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The Masters is officially here. The only things we’re waiting for are Jim Nantz’s soft welcome (sorry ESPN, your overproduced pieces don’t do it for me), generous panoramas of the rolling fairways and blooming trees of Augusta National, and, of course, Tiger Woods.
We’ll get two out of three, anyway. With recent back surgery, Tiger will miss The Masters for the first time as a professional. For fantasy gamers, it might be a blessing in disguise; TW has been a big fat enigma burrito this year, and now we know why… and we aren’t forced to HAVE to pick him this week.
Instead, the field at Augusta National (ANGC) is fairly wide open. This year’s event presents several challenges, however:
1. None of the top players in the world have won much of anything recently. Bubba Watson won the Northern Trust back in February, Jason Day won the Match Play, and… ummm… yeah, no other ‘big’ names have won this calendar year. Although ‘Chesson Hadley’ sounds like a big name. Several of our favorite super heroes have even blown leads (McIlroy, Kuchar x2, Scott, Dufner, Mahan, etc.). The ‘good form’ criteria for this week is somewhat out the window, and historically it doesn’t mean too much at ANGC anyway.
2. Many of the top players are, or have been, sick or hurt. Day, Phil Mickelson, Justin Rose, Dustin Johnson, Henrik Stenson, Watson, Mahan… the list of recent withdrawals from tournaments is as long as Lindsay Lohan’s rap sheet. The thought of Lefty being one swing away from another surge of back pain isn’t exactly calming for gamers.
3. With all the Masters newcomers in 2014, will one of them break through? Roughly 25% of this year’s field has never played The Masters. The last person to win at ANGC in his first Masters appearance was… wait for it… Fuzzy Zoeller in 1979. Not exactly a lot of precedence here, but there are some fresh names to seriously ponder.
Throw into consideration what the boys at Birdie Wire have put out there: that in the last four years, of those with a tee time before 9:00 a.m. only 10% have finished in the top 10 (and only two winners). It could be coincidence, it could be that the consistent lengthening of the course over the last decade makes it play that much more difficult for those early risers when the dew is still fresh – making them have to dig out of a hole.
So where does that leave us? First, and most important, today’s ANGC rewards length even more than it used to. Over the last decade (10 events, 8 different winners), Zach Johnson was the only victor who wasn’t a long hitter. They may have successfully ‘Tiger-proofed’ the course, but there’s no question that it takes a big tee ball to carry to the landing areas and be able to consistently attack ANGC’s hole locations. Maybe this plays into the Birdie Wire theory also, but it's clear power is still king on Magnolia Lane.
Another trend is that the scoring at ANGC has steadily gotten higher. Mickelson’s 272 (-16) was the winner in 2010, 274 in 2011 (Schwartzel), 278 in 2012 (Watson), and 279 last year with Adam Scott. Some of that is due to weather, but it’s also that the course is harder than in the 1990’s/early 2000’s when it typically took something well under 278 to win. In most instances, higher scoring brings more players into the mix, but also means the best should rise to the top come Sunday. When the winning score creeps above 280, guys like Mike Weir, Trevor Immelman and Zach Johnson can win. The weather should be perfect this week, so we’ll see if this scoring pattern is truly a trend or a blip on the Magnolia trees.
I’ve broken my rankings into four tiers: 1) The players I’m rolling with in our Masters Pick-6 contest ($25 to play, winner gets $1,000), 2) the six ‘next bests’, or guys I couldn’t quite pull the trigger on, 3) the ‘ugh, I have no idea what to expect from these guys but I wouldn’t be surprised to see them contend’, and 4) the sleeper picks.
Tee times and pairings can be found here. Lots of great groups, as always. Onto the picks and commentary:
Tier 1: My Picks
1. Rory McIlroy. He’s not hurt. He’s had success here. He bombs it. He’s playing well. Everything seems lined up for Rors this week – or at least he hasn’t had a better opportunity to date to prey on a Masters field.
2. Adam Scott. The collapse at Bay Hill isn’t too concerning to me – he fell apart over the weekend at Tampa Bay last year before winning The Masters in his next event. And he’s been great here the last four years: Win in 2013, T8 in 2012, T2 in 2011, T18 in in 2010. He and Rory are Kobe Beef in a field of filet mignon and sirloin. Tiger was the last to successfully defend in 2001-02.
3. Jason Day. A bit of a risk with his inflamed thumb, but he’s been in the top three here twice in the last three years and gears everything towards this event. If fully healthy would likely be the odds-on favorite.
4. Matt Kuchar. Should be around the top 10. Due to win a major. This will be his eighth Masters, and he’s been in the top eight the last two years.
5. Harris English. His game should be a perfect fit for ANGC, and he played the course once a year while at the University of Georgia. He bombs it and should be able to attack holes that half the field can’t. Someone always ends up in the top 10 who you don’t expect, such as Leishman/Olesen (2013), Hanson (2012), Van Pelt/Palmer (2011), Campbell/Perry (2009), etc.
6. Phil Mickelson. Three-time winner who says he’s ready to roll. (I’ve heard that speech before, Phil!) I hate to leave him off my squad, but the combo of his health ailments and NO top-10’s this year gives me pause… actually, his results this year look a lot like 2010, when he won by three shots. So what the heck, give me some Lefty in a field full of question marks! He’s won each of his Masters in even-numbered years, too (2004, 2006, 2010)… just sayin’.
Tier 2: “Missed it by THAT much”
Henrik Stenson. A win could take him to No. 1 in the world, but he doesn’t have a great track record here: only three top-18 finishes and nothing inside the top 10.
Dustin Johnson. The 80 and subsequent WD from Houston from the sniffles (or 'bad back') was a little worrisome, but at least he got a couple of rounds in over the weekend in good weather. The bottom line is that he just hasn’t performed as well as he should have at this event over the years. Never in contention.
Jason Dufner. Starting to play well, has been in the top 25 both trips to Augusta. But that putting stroke still scares the beejeezus out of me.
Charl Schwartzel. Has really been pretty good this season, only missing the cut at Honda and all top-20’s otherwise.
Patrick Reed. I think the Augusta State University grad has plenty to play for this week in his first major -- his pairing with Jordan Spieth and Rory McIlroy aside -- and I think he’ll do well. Winning a WGC event obviously did a lot for his confidence. But what I like most is that he’s won in multiple types of events over the last eight months: birdie barrage (Humana, -28), tough conditions (WGC/Doral, -4) and a little mix of both (Wyndham, -14). He has the distance to contend. It's a good thing they don't award a Masters hat to the champ -- they'd have a hard time fitting it over his head if he were to win.
Zach Johnson. Has probably played the most consistent golf over the longest stretch of anyone you’d consider picking – he hasn’t missed a cut since the 2013 US Open, and has 10 top-10’s and two wins since. He’s becoming a regular contender in all majors, too.
Bubba Watson. In no way do I ever feel comfortable when I have Bubba on my team. Anything is possible, and I actually think he’ll play well this week after WD’ing from Bay Hill. His length and creativity are huge advantages at ANGC, but I just don’t know what to expect this week. Pass.
Sergio Garcia. See Watson, Bubba. We’ll call him ‘El Bubba.’ He’s been a fixture in the top 10 this season and has a fine record (two top-12’s) here the last five years. Not a bad pick and he will be a popular choice this week.
Ian Poulter. Last Thursday I was loving the way he was trending heading into The Masters, where he’s had multiple top 10’s. But then he shot 77 on Friday – his eighth round of 75 or higher on the year – and I had to take a deep breath. He hasn’t exactly been ‘gutting out’ the rounds that aren’t going his way. Side note: if Poults actually won, how long do you think it would take for him to line the inside of his Masters jacket with some sort of pink-and-yellow chiffon pattern and try to market it to the masses? Billy Payne would have him 'disappeared.'
Tier 3: “No Idea What to Expect”
Hunter Mahan. How injured is he? I liked Mahan in my top six until he WD’d from Bay Hill and slapped it around Houston (T31). Gahhhhhh.
Graeme McDowell. Lots of MC’s here between a couple of top-17 finishes. But he has been in the top 10 in four of five events in 2014.
Justin Rose. Injury. Poor play. Hard to see him pulling the car back between the lines this week.
Brandt Snedeker. He showed some flashes at Bay Hill (T8), but his game is inconsistent these days. ANGC usually brings the best out in Sneds, however.
Keegan Bradley. Highwater mark of 27th here in 2012, but has the game for ANGC, there’s no doubt. He’s almost TOO intense for the Southern gentleness of The Masters, it seems. Really flying under the radar at the moment, but a solid moneymaker.
Bill Haas. Almost unbelievably unusable in majors. But if he’s going to win one, it will be The Masters – he hasn’t missed a cut here in four attempts, although last year’s T20 was his best finish. Has the total game to compete here, but when will it happen?
Jordan Spieth. His three majors as a professional to date: MC (US Open), T44 (British), MC (PGA). I need to see more of a track record before recommending him on golf's biggest stage.
Tier 4: “Sleepers”
Angel Cabrera. Does he really count as a sleeper? Probably not. The 2009 winner and 2013 runner-up has a ridiculously good record here, but he’s usually a forgotten man among the masses of Grade A players. Bomber and high-ball hitter who takes risks, and ANGC usually rewards him.
Rickie Fowler. T38 here last year after a disappointing 78 in the final round (even par would’ve meant a top 5). Hasn’t missed a Masters cut in three attempts.
Jamie Donaldson. Missed the cut last year in his first attempt, but has the game to contend and has shown well in the States, including a T2 at Doral last month.
Victor Dubuisson. A Frenchman in a green jacket? It’s not out of the realm of possibilities. He bombs it and has the soft touch needed around ANGC’s greens. If he wins, 2015 will be the most well-attended Champions Dinner in recent history… unless he decides to serve escargot. Bubba would probably skip that (unless them snails are fried!).
Hideki Matsuyama. He's 2/2 in cuts made here in his young career, but more impressive was his run in the majors last year: T10 (US Open), T6 (British), T19 (PGA). Another player who seems to be afflicted by the injury bug, but he's a power player with a nose for the big events.
Player to avoid: Lee Westwood. He has a great record in this event and will be a popular pick, but his recent form is not good. In years in which he’s finished inside the top 10 at ANGC (three of the last four years), he’s had at least two top-10’s in prior tournaments that year. This year he’s played more than ever before and his best finish is a T17 last week in Houston. I’m not feeling it.
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Photo: USA Today Sports Images