Mark Schlapach and Paolo Augiti8 minutes to read
The first major of the year is here, and the anticipation for this year’s masters couldn’t be higher.
between Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson are back, the first meeting of both LIV Golf and PGA Tour players at Augusta National Country Club, plus Scotty Scheffler, John Rahm and Rory McIlroy who continue to play hot potatoes with the world No. 1 ranking, there are plenty of compelling storylines Where the world of golf descends on the sport’s most famous courses.
Here’s what to watch for this week:
What can we expect from Tiger this week?
Mark Schlbach: Last year, Tiger didn’t play competitively in 508 days and appeared at the Masters and made his 23rd straight cut. He played well through the first 36 holes, but the cold weather plagued him with surgically repaired right leg and back injuries, making one of golf’s toughest walks even more challenging. He took 6-over 78 in each of the last two rounds, his worst result at the Masters. He looked better physically in Genesis and said his right leg is stronger than it was a year ago, but it still bothers him with his right ankle. I think he will make the cut again because he knows the track better than anyone else in the field. A 25th-place finish for Tiger isn’t entirely out of the question, I think, but I find it hard to believe he could do better than that.
Paolo Augiti: Given what we saw in Riviera, where Tiger seemed more comfortable on the walk while his game showed a lot of promising flashes, I think making the cut would be the bare minimum he should be able to pull off. In a perfect world, a five-time champion would have made at least one more appearance before reaching the Masters, but health is more important than ensuring his game is sharp. If Tiger can succeed anywhere in only one competitive tournament under his belt, it’s Augusta. Even if the rally is tougher than most courses, the warm weather should help him and I’d venture to guess he’ll have an early Thursday start and a long break before his second run on Friday. I wouldn’t go so far as to say he will compete, but it would have to be another promising step in this new phase of his career.
What can we expect from Phil this week?
Schellbach: Considering how Mickelson played in the majors last year and what he did in LIV Golf’s first tournaments this season, placing 27th in Mexico, 32nd in Tucson, AZ, and 41st in Orlando, FL, I wouldn’t expect much of anything. He’s not playing well and hasn’t in a while, and it’s going to be a circus around him in Augusta. Mickelson will not address the media at an official press conference before the Masters starts on Thursday, so he will be there binoculars during practice and the early rounds, having skipped the event he won three times in 2022. Some sponsors will be cheering him on.
Augety: Honestly, I have no idea. Mickelson has seemed like a shell of himself—figuratively and literally—since he got involved with LIV and his performance at last year’s US Open (the last major he competed in) was particularly poor. Since he was thumbs up his way out of that tournament, Mickelson has shown absolutely no signs of life in any of the LIV events, consistently finishing near the bottom of the leaderboard. He has finished 27th or worse in eight of his ten appearances. Then again, Mickelson is a former winner here, and it would be some kind of dark twist to the entire PGA Tour-LIV Golf saga if he turned back the clock and competed this week.
Speaking of PGA Tour vs. LIV Golf, how much contention is there going to be on display?
Schellbach: I don’t think it will be as much of a story as expected because everyone will be on their best behavior at Augusta National. LIV Golf players will likely wear their team’s logos on T-shirts and hats, so the elephant in the room won’t be completely invisible. I just don’t know how many of the 18 LIV Golf entrants will be real contenders. Australian Cameron Smith, who finished second in 2020 and tied for third last year, played well here. He hasn’t played much this season and his form hasn’t been good lately, finishing 26th at Tucson and 29th at Orlando. Former champions Dustin Johnson and Patrick Reed didn’t play much either. Brooks Koepka won the Orlando event and suddenly he’s playing better. With LIV Golf league focusing on team competition – Go Range Goats! – Can they simply flip the switch and get back to playing as individuals? A 72-hole finish? However, one or two of them will probably be on the leaderboard on Sunday.
Augety: It all depends, but I think it will deteriorate depending on the results of the championship and what the players say on the podium. Duos and the Champions Dinner will certainly highlight them, but I think once the tournament begins, the only way it will become part of the weekend’s story is if the LIV players are in contention. With 18 LIV players on the field, this plays big and it will be fascinating to watch how Augusta, sponsors, and the rest of the players react to the potential of a LIV player winning the biggest championship in the sport.
Who is your dark horse that you choose this week?
Schellbach: It probably isn’t an exaggeration to say that a guy who finished 2nd in his Masters debut and tied for 8th in 3rd would be a dark horse, but I’m not sure there are too many picking Sungjae Im to win the green jacket this week. In 2020, the South Korean became the first Asian player to finish as runner-up and took the top spot in the first round two years later. Im a two-time Tour winner and would love to play at the Augusta National. Im doesn’t hit the ball particularly off the tee, but he keeps it on track and has a solid all-around game.
Augety: It seems like every major championship these days is going to be won by a Scheffler, McIlroy or Ram, which makes it hard to look for an unexpected winner. I’ll take Jason Day. He’s clearly been heading in the right direction – five top-10s in the last six tournaments and 11 top-20 finishes this season – and his swing changes seem to have paid dividends. Day has missed losing in the last two Masters Championships he’s played in, but finished in the top five in 2019. A win at Augusta would be a proper, storybook-like way to go the long, uphill road. Back to the top of the game.
Who are you definitely not going to pick this week?
Schellbach: Patrick Cantlay is one of the best players in the world, especially with a driver on hand. But his performance in the major leagues is bewildering, to say the least. He has only one top-five finish in a major — a tie for third at the 2019 PGA Championship — and one top-10 at the Masters, a tie for ninth in 2019. The light switch will go off for Cantlay at some point and he’ll be in contention for a major. I just don’t think it will be this week.
Augety: Will Zlatoris. This may seem like a poor choice in retrospect, given that Zalatoris has proven to be an exponentially better player when playing in the majors, but whether due to injury or trouble, Zalatoris has struggled this season. After finishing tied for 11th in the Sentry Tournament of Champions, Zalatoris finished tied for 36th and missed the cut before finishing 4th in Riviera. But in the last three tournaments, Zalatoris has finished tied for 53rd and 73rd and tied for 59th. More damningly, Zalatoris ranks 137th in strokes earned one year after he finished 103rd in the same stats last season.
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