Top 12 storylines heading into 2018 Masters

Augusta National during the 2018 Masters

If you’re a fan of golf and are not pumped up for the 2018 Masters, we don’t know what to tell you. The Masters is always a highlight of the golf calendar and this year’s is shaping up to be extra special.

A number of the best golfers in the world have already won in 2018. Another four-time Masters champ has yet to win this year, but has been consistently on the prowl. Knowing that, what are the stop storylines to follow?

Rory McIlroy and Sergio Garcia can both join an ultra-exclusive club with a win. Meanwhile, it doesn’t seem crazy to think that Tiger Woods, Phil Mickelson, or even both, will turn back the clock.

Another trend that has emerged this decade is the Masters crowning a first-time major winner. The 2018 field offers plenty of viable candidates. Of course, it also includes past major winners like the world’s top ranked player, Dustin Johnson, and its hottest player, Justin Thomas.

The 2018 Masters will give us a lot to follow. These are the top storylines.

1. Rory McIlroy going for the career grand slam

Gene Sarazen, Ben Hogan, Jack Nicklaus, Gary Player, and Tiger Woods. Get used to hearing that quintet during the 2018 major season. You’re going to be hearing it a lot. McIlroy is one of three golfers who needs only one major win to complete the career slam. His chance will come at Augusta.

While McIlroy has failed in each of his first three attempts at the Grand Slam, he’s shown pretty well for himself. He finished fourth in 2015, tied for 10th in 2016, and tied for 7th in 2017. In fact, while McIlroy has never won at Augusta, he’s got a solid history at the course. He’s missed only one cut in nine Masters and finished out of the top 25 only twice.

McIlroy is also coming in hot. In 2018, he earned a tie for third and a solo second in Europe, and won the Arnold Palmer Invitational. McIlroy’s game is certainly where it needs to be to complete the career slam in 2018.

2. Sergio Garcia goes for back-to-back Green Jackets

Masters winner Sergio Garcia is one of the hottest golfers entering the 2017 U.S. Open

McIlroy ia not the only man who can join a very exclusive club if he wins the Masters. Garcia, in fact, would join an even more exclusive club.

We’ve seen some great golfers win at Augusta two out of three years (Horton Smith, Sam Snead, Ben Hogan, Arnold Palmer, Phil Mickelson). However, only three golfers have ever won the Green Jacket in consecutive seasons. That would be Jack Nicklaus (1965-1966), Nick Faldo (1989-1990), and Tiger Woods (2001-2002). Sergio has a chance to join that group.

And it certainly wouldn’t be a surprise. Garcia has won twice since winning the 2017 Masters. He’s also recorded three consecutive top-10 finishes. So, his game is sharp.

Obviously, anyone having a chance to join a group like that is a big deal. But for Sergio, a golfer who couldn’t close the door in majors for so long, it would have an added degree of significance.

3. Will we see another first-time major winner?

Excluding Jordan Spieth at the 2017 Open Championship, every major since Jason Day’s victory at the 2015 PGA Championship has been won by a first-time major champion. That’s eight out of nine, which is too strong of a trend to just attribute to a small sample size.

Additionally, six of the last seven Masters champs have been first-time major winners. Since Charl Schwartzel broke through in 2011, Bubba Watson’s 2014 triumph is the only Masters to be won by someone who had already claimed one of golf’s top four prizes.

The list is of candidates to potentially join that list this year is rich. Jon Rahm, Hideki Matsuyama, Rickie Fowler, Tommy Fleetwood, Paul Casey, Alex Noren, Marc Leishman, Tyrrell Hatton, Pat Perez, and Matt Kuchar represent just a small sampling of top golfers vying for their first major victory.

4. Jordan Spieth looks to add to complicated Augusta track record

Search as hard as you want. You won’t find anyone with a trickier legacy on this course than Spieth. Given that Spieth is 24 and has teed it up at the Masters only four times, that’s saying something.

At a glance, Spieth’s record at Augusta is phenomenal. He’s won once (tying the tournament scoring record in the process), tied for second twice, and tied for 11th once. But the most recent two failures to win were quite spectacular.

On Sunday in 2016, he collapsed in a huge way, going from five up to four back in the span of three holes. In 2017, Spieth entered the final day only two back. But he shot a 75 and was never really in the mix during the final round. Heck, the score was only as good as 75 because he birdied three of the final four holes.

History tells us that Spieth will be a factor over the weekend. It also tells us that we need to watch what he does until the final putt drops. Just about anything is possible with Spieth at Augusta National.

5. Which Bubba Watson shows up?

Courtesy of USA Today Images

There is no harder golfer in the world to predict than Bubba. That statement is pretty much true no matter the venue. It’s certainly no different at Augusta.

Watson has teed it up at the Masters nine times. He’s only finished better than tied for 37th on three occasions. Of course, we can’t say that without mentioning that two of those occasions were victories.

Generally, we’ve seen a very good version of Bubba in 2018. He’s won twice, notched another top-10, and missed only one cut. If that version of Bubba shows up this week, he’s a real threat to win a third Green Jacket.

6. Augusta weather report

While we normally relegate talk about the weather to conversation fillers with people we don’t have much in common with, it’s a little more significant at Augusta.

If it’s a warm, generally dry tournament, then it will be hard for anyone who’s not a bomber to win. There’s always a place for the good shot makers who can win with a great short game and solid putting. But over four days, getting to attack the holes — especially the par fives — with mid (or even short) irons is just too much of an advantage over guys who are hitting long irons, fairway woods, or even laying up.

But if we get cooler temperatures and/or a wet course, that’s an equalizer. Now all of a sudden, those long drives aren’t going quite as far. Then, even the longer hitters are approaching some of the greens with long irons. Given the water around many of those greens at Augusta, that’s not such an advantage over the guys who lay up.

So, if you’re trying to figure out who should contend this week, keep an eye on those weather reports. They’ll be significant.

7. Dustin Johnson looks to bounce back from 2017’s frustration

Everything about the 2017 Masters seemed to be pointing DJ’s way. He had earned the No. 1 ranking in the world and won each of his previous three tournaments. But an unfortunate fall in a rental home knocked him out of the tournament before it even began.

But there’s some good news for Johnson this time around. One is that he’s staying at a different place this year. Smart move. Another good thing is that he’s coming in strong. He’s not on a three-tournament winning streak like he was in 2017. But DJ has entered five stroke play tournaments in 2018, has a win, and has finished no worse than tied for 16th.

Finally, Johnson seems to have figured Augusta out. In his first six Masters, DJ had a tie for 13th and nothing else better than a tie for 30th. But then he tied for sixth in 2015 and backed it up with a tie for fourth in 2016. We call that a positive trend. And certainly if the course is set up to favor the bombers, bet against DJ at your own peril.

8. Justin Thomas looks to continue red hot streak

Justin Thomas wins the 2017 PGA Championship

While Johnson occupies the No. 1 ranking in the world, it would be hard to say that anyone other than Thomas is the world’s hottest golfer. He’s won six times since the beginning of 2017. Even in weeks where he doesn’t win, Thomas still finds a way to pull off incredible shot after incredible shot.

The key for Thomas will be finding the fairway. Driving accuracy is really the only blemish in this guy’s game. If Thomas does find the fairway, then watch out. He has the distance to play with the long hitters if the conditions call for it. Thomas also has the wedge game and putting skills to play with the shorter players if the course plays more difficult.

Aside from the accuracy off the tee, the one thing we’re concerned about with Thomas is his lack of experience. He’s only played the Masters twice and while both were moderately successful (T39 and T22), experience can be a big advantage at Augusta. That said, there have been exceptions over the years. The way Thomas is playing, he can definitely be another exception, winning his second straight major in the process.

9. Jason Day on the comeback trail

Day has a similar track record at Augusta to the aforementioned Spieth. He has three top-10 finishes, including a solo third and a tie for second. The difference is that while Spieth has experienced some heartbreaking near misses, he has the win. Day, much like fellow Australian Greg Norman, has yet to break through.

But unlike Norman, time is on Day’s side. Still, if there has ever been a year that just felt right for Day to win, this is it. Day has won, breaking a near two-year winless drought. He’s also notched a tie for second and hasn’t finished out of the top-25 in any stroke play event.

Day certainly has the game to win at Augusta. When he’s on, there are very few holes in his game and even fewer golfers in the world that can hang with him. We need more than one win to definitively say that Day is “on,” but he’s definitely moving in the right direction. That makes him a favorite at the Masters.

10. Who will earn the crucial Ryder Cup points?

There is a lot of golf to be played before the best American and European players head to France for the 2018 Ryder Cup. That said, it’s never too early to look ahead. Since majors are weighed over other events, the 2018 Masters carries great significance.

Americans not currently in automatic qualifying position include Patrick Reed, Rickie Fowler, and Tiger Woods. On the European side, golfers like Alex Noren, Henrik Stenson, and Paul Casey are trying to punch the automatic ticket to France.

Given the depth of both the American and European teams, the 2018 Ryder Cup is shaping up to be spectacular. But that depth will also make it very hard to crack either roster. The last thing anyone wants to do is leave it up to the captains. A good week at Augusta will go a long way toward preventing that from happening.

11. Continued renaissance of Phil Mickelson

Not too long ago, Mickelson would have seemed like a long shot at Augusta. We’d have to respect him because of his history at the course. But entering 2018, Mickelson hadn’t won since the 2013 Open Championship and had rarely shown himself capable of putting four good rounds together in a week.

Of course, what’s happened in 2018 has changed the script. After missing the cut at the CareerBuilder Challenge and finishing tied for 45 in his hometown Farmers Insurance Open, Mickelson has caught fire. Lefty finished tied for fifth, tied for second, and tied for sixth at the next three tournaments, then won the WGC – Mexico Championship.

Mickelson would make history with a win. A fourth Green Jacket would tie Tiger Woods and Arnold Palmer for second all-time (trailing only Jack Nicklaus, with six). He’d also upend Nicklaus as the oldest Masters winner ever and would become the second oldest winner of any major. Still, it doesn’t feel like such a long shot.

12. Return of Tiger Woods

Tiger being healthy enough to tee it up for the 2018 Masters is, in and of itself, quite a story. He’s missed the tournament in 2014, 2016, and 2017. But Tiger isn’t just good enough to tee it up. No, he’s also playing a bit like the Tiger of old.

While he’s yet to win, Woods has recorded five top-25 finishes, three top-10s, and two top-fives in official events in 2018 (he also finished 15th at the Hero World Challenge). The top-fives also happen to be the last two tournaments he’s entered.

Also consider this. Tiger has contended at Augusta in years where he was coming in ice cold (ie: 2010 and 2011). Since his first Masters as a pro in 1997, Tiger has never missed the cut or even finished outside of the top-40.

So, while he’s yet to find the winner’s circle in 2018, Woods is a real threat to win his fifth Green Jacket.