It's Sunday at the Masters, and we have as good a set of leaders and storylines as we could have hoped for on a weekend with no Tiger Woods or Phil Mickelson. There are nine players at 2-under or better, and two sitting on top at 5-under. The final round of the Masters is typically so dramatic because the course can yield those low rounds, creating lots of movement and shuffling on the leaderboard. Unlike the other majors in a typical year, Augusta presents a player with multiple birdie and even eagle chances to make a comeback.
Sitting at the top, however, are three world-class American players who have separated themselves as the clear favorites with the oddsmakers. Here's my attempt at ranking the first page of the leaderboard at the start of the final round, and sorting their chances of winning the 2014 Masters.
1. Matt Kuchar - 4-under, T3, 2:30 p.m. ET -- 4/1 odds
In our roundtable of picks and predictions on Wednesday, I took Kuchar to win it and there's no way I'm abandoning him now. It's his time.
Kuchar's been a top-10 player in the world for a few years now. He never misses a cut and rarely finishes outside the top 20. The consistency has earned him tons of cash (and the money title in 2010), but he's yet to convert at the majors. He's in form, playing in the final pairing on Sunday the last two weeks in Texas, and he knows how to play every shot at Augusta.
I thought his chances were about to be washed away on No. 15 yesterday, but he hit the shot of the week, a delicate pitch from behind the green to a shortsided pin on a downhill slope at the back of the putting surface. A Golf Channel commentator said Saturday night that you couldn't walk up to the green with the ball in your hand, drop it, and get any closer to the hole. That seemed like a turning point for Kuchar, who drilled the birdie putt, turning a disaster into actually gaining ground on the field.
He's got a history here, dating back to his low amateur honors in 1998, when we first heard his name and started to figure out he'd be a mainstay on Tour. He's got two top-10 finishes the last two years, and now the progression will deliver him his first major. It makes sense for that to happen at Augusta.
2. Bubba Watson - 5-under, T1, 2:40 p.m. -- 10/3 odds
I'm going to forget what happened Saturday with the putter. He's currently the oddsmakers' favorite, and through the first two days, it looked like Bubba would overwhelm the field and run away with his second green jacket. It was going to be tough to keep that pace, but Saturday was disconcerting from the first hole through his last par-saving putt on the 18th. The two three-putts and several shaky strokes slowly overtook all the positive shots we'd seen through two days.
And still, he's got so many advantages on the rest of the players around him. It pays to be a lefty at the modern Augusta layout. The golf ball no longer spins as much, and it's easier for a lefty to hit a fade (right to left flight for them) while the righties work to get some spin on it and draw it at Augusta. Bubba stands on the tee and just bombs away, setting up short irons into greens for birdie and eagle chances. What happens up on the green will be the difference -- his long game has been no issue all week. If he putts somewhere between the nerviness of Saturday and the steadiness of the first two rounds, he'll win again. The familiarity with the course setup and how it suits his length off the tee and shotmaking from the fairway give him the advantage.
3. Jordan Spieth - 5-under, T1, 2:40 p.m. -- 7/2 odds
It's an incredible run for the 20-year-old, sleeping on the 54-hole lead in his first Masters. Everyone is ready to write the story of the youngest player ever to win the Masters taking the green jacket when Tiger's gone for the first time in 20 years. I'm obviously convinced of his talent, ability and chances to win but have a preference for the two veterans ahead of him. A victory would keep a quirky Masters trend going:
1963, Nicklaus became youngest Masters champ. Seve did it 17 years later. Tiger 17 years after that. Spieth would be 17 years after Woods.— Justin Ray (@JRayESPNGolf) April 12, 2014
Spieth has exceeded our expectations each and every month since he turned pro at the start of last year. He began his career with no card and ranking in the 800s in the OWGR. By July, he had a win, the first by a teenager on Tour in over 80 years. That earned him full-time status, and he continued to climb, contending at the British Open through Sunday, rolling through the FedExCup all the way to the finals, taking one of 12 Presidents Cup spots, and coming to his first Masters inside the top 15 in the world rankings.
He was always going to be a top prospect, ever since that showing at the Byron Nelson when he was 16 years old. He's always won, in juniors, as an amateur, at UT and now as a pro. The progression was always quicker than we expected, faster than everyone else, and now he's going to play the biggest round of his life trying to break another age barrier.
Getting past Tiger
Getting past Tiger
Spieth said on Saturday he controlled his "mental game" the "best of his life," and good lord is he going to have to do that on Sunday. All three rounds so far have been steady just under-par grinds. He's not broken 70 or gone on some flashy birdie run. If he wins, it may come from just hanging on, maybe getting to 6-under and watching all the others around him recede.
4. Jonas Blixt - 4-under, T3, 2:30 p.m. ET -- 10/1 odds
He's become a trendy pick on Sunday morning. Blixt, another rookie, seems unaware of the pressure he should be under and what's on the line at Augusta. The winner last year at Greenbrier, he hadn't been in top form in the first quarter of this year so it's a bit of a surprise to see him so high up the leaderboard on Sunday. A win would just be another 2014 high for Florida State fans, who should have enough to rest on at this point.
A Swedish male has never won a major, while Annika dominated the women's game. Most assumed Henrik Stenson, or a Peter Hanson, would be the first to get it but Blixt is going to play Sunday's back nine as the country's best shot at its first Masters. He really doesn't seem affected by the circumstance and setting. Blixt can rip it and is obviously talented, and I think he's the best choice outside of the top three Americans.
5. Lee Westwood - 2-under, T7, 2:10 p.m. -- 12/1 odds
The last four years, Westwood has finished 2nd, 11th, 3rd and 8th at the Masters. "Horses for courses" would be the golf cliche to describe Westwood's work at Augusta and he'll be in the top 10 again. At 40 years old, it seems like he should have multiple majors titles by now.
A former No. 1 in the world, he hasn't been playing his best golf in the past 8 months but here he is again in contention on Sunday at the Masters. Maybe chasing from behind and a few pegs down the leaderboard will suit him better, but it's still hard to tab Westwood as the winner with all of that major championship Sunday baggage. He may be the best ball-striker on the leaderboard, but his putter is totally untrustworthy, especially in the final round of a major. It will be another close call for the major-less Englishman.
6. Rickie Fowler - 3-under, T5, 2:20 p.m. -- 9/1 odds
Fowler takes some shots for his prodigious marketing earnings and ubiquitous commercial spots, which critics say are disproportionate to his one career win. I spoke with Fowler a little earlier this year, and he told me winning the green jacket would mean more than any tournament victory. It's his fourth Masters and his tweaked swing under Butch Harmon has come into shape at just the right moment. Fowler reportedly played a practice round this week that featured nine birdies and an eagle. That won't be doable with Sunday's pin locations, but he's the kind of player who can get hot and quickly close a deficit. The results seem to be improving for Fowler under Tiger's old coach, and a major is likely in the future. But there's a lot of firepower around and ahead him this Sunday.
7. Miguel Angel Jimenez - 3-under, T5, 2:20 p.m. -- 16/1 odds
The Mechanic might be the most popular win in the locker room and among golf writers. He's the most entertaining player on the leaderboard, if not the in the entire field. I chronicled how his profile has rocketed in recent years and how the "most interesting golfer in the world" moniker has stuck to the Spaniard. The 50-year old will play in the senior tour event next week, but he's still competitive with and better than most of the young bombers. The Saturday round of 66 was the lowest of the week at the Masters, and he'll probably need to get into the 60s again to chase down the leaders and keep pace. It's tough to see him replicating that hot round, but Miguel continues to surprise us at his advanced age. Here's hoping he wins, so we can all smoke fine cigars and get drunk on Rioja.
Photo: Ross Kinnaird
8. Jim Furyk - 2-under, T7, 2:10 p.m. -- 20/1 odds
Much like Jimenez, Furyk continues to plug away and contend week-to-week as he gets up there in age. Furyk should absolutely have another major on top of his 2003 U.S. Open title, but Sunday stumbles at recent U.S. Opens, PGA Championships and Ryder Cups have dominated the discussion around Furyk. Those recent slip-ups under pressure stick in the front of your mind and he got within a shot of the lead on Saturday before similarly getting loose coming into the clubhouse. A water ball and bogey at the easiest scoring hole on the course, No. 15, and a bogey to wrap up on No. 18 is the kind of recent stuff that makes you too nervous to take him as a comeback winner.
9. Thomas Bjorn - 2-under, T7, 2:00 p.m. -- 30/1 odds
Another veteran who's playing the best golf of his life at 43 years old, according to Euro Tour experts. Bjorn was getting to the age where he should be captaining the Euro teams in competitive events, but he's probably going to be a member of the Euro side in the Ryder Cup. Bjorn's best finish at Augusta is a T18, way back in 2002. So despite his recent form, and top-30 world ranking, it's still a surprise to see him inside the top 10 on Sunday. He's another player who momentarily got a share of the lead on Saturday, but some nervy shots and a water ball coming into the clubhouse pushed him back down the board.
There are, of course, players outside of the top 9 and starting at 1-under or worse who are capable of winning on Sunday. The great thing about the Masters is that it's not a total slog, with birdie and eagle chances scattered on both the first and second nine. As we saw Bubba pull off on Friday, you can hit a birdie streak, make an eagle or two at 13 and 15, and quickly put yourself in the conversation.
From the group outside the top 9, Justin Rose at 1-under, Gary Woodland at even-par, and Ian Poulter at even-par are the most likely to make those runs. We saw Woodland match the first nine record on Saturday, so he can overwhelm the par-5s with his length and get hot. Rose has been injured this year, but is getting back to his U.S. Open-winning form. And Poulter is someone who's made charges like this before, making birdies on his first five holes at the 2012 PGA Championship to come from way down and put a scare in Rory McIlroy. If he gets the putter running hot, he'll make a move.
One of the reasons Sunday at the Masters is so good is that the course opens up so many possibilities. It's not a march of attrition like the U.S. Open, where the only movement is deep tumbles down the leaderboard. There will be momentary challengers who come from behind, but I expect the winner to come from those first three Americans, and more specifically, Matt Kuchar to get the green jacket.