2024 Masters Preview

Once the favoured hunting ground of the Tiger and the Golden Bear, will Augusta see a Rahmbo sequel, or can Rory McIlroy finally join Golf’s most exclusive club, at the most exclusive club in Golf? Players will fire the shots heard round the world as 2024’s first major starts on Thursday.

David Anderson, Head of Trading

David Anderson, Head of Trading

2 months ago

“If there’s a golf course in heaven, I hope it’s like Augusta National. I just don’t want an early tee time.” — Gary Player

This will be the 88th renewal of the world’s most famous Golf tournament, the brainchild of Golf great Bobby Jones. The Masters at Augusta is unique. Its individuality is partly down to its permanence. The Masters has been played at the famous Augusta National course since its inception in 1934 and, barring World War II — and COVID necessitating a scheduling move in 2020 — it always takes place in April. Golf’s other majors rotate around various courses, and the USPGA saw its slot moved from August to May to maintain its relevance. Bobby Jones’ famous creation is going nowhere.

The first players teeing off at Augusta bring a nine-month drought without major Golf to an end each year, and it’s a course worth waiting for. Augusta is visually spectacular, with each hole named after one of the myriads of flora surrounding it. Augusta National is one of the great risk-reward Golf courses, with four reachable par 5s and water on five holes. The course serves as a natural amphitheatre with its compact layout, meaning that the roars of the patrons echo around the famous Georgia landmark. Roars that have greeted some of the greats of the game, including Golf’s two finest exponents, Jack Nicklaus and Tiger Woods, who have won 11 Masters titles between them. The course’s patrons throng to see their heroes. After a huge roar greeted Nicklaus holding a putt on the par 3 16th, in 1986, it seemed the whole crowd walked to the 17th tee alongside The Golden Bear, causing commentator Bruce Critchley to comment: “The human herbaceous border moves away.”

In an age where the LIV Tour — in fact, all tours — promise the winner obscene riches, competitors at the Masters are vying for a Green Jacket — a quaint prize strangely in keeping with the old-world nature of its venue. Of course, there is also a not-inconsiderable prize fund that goes with success, but for the world’s millionaire players, it’s the chance to join the pantheon of Golfing greats that have received their prize in the famous Butler Cabin that they really want. Phil Mickelson, himself a three-time winner of The Masters, noted: “The winner of this tournament doesn’t just win a major; he becomes part of the game’s history, and that’s what excites me. This tournament creates something very special, and year in, year out, history is made here.”

April isn’t shark season

That history has been preceded by so many unforgettable moments. As far back as 1935, Gene Sarazen produced “the shot heard round the world”, providing the sight of that rarest of Golfing birds — an albatross — on the 15th. In 1987, in a playoff, Greg Norman was lining up a potential tournament-clinching birdie putt. His playoff adversary Larry Mize was off the green, facing a trepidacious chip back towards the water. The American chipped in from off the green (some 140 feet away), and the Australian missed his putt as Norman was denied the title in dramatic fashion. Veteran Mark Calcavecchia described the miraculous moment: “Larry could still be over there to this day trying to make that chip and not make it — one in a million chip shot.” Augusta wasn’t a happy hunting ground for The Great White Shark, with Norman collapsing in 1996 as he surrendered a six-shot lead going into the final round when overhauled by Nick Faldo.

Jack Nicklaus became the oldest Masters winner with an emotional victory in 1986, at 46, and 21-year-old Tiger Woods recorded a historic 12-shot runaway win, becoming the tournament’s youngest-ever champion in 1997. Twenty-two years later, the usually stoical Woods greeted his return to the winners’ circle in a major with an outpouring of emotion. En route to his 2005 triumph, during Round Four, Woods chipped in on the 16th, but with a fitting sense of drama, his golf ball ran down towards the hole and paused for what seemed like an eternity before consenting to drop. “Oh wow, in your life, have you seen anything like that?” exclaimed US commentator Verne Lundquist. Rarely, and probably only at Augusta.

Few sporting events embrace tradition like The Masters. From The Champions’ Dinner on the Tuesday of the tournament — at which the previous year’s winner selects the menu — to The Par 3-Contest which takes place the day before the serious action starts. When play begins, honorary starters are invited back to hit the first tee shots — with Tom Watson joining Grand Slam Champions Jack Nicklaus and Gary Player in that role again this year. The defending champion’s final duty of the week is to present the coveted Green Jacket to the player who succeeds him as champion. Seamless processes run like clockwork, just like the teams of mowers that manicure the course to keep it in pristine condition.

The most exclusive Golf club in the world

Rory McIlroy’s bid to complete the career Grand Slam will be among the major talking points this week. The Ulsterman will be hoping to end his ten-year wait for a major win by joining the most exclusive club in Golf — the players who have won The Masters, the PGA Championship, the US Open, and The Open Championship. This club has only five members: Gene Sarazen, Ben Hogan, Jack Nicklaus, Gary Player, and Tiger Woods. It resembles Golf’s Mount Rushmore.

During the 2011 Masters, it would have seemed unthinkable that a Green Jacket would be the missing piece in McIlroy’s major collection. Having begun the final round with a four-shot lead, even standing on the 10th tee on that Sunday, McIlroy looked all set to land the spoils. But a poor tee shot on Camellia — a strike so far off line it gave viewers sight of part of the course they’d never seen — would lead to him taking five to reach the green on the par 4. It was the beginning of a Triple Bogey, Bogey, Double Bogey stretch that would derail his hopes and culminate in a round of 80 — one of the worst Round Four scores in the history of The Masters. This will be McIlroy’s 16th attempt to win The Masters title. For all the premium placed on Augusta experience, if someone is going to win a Green Jacket, they don’t usually have to endure as many attempts as he has. Only Sergio Garcia — who won at the 19th time of asking — had this many failures before finally winning.

In the nine months since the last major, there has been one more significant defection in the Golf world. In December, Masters champion Jon Rahm bolted to join the ranks of the breakaway LIV Tour. His departure was the most significant and surprising of the breakaway tour’s signings. One area where LIV has had to accept defeat is concerning their attempt to receive world ranking recognition. With tournaments featuring only three rounds and no cut the Official Golf World Ranking don’t believe that the Saudi-funded tour meets the criteria for its events to count towards the world list. Consequently, LIV golfers have found themselves slipping down the rankings, and this has also made qualification for the majors more difficult for those who haven’t already secured exemptions via their previous efforts in golf’s signature events. While Golf is the ultimate individual sport, the question of whether a member of one of the traditional tours or the new LIV interloper will win the title is a subplot which is bubbling away beneath the surface.

Rahm was among the four winners of Golf’s major championships last year. Although Europe regained the Ryder Cup, the United States dominated the sport’s four most prominent individual tournaments. Rahmbo’s win was the lone European success, with three American victories and all four champions under 37 when they added their names to the list of Golfing greats.

There were two new names for the trophy engravers to etch, and two players for whom winning a major was a familiar experience. But before the Masters champion was crowned, Augusta fell victim to a huge storm, which felled some of the course’s trademark giant pines on the 17th hole, luckily missing the dozens of patrons nearby. The incident caused play to be suspended on Friday. By Sunday, four evergreens were atop the leaderboard heading into the final round. However, after three fine rounds, Patrick Cantlay’s closing 75 saw him fall away. Norway’s Viktor Hovland’s challenge was felled by a double-bogey five on the 6th, leaving Rahm and Brooks Koepka to fight for a coveted Green Jacket. Koepka fell away dramatically in the final round at Augusta. Throughout the USPGA, he cryptically alluded to knowing what he had done wrong at The Masters without fully expanding on his meaning.

Rahmbo: First Blood

Two ahead entering Sunday, Koepka got off to a shaky start in Round Four. His tee shot on the first found the fairway. Unfortunately, it was the fairway on the 9th hole, and he had to hit an approach over the pine trees to rescue a par. Meanwhile, his playing partner sank a par putt, which was a great settler. The 2nd saw Koepka find the bunker, and his birdie putt lipped out. Again, the Spaniard’s putter was crucial, and he sank a birdie putt on the third to cut the lead to one — first blood to Rahmbo. The American’s woes off the tee continued as he found the sand on the par 3 4th, leading to a dropped shot, and the big two were level. Through the back of the sixth green, Koepka was a little heavy-handed with his chip, and another shot was gone while Rahm held out from nearly six feet for par. Koepka’s tee shot on eight leaked out to the left. Channelling the spirit of Spain’s previous champions, Rahm knocked his chip stone dead. That birdie put him two ahead. On the 9th, Koepka again burned the edge of the hole with a par putt, but the Spaniard over-borrowed on his par putt as a pair of dropped shots left Rahm two ahead at the turn.

That’s how it remained over the next two holes. The 12th invariably plays a hand in deciding the winner, and after finding himself through the back of the green, the American produced a poor chip and another shot was gone. A huge drive from Rahm and an errant one from his playing partner put the Spaniard in pole position on the par 5 13th, but this time, Koepka held his putt as both men birdied. On the right edge of the fairway on fourteen, Rahm conjured a fantastic approach to within four feet, which he converted. Meanwhile, his opponent three-putted, and suddenly, the gap was five. After Koepka cut the lead by one at the next, the Spaniard stood on the 16th, facing the final shot over water in the round. His approach gathered down towards the hole, and although he missed the birdie putt and the American sank his, the lead was still three with two to play. However, Koepka would give that shot back on the 17th and leave his playing partner four ahead on the 18th tee box. It looked all over bar the shouting, but the Spaniard’s tee shot elicited shouts of “fore left” as he clattered into the trees. One of the tour’s longest hitters had only propelled his ball about 150 yards. But he could afford to lay up and chip it to within four feet. A three-over-par 75 from the Florida native and a three-under-par 69 from Rahm left the Spaniard four shots clear and on his way to the Butler Cabin.

If Koepka’s lament was that he had played too defensively at the season’s first major, well, he put that right with a dominating performance in securing his fifth major title at the PGA Championship. Leading heading into Sunday, Koepka never surrendered the advantage, birdieing the 2nd, 3rd, and 4th holes. Despite dropping shots at six and seven, he held off Hovland, who double-bogeyed the 16th to end his challenge.

Block Party

However, the man who stole the show at Oak Hill was 46-year-old club professional Michael Block. A journeyman who supplements his earnings by selling golf lessons at $150 a throw, Block was the story of the tournament, achieving the best finish by a club professional since 1986 and ending the tournament on 1-over par to secure a place in next year’s USPGA. The enduring image of the event was Block’s hole-in-one in the final round — with his golf ball slamming straight into the hole — with Rory McIlroy rushing to congratulate the event’s unlikely hero on his ace at the 15th hole.

Clark is Superman

A month later, Wyndham Clark landed his maiden major, securing the US Open at the Los Angeles Country Club, with major champions filling the second, third, and tied-fourth-place berths. Of the chasing pack of Rory McIlroy, Scottie Scheffler, and Cameron Smith, the Ulsterman gave Clark the most to think about, moving into a share of the lead after two holes of the final round. Still, he failed to birdie any of the closing seventeen holes, and a bogey on fourteen allowed the Colorado native to move three clear. Despite a wobble that saw Clark drop two strokes on fifteen and sixteen, a pair of pars to close the round was enough to secure a first major title.

Although Clark walked off with the US Open trophy, there were three historic rounds at the 2023 US Open. Rickie Fowler broke the tournament record with a first-round 62 — a record he enjoyed sole possession of for less than an hour. Shortly after Fowler had signed his card, Xander Schauffele matched his accomplishment. In Round Four, England’s Tommy Fleetwood had a putt to join them on 62, but he narrowly failed to convert it — the second time in his career that Fleetwood had missed a five-foot putt for a 62 in a major.

There wasn’t quite so much jeopardy where the year’s final major was concerned. American Brian Harman was the only player in the field to begin with three rounds in the sixties, giving the Georgia native a five-shot cushion heading into Sunday. None of his closest pursuers could make any headway, and Harman won relatively unchallenged by six shots.

The Masters’ field contains the sport’s greatest names, but before we delve into the competitors, let’s look at the stage where the action will take place.

“The course is perfection, and it asks perfection.” — Nick Faldo

Although a modest hitter like Zach Johnson landed the first of his two majors here in 2007, course changes instituted over the following years have made winning here (literally) beyond the reach of shorter drivers. Although major venues of 7,500 yards or above are commonplace these days, the fact that the fairways on Augusta’s 7,555-yard par 72 layout are mown against the hole direction reduces the amount of run-on players get with their drives.

For all the television coverage of the event, one element of Augusta National that the cameras fail to do justice to is the course’s undulations. There are many parts of the property where it’s almost impossible to find a flat lie, and players must be well-versed in playing with their golf ball above or below their feet.

For many years, Augusta was thought to favour natural drawers of the ball — for right-handed players, that’s a right-to-left ball flight. So much so that two-time major winner Martin Kaymer attempted to alter his traditional fade to give himself a better chance of Masters’ glory. Colin Montgomerie — a fader of the ball — once commented to Nick Price: “this place is not for us.” But despite a preference for a stock left-to-right shot, Price shares Augusta’s course record, and changes have reduced the pro-draw bias further. Four holes demand a left-to-right shot, and the same number asks the players to move the ball in the other direction, with the remaining ten open to interpretation.

More useful is a high-ball flight, soaring over the treelined fairways and giving a player the best chance of stopping the ball on Augusta’s glass-like greens. Windy conditions at The Open Championship often reward golfers with a low-ball flight, which keeps them out of the worst ravages of the wind. But at Augusta, those with a high-ball flight — like the 2021 champion, Hideki Matsuyama — tend to prosper.

What you won’t find at Augusta is knee-high rough. In fact, there is no rough at all; errant drives will result in players playing their next shot from the “first cut” or “second cut” or potentially from the pine straw. Despite the lack of rough, the penalty for missing the fairway is that it’s harder to check the ball on the greens. Augusta’s putting surfaces are surrounded by run-off areas, where errant approaches tend to gather, leaving a difficult chip.

Augusta’s Bentgrass greens are lightning fast and can reach 14 on the Stimpmeter under conducive conditions, while Rae’s Creek, which winds its way around the property, influences the borrow required for putts on several greens.

In 2020, Bryson DeChambeau memorably said of Augusta: “I’m looking at it as a par 67 for me.” After such a display of hubris, the big-hitting American failed to shoot 67, or better, all week and finished 34th that year. In 2021, he would finish the event on 5-over par — presumably 25-over by his own course definition. The combination of the pressure of the event and the course’s trademark lightning-fast greens adds to its unique challenge. In 2016, four-time major winner Ernie Els famously recorded a 9 (originally thought to have been a 10) on his scorecard on the 1st hole, which included six putts from within 24 inches of the cup.

The Hole-In-One Gang

Augusta National features arguably the best-known stretch of holes in Golf, Amen Corner — comprising holes 11 through 13. That being said, players would do well to get the prayer mat out at the par-4 10th, which historically ranks as the course’s most challenging hole — never has the field completed “Camellia” under par, and 4.3 shots is the average taken. Unsurprisingly the course’s four par 5s have offered the best chances of improving their score, with the quartet ranked as the four least difficult holes on the course. Greg Norman and Nick Price share the course record, having navigated the par 72 layout in matching 63s. While Augusta National remains a fierce test, it has yielded 34 hole-in-ones in its storied history, with Stewart Cink recording an ace two years ago. The traditional Round Four pin position on Sunday at the 16th, usually offers the best hole-in-one opportunity.

According to GolfClubAtlas.com, “Augusta National has gone through more changes since its inception than any of the world’s twenty or so greatest courses.” However, the 2024 renewal won’t see many alterations to Augusta National’s layout.

The only significant change to the course since Augusta last hit our screens has been alterations to the 2nd hole. The tee has been moved back and left, extending the par 5 to 585 yards, bringing the bunkers that guard the right-hand side of the fairway more into play.

More than most courses, Bobby Jones’ creation takes a lot of knowing. Fuzzy Zoeller was the last debutant to win The Masters back in 1979. Looking at the top six finishers in 2023, Jon Rahm had posted four previous top-ten efforts at Augusta, Brooks Koepka had second and seventh-place finishes to his name, and Phil Mickelson has three Green Jackets hanging in his wardrobe. Russell Henley’s fourth-place effort might have surprised some, but he had two previous top-fifteen finishes in The Masters on his CV, Jordan Spieth a win, two seconds, and two thirds, and Patrick Reed’s three top-tens included a win in 2018. Jim Furyk, who never got to slip on a famous Green Jacket, once said: “I can’t think of another course in the world that the more you play, the more you learn.”

Augusta form repeats itself and all the Masters’ winners this century had posted a previous top-40 finish at Augusta, a trend Jon Rahm extended last year when landing his second major. Fred Couples turned his liking for the place into making the cut in each of the 23 Masters he played between 1983 and 2007. While there are numerous players with more than one Green Jacket hanging in The Champions’ Locker Room, it’s a tough place to be a defending champion. Over the past 21 years, only two winners have backed that up with a top-five finish when returning a year later.

Let the big dog eat

Data Golf has shown what many have long suspected: positive ball-striking stats are vital to a player’s chances of earning a Green Jacket. Of the past eleven Masters champions, nine had recorded a Strokes Gained: Tee-to-Green mark of 1.7 or above during the three months before pulling into Magnolia Lane. Scottie Scheffler and Xander Schauffele are the two players who fit the bill, judging by their efforts in 2024.

Since the course favours the big hitters, a quick perusal of the PGA Tour’s Driving Distance stats suggests that bombers like Rory McIlroy (4th), Gary Woodland (9th), Wyndham Clark (10th), and Min Woo Lee (17th) should be well-placed to take advantage. For all his suitability to the course, Collin Morikawa (154th) knows he will regularly play his second shots before his playing partners this week.

Given the strategic thought required at Augusta and the way that its numerous run-off areas test a player’s chipping ability, Strokes Gained: Around-the-Green is another useful metric. Hoping to parlay their recent form around the greens into Masters success will be PGA Tour leader Hideki Matsuyama, fifth-ranked Scottie Scheffler, and Xander Schauffele, who sits eighth on the PGA Tour.

Positive current form helps in The Masters, but the effort of winning in the week immediately before the season’s first major often leaves its mark, with none of the past 16 players to do so able to earn a Green Jacket and only two finished in the top 10. Valero Texas Open winner Akshay Bhatia will be hoping to buck that trend this week.

Follow you, follow me

As Dave Tindall has pointed out, the Genesis Invitational, hosted by the Riviera Country Club, has proved to be an excellent guide to The Masters. Both host courses share shot-making demands and lack rough. Though the west coast track is a par 71 — one shot less than Augusta — Riviera is a shotmakers course which demands precision and intelligent play in equal measure, and the strong field the Genesis attracts, allied to the fact it takes place only eight weeks earlier, have helped make it a reliable form guide. Dustin Johnson has won at Riviera and Augusta this century, while 2003 Masters’ champion Mike Weir is on the roll of honour at the west coast track twice. Bubba Watson has three Riviera wins to go with his two Green Jackets, and Phil Mickelson has won two Genesis Invitationals and three Masters titles. A dual Riviera winner, Adam Scott, won his only major at Augusta in 2013. Max Homa, runner-up in last year’s Genesis, also won in 2021 and hopes to translate Riviera form into a strong week in Georgia.

The 2023 Genesis Invitational winner? Jon Rahm, who went on to land a Green Jacket. Collin Morikawa followed a 2023 top-10 finish at Riviera with the same at Augusta, and Patrick Cantlay looked like repeating the dose for three rounds last year. Of the past 11 Masters winners to use the Genesis Invitational as part of their warm-up, nine produced a top-15 finish. This year’s conqueror of Riviera is also no stranger to Augusta: 2021 Masters Champion Hideki Matsuyama. Players who ran an eye-catching Masters trial in LA in February included top-ten finishers Will Zalatoris, Patrick Cantlay, Xander Schauffele, Jason Day, Tommy Fleetwood, Scottie Scheffler, and Sam Burns.

Worlds apart but close in thought

One curiosity has been that one of the best form guides to The Masters in recent years has been the DP World Tour’s Dubai Desert Classic, which takes place 12,000 kilometres away and three months in advance. Danny Willett and Sergio Garcia both won at the Emirates Golf Club before prevailing at Augusta three months later. Rory McIlroy hopes to continue that trend after completing back-to-back victories at the Majlis Course in January.

Given the quality of the event, it’s no surprise that all the Masters winners over the past ten years had teed off in the top 30 of the world rankings.

“Augusta is the closest thing to heaven for a golfer – and it’s just about as hard to get into.” — Joe Geshwiller

An invitational event, only the game’s current elite, the tournament’s champions of yesteryear, and prospective champions of tomorrow can expect to receive an invitation in the mail. However, even Augusta National’s meticulous attention to detail can’t think of everything.

Quit Stalling and send me my invite

A 2023 Masters invite meant for PGA Tour stalwart Scott Stallings was erroneously sent to his namesake, an amateur golfer who happened to live next door to the real Mr Stallings’ former sports management company. Concerned, the three-time PGA Tour winner had been checking his mailbox five times daily for the missing FedEx parcel. After a slight delay and some communication via social media, Scott was reunited with the most critical documents in golf.

Many leading players have taken to social media to proudly display the early Christmas present they received in the post: a green envelope with their invitation to spend the second week in April in Georgia. Unlike the other majors, which feature a field of 156 players, only 89 competitors will face the starter in this year’s Masters. Rahm hasn’t been joined on the LIV Tour by any other new signings, and the two-time major winner receives a lifetime exemption from having to qualify for Augusta, courtesy of last year’s win.

Scottie Scheffler heads the list of invitees and the betting — at the time of writing he is the 15/4 tournament favourite. The world’s number-one player likes Augusta. Having finished tied for nineteenth on his Augusta bow, he improved one place in 2021. A year later, he won his first — and so far only —major and put up a strong defence of his title when finishing tied tenth last year.

The FedEx St Jude Classic, in August 2022.

That was the last time Scheffler missed the cut in a stroke play tournament. Since then, he has played 34 events, racked up five wins and 16 other top-five finishes. His last three appearances have seen the 2022 Masters champion produce strong finishes to add a pair of trophies to his collection. A closing 66 at Arnie’s Place, Bay Hill, was enough to secure the Arnold Palmer Invitational. He then produced a Round Four 64 to become the first player to successfully defend the Players Championship in the 50 years of the fifth major. He then came close to becoming the first player to win three straight PGA Tour starts since Dustin Johnson in 2017. A level par 70 in Round Two at the Houston Open brought to an end 28 consecutive rounds under par — a record within the modern era — and he was denied a hat-trick of recent wins when finishing one shot behind Stephan Jäger.

Drive for show, putt for dough

If the New Jersey native could putt he would be unstoppable. Tee to green his performance over recent seasons is unrivalled. This season, Scheffler leads the PGA Tour in Strokes Gained: Total, Strokes Gained Tee-to-Green and SG: Approach the Green while sitting inside the top five in SG: Off-the-Tee and SG: Around-the-Green. His Achilles Heel remains the flat stick, where 96 players are ahead of him in Strokes Gained: Putting. However, he elevated himself to fifth in that category at the Arnold Palmer Invitational. He outperformed everyone in the field in Round Four, an improvement that may have been down to the new mallet he has adopted.

One place below Scheffler in the world rankings is Rory McIlroy. The Masters title is the only major to have alluded the Ulsterman. This will be McIlroy’s 16th attempt to secure a prestigious Green Jacket. Between 2014 and 2020, he exhibited tremendous consistency at Augusta, with form figures of T8/4/T10/T7/T5/T21/T5. But since then, he has missed cuts either side of his second place in 2022.

The four-time major winner started 2024 in excellent form. He followed a second-place finish in the Dubai Invitational by going one better to retain his Dubai Desert Classic title. Since then, his best effort has been a tie for 19th place. After a disappointing tied 66th at Pebble Beach, his next four performances followed a consistent pattern, with finishes of T24/T21/T21/T19, which included poor rounds of 73, 74, and 76 strokes. Last week at TPC San Antonio, he posted a strong closing 66 to secure third place.

The 9/1 second favourite, McIlroy has been excellent from the tee box this season and sits fourth on the PGA Tour in Strokes Gained: Off-the-Tee. But things have not been so impressive the closer to the hole he gets. He is currently 62nd in SG: Approach the Green, 124th in SG: Around-the-Green and 79th in putting.

LIV and let live

Aside from a pair of tied-27th efforts, Jon Rahm’s other five Masters appearances have all produced a top-ten finish. The truncated LIV schedule and its smaller field sizes (with no cut) make it harder to quantify player performance. He has yet to win on the breakaway tour but has finished in the top 10 in all five starts. A tie for third in the curtain-raising LIV Golf Mayakoba was followed by an eighth-place effort in Las Vegas. Despite an opening 62, the world number three finished fifth in Jeddah before finishing tied-eighth on the tour’s stop in Hong Kong. Last week, he performed consistently in Miami, with rounds of 69, 70, and 69 good enough for a share of fourth place at Trump National Doral. The LIV Tour doesn’t maintain the Strokes Gained categories that the PGA Tour does, making it more difficult to assess the underlying components of a player’s game.

The omens aren’t great for reigning champions, as only Tiger Woods and Jordan Spieth have posted a top-five finish since 2003. The market rates Rahm an 11/1 chance to become the first player since Tiger Woods in 2002 to retain the Masters’ title.

Fellow LIV defector Brooks Koepka’s first three Masters appearances brought steady improvements before he finished tied second in 2019 and managed a share of seventh a year later. Injuries and a loss of confidence saw the Florida native miss consecutive cuts at The Masters in the following years, but last term, he came close to landing the only US major that has alluded him.

The man from West Palm Beach’s best effort so far this season has been a tie for fifth in the opening event. Tied 12th on his next two outings, he was a disappointing 28th in Hong Kong and tied 45th in Miami, though Koepka has always been a player who saves himself for the biggest of occasions.

Cameron Smith has had a recent love affair with Augusta National. Having made the cut on his 2016 Masters debut, he posted four top-ten efforts over his subsequent five appearances before finishing in a share of 34th place last year.

The LIV Tour affords players plenty of free time, and the Australian played in two events in his home country over the winter, failing to break into the top ten. After three mixed efforts on the breakaway tour, the 2022 Open champion lost out in a three-way playoff in Hong Kong. A bout of food poisoning caused his withdrawal from LIV Golf Miami.

To the Viktor, the spoils?

Having failed to record a top-ten effort in any of his first eleven majors, Norway’s Viktor Hovland has made the top ten in three of the past five of Golf’s signature events. His worst finish over that period was 19th at Hoylake. He has made the cut on all four visits to Augusta, and last year’s tie for seventh was his best effort.

Strangely, given Hovland won the BMW Championship (en route to topping the FedEx Cup standings), the Memorial Tournament, registered his best-ever major finish, and was a leading light in Europe’s Ryder Cup success, the Norwegian surprised most observers by opting to change coaches at the start of the year. He has jettisoned swing coach Joe Mayo, replacing him with Grant Waite.

Given five outings in 2024 have yet to see Hovland crack the top 10, some might question the wisdom of that decision — though much more evidence is needed before pronouncing this a mistake. Ranked sixth in the world, he finished tied-58th at Pebble Beach and bookended two solid rounds with scores of 73 and 74 at the Players Championship. The Norwegian will hope that the Genesis Invitational again proves to be the best Masters form guide, as his strongest effort of 2024 was a tied-19th performance at Riviera Country Club.

Anyone looking to make a case for the Norwegian to land a Green Jacket may want to overlook his current stats. He ranks outside the top 100 in four of the main six Strokes Gained categories. His best effort has been 18th off the tee. His weakest suit remains his play around the greens — he once famously lamented: “I just suck at chipping” — evinced by his 186th ranking in Strokes Gained: Around-the-Green.

Few players have taken to Augusta National, like Jordan Spieth. He wasn’t far off winning three Green Jackets in a row on his first three visits. Tied for second on debut in 2014, he triumphed a year later before finishing as runner-up in 2016. Since then, however, it’s been a bit of a mixed bag for the Texas native. After a third place in 2018, he finished outside the top 20 a year later and only narrowly made the cut in 2020. Having finished in a share of third place in 2021, he carded rounds of 74 and 76 to miss the cut two years ago before bouncing back with a tie for fourth last year.

After a solid start to the season, with two top-ten finishes in his first three events, things have gone south for the man from Texas. He fell foul of Golf’s draconian rules at the Genesis Invitational, suffering his first disqualification in 263 tournaments by signing for the wrong score after the Second Round. After finishing tied for 30th in the Arnold Palmer Invitational, one round of 74 in each of his next two tournaments led to two missed cuts. Back in the familiar surroundings of the Lone Star State, he rebounded from an opening 73 to finish tied for 10th in the Valero Texas Open, leaving him 18th in the world rankings.

The Texan’s short game has propelled him to eighth place in the Strokes Gained: Total category. 53rd around the green and twelfth in putting; he sits narrowly inside the top 100 in approach play.

Spieth’s Ryder Cup compatriot Wyndham Clark has only missed one cut this year. Unfortunately, it was at the Genesis Invitational, an event which seems to have such synergies with Augusta. Nevertheless, on either side of that disappointment, the world’s number four played some excellent Golf. In February, he secured the AT&T Pebble Beach Pro-Am, and only Scheffler finished ahead of the Colorado native in the Arnold Palmer Invitational and The Players Championship. Clark finished in a tie for 31st on his last outing in the Houston Open.

This will be the US Open champion’s first look at Augusta National, and aside from his success last June, he has yet to crack the top 30 on any of his other seven major appearances. A player with a very solid all-round game, Clark finds himself in the top 75 in all six major Strokes Gained categories this season. 12th in SG: Off-the-Tee, 13th in SG: Tee-to-Green, and 15th in SG: Putting, he lies third in the SG: Total standings.

Cantlay — a man not to be opposed on the Exchanges?

Long touted as a major winner in waiting, Patrick Cantlay was the low amateur in 2012, but it wasn’t until 2018 that the man from Long Beach next saw Augusta. His Masters form has been mixed with two missed cuts and three top-twenty finishes in his past six outings. For most of the 2023 renewal, he threatened to improve upon his previous best finish of tied-ninth, but a disappointing closing round dropped him into a tie for fourteenth.

This year, Riviera Country Club brought the best out of the 2021 FedEx Cup champion. Although he fell away at the end to finish in a share of fourth place, Cantlay began with an electrifying 64-65 start. Despite making the weekend in all seven starts, that is the world number seven’s only top-ten effort this term.

Cantlay has yet to excel in any statistical category this season. His best position is 57th in Strokes Gained: Putting. Placing outside the top 100 in SG: Tee-to-Green, SG: Approach the Green, and SG: Around-the-Green has pulled his Strokes Gained: Total position down to 91st.

Few players have adjusted to Augusta as quickly as Will Zalatoris. The Wake Forest alumnus finished a highly impressive second on his Masters debut and followed that up with a creditable tied-sixth in 2022.

Following Microdiscectomy surgery, it was only natural that the Californian would show signs of rust. That was evident in the round of 76, which began his year. He bounced back with top-five finishes in the Genesis Invitational and Arnold Palmer Invitational. After missing the cut at Sawgrass, he made the weekend in Houston, finishing tied 74th.

Since bursting onto the scene, Zalatoris has made his name as a tremendous player from tee to green who struggles with his putting. But would his recent surgery and a change of putter alter that? The good news for the San Francisco native is that going under the knife has done nothing to diminish the former. He is eighth in the SG: Approach the Green category and 21st from Tee-to-Green. His putting hasn’t improved since his return from injury, and he sits 147th in that statistic.

With everything he has already achieved in the sport, you must remind yourself that this will be Ludvig Åberg’s first major appearance. The 24-year-old Swede has already become a Ryder Cup hero, won tournaments on both sides of the Atlantic, landed most of Collegiate Golf’s biggest spoils, and reached ninth in the Official Golf World Rankings.

Åberg has made all eight cuts in 2024. After a tie for ninth at the Farmers Insurance Open in January, he came close to a second PGA Tour title in the weather-affected AT&T Pebble Beach Pro-Am. Despite three rounds in the 60s, he had to settle for second before recording two more top-25 efforts and an eighth-place finish at The Players Championship. Despite a closing 73, he finished the Valero Texas Open in tied 14th.

Given his rapid ascension in the sport, there isn’t much statistical data on the Swede. What can be seen is that he possesses a very balanced all-round game. Åberg sits in the top 30 in four of the six major Strokes Gained categories, with his SG: Around-the-Green performance being his poorest, though that is only narrowly below average on the PGA Tour.

Call him what you want, as long as you call him in front

Xander Schauffele brings a metronomic consistency to his major performances. The most mispronounced of golfers — it’s pronounced “zan-der shaw-flea” — the native of San Diego racked up nine top-10 finishes in majors between 2017 and 2021. By his metronomic standards, a 2022 missed cut at Augusta was an outlier, but there has been a return to the usual consistency in his tied-13th, tied-14th, tied-15th, tied-10th, tied-18th, 10th, and tied-17th efforts in Golf’s signature events, since then. Across the 26 majors he has played in his career, Schauffele has produced an impressive 19 top-20 finishes. He has posted three top-ten efforts at The Masters, including finishing in a tie for tenth twelve months ago.

The reigning Olympic Champion has brought the same consistency to his 2024 PGA Tour efforts. He has yet to miss a cut this year, producing five top-five finishes, but has yet to get his head in front. Tied third in the AmEx, he finished in a share of ninth at Torrey Pines. Tied fourth in the all-important Genesis Invitational, he shared second in the fifth major and was tied fifth in the Valspar Championship.

Tee to green, world number five Schauffele’s stats remain excellent. Second-ranked in SG: Tee-to-Green and in the overall category, eighth in SG: Off-the-Tee and around the green, and 19th in approach the green; these numbers back up his metronomic consistency. Putting is often the least “sticky” of Golf stats, with volatility in performance even among the game’s elite. Therefore, his ranking of 80th in SG: Putting doesn’t represent a significant concern.

Collin Morikawa, a man with a top-five finish in each of the majors, has made the cut on all four visits to Augusta. He improved on a tie for 44th on debut, with tied-18th in 2021. He earned fifth place a year later and matched Schauffele’s tied-tenth last term.

The world number 20 began the year with a solid tied-fifth effort in The Sentry. However, he has since played a few very poor rounds. His Farmers Insurance Open ended with a second-round 75, while he signed for an 80 at Bay Hill. A closing 74 consigned him to finishing tied-45th at The Players Championship, and after a promising start in San Antonio, he closed with rounds of 74, 75, and 74 to place tied 75th.

Although renowned as a fine iron player, the two-time major winner sits only 80th in Strokes Gained: Approach the Green. He is 38th in SG: Tee-to-Green and 48th off the tee but has not been so impressive closer to the hole, ranking 164th in SG: Putting.

Hideki Matsuyama has already fulfilled the promise of being someone who was made for Augusta. Champion in 2021, the Japanese star finished fifth in 2015 and has made the cut on 11 of the 12 occasions he has driven up Magnolia Lane. Having battled injury problems for much of last year, he has made up for lost time in 2024. Ten appearances have seen the Japanese star yet to miss a cut. He triumphed in the all-important Genesis Invitational and finished in a tie for sixth at The Players Championship and equal seventh in the Valero Texas Open.

World ranked 12th and topping the SG: Around-the-Green category, the man who finished as the low amateur at the Masters as far back as 2011 is third in the SG: Tee-to-Green standings. Matsuyama is inside the top 40 in all the other main Strokes Gained metrics, except putting, where he ranks 146th.

Despite being very vocal about how he would overpower the course, Bryson DeChambeau has yet to walk the walk at Augusta. A tie for 21st on debut as an amateur remains his best finish at The Masters, and he has failed to make the weekend on his last two attempts.

After a slow start to the year, when he placed tied 25th in the LIV Golf Mayakoba, the 2020 US Open champion has reeled off four straight top-ten efforts, including a fourth-place finish in Jeddah.

Is it wrong to be doubting Thomas?

Long thought of as a player with a suitable game to win The Masters, world number 28, Justin Thomas’ 2023 effort was his poorest to date and symptomatic of the difficulties he faced for much of last season. That missed cut brought his cut-making streak at Augusta to an end. He has posted two top-ten finishes, with a fourth-placed performance in 2020, the closest he has come to adding a Green Jacket to his two PGA Championship titles.

Despite all his travails in 2023, by the time of the Hero World Challenge, the Kentucky native had seemed to have turned a corner, stating: “I’m playing really well. I’m excited; everything feels good.” Indeed, the two-time major winner started 2024 in fine fettle, with top-ten efforts on his opening pair of starts. He has lacked consistency since then. After a share of 12th in Phoenix, he missed the cut at Riviera. Another share of 12th in the Arnold Palmer Invitational was followed by failing to make the weekend at The Players Championship. On his last outing, Thomas ended the Valspar Championship in joint-64th place.

Statistically, he is twelfth from tee to green and 39th in SG: Around-the-Green. His renowned iron play sees him sit sixth in SG: Approach the Green. It’s with the flat stick that his problems continue, with 173 players ranked ahead of him in SG: Putting.

Tony Finau has shown a consistent liking for Augusta despite nearly doing himself permanent damage on the property. Perhaps the most enduring image of Big Tone came when he was playing in the pre-tournament Par 3-Contest the day before the 2018 Masters. Running to celebrate a hole-in-one in the tournament’s traditional curtain raiser, Finau dislocated his ankle. To the amazement of onlookers, Finau popped the offending joint back into place and finished a highly creditable tenth on his first Masters appearance. He has made all six cuts in the tournament, including three top-ten finishes, with a tie for fifth in 2019, his best placing.

Solid rather than spectacular summed up Big Tone’s form early in 2024. A tie for sixth at the Farmers Insurance Open would have been better, but for a 74 in Round Three. After four further cuts made — without threatening to trouble the judge — the man from Salt Lake City missed the cut at the Valspar Championship. However, a course record-equalling 62 in the Second Round in Houston propelled him into a share of second place alongside Scheffler.

The 34-year-old has made adjustments to his game, which might explain his uptick in form in Houston. He opted to change the shaft on his driver and tweaked his putting technique, and he will be hoping this recent improvement continues.

The world number 26 is ranked sixth in Strokes Gained: Tee-to-Green and only one place lower in the all-important SG: Approach the Green category. He is also in the top 30 in SG: Total. Putting has been his Achilles Heel — though Finau probably wouldn’t thank me for the reference, given his previous foot issue. 162 players on the PGA Tour are ahead of Big Tone in the SG: Putting area.

DJ hoping to be in the mix

Dustin Johnson’s win in the 2020 Masters guarantees him an annual invite back to Augusta for as long as he plays the game. Two major wins seem like a meagre return for someone of DJ’s prodigious talent and a disappointing conversion rate for a player who has registered 23 top-ten finishes in Golf’s signature events. Johnson had been installed as the pre-tournament favourite for the 2017 renewal of The Masters. Still, he had to withdraw after injuring his back when — so the story goes — falling down the stairs 48 hours before the tournament began. No doubt Tony Finau would have popped the offending vertebrae back into place and teed it up regardless. That, along with shooting a last-round 82 when he seemed to have the 2010 US Open in the bag and failing to convert a one-shot lead on the 72nd hole of that year’s USPGA — including a two-stroke penalty incurred for grounding his club in a bunker — have kept DJ from fulfilling his potential. But, with his trademark nonchalant style, Johnson has shrugged these disappointments off in a game he makes look as easy as falling off a log (or down a flight of stairs).

In addition to securing a Green Jacket in 2020, Johnson has recorded four other top-ten finishes and made eleven of thirteen cuts at Augusta. After a top-five finish on his LIV seasonal bow, DJ landed the trophy at the tour’s stop in Las Vegas. However, he didn’t manage to break the top 20 on his next three outings.

While DJ has one win on the LIV circuit this season, Joaquín Niemann has secured a pair of LIV titles and one on the DP World Tour. He landed the ISPS Australian Open on his last appearance in 2023 and walked off with the trophy on the breakaway tour’s stops in Mayakoba and Jeddah. The Chilean has also had four other top-ten finishes among his nine starts during the 2023-24 season.

Yet to produce a top-ten effort in 19 major appearances, his performances at Augusta have at least been trending in the right direction. A missed cut on his 2018 debut was followed by a tied-40th finish three years later. In 2022, he ended the event with a share of 35th place before posting a tied-16th effort twelve months ago. Having seen his close friend and fellow Chilean Mito Pereira lead the 2022 PGA Championship after 71 holes before suffering a final-hole meltdown, the Santiago native will be hoping to deliver his nation’s first major Golf title.

Still only 26 years old, Cameron Young has taken to major Golf like a duck to water, posting top-ten finishes in three of the four biggest tournaments of the year. Having missed the cut in the 2022 Masters, he put up a much-improved effort last year, finishing in a tie for seventh.

Three rounds of 74 scuppered the native New Yorker’s first three tournaments this year, including when in contention in the DP World Tour’s Dubai Desert Classic. Since then, he has made every cut and recorded three top-ten efforts. Tied eighth in the WM Phoenix Open, he shared fourth in the Cognizant Classic. Four rounds in the sixties left him just two shots adrift in second on his last start in the Valspar Championship.

Young’s stats from the tee box have been strong again this season. He is 17th off the tee, 18th in SG: Tee-to-Green, and 15th in SG: Approach the Green. Ranked 30th overall, the world number 14’s weakest link is his chipping, as he sits 134th in SG: Around-the-Green.

Australia’s Jason Day had a purple patch in majors between 2010 and 2020. In 40 events (including one withdrawal), he produced 16 top-ten efforts, headlined by landing the 2015 USPGA. In his eight appearances since then, he has missed four cuts, but his most recent effort was his best for some time as he chased Brian Harman home at Hoylake. He has been in the mix four times at Augusta, including narrowly missing out in 2011, when he finished tied for second.

After missing the cut in January’s Farmers Insurance Open, February was a much better month for the Queenslander. Tied sixth at Pebble Beach, he started with scores of 65, 69, and 69 in the Genesis Invitational. A closing 72 knocked the world number 21 out of contention, but his ninth-place finish was an eye-catching effort. Tied 36th at Bay Hill, he finished one place better in The Players Championship before narrowly failing to make the weekend in Houston.

In contrast to many of the other front runners, the 2015 PGA champion has his short game in fine order. He sits ninth in the Strokes Gained: Around-the-Green category and 43rd in putting. 34th overall, he is just outside the top 50 in SG: Tee-to-Green. Given the demands of Augusta, he will need a better week with his approach play if he is to contend, as he currently sits 141st in SG: Approach the Green on the PGA Tour.

Tiger facing extinction?

Still the biggest name in a game he used to dominate, Tiger Woods’ participation in The Masters had been in doubt after he limped out of the Genesis Invitational. While we have focused on the course form, stats, or current form of other players, for the fifteen-time major winner, everything centres on his medical reports. Seemingly facing extinction, Tiger is a protected species at Augusta National; as a five-time Masters’ champion, he can prowl its grounds for as long as he is able to unleash a driver and hold a putter. Last week, he announced that, despite a plantar fasciitis problem, he expects to tee it up on Thursday.

Danny, the Champion of the World

Despite the strength of the home challenge, the 21st-Century Masters roll of honour has a very international look. Fourteen times since 2000, the title has stayed in the United States, including Tiger Woods securing four of his five Green Jackets, three wins for Phil Mickelson, and a brace for his fellow left-hander Bubba Watson. But nations as diverse as Fiji, Canada, Argentina, South Africa, Australia, Spain, and Japan have provided the winner during this century, and England’s Danny Willett triumphed in 2016.

Augusta is a place steeped in history, and recent history tells us that upsets at The Masters are almost as rare as seeing a blade of grass out of place on Augusta’s pristine lawns. When adding their names to the recent roll of honour, Rahm, Scheffler, Johnson, Woods, and Spieth were all among the market leaders. The other majors have seen their fair share of winners at three-figure prices, but Danny Willett’s triumph at 66/1 was about as close to an upset as The Masters has seen recently. Scheffler’s potent mix of course and current form sees him installed as the shortest-priced Masters favourite since Tiger Woods headed the 2013 market. So, can Scheffler warm up his putter and regain the title, or will Rory finally slip on a Green Jacket? Or will Hovland, Cantlay, Zalatoris, or Schauffele break their major maiden?

Georgia on my mind

The Masters is indeed the harbinger of spring, and the world’s golfing elite will all have Georgia on their minds over the coming days. Home to the textile industry after the US Civil War, Augusta is now all about one garment; a Green Jacket, and the player who can master Augusta will be wearing it on Sunday.