Top storylines to watch leading up to the Masters

The 2018 PGA Tour season is now in full swing. While we’re still a little more than a month away, we can see the Masters coming in the not too distant future. As we gear up towards the season’s first major, what are the storylines to watch before then?

Rory McIlroy will go for the career grand slam at Augusta. But we’d like to see a little more out of him before we get there. We can say similar things about Dustin Johnson and to a lesser extent, Jordan Spieth.

Of course, we also have a couple of stalwarts to keep an eye on. Three-time Masters champion Phil Mickelson is playing well in 2018. So, what would we like to see from him before the Masters? Four-time Masters champ Tiger Woods is back on the prowl. But he has some work to do before Augusta.

The Masters is close, but there’s a lot of golf to be played. These are the top storylines to monitor before then.

Rory McIlroy must sharpen his game to achieve career grand slam 

The 2018 major season will have no fewer than three golfers teeing it up to try to win the career Grand Slam. The first will be McIlroy, who’s generally competed well at the Masters, but has never prevailed.

Nursing an injury for most of the season, McIlroy had a down year in 2017. Based on his first four events in 2018, it’s difficult to tell if he’s heading in the right direction.

He started the year at the Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship and Omega Dubai Desert Classic. He netted a tie for third and solo second at those events. But in his three American tournaments, McIlroy missed the cut at Pebble Beach, finished tied for 20th and well out of contention at the Genesis Open, and tied for 59th at the Honda Classic.

McIlroy certainly has the game to win any time he enters a tournament.

Still, we’d like to see him win (or at least contend on a more consistent basis) before we get to Augusta.

Sergio Garcia tries to ramp up his repeat bid

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

If McIlroy wins at Augusta, he’ll be the sixth player to win the modern career grand slam, joining Jack Nicklaus, Tiger Woods, Ben Hogan, Gary Player, and Gene Sarazen. It’s an exclusive list.

But if Garcia wins the Masters, he’ll join an even more exclusive list. Only Nicklaus, Woods, and Nick Faldo have repeated as Masters champion.

Garcia has only entered three official tournaments in 2018. He won the Singapore Open, tied for 32nd at the Dubai Desert Classic, and tied for 33rd at the Honda Classic.

We’ll be seeing a whole lot more of Sergio before the Masters, though. He’s presently scheduled to play in three more events before getting to Augusta. What we see will give us a pretty good preview of could be in store for Garcia at the Masters.

Jordan Spieth looks to put one on the board in 2018

Through the Honda Classic, Spieth has yet to record a win. We concede that, at a glance, this may not seem like much. But in previous years, the early portion of the season has been good to Spieth.

From 2015-2017, Spieth won a tournament before the Masters. In 2016 and 2017, that pre-Augusta win came before the tour even hit Florida. Obviously that will not happen this year.

Speith’s game is not in the tank — that’s not what we’re saying. He’s played in five tournaments in 2018 and recorded four top-20 finishes. He’s also been battling illness and is just now getting into a real groove. Still, Spieth has earned something of a reputation in recent years as a fast starter. That fast start has yet to happen in 2018.

Spieth looking to regain his mojo will unquestionably be one of the top storylines when the Masters rolls around. But what he does before then will also be worth monitoring.

Can Phil Mickelson find the winner’s circle for the first time in five years?

Mickelson enters Florida on something of a roll. After two completely non-impressive starts to open 2018 (a missed cut and a tie for 45th), Mickelson has finished tied for fifth, tied for second, and tied for sixth in his last three events. That’s a level of consistency that we haven’t seen from Lefty in a while.

Mickelson will be 48 in June. That’s an age where most golfers are struggling to remain relevant on the PGA Tour and looking toward the Champions Tour. Yet, he’s still competing with guys who are, in many cases, nearly half his age.

Still, we can’t forget that Lefty hasn’t won since The Open Championship in 2013. It’s hard to imagine Mickelson winning his fourth Green Jacket (which would tie Tiger Woods and Arnold Palmer for second all-time) without first winning elsewhere.

As things presently stand, we have no doubt that Mickelson can contend at the Masters. But if he’s contending and falling just short in regular tour events, it’s hard to imagine him breaking through to win at Augusta.

Reemergence of Jason Day 

To say that Day fell into obscurity in 2017 would be a tad overdramatic. But he didn’t have a great season, especially for his standard. But 2018 has been a very different story.

Day opened the year with a fifth place finish at the Australian Open. His most recent start was a tie for second at Pebble Beach. At the start in between them, he won at Torrey Pines. So, things are looking up for the former No. 1.

In fact, if you’re taking a trip to the Nevada desert before the Masters, Day is someone you should watch closely.

Like McIlroy, he’s never won at Augusta. But also like McIlroy, Day has consistently competed at Augusta. That always makes him someone who must be taken seriously. If Day can keep his strong play going, he’ll be a real threat to win his first Green Jacket.

Dustin Johnson needs to regain final round mojo

Dustin Johnson

The 2018 season has been a strange one for Johnson. He’s entered four tournaments and earned a win, a tie for ninth, a tie for second, and a tie for 16th. Objectively, those are fine results for the No. 1 player in the world.

But at both Pebble Beach and Riviera, Johnson struggled to close. At Pebble, DJ entered the final round tied with Ted Potter Jr. Despite a massive advantage off the tee, Johnson was a non-factor after the early holes on Sunday, shooting a 72 to fall by three shots.

Riviera was a little different, as Johnson entered the final round with some ground to make up. But while champion Bubba Watson, as well as runners up Kevin Na and Tony Finau, shot a final round 69, Johnson struggled to a 73, losing by eight shots. By contrast, that was nine shots worse than his Saturday 64.

Remember, this is all on the heels of the WGC – HSBC Champions. There, Johnson lost despite entering the final round with a six-shot lead (eight shots over eventual champ Justin Rose).

Unlike Mickelson, we don’t really need to see another win before the Masters. But while we’re happy that he’s staying in a different place from last year, we’d certainly like to see him finish tournaments on a better note.

Jon Rahm vies to become No. 1

After finishing tied for 23rd at the 2016 U.S. Open, Rahm was ranked No. 551 in the world. Now, less than two years later, he’s on the doorstep of the No. 1 ranking.

In fact, while it’s yet to work out, Rahm has had multiple chances to gain the top ranking in 2018. So, it seems as if it’s a question of when, not if, for Rahm.

That could be very soon. We’ll see Rahm at least twice before the Masters. He currently has the WGC Mexico Championship and WGC Match Play on the schedule.

Of course, earning the No. 1 ranking isn’t all on Rahm. If Johnson plays well, he’ll probably hold it for a while. But it’s entirely possible that he could head into Augusta as the world’s top ranked player.

Also, if his game remains sharp, Rahm will be on a short list of favorites Masters. There are exceptions, but Augusta tends to favor the long hitters who can easily attack the par-five greens in two. Rahm qualifies.

The 23-year-old Rahm gives us a lot to be excited about.

Progress of Tiger Woods

With Tiger, there are really two things that we need to monitor.

One is his health. Woods seems to be fine in this regard. He played four rounds at the Hero World Challenge, four more at the Farmer’s Insurance Open, and two at the Genesis Open. Then, a week later, he travelled across the country, teed it up at the Honda Classic, and had a successful tournament. There’s no evidence to suggest his injuries are resurfacing. The fact that he played in consecutive weeks on opposite sides of the country indicates that Woods is feeling okay with his back. Still, it’s worth monitoring.

Of course, we also have to look at Tiger’s game. In truth, we can treat what happens before the Masters as something of a spring training for Woods. It’s been a while since he played anything close to a regular schedule. It will take time to get his game to a point where he can beat the best in the world again. Still, we need to see progress.

Thus far, the progress has been there.

It’s just been slow. Woods made the cut at Torrey Pines but didn’t really contend. At Riviera, he missed the cut completely. Tiger finished 12th at the Honda Classic, but he struggled down the stretch on Sunday. So, while that was a clear positive, we can’t ignore that it probably should have been 2-3 shots better.

If the progress continues at a two steps forward and one step back level (or better), things will be fine. If it’s one step forward and two back, then it’ll be hard to consider Tiger much of a threat at the Masters.