Monday Scramble: The Masters is here, with no fans but plenty of storylines

Ryan Lavner
·10 min read

The Masters arrives with no shortage of storylines, Carlos Ortiz holds off Dustin Johnson, Brooks Koepka prepares for another major charge and more in this week's edition of the Monday Scramble:

1. Thirty-six of the top 40 players in the world will tee it up this week at the Masters.

TAKEAWAY: Missing from the game’s upper class are Daniel Berger, Viktor Hovland, Ryan Palmer and Harris English, all of whom failed to qualify for this year’s Masters because of the March 17 world-ranking deadline. (World No. 41 Joaquin Niemann withdrew late last week after testing positive for COVID-19.)

Narrowly getting in, interestingly enough, was Collin Morikawa, who eked inside the top 50 OWGR cutoff after a top-10 at the Arnold Palmer Invitational, which turned out to be the final qualifying event. Five months later, of course, he won the PGA Championship.

There is so much about this Masters still to be discovered: Can Bryson DeChambeau overpower a national treasure? Is Tiger Woods able to align the stars once more? Will Augusta National play differently in November as opposed to April? What impact, if any, will a wet early-week forecast have? How will players adapt without the patrons to alert them to scoring changes throughout the course? Will I hit the over/under on 9.5 egg salad sandwiches consumed?

It should be a fascinating week, and a thrilling cap to one of the most unusual years in golf history.

Keep reading for my top 10 favorites, which undoubtedly will include ... 

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2. In his first start since the U.S. Open, Dustin Johnson closed with 65 to challenge for the Vivint Houston Open title, ultimately finishing two shots back of first-time winner Carlos Ortiz.

TAKEAWAY: All credit to Ortiz, who closed with his own bogey-free 65, stared down the No. 1 player in the world and birdied the last when nursing a one-shot lead to win for the first time on the PGA Tour. Six years after he earned an instant promotion to the big tour following a three-win campaign on the Korn Ferry Tour, Ortiz, now 29 and in his 118th start, became the third Mexican winner on Tour and the first in more than 40 years.

Ortiz earned an invitation to the 2021 Masters, not this year's edition.

Most pertinent for this week: You'd never know Johnson was playing his first event in seven weeks, as he led the field in strokes gained: off-the-tee and driving distance. He also finished second strokes gained: tee-to-green while ranking 15th in putting. That’s the type of through-the-bag sharpness that DJ was looking for with the Masters on deck. His last three rounds: 66-66-65.

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3. Working his way back after an injury-plagued 2020 season, Brooks Koepka tied for fifth in Houston.

TAKEAWAY: Ah, yes, here were some shades of the summer, when Koepka had a chance to win and finished second at the WGC-FedEx St. Jude Invitational the week before the PGA. We know what happened then at Harding Park – he was in the mix through 54 holes, took a potshot at DJ and others, and then tumbled down the leaderboard on Sunday.

Koepka has claimed his injuries are a thing of the past, and there were some promising signs as he finished five shots back at Memorial Park, the course for which he served as a player consultant under architect Tom Doak. Koepka never needed more than 29 putts and ranked second on the greens. Though he struggled a bit with his irons, he attributed that to inaccuracy off the tee. Indeed, Koepka rued an equipment change earlier in the week, when he switched to a TaylorMade SIM driver for the first two rounds. He hit only six fairways each of the first two rounds, putting himself in some undesirable positions from which to attack. On the weekend he returned to his trusty M5 and made some significant gains on the field, ultimately ranking fifth off the tee.

“It’s a shame,” he said afterward. “I know I would have won if I just would have stuck with it.”

 

ONE MAN'S TOP 10 FAVORITES FOR THE MASTERS

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1. Dustin Johnson: Even after a longer-than-anticipated break because of COVID-19, the world No. 1 kept rolling in Houston in his one and only tuneup for the Masters. He’s top-tenned in each of his past four starts at Augusta National, which is #trending.

2. Bryson DeChambeau: The experimentation over the past month is somewhat worrying. There’s a possibility he gets himself out of his normal game because he so badly wants to show off his beefy, brawny approach. Remember: He won the U.S. Open not just because of his massive drives, but because he had a stellar week with his irons and a deft touch around the greens. That'll be even more important at Augusta.

3. Jon Rahm: Even with limited experience he’s shown an affinity for Augusta, as he enters this year’s edition with seven consecutive under-par rounds there. Also coming off a T-2 at Sherwood in which he made immense strides with his iron play.

4. Justin Thomas: Never had a top-10 at the Masters, which is surprising considering he’s arguably the best iron player on the planet. Putting has let him down in this event, but he’s been working the past few months with a new putting coach.

5. Xander Schauffele: Playing as well as anyone, and X-Man almost always performs in the biggest events – just like in the 2019 Masters, when he was one of a slew of players who had a chance on the second nine. If he’s a few behind come Sunday, he’ll have every player’s attention.

6. Patrick Cantlay: One of the game’s most complete players showed some firepower at Sherwood, where he zoomed past top-5 players Rahm and Thomas to steal the title. Had a 64-68 weekend at Augusta last year and, like Schauffele, was tied for the lead late Sunday.

7. Brooks Koepka: Declared his health a non-issue and then looked sharp with a pair of weekend 65s in Houston. Koepka has only starred in a few events this year, but one of them was a major in which he was battling knee and hip injuries. Look out.

8. Rory McIlroy: Coming off a career-best 29-birdie performance at Sherwood, even if he continues to make too many mistakes to seriously contend. A fall Masters in which he’s not a top-3 favorite might be what he needs to finally break through.

9. Tony Finau: Only one career victory, but he’s always in the mix, with six top-15s in his past seven starts. Top-10s in his only two appearances suggest Augusta is a comfy fit.

10. Matthew Wolff: Yeah, yeah, no Masters rookie has won since 1979, but the 21-year-old Wolff is not your average newcomer. He tied for fourth at the PGA and was the 54-hole leader at the U.S. Open. He’s as long, if not longer than DeChambeau, and his sky-high irons are exactly what Augusta demands.

Others to watch:

  • Bubba Watson: The two-time Masters champ has been much improved of late. Only DJ has been better in the strokes gained: tee to green statistic since the PGA.

  • Jason Day: He might – MIGHT – finally be healthy. Just in time, because he has a trio of top-5s and seven top-25s in nine career Masters appearances.  

  • Patrick Reed: The 2018 Masters champ has enjoyed some sneaky-good play over the past few months, including the halfway lead at Winged Foot.

  • Collin Morikawa: Cooled a bit since the PGA, but the Masters usually comes down to strong iron play – right in Morikawa’s wheelhouse, even as a rookie.

  • Webb Simpson: Last year’s fifth-place finish was his first top-10 at the Masters, but if rain and wind turn the event into a sloppy grind-fest ...  

  • Tiger Woods: A soggy Augusta National doesn’t do him any favors with his average length and balky back. With two weeks to practice and prepare at home, he needs to be sharper throughout the bag, particularly with his approach shots. The winning score is likely to be somewhere around 15 under par, so he needs birdies. Lots of ’em.

 

THIS WEEK'S AWARD WINNERS

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That’s More Like It: Robert MacIntyre. At one point this year the talented lefty from Scotland had tumbled almost 40 spots in the world ranking, nearly outside the top 100 – he alluded to a “difficult few months,” off the course – but he regained his form in time to salvage his season and win for the first time on the European Tour. He shot a 7-under 64 Sunday to capture the Cyprus Showdown.

To Be Continued: Charles Schwab Cup Championship. After coughing up a five-shot lead on the final day, Kevin Sutherland played deep into the night with Paul Broadhurst, matching scores for six playoff holes before the action was finally called for the night because of darkness. They’ll return Monday for the final senior event of the year, though not the season-long title since the 2020-21 campaigns have been combined.

Highlights: Broadhurst, Sutherland deadlocked at Schwab Cup after six playoff holes

How’s That Experiment Going?: Phil Mickelson. Rather than tune up for the Masters with the seniors, Mickelson wanted to once again try out his 47 ½-inch driver with the big boys on Tour. The results, as they were at the Zozo, were disastrous, as he finished among the worst in strokes gained: tee to green and shot 9 over par. It’s not gonna happen this week, folks.

Trust the Process (Maybe!): Jordan Spieth. A three-putt at the last led to another missed cut in Houston, and he has just a pair of top-10s in 14 restart events. But for all of his struggles over the years he’s still managed to play well at Augusta – a tie for 21st is his worst-ever finish.

Perfect Timing: Frida Kinhult. The former Florida State standout won the Symetra Tour Championship, sailing into the top 5 in the season-long points race and earning her LPGA card for 2021, along with Ana Belac, Fatima Fernandez Cano, Kim Kaufman and Janie Jackson. Lucy Li finished eighth, meaning she’s stuck in the minors for at least another year.

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Kraken, Unleashed: Bryson. Some of DeChambeau’s practice-round drives were, according to playing partner and 1988 Masters champ Sandy Lyle, “jaw-dropping.” Here’s the holes we’re most interested in seeing him play, given the advantage he’d be able to enjoy: No. 2 (8-iron in?), No. 8 (7-iron?), No. 10 (wedge?), No. 11 (9-iron?), No. 15 (9-iron?), No. 18 (wedge?). Having only short irons into all of the par 5s SHOULD give him realistic looks at eagle and guaranteed birdies. So if his driver cooperates – a big if, perhaps – he’s starting the week somewhere around 16 under par. Yikes.

Blown Fantasy Pick of the Week: Doc Redman. Had a pair of top-3s and a T-4 in his last six starts, including a chance to win the previous week in Bermuda, but he ran out of steam in Houston. He never broke par in four rounds at Memorial Park and tied for 61st. Sigh.