Every year in the first full week of April, right around the time when winter begins to thaw out around the country, the sports world focuses on a small town in Georgia as it holds the greatest golf tournament in the world. Radiant azaleas bloom, the grass greens up, and the best golfers from around the world drive up Magnolia Lane at Augusta National to compete in the Masters Tournament. The grounds of the course are filled with the lucky few fans who won tickets through the age-old lottery, and with those willing to pay over $1000 dollars a day to see one of the most beautiful courses in the world. Many are forced to spectate via television, but most fans agree, every year this is must-see television, and this year will prove to be no different. Dozens of storylines will flood the media tents at the tournament this year, but perhaps there are no stories bigger than the Northern Irishman, Rory McIlroy, attempting to win his third straight major championship and complete his trophy case with the career grand slam. Augusta National has proven somewhat tricky to McIlroy in the past, with his best finish coming at a distant tie for eighth place in 2014. However, Rory has shown signs in the past of having what it takes to win the coveted green jacket. In 2011, Rory arrived at Augusta with all engines firing, got off to a great start, and had the lead going into the 10th hole on Sunday, the final round. Right around that time, things went awry, and he struggled to get into the clubhouse, finishing in a heartbreaking tie for fifteenth place. Anyone who follows the sport, though, will know that Rory used that disappointment to springboard himself into the position as the most dominant player since a man from California, named Tiger Woods, was in his prime.
Another prominent storyline is the aforementioned Mr. Woods. Spoken about as one of the biggest sports figures of the modern era, Tiger has transcended the sport for 18 years and, when he is playing well, causes golf to be must see TV, even for casual fans. However, since 2009, we have seen Tiger struggle with injuries and personal issues, which have rendered him as a shell of the once-dominant player we came to know and love for the past 18 years. At the time of press, there is much debate and speculation as to whether Tiger will in fact compete at the Masters this year. He will be invited to play in the Masters for as long as he can walk a golf course, as a multiple past winner and owning the title as the best golfer of all time, but many wonder if Tiger will break his “extended leave of absence” to continue chasing Jack Nicklaus’ major record this year. If Tiger decides to tee it up this year, he will face many questions about his health, confidence, and the overall state of his play. All signs would point to it being a very sloppy tournament for Woods if he competes, but there is something magical about that course for Tiger; every time he tees off, that seems to bring out the best in him.
Although Rory and Tiger are undoubtedly the biggest stories at the tournament this year, we would be paying a huge disservice to the rest of the field if we did not adequately mention their chances and storylines. Despite Woods’ poor play and injuries the last few years, golf has been in its best shape, with many young, exciting players, winning tournaments and building brand names. Patrick Reed, Rickie Fowler, Dustin Johnson, Hideki Matsuyama, Morgan Hoffman, Jordan Spieth, and Jason Day, just to name a few, have been putting the world on watch as they win golf tournaments in a surprisingly mature and polished way. Other players, like Adam Scott, Henrik Stenson, Jimmy Walker, and defending champion Bubba Watson, will prove to be major factors as well this year at Augusta.
The other main storylines this year include the lovable Texan, Ben Crenshaw, finishing his Masters career this year. The two-time winner has been adored by fans for decades and will pull on the heartstrings of all golf fans when he makes his final putt this year. This year will also be the last tournament where players are allowed to anchor putters. Adam Scott alerted the golf ruling bodies that this was in fact a big deal when he won the Masters in 2013, and they quickly made a ruling to outlaw those putters in January of 2016.
So what does it all add up to? Who will win this year’s tournament? Forecasting golf winners is a lot like winning the Masters, nearly impossible, but I think I can whittle down the list of possible players to a select few. Surely Rory, Stenson, Adam Scott, Bubba Watson, Jason Day, Jimmy Walker, and the old-timer, Phil Mickelson, who seems to save his best play for majors these days, will all be in contention this year, but I predict that the 2015 Masters champion will be ….. Patrick Reed! Reed is a wonderful player who has the confidence and belief it takes to win a major championship. He has been sharp so far this year, with a win and a runner-up finish, and can shape the ball from right-to-left, which seems to be the desired shot at Augusta.
You can watch the Masters April 9-12 on ESPN and CBS. Treat yourself. Nothing says spring time like sitting down with friends and watching golfers trek through the hallowed grounds of Augusta National.