The month of April signals one of the best times of the year to be a golf fan. The 2017 Masters is here!
It’s officially Masters week! pic.twitter.com/yvWTi7YVgn
— PGA TOUR (@PGATOUR) April 3, 2017
With this prestigious tournament comes a question: What are the main storylines to watch?
Dustin Johnson, Jason Day, Jordan Spieth and Rory McIlroy are always worth watching. But what specific stories make them even more intriguing this week?
Which golfers have the best chance to win their first majors? Whose absence will be felt the most this week? How special would it be for Danny Willett to have a brilliant encore?
The following are the 10 main storylines to follow for the 2017 Masters.
1. Rory McIlroy’s quest for the career grand slam
Eventually, one of two things will happen. Either McIlroy’s career at Augusta will end, or he’ll win the Masters. Until one of those occurs, this will be the lead storyline for every Masters that he’s a part of.
Only five men — Jack Nicklaus, Tiger Woods, Ben Hogan, Gary Player and Gene Sarazen — have won the modern grand slam of the Masters, U.S. Open, British Open and PGA Championship.
All of those men have at least seven majors. In fact, all but Sarazen have nine or more. Sarazen likely would have won more, but the Masters wasn’t even founded until he was in his prime. And a total of 14 majors were not contested from 1940-1945 because of World War II.
We could also look at the guys who have not won it. That illustrious list includes the likes of Sam Snead, Byron Nelson, Arnold Palmer, Lee Trevino, Tom Watson, and although he still has a chance, Phil Mickelson.
McIlroy, who isn’t even 28, can do something that some of the very best golfers in history could not do throughout their careers. That’s certainly a storyline to follow.
2. Tribute to The King
Generally speaking, a man not playing would not be one of the top storylines for the Masters, or any tournament.
But most men are not Arnold Palmer.
As we all know, Palmer passed away in September. This will be the first Masters without him.
While the list is not long, golf has seen better players. But nobody has ever captured the hearts of the masses like Palmer. And nowhere is his legacy stronger than at Augusta.
Arnold Palmer at @TheMasters from 1957-1967:
— PGA TOUR (@PGATOUR) April 3, 2017
His tributes this week will be a salient reminder that golf was better when Arnold was around. The ceremonial first tee shots struck by Jack Nicklaus and Gary Player will not feature many dry eyes. They shouldn’t.
The Masters will always be a fantastic event. It’s arguably the greatest event on the tour season and according to this scribe, it’s not a long argument.
But it will not be the same without Palmer.
3. Dustin Johnson trying to maintain incredible hot streak
Unlike McIlroy, Johnson doesn’t enter Augusta with a chance to win the career slam. He does enter as the hottest golfer on the planet, having won each of his last three events.
Most recently, he won the WGC Match Play in absolutely dominant fashion.
He trailed for exactly zero of them. pic.twitter.com/WMqNgSzmVh
— Golf Channel (@GolfChannel) March 27, 2017
For some reason, Augusta has never been terribly kind to DJ. Granted, in the last two years he’s finished tied for sixth and tied for fourth, respectively. In 2015, he was nine shots behind winner Jordan Spieth, while in 2016, Johnson finished four behind champion Danny Willett. He’s never really been a factor during the second nine on Sunday.
But Johnson has also never entered the Masters (or any major) this hot. He’s well positioned to win his first Green Jacket.
4. Will Augusta crown another first-time major winner?
The 2017 Masters offers plenty of good candidates to win their first major.
Of the top-25 golfers in the world, 14 have yet to win a major. It’s a list that includes Hideki Matsuyama, Justin Thomas, Rickie Fowler, Alex Noren, Sergio Garcia, Jon Rahm, Patrick Reed, Tyrrell Hatton, Paul Casey, Branden Grace, Matt Kuchar, Brandt Snedeker, Russell Knox and Brooks Koepka.
None of those guys would be deemed surprise winners.
And if we buy into recent trends, one of those gentlemen will likely win his first major. Or, if one of them doesn’t prevail, recent history suggests that someone will earn his first major triumph.
The 2016 season was the first since 2011 and the second since 2003 to crown four new major winners. In fact, if we go back to Jason Day’s triumph at the 2015 PGA Championship, each of the last five majors has given us a first-time winner.
But the trends don’t even stop there.
Of the seven winners at Augusta this decade, only Phil Mickelson (2010) and Bubba Watson (2014) had a previous major triumph.
So the recent majors, and more specifically the Masters, suggest this week will be a good opportunity for a lot of guys to get the major championship monkey off of their backs.
5. Can Adam Hadwin’s dream 2017 continue?
Hadwin will tee it up at Augusta as another man looking for his first major triumph. He doesn’t rank in the top-25 (Hadwin checks in at 49) but is playing remarkably well.
We’ve established that Dustin Johnson is the hottest golfer in the world. Really, it’s not close. But if we’re looking to find a solid No. 2, we needn’t look beyond Hadwin.
Hadwin last missed a cut at the Safeway Open in October. Since then, he’s 11-for-11, including his first win at the Valspar Championship, a solo second at the Career Builder Championship (where he shot a 59), and a solo sixth at the Arnold Palmer Invitational. In the midst of all of that, Hadwin found time to get married.
Shoots 59, wins 1st PGA TOUR event, getting married all in a season. Call it a year for Adam Hadwin and majors haven't even started yet.
— Kelly Tilghman (@KellyTilghmanGC) March 12, 2017
That’s quite a run.
If Hadwin wins, he’d join Mike Weir as the only Canadians to claim victory at Augusta.
6. A refocused Jason Day
We last saw Day at the WGC Match Play. With his mother battling lung cancer Day’s focus was understandably not on golf, and he withdrew early.
Two weeks later, Day his mother is still battling, but she is improving. Thanks to that wonderful news, the former No. 1 seems to have a regained focus.
“For the first time in about a month and a half I was happy to be on the golf course. I was enjoying myself again,” Day said following a practice round at Augusta, per Ben Everill, PGATour.com. “It’s been really, really hard to enjoy myself. But I think things are starting to brighten up. So it would be nice to get back on track here.”
While he’s never won a Masters, a focused Day will be a factor on Sunday’s second nine. Day has played the Masters six times, and excluding his 2012 withdrawal he has finished no worse than tied for 28th. He’s added three top-10’s, finishing tied for 10th in 2016, solo third in 2013 and tied for second in 2011.
Day clearly has a great deal of comfort at this venue. Don’t be surprised to see him don the green jacket in what would be a highly emotional ceremony.
7. Augusta weather
If the weather is good at Augusta, then the list of true contenders shrinks. Guys like Dustin Johnson and Jason Day can attack every par-five on the course, oftentimes with a low iron on their second shot. When that happens, it’s hard for the other guys to keep up.
But the weather has been something of an equalizer in the past, most notably with Zach Johnson’s victory 10 years ago. Augusta was cold that week. While that hurt Johnson’s distance, it didn’t bother his overall game plan much as it did for the longer hitters.
Chances are, he was going to lay up on most par-fives anyway. When the weather is bad, the longer hitters can still generally reach the par-fives, but they have to do so with longer clubs.
More importantly, a cold weather tournament will place an importance on accurate drives, which is where Tiger Woods got into trouble in his 2007 battle with Johnson.
So, what does this week have to offer? Due in no small part to a tornado watch, Monday’s practice rounds were halted.
There's a tornado watch at Augusta National and now I'm furiously researching to find which players have the best records in tornadoes.
— Jason Sobel (@JasonSobelESPN) April 3, 2017
Still, as of Monday afternoon, the rest of the week looks okay.
If that holds, the shorter hitters better have excellent short games and putters this week. Otherwise, we’ll be seeing nothing but bombers battling it out on Sunday afternoon.
8. For the third time in four years, no Tiger Woods
Most of the focus belongs on the guys who are teeing it up. But it would be naive to think a great deal of attention won’t go to Tiger, a man not playing at Augusta. For the third time in four years and the second straight year, Tiger will not be competing for his fifth green jacket.
The story isn’t just that he’s not going to be there. Sure, Woods is a four-time Masters champ, one of the greatest players of all time and remains one of golf’s biggest names. The absence of anyone with that resume would be noteworthy.
But the impact of Tiger’s absence goes beyond 2017.
For years, there’s been a question circling Tiger. With 14 majors, can he equal (or surpass) Jack Nicklaus’ career record of 18?
At one point, it seemed like a formality. Then, Tiger’s injuries and his personal life issues brought it more in doubt. Now, it seems like something that’s only possible in theory. Sure, Woods can break that record, but so could Tom Watson. Just don’t go placing any bets on either.
Now, the question is different. Will we ever see Tiger in competitive golf again? Not just at his top form, but ever again, period.
Woods missed not just the 2016 Masters, but the entire season. He briefly returned in 2017, but couldn’t complete two tournaments. Now, after a few more months to get healthy, he still can’t get out and compete. It makes us wonder if we’ll ever see his magic again.
9. Danny Willett looks to join select club
Willett enters the 2017 Masters as the defending champion. He understandably carries good feelings and great memories from last year’s romp at Augusta.
— Masters Tournament (@TheMasters) April 3, 2017
Here’s what’s likely going to happen. Willett will play decent golf. But by the time Sunday rolls around, he won’t be much of a factor. So, when it comes time for him to put the green jacket on the new champ’s back, he will have had a few hours to get over any disappointment. He’ll sit in the Butler Cabin with a big smile on his face, remembering his ceremony last year and feeling good for the new champ.
More often than not, that’s how the Masters goes.
What are the exceptions? One of them came in 2016, which we’ll get to shortly. Three others came in 1966, 1990, and 2002 with Jack Nicklaus, Nick Faldo, and Tiger Woods, respectively. Those men successfully defended their Masters. Golf lists don’t get much more exclusive and elite than that.
Willett can join that group this week. If he does, he will become an iconic golfer who’s name is mentioned with Nicklaus, Faldo, and Woods at the Masters every single year. Willett’s a mortal man. But the group he has a chance to join is anything but mortal.
Of course, Willett is in position to win a second green jacket in 2017 due to a large assist he got in 2016.
Speaking of which, on to our last storyline.
10. Jordan Spieth returning to the scene of the crime
A phrase you’ll hear a lot this week is that the tournament doesn’t really start until the second nine on Sunday. The 2016 Masters looked like it would put that theory to bed but actually ended up proving it.
Spieth stood on the 10th tee with a five-shot lead. Even after he bogeyed 10 and 11, he stood on the 12th hole in complete control. Then, things got weird. Spieth put his tee shot in the water. After taking a drop, his third shot was closer to not even reaching the water than it was to clearing it. When it was all said and done, Spieth had to scramble for a quadruple-bogey seven. He fought back reasonably well after, but ended up out of the mix.
When it was all said and done, he was putting the Green Jacket on Willett’s shoulders instead of winning a second straight Masters.
Spieth has played in three Masters in his career. He finished tied for second in 2014 and 2016 and won in 2015. History says he’ll be a factor in the home stretch on Sunday.
Obviously, this is his first Masters since that collapse.
How will Spieth respond? How will he play Amen Corner? What will be going through his mind if he steps onto that 12th tee on Sunday with a one-shot lead? What kind of shot will he hit?
Spieth’s talent is unquestioned. The 2017 Masters will give us a good insight into his head and how well he can overcome a painful memory.