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Saturday, December 16, 2017

Expert Masters picks for 2015


Somehow, Tiger Woods always seems to be the biggest storyline of the week heading into the best golf event of the calendar year. The 2015 Masters is no different.

Tiger has not won at Augusta National in a decade. He missed the Masters last year after undergoing back surgery, but this year the 39-year-old will look to make a triumphant return after taking a two-month leave from tournament play to work on his game.

Believe it or not, there are other players in the field. And, dare I say, many of them are much more likely to wind up wearing a green jacket on Sunday than the 14-time major champion. As we do every year, we’ve broken down the field for you to give you an idea of who we think has the best chance to shoot four solid rounds at one of the toughest courses in the world.

1. Rory McIlroy — McIlroy never seems to play well early in the season, but he is bound to complete the career grand slam at some point. Rory is several years removed from his 2011 final-round collapse at Augusta. He finished tied for 25th in 2013 and tied for 8th last year, so he is trending in the right direction. Another year of experience at Augusta should benefit McIlroy greatly. You’d be silly to bet against him.

2. Bubba Watson — Given his unorthodox style of play, we wouldn’t blame you if you thought Watson’s win at the 2012 Masters was a fluke. After he won it again last year, it’s time to accept that Bubba’s game is simply suited for Augusta. He hits the ball long and is a phenomenal shot-shaper. That allows Watson to attack a lot of flags at Augusta that most golfers know they have no chance of getting near. Bubba already has a win this year and four top-10 finishes. As the defending champion, he’ll be beaming with confidence.

3. Henrik Stenson — Is anyone more poised to win their first major than the 39-year-old Swede? Stenson has been knocking on the door the past two years. He has four top-four finishes in majors since 2013. While he has not typically played well at Augusta, Stenson enters the week having finished 2nd, 4th, 4th and 2nd in his last four PGA tournaments. He is arguably the best ball-striker in the field and can pile up birdies in bunches. Stenson is one to keep an eye on.

4. Jordan Spieth — Spieth is one of the most popular picks heading into the Masters, and for good reason. The youngster has seemingly found his groove and already has two wins this season. He probably should have picked up another at the Shell Houston Open last week, but Spieth lost after hitting a bad bunker shot in a three-way playoff. With a whopping seven top-10 finishes this year, the only thing holding Jordan back rests between his ears. He tends to lose his cool and frequently misses short putts. He can’t expect to do that at Augusta and win, even if he rolls in a few of his patented 20-footers. Spieth will go as far as his temper — or lack thereof — will take him.

5. Jimmy Walker — You won’t find a golfer in the world who is more consistent than Walker but gets less publicity. The 36-year-old has yet to card a top-five finish in a major tournament, but he already has two wins this season and five top-10 finishes. Walker excels on par-5’s, which is a good strength to have at Augusta. Plenty of people would be shocked if he took home the green jacket. No one should be.

6. Jason Day — Day, 27, is another young golfer in search of his first major. He has been quiet since winning the Farmers Insurance Open two months ago, but we know Day can play well at Augusta. He held the lead after 36 holes in 2013 before finishing 3rd and was the runner-up at the 2011 Masters. Day knows the course, and he can set up birdie opportunities on holes where others can’t by hitting the ball a long way.

7. Adam Scott — Remember this guy? Scott is just two years removed from his win at the 2013 Masters, and he always seems to play well in major tournaments. The one red flag is he has not played well at all this year, but Scott is experienced enough to shake it off on the big stage. If he can get his putter working like he did two years ago, look out.

8. Patrick Reed — There probably isn’t a cockier golfer in the field than Reed. That can be a good thing. If you don’t believe in yourself at Augusta, no one else will. Reed is incredibly competitive and has played well this season with four top-10 finishes and a win. He seems to rarely miss cuts, and in a field this competitive making the cut is half the battle.

9. Brandt Snedeker — Snedeker does not have much length, but he can be one of the best putters in the world when he gets hot. Coincidentally, the Masters features some of the most difficult greens in the world. Call it a hunch.

10. Phil Mickelson — Does Phil have one more green jacket left in him? A three-time Masters champ, Mickelson missed the cut at Augusta last year. That was the first time we have seen that happen since 1997. It could be a sign that “Lefty” is getting old, or it could be a major motivator. Mickelson, who can be streaky, played well at the Shell Houston Open last week. More importantly, he looked very confident on short putts. Golf fans would love to see one more year of Augusta magic from Phil.

11. Matt Kuchar — Probably one of the safest bets to make the cut and not fall flat on his face, but winning could be tough for the 36-year-old. Kuchar is a fan-favorite who never seems to get rattled, and he has finished 8th or better in his last three masters. We wouldn’t be surprised to see him somewhere in that region again.

12. Dustin Johnson — Johnson is one of the favorites at Augusta every year, yet he has never played well there. The reason we like him is he leads the tour in driving distance, and long-hitters have an advantage at Augusta. Johnson won at Doral last month and finished 6th at the Valero Texas Open two weeks ago. He is playing well enough to improve on his big fat “CUT” from last year’s Masters.

13. Lee Westwood — No golfer has played better in majors without a win than the 41-year-old Westwood. He has eight top-three finishes in major tournaments since 2008. Westwood’s last five Masters finishes are 2nd, 11th, 3rd, 8th and 7th. He’s running out of time.

14. Rickie Fowler — Fowler’s tendency to implode on Sundays has not done him any favors in major tournaments. Still, it’s hard to not be impressed with the fact that he finished 5th or better in all four majors last year. Fowler has zero top-10 finishes in the last four months. Now would be a great time to turn it on.

15. Ian Poulter — Anyone who has watched the Ryder Cup knows Poulter has a flare for the dramatic. It seems obvious, but he’s another guy who desperately needs to putt well to stay in contention. If he does, he won’t be afraid of his surroundings on Saturday or Sunday.

16. Keegan Bradley — Bradley is just too good of a golfer to bury on the list, but his resume at the Masters is not impressive. He didn’t make the cut last year and finished 54th the year before. There’s not much to like for this particular tournament, but he did finish 5th at the Shell Houston Open last weekend. Perhaps Crazy Keegan can carry some of that over.

17. J.B. Holmes — If you’re big on momentum, Holmes is a good dark horse candidate. He’s coming off a playoff win at the Shell Houston Open and ranks 7th on the PGA Tour in driving distance. Holmes is inexperienced at Augusta, but he is still relatively young at age 32. He has to be feeling good about where his game is at.

18. Sergio Garcia — Sergio didn’t make the cut last year, but he finished 8th at Augusta in 2013. We know he has the tools to win a major. Can he close the deal? We know, we know…

19. Justin Rose — We like to look at past performances as an indicator of future results, and Rose has made the cut and finished 25th or better in four consecutive Masters. If he hadn’t missed three cuts in his last five PGA tournaments, we’d be inclined to put him higher.

20. Gary Woodland — Again, we like driving distance at Augusta. Woodland ranks 10th this season and is almost always in the top-10 in that category. He could easily improve on his 26th finish last year if he hits some putts.

21. Brooks Koepka — Another long-hitter who has been battling a rib injury for a few weeks. Koepka has never appeared in a Masters, but he finished 4th at the US Open last year and 14th at the PGA Championship. The big stage doesn’t seem to intimidate him.

22. Billy Horschel — Horschel finished tied for 37th in his first Masters last year, but most people struggle in their first go at Augusta. He attacks flags, which puts him in the “boom or bust” category.

23. Kevin Na — Na has played very well this season. He has three top-10 finishes in his last four PGA tournaments. He makes the list as one of those golfers who seems to be playing well at the right time.

24. Tiger Woods — It pains me to do this, but I can’t help it. Tiger seems incredibly loose this week, and he has to have accomplished something during his two-month leave of absence, right? Tiger almost always plays well at Augusta. And don’t forget, he finished 4th in 2010 after missing five months leading up to the Masters while recovering from back surgery. If he somehow pulls it off, it will break the internet.

25. Some guy you haven’t heard of — If not for their Masters victories, you probably would have never heard of guys like Trevor Immelman and Charl Schwartzel. It can — and will — happen again.

Enjoy the drama. Augusta never disappoints.

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