SB Nation’s 2016 Masters Preview

Can Jordan Spieth go back-to-back, and other Masters picks and predictions

It’s easy and all too common to say the Masters is "wide open" this year. It’s golf and the favorites don’t often beat a field of 90 or so players. This year, the best in the world have all played well in the first quarter of the year. Rory McIlroy is the only player in the top six of the Official World Golf Rankings without a win, but he’s played well in stretches, too. He remains, perhaps, the most naturally talented player in golf. With all the best playing well, there are plenty of options for picks and predictions this year. SB Nation golf contributors discussed some of this year’s top storylines and made their picks.

Who is your dark horse pick?

Brendan Porath: It’s painful to write, but I can get behind Ian Poulter at 125/1. The temptation in choosing a dark horse deep down the odds list is to go with a rookie — the younger guys, who are less known but hyped in trendy golf circles. We want those guys to breakout and expect big things, but it just rarely happens with rookies at the Masters. Only three rookies have won a green jacket in the 79 editions of the tournament, the last coming 39 years ago with Fuzzy Zoeller. Rookies these days are hailed for being more prepared and in better shape, and they’re obviously competing at Augusta. But Jordan Spieth and his T2 finish two years ago are in a separate class. So, as much as I love the value of Emiliano Grillo, Andy Sullivan and Kevin Kisner, I’m going to go with Poulter. He has struggled over the past year but he nearly won in Puerto Rico two weeks ago — admittedly, a weaker opposite-field event. There’s value in 125/1 and he’s got three top 10s in his last six Masters starts, including a T6 last year.

Kyle Robbins: Rafa Cabrera-Bello at 200/1 is money you can’t miss. It pains this Sergio fanboy to say it, but Rafa might be Spain’s next-best shot at a major. He’s hitting more greens and putting better than ever, and he’s got the greens in regulation (GIR) and putts-per-round numbers to show for it. Add to that some nice finishes in strong fields both stateside and worldwide, don’t be shocked if he’s hanging around the bottom of the first page of the leaderboard come Sunday — that is, if he keeps the ball between Augusta’s tree lines off the tee.

Emily Kay: Justin Thomas. A definite long shot since only three Augusta rookies have won the Masters, but Jordan Spieth’s longtime BFF may have an edge that others don’t: advice from the dad of a Roll Tide National Championship golf teammate, Jeff Knox. As an Augusta resident, Augusta National member who owns the course record from the member tees (61) and weekend marker for the tournament, Knox outplayed Rory McIlroy in the 2014 event. So, a good brain to pick heading into his Augusta debut.

Mark Sandritter: I’ll take Marc Leishman at 60/1. Maybe he can recapture the magic he found and then rode to a T4 finish three years ago.

Trevor Reaske: Tiger Woods (currently 80/1)? Totally kidding.

I was actually surprised to see Sergio Garcia listed at 50/1. I know this is Sergio we are talking about and he is tough to trust at majors, but maybe this is his year to make a run. He ranks ninth on Tour in GIR and fourth in scoring average.

Which big name, or names, are you worried about flaming out and missing the weekend?

Trevor Reaske: Tiger Woods? Okay, I’ll stop.

Honestly, I am not worried about anyone. The best in the world are all playing great golf right now. It would be surprising to see any of the world’s top 10 stumble this week.

Brendan Porath: It’s not always fun predicting failure, but Lee Westwood, former world No. 1 and a horse for the course, has barely played golf this year. And when he has, it’s not been especially pretty. It seems sacrilegious to pick against Westwood at Augusta — his ball-striking has been a perfect fit here, to the tune of four top 10s in the past six years. But we just know so little about where he’s at these days and how much he cares. But Trevor is right, this is a wonderfully anomalous season when all the top-ranked players and brand names (the ones actually playing golf, so not Tiger) have been cooking in the first quarter of the year. It’s hard to see a missed cut from any of the big names and favorites.

Kyle Robbins: HOT TAKE ALERT: Your defending champion, Jordan Spieth. Call me crazy, but Spieth doesn’t look like someone that’s swinging the golf club comfortably over the last couple of months. Something seems off, almost as if he’s got a hitch in his move or something. But remember, this is golf. There are plenty of dudes on mini-tours with textbook swings that can’t play on the big stage. Spieth could grind it out and be fine, and grab another jacket. His putting ability can keep him in it. I’d just be worried about another weekday big number that we’ve seen a couple of times so far this year.

Emily Kay: Well, it won’t be Bubba. The 2012 and 2014 champion’s on the every-other-year plan, so if numbers never lie, it’s more likely the Bagdad Bomber will be making the Monday media circuit in his third green jacket than flaming out.

Who will be the low amateur? Will they make the cut?

Kyle Robbins: Bryson DeChambeau seems like the way too obvious answer — and I think he might even end up inside the top 15 or 20. GolfBot (Is that a thing? Can we make that a thing?) is the next dude we’ll ordain as the guy certain to take the Tour by storm — and this could be his coming out party for the casual golf-fan public.

Emily Kay: Bryson. "The Golf Scientist," went head-to-head with Rory on Sunday at Bay Hill, and fired a 6-under 66 to the four-time major winner’s 65. Like Thomas, he sought out a Masters icon, albeit not someone who’s ever hit a shot in competition. His obsession with winning the Masters as an amateur, as Jim Nantz told Golf Digest recently, could cost him. But regardless of whether he makes the cut with clubs that are all the same length, or now insists on having his toast burnt, this is the last chance DeChambeau has to earn a green jacket as an amateur. He plans to turn pro for next week’s PGA Tour event.

Brendan Porath: DeChambeau, of course. Since the NCAA sanctioned SMU, preventing his attempt at a title defense, this is pretty much all he’s been working toward. He’s an "amateur" in name only and is about to cash in, but that won’t stop Nantz from gushing all weekend. He’s got the game and is going to be a contender for years. It’s hard to see him missing the cut.

Which rookie will have the best showing?

Mark Sandritter: Kevin Kisner has been on a tear that has shot him up the world rankings. He’s a little more experienced than some rookies and that might help, even though he’s never played in the Masters.

Brendan Porath: A few good options here, like the aforementioned Grillo, Kisner and Sullivan. The most popular and trendy rookie pick will be Justin Thomas, which is totally fine. I’ll go with Smylie Kaufman, though. He looked strong on the Florida swing, especially at Doral and Bay Hill.

Kyle Robbins: Kevin Kisner, for no especially good golf reason other than the story that it would be. The 32-year-old Kisner grew up and still lives 30 minutes from Augusta National across the border in Aiken, S.C. Sure, he’s not played particularly well since leaving Hawaii, but those pointers from Knox have to be worth something, right?

Trevor Reaske: There are a lot of great first-timers this year. Rafa Cabrera-Bello is coming off a semi-final appearance at the Dell Match Play. Guys like Kevin Kisner and David Lingmerth have been pretty darn good in stretches. But I’ll go with Justin Thomas. He has the potential to become this year’s breakout star. Did you know that he is friends with Jordan Spieth?

What will be the winning score?

Brendan Porath: Are the green jackets going to overreact to last year’s birdiefest? It wasn't just Spieth’s record-breaking 36-hole score and record-matching 18-under finish. Everyone in the field was posting low numbers. Rory McIlroy played the last 45 holes in 15-under. I think the membership will find a way to bring that down a bit, but there’s only so much they can do — these par-5s are attainable and eagles and birdies will be made. I think 13-under will get it.

Kyle Robbins: 14-under. The 10-day forecast for Augusta shows several days of sun, leading into a chance of some light showers in the morning and night for the weekdays. Translation? Scoring conditions should be pristine for the side of the draw that doesn’t face the rain. Don’t be shocked to see somebody take it into double-digits before the weekend begins, before Augusta reigns things back in on the weekend.

Emily Kay: 13-under. Because why not, and it’s the average of Bubba Watson’s winning 8-under and Jordan Spieth’s 18-under scores.

Mark Sandritter: 14-under.

Expectations and finishing predictions for:

Rory McIlroy

Trevor Reaske: Somehow, McIlroy is the only player in the world top six that hasn’t won this year. He is so talented, and it’s only a matter of time before he wins this tournament. Just not sure it’s this year. Top 10, though, feels like a safe bet.

Mark Sandritter: The curse of one bad round strikes again. He plays well early, falls off, then quietly storms back for a respectable top-25 finish.

Brendan Porath: Too much talent to not contend and too inconsistent right now to win. We sometimes forget just all that Rory has already accomplished compared to his "Big Three" and "young talent" cohorts. But he’s thrown away so many shots this season, making unnecessary doubles and posting some inexplicable 9-hole scores. Of course, he’s still good enough to contend with big numbers scattered on his card for the week. Last year’s Masters was the perfect example — a 40 on the front nine on Friday put him on the wrong side of the cut line and he looked completely dejected and out of it. He then played the final 45 holes in 15-under and finished solo fourth. A top 10 again but a weekend sputter will keep him from being a major player late on Sunday.

Kyle Robbins: Top-five finish. He’s looked better and better over recent weeks, and last year’s struggles and injuries seem to be behind him. Could be a ready-made year for him to get the Green Jacket Monkey off his back.

Emily Kay: It’s wait’ll next year again for a shot at the career grand slam.

Jason Day

Brendan Porath: The wins come in bunches for Day and the Masters would be his third straight. He’s back to No. 1 in the world and his WGC Match Play title moved him slightly ahead of Spieth and Rory as the favorite. Picking him to win makes absolute sense but taking the favorite is no fun.

It’s hard to see Day not finishing in the top 15, though — he’s got the distance off the tee, which we know is a distinct advantage at Augusta. And he’s among the leaders on the PGA Tour’s strokes gained putting statistic. It’s the complete package, peaking at the right time. There’s very little to doubt or nitpick, except for (knock on wood) his spotty injury history and recent back trouble at Austin Country Club.

Kyle Robbins: Is too much winning a bad thing? If J-Day hadn’t won at the Match Play, I might pick him to win. He’s the best player in the world, his game fits Augusta and he’s playing well. Two concerns: One, winning three times in three starts in golf is incredibly hard. Two, he’s had back issues. Expect him to be in it, but maybe not seal the deal. Top 15.

Trevor Reaske: Can Day keep up his ridiculous hot streak? There’s no reason to think he can’t. He should be able to power his way through Augusta’s par 5s, which will keep him in the mix all week. Top 10 for Day.

Phil Mickelson

Emily Kay: Lefty’s revival is fun to watch and there’s that switch that flips each time he drives down Magnolia Lane. How awesome would it be for everybody’s favorite 45-year-old southpaw to win at Augusta for the fourth time, on the 30th anniversary of Jack Nicklaus’ last Masters win?

Mark Sandritter: I think Lefty hangs in for the first three rounds and plays in one of the final four pairings on Sunday, before fading away a bit in the final round.

Kyle Robbins: Eh. Phil’s seemingly become predictable at the Masters in recent years. Close, but not close enough. A run, but it’s too little too late. Think that trend continues. Top 20-25 finish.

Bubba Watson

Mark Sandritter: The every two years trend would indicate this is the year for Bubba to win a third green jacket. Advanced math.

Brendan Porath: Like Day, he’s another stud and an easy pick to win, but recent injury troubles give you pause. The road map is there for Bubba. He looked like the best player in the world for a stretch this year, winning Riviera again and losing at Doral by a shot to Adam Scott. That was the kind of form he had going into his last win at Augusta, a course where he still and forever will hold a natural advantage over almost everyone else in the field. The way he bombs it as a lefty, cutting the ball from right to left, is such a bonus, and Bubba will contend here forever. Two green jackets does not seem like the career limit but not this year.

Kyle Robbins: I’m unsure about Bubba’s plan to basically not play competitive golf for a whole month right before the Masters. He could win. He could finish last. Probably closer to the first rather than the second, but I have honest to God no idea what to expect from him.

Jordan Spieth

Brendan Porath: We’re told Spieth is "struggling" coming into the Masters. That’s a relative term. It may not be some of the legendary form we saw for extended stretches last year, but he’s not exactly chopping it up out there. One horrendous round at Riviera seems to be the lowlight, but that led to his only missed cut in seven PGA Tour starts this year. The other six were all top 25s. He also finished in the top five in Abu Dhabi, and second in Singapore.

But he’s admitted exhaustion in the first quarter of the year thanks to starts all across the globe, and only a couple of weeks not competing. That admittance, combined with a few loose rounds and some moments of public frustration, and the narrative sunk in that Spieth was off. He’s not, he’s just not the world-beater from last year at the moment.

Kyle Robbins: See above with Bubba. Missed cut might be a stretch, but I’d be more surprised to see him have a chance on the back nine on Sunday to win, than I would to see him exit stage right early on.

Emily Kay: No repeat for the defending champion, though he’ll likely cadge a top-10 finish.

Trevor Reaske: All this talk about Jordan being tired from extensive travel and "scuffling" is a bit much. He set such an unbelievable standard last year that it was going to be almost impossible for him to live up to it this year. I’m not going to worry about a guy that has finished second and first in his two Masters starts. Top 10 for Jordan, too.

By the way, if I’m right, how amazing would a McIlroy-Day-Spieth showdown be?

Rickie Fowler

Emily Kay: Not yet, though Fowler’s finesse with the putter, plus his Butch Harmon-inspired swing and overall play has him on the precipice of his first major victory. But that self-imposed pressure to add a grand slam credential to his resume and get into the "Big Four" conversation keeps him from crossing over.

Mark Sandritter: He’ll contend. He seems to be automatic contention in majors these days. He hasn’t finished one yet, though, and I don’t see that changing this week.

Who will win the green jacket? And by how many shots?

Kyle Robbins: Hideki Matsuyama, by two — with Rickie, Rory, Zach Johnson and Kevin Kisner close behind. It’s possibly time for the Big Four to become a Big Five with the young Japanese superstar. He’s got the game for Augusta — why not now?

Emily Kay: It’s hard to pick against Bubba Watson, who loves those even-numbered years after runner-up finishes at Bay Hill preceded his two Masters wins in 2012 and 2014, but Jason Day is on a tear. For sure, his balky back and history of injuries and illnesses could derail his run, and his T20 and T28 finishes since placing third in 2013 are of concern. But in winning his first major at last year’s PGA Championship, Tiger’s protege proved he can put the hammer down in a grand slam event. Let the "Jason Slam" talk commence.

Trevor Reaske: I often go with my brain on these picks and it never works out. This time I am going with my heart and picking Phil Mickelson. Lefty lead the Tour in scoring average AND I put $20 on him in Vegas. He has to win.

Mark Sandritter: Jordan Spieth has played in two Masters with a T2 finish and a win under his belt. He has a lot more eyes on him this year and the Champions Dinner responsibility, but I still love how his game fits the course and think he’s in prime position to make it back-to-back. While there has been a rough moment or two this year, all that will be forgotten with a couple good rounds at Augusta.

Brendan Porath: I’m going to do it: 45-year-old Phil Mickelson will win his fourth green jacket. Mickelson’s game could be a mess with no indication he could compete with the best in the world, and he could still walk onto Augusta and get in it down the stretch on Sunday. That’s what he did last year. This year, he’s in much, much better shape and seems fully comfortable with the tweaks made with new swing coach Andrew Getson. The West Coast swing and first quarter of the year always seem to be his time, and he’s looked good at Palm Springs, Scottsdale, Pebble Beach and Doral so far in 2016.

Mickelson knows Augusta as much as anyone in the field. He knows how to post a score without his best stuff and manage the immense weight of the Masters. We always cite the US Open, where the pressure of chasing the white whale of his career can be suffocating, as the ultimate remaining goal for Phil. But I think joining Arnold, Jack and Tiger as the only four-time green jacket winners means almost as much.