and I will keep you covered, adding weekly updates and stories leading up to the event. Stay in the know by signing up for our newsletter below.