SB Nation’s 2016 Masters Preview

Who and what to root for at the 2016 Masters

by Brendan Porath

With almost 90 players, a long list of traditions and a course with deep history, understanding what to watch for and who to root for at the Masters can get confusing. We’re here to help with a few things you should look for and want at the 2016 Masters, and maybe a few you shouldn’t be thrilled about this year.

1. Rory McIlroy vs. Jordan Spieth

This is an obvious and tasty thing to root for that would make an already wonderful Sunday especially manic. Rory can join Jack Nicklaus, Tiger Woods, Ben Hogan, Gary Player and Gene Sarazen — the absolute legends — as the only players to win the career slam. He’s been close before but imploded in spectacular fashion at a course that would seem to suit many of his strengths.

Jordan can join Tiger, Jack and Nick Faldo as the only back-to-back winners in the 80-year history of the Masters. Two wins and a second place in his first three years at Augusta?

Tiger Woods unquestionably owned the era in which he played. But he and the second-biggest draw of his time, Phil Mickelson, almost never clashed at the same tournament. Tiger never had a rival, but we all at least wanted to see Phil and Tiger in contention exchanging blows at the same major. It did not happen to the great disappointment of fans, players, media and anyone else who cared about the game. We could now be entering a 20-year Rory-Jordan rivalry, but it’s greedy to expect that it will work out that way. Getting it so soon and at Augusta would make this Masters an all-time classic.

2. Phil Mickelson

Phil is the fan favorite around Augusta, but even if he’s not your vintage, it’s always more fun to have him around and playing meaningful golf on the weekend at the Masters. Bubba Watson may be the only golfer more creative and wild than Phil, but the older lefty conceives of every possible off-the-wall shot and then actually attempts it (unless his caddie Bones uses his limited veto power). It may end in disaster, it may end with a miracle, but it will be memorable or historic.

He will make his caddie take out the pin when’s he chipping from a stupid amount of yards away, just because he thinks it’s going in and that flagstick is going to get in the way. He’ll make a couple eagles and then give it away with some unnecessary attempt at a third. He’ll #FIGJAM all around Augusta, making wagers with fans, shooting mid-60s numbers and saying he left shots out there. He’ll tell you something ridiculous like he wore all black because “Studies have shown, like NFL teams, when they wear black they have more penalties, it just gets you to play more aggressive.” K.

Andrew Redington/Getty Images

Mickelson is now 45 years old and probably inching closer toward the sunset of his career. He has not won since the 2013 Open Championship, a Sunday round that was probably the best of his career. But Augusta is a place where he’s proven he can show up without his best form and still manage his way into contention on Sunday — he made a run last year, one of the worst seasons of his career. That familiarity and past success likely means he’ll contend at the Masters for several more years, but the way younger players keep hitting it farther and farther, the experience advantage may matter less and less.

Phil is playing much better than he was last year, finding a groove with new swing coach Andrew Getson, and coming into the Masters after an impressive first quarter of 2015. Even if you don’t want him to win, for entertainment purposes, you want him around on Sunday.

3. Going for it at the 13th hole

The back nine, or “second nine” as Augusta insists you call it, is the most famous stretch in golf. Even casual fans know the characteristics of almost every hole. You may have your favorite spot, and others may be more famous, but the 13th hole is where the action is on the weekend. It’s the first big opportunity to make a move, or crater fantastically trying to do so. The hole is not played anywhere close to how it was originally intended, with the modern player bombing drives around the corner. If you make a par, you’re losing ground. Everyone knows this and you’ll see the players turn it up trying to get a back nine run going with an eagle.

If you don’t draw it around the corner (or cut it if you’re a lefty, an advantage for Bubba and friends), you’ll run right through the fairway into the trees and the pine straw. That can result is disastrous hero ball attempts, or the rare legendary highlight like Mickelson’s snipe from the pine straw in 2010. You can overcook a drive and yank it into the woods or Rae’s Creek, which Tiger did last year with a memorable “oh my f***ing God.”

If you’re in the fairway, you almost always have to go for it in two — it’s undignified not to these days. But that often requires a laser into a slippery green with water in front and a mess of bunkers and Azalea bushes behind, which often result in some of the funnier sequences of the week — a player buried in flowers, his head peaking through and a swing that can barely be seen.

Even with a four-shot lead and just six holes to play, Jordan Spieth went for it last year and avoided any and all trouble.

Augusta National is exploring the purchase of land from abutting Augusta Country Club to move the tee back and lengthen the hole. That might put a halt to all the birdies and eagles that generate back nine movement here. But this year, we’ll have our field gunning for the green in two, often with success, and sometimes with catastrophe.

Layups at the 13th are grounds for throwing things at your TV in disgust.

4. Jason Day

Root for the favorite? The ultra-talented No. 1 player in the world with an enormous bank account? In a game of privilege, and at a course with ever-present reminders of that heritage of walled-off exclusivity, Day’s ascendance is unique and rare. He came from nothing, from the dirt in Queensland, Australia. His first club was pulled from a dump by his father, an alcoholic who beat the hell out of him. His dad died from stomach cancer when Jason was 12. Day then got lost in the streets, drinking heavily and brawling before he was even a teenager.

His mom took out a second mortgage and enlisted the help of an uncle to send him away to a boarding school. He became an elite golf prospect but considered giving up the game at various low points. So yes, he’s the best in the world right now, but his winning at a place like Augusta would be pretty damn great and a thing to root for.

5. Rickie Fowler

One of the good dudes in the game, who took a ton of crap for being nothing but a marketing face with off-course earnings that were not commensurate with his lack of on-course success. A poll of his peers voted him most overrated on Tour. That’s a dead story thanks to a 2015 Players Championship and three other worldwide wins against loaded fields. Finishing in the top five at all four majors in one calendar year (2014), which only Jack and Tiger had accomplished, also helped ease the pressure of what, at the time, was just one career PGA Tour win. We were skeptics and bought into the critiques of Rickie but he’s a legit top-five player in the world. Now, he just needs to get that major.

6. Rules drama!

The rules of golf are mostly inane and always confusing, but that doesn’t mean it’s not exciting when a rules problem comes up at a major championship. People start yelling at each other, everyone gets angry, the takes get hotter and analysts chide the players and/or enforcers. Remember Brandel Chamblee on Tiger’s drop at the 2013 Masters? “If he doesn’t disqualify himself, this will cast a dark shadow over … his entire career, for the rest of his life.”  Rules drama is always a mess and it’s always fun.

7. Kiradech Aphibarnrat

The “John Daly of Asia” maintains a nice paunch, might occasionally need to puff on a smoke on the course, and takes the club way past parallel with said paunch exposed for booming rips with the driver. There’s really nothing to not like about the “Barn Rat.” He’s making his first Masters appearance. Get to know him and root for him.

Ross Kinnaird/Getty Images

8. Honorary Starters

Cherish and enjoy the ceremonial first tee shot. There are only so many more years we get to hang with and watch Jack Nicklaus, Gary Player and Arnold Palmer together. Arnie will not take a swing this year, but he’s still supposed to be down there on the first tee presiding over the festivities and probably keeping Player in line, so he doesn’t just start challenging the patrons to push-up contests. Wake up early Thursday morning and catch this.

9. Marc Leishman

You may not know anything about Leishman, but you should root for him at this year’s Masters. In 2015, Leishman was the rare healthy scratch at Augusta. Players almost never, ever turn down an invite, but Leishman had to bolt from the grounds last year when his wife, Audrey, became sick. She suffered from acute respiratory distress syndrome and toxic shock syndrome, and Leishman would later say that doctors gave her a 5 percent chance to live. Audrey survived, and Leishman returned to golf, nearly winning The Open at St. Andrews. The Aussie has returned to Augusta in 2016, and backing Leishman and his family at Augusta is an easy decision.

10. Tom Watson

One of the many unique things about Augusta is that lifetime exemption all winners receive. It can get ugly as they get older and older, but they still technically hold that invite. Either the player doesn’t want to embarrass himself and is ready to call it quits, or the club gently asks that they step aside. Craig Stadler and Ben Crenshaw have each wrapped it up over the past two years, and now it’s Tom Watson’s turn to be feted in his final competitive spin around Augusta.

Watson suffered a recent late career indignity as the Ryder Cup captain in 2014, and that sucked up too much of the discussion about what is inarguably a legendary career. His final week at Augusta and the traditional standing ovation at the 18th (hopefully on Sunday and not Friday) will set that aside. Root for Watson to make the cut on a course that’s outgrown his game.

Harry How/Getty Images

11. Eagles on 15

The Masters is such a good watch because the actual golf is not drudgery, which can be the case at the majors. It’s not beholden to some notion of punishing the players and wanting the winning score to end up around even-par. The US Open can become a bore and difficult to watch because of this, but the Masters is fine with birdies and eagles and big Sunday charges and leaderboard movement.

Like the par-5 13th, the par-5 15th is iconic for this reason. It’s where so many weekend moves were ignited or evaporated. It’s easy to reach in two, but there’s water in front and even behind the green, which can be difficult to avoid with longer iron approach shots. We want eagles on the 15th. We want moves made, crowds erupting and charges at the leaders playing behind at Amen Corner.

12. An odd-numbered field for the weekend

You want an odd number of players to make the cut because that means Jeff Knox will get the call. Knox is a legend in golf nerd circles. He’s the guy they bring in as a non-competing marker. He’s there to play as a partner with the odd-man out, who has the first tee time on Saturday and Sunday morning. You don’t have an option of declining the marker, who is there to keep a general pace of play and help keep score.

Knox is not a pro and his score does not count, but that does not mean he’s some chop spraying it all over the course. He’s an Augusta member who holds the course record, a 61, from the members tees and probably knows the greens better than anyone in the world. He often beats the pros he plays with, including Rory McIlroy two years ago and Sergio Garcia, who allegedly refused to shake Knox’s hand after he took money off him. He started hitting his tee shots past Miguel Angel Jimenez after the Spaniard specifically requested that he not do so. He’s beaten Masters champions and given them advice.

His profile really skyrocketed when he won a bet against and beat McIlroy. Knox has become a weekend tradition and you want him there pouring in putts on the weekend.

13. Hideki Matsuyama

There’s nothing prettier than watching Hideki stripe his irons and driver. It’s so often a direct line with no curve, fade, draw, bend or slice. The ball just goes right down the line he wants it to. They need a ProTracer machine to follow his every shot. He finished fifth last year and, still just 24 years old, is a good bet to become the first player from Asia to win the green jacket. Hideki needs more hype.

100. Bubba Watson

Bubba is a creative genius and can be thrilling to watch play golf in a vacuum. And he may be your kind of guy, too, and we’re very sorry to hear that.

101. Tiger Woods’ return to the 2016 Masters

Take your time, Tiger. You said you’re not going to rush this and that doing so has cost you in the past with this same back issue. We know you think you can show up at Augusta and win with almost no practice or preparation, but you weren’t going to do it this year. We want Tiger playing many more Masters, so giving away 2016 for future gains was the right move.

102. CBS

We know what to expect from the broadcast at this point. There’s almost no commercials, which is a drastic departure from the abominable weekly PGA Tour coverage that CBS has taken a beating for all year. This is a well-oiled machine, and we embrace Jim Nantz’s embrace of every stereotype out there about him. He’s great. But low marks for losing David Feherty, whose voice will be missed at Augusta.

103. Shanks

No one wants to see this … I mean, just look at it, and look at it again, and maybe loop it a few more times. You can’t root for this.

Poor Webb Simpson.