Ranking the 2014 Masters rookies as the search for the next Tiger Woods intensifies

Greg M. Cooper-USA TODAY Sports

The rookie crop is deep at this year's Masters, a potential transitional year with Tiger Woods absent for the first time.

If you don't include Horton Smith, who won the very first Masters in 1934, only one first-time invitee has ever won the season's first major -- Fuzzy Zoeller in 1979. Given that it's the only major where the venue does not change, there's a distinct advantage to having some course knowledge and past tournament experience at Augusta. The rookies can make a few headlines, but they never end up winning the green jacket.

With Tiger Woods gone, this seems like a good year to try and figure out where the next golf great is coming from. There will never be another Tiger, but there's a deep bench of young players and prospects who have made it harder than ever to win a major championship. Several of these guys, hailed as some of the heir-apparent American golfers, are among this year's group of Masters rookies. Jordan Spieth has the most hype, and an impressive record at just 20-years old, but there are other options out there just as compelling this week. Here's my ranking of the rookies who have the best chance to contend, and make a run in their first Masters.

Getting past Tiger

1. Harris English (World Rank: No. 36)

The former Georgia Bulldog continues his ascent towards the top of American golf this season. English was hailed as one of golf's top prospects for a few years, and got on the board with his first win last June in Memphis. He added a second victory during the fall series event at Mayakoba to join a select group of players under 25 with multiple PGA Tour wins.

In the 2013-14 wraparound season, English has made the cut in all 13 events he's entered, has six top 10 finishes, and nine top 25s. English crushes the ball and has the natural talent to be a multiple-major winner. Big things are expected. Even though Augusta is different than your regular weekly Tour event, it will be a shock if this bomber does not make the cut. It's much more likely he's hovering somewhere near the first page of the leaderboard come Sunday.

2. Graham DeLaet (World Rank: No. 30)

The Canadian has been in the headlines recently not for his game, but rather his back surgery expertise. He had the same surgery as Tiger Woods, and it cost him nearly his entire 2011 season so everyone wants to hear from him.

Since that injury, however, DeLaet has become one of the most consistent players in the world. He ranked first in total driving and tied for first in ball-striking last year, and while those stats have their flaws, he's undeniably one of the best in the world tee-to-green. Despite all the contentions (five top 10s this year, 7 last year), DeLaet has yet to win on the PGA Tour. This is just his third major ever, but he distinguished himself under Presidents Cup pressure and his game, and almost year-long form now, make him one of the top first-timers this week.

3. Jordan Spieth (World Rank: No. 13)

Spieth is the biggest rookie name this week -- can he approach a Tiger Woods type statement in his debut? He's the American answer to Rory McIlroy right now, the next big thing in golf to take over in the post-Tiger era.

Spieth became the first teenager to win on Tour in more than 80 years last July, the highlight of a season that he started without a PGA Tour card. Following that win, he contended at the British Open through Sunday and played well all the way through the FedExCup to snatch a Presidents Cup spot from the more established regulars.

We've heard about Spieth since he made noise at the Byron Nelson as a 16-year old, and now he takes the biggest stage in golf. Spieth is no longer an untested teenager, with repeated contentions and plenty of rounds with the biggest superstars in the biggest events. He's been inconsistent at times this year, swinging from rounds in the mid-70s to charges back up the board. Last week's missed cut in Houston, his first of the year, is probably not much to worry about. There would be some symmetry to Spieth making a move at his first Masters in the first Tiger-less edition in 20 years. That story would be hammered into our head Sunday if the chance is there.

Spieth_medium

Jordan Spieth at the Shell Houston Open/Photo: Scott Halleran

4. Patrick Reed (World Rank: No. 23)

I fully expect Reed to be there on the weekend and have a tee time later in the day on Sunday. His post round comments after the win at Doral have suddenly overwhelmed the merits of his actual play, consistency and record. He said he was a top 5 player in the world, threw his name in the same sentence as Tiger Woods, and the huffy response became the most notable moment of his season.

But Reed is an Augusta State alum who's played the course plenty of times. This will be an entirely different setting, of course, but he doesn't seem to care what the event is and at 23-years-old, he probably is better suited to grip-and-rip it at this point. There's no weight of a majorless career, and it's hard to imagine Reed deviating much from his recent form to miss the cut or be a non-factor.

5. Jimmy Walker (World Rank: No. 24)

The current FedExCup points leader has cooled off a bit since his Pebble Beach win in February, but that's verrrry relative to the pace he set prior to that. Walker still hasn't missed a cut since Torrey Pines, making the weekend in 12 of 13 events this season. His three wins make him a lock for the FedExCup and probably the Ryder Cup.

Another Butch Harmon protege, Walker has gotten healthy and figured it out over the past year. He played his first major all way back in 2001 at the U.S. Open, but after injuries and a wander in the wilderness, this week is just his sixth major championship start. He missed the cut in the last two majors of 2013, and the critics say his three wins came at lesser events with watered-down fields. But it's hard to see him flaming out and missing the cut, and he's got a game suitable enough for Augusta, even if he's a rookie.

6. Billy Horschel (World Rank: No. 49)

The Florida Gator is firmly entrenched among the best American golfers, and his work at the U.S. Open at Merion made a major impression. But he's a bit temperamental and susceptible to big swings and crooked numbers. There's too much talent, however, for him to miss the cut.

7. Victor Dubuisson (World Rank: No. 21)

A player we barely knew prior to early February, when the Frenchman hit the greatest back-to-back recovery shots in the history of golf. Those two chops out of the Arizona desert, and his overwhelming Frenchness, made Dubuisson a curious sensation.

Dubuisson_medium

But he was awesome against the loaded match play field, and his short game and recoverability makes him an instant factor at Augusta. For me, he's just still too much of an unknown. I hope he's around because he's among the most entertaining players in the field.

8. Chris Kirk (World Rank: No. 53)

The Georgia resident finally got his win in the fall series, but aside from a T12 at the Honda, he hasn't really been a factor since early January at the Sony Open. It would be a fairly dramatic turn from recent results for Kirk to push his way near the top of the leaderboard by Sunday.

9. Stephen Gallacher (World Rank: No. 38)

Playing with Tiger Woods and Rory McIlroy through the first two rounds in Dubai, Gallacher emerged successfully as the unheralded third wheel to defend his title at the Euro Tour's signature Middle East event. A solid T6 at Doral also makes him an intriguing longshot option, as he's clearly gunning to make an impression and lock up a Euro Ryder Cup spot.

10. Joost Luiten (World Rank: No. 45)

This is just his third major stateside, but his record in Europe is pretty amazing. He also played well at Doral, and while he's relatively unknown in the U.S., he gets results every single week across the pond.

11. Brendon de Jonge (World Rank: No. 80)

The Zimbabwean punched his ticket by making the final 30 of the FedExCup finale last September. He performed well on the stage of the Presidents Cup, and rarely misses a cut. But he has yet to win on the PGA Tour.

12. Kevin Stadler (World Rank: No. 60)

His win at Phoenix ensured we'd get the first ever father-son duo in the same Masters. It's an awesome story, but he hasn't played particularly well since that victory in early February. Does he have an advantage by being able to work with his Dad to get any additional course knowledge? Not really.

Stadler_duo_medium

Craig and Kevin Stadler at Augusta National -- Hary How/Getty

13. Matt Jones (World Rank: No. 41)

He's got the form and some onions, as we saw in his unrelenting pursuit of Matt Kuchar to pull off that miracle six-shot comeback in Houston on Sunday. With all the last minute travel changes and the fireworks of last week, you have to wonder whether he's overwhelmed at this point and running on fumes. That would not be a good place for your first competitive test at Augusta.

14. Jonas Blixt (World Rank: No. 56)

Earned entry by winning at the Greenbrier Championship. He contended late into the day on Sunday at the PGA Championship along with fellow Swede Henrik Stenson, but his game this season is pretty shaky, including two straight missed cuts coming into this week.

15. Matt Every (World Rank: No. 42)
Matt Every/Photo: John David Mercer

Enters riding the high of his first career win at Bay Hill, but he has almost no major championship record to lean on despite his hype as a top prospect several years ago. He could just be getting a late start on a big career, but I don't expect much this week.

16. Steven Bowditch (World Rank: No. 131)

In a similar spot to Every (coming off his first ever win), Bowditch does have the world-class chipping and short game integral for success at Augusta. If he gets hot and drains a few with the wedges, like he did at the Texas Open, he may make an appearance on the first page of the leaderboard.

17. Roberto Castro (World Rank: No. 87)

He's in the field thanks to a successful FedExCup run to the final Tour Championship in his hometown of Atlanta. Castro is another Georgia Tech guy, but the record and results in 2014 don't inspire confidence for the week.

18. Derek Ernst (World Rank: No. 168)

Riding the wave of that out-of-nowhere win at Quail Hollow, that's really his one fleeting moment of success right now. It's, uh, not been good since last May, and he'll need to grind just to make the cut.

Amateurs

There are six amateurs in the field, and none have played the Masters before this year. The amateurs this week are the usual mix of international prospects, save for McCoy, a 50-year-old Am who finally made it to Augusta.

Amateurs
Matthew Fitzpatrick (U.S. Amateur champion)
Oliver Goss (U.S. Amateur runner-up)
Chang-woo Lee (Asia-Pacific amateur champion)
Michael McCoy (U.S. Mid-Amateur champion)
Jordan Niebrugge (U.S. Am Public Links champion)
Garrick Porteous (British Amateur champion)

For the amateurs, making the cut is usually the goal. Occasionally, a player will make a push toward the top 25 and we'll hear all about how proud Bobby Jones would be to see him performing so well for no money. Fitzpatrick was the first Englishman to win the U.S. Amateur since 1911, and then promptly left Northwestern before his college career got off the ground. You never know what to expect from the amateurs, but Fitzpatrick did show he can compete at the major championships with his T44 finish at the British Open. But this set of first-timers is truly just happy to be there, and hoping to play all four rounds.

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