(PhatzRadio Sports / USA TODAY SPORTS) —- Go ahead, pick a winner for the Masters.
We tried, and our list of the Top 7 we think have the best chance to win the green jacket does not include reigning PGA Tour player of the year Justin Thomas. Or defending champion Sergio Garcia. Or emerging superstar Jon Rahm. Or Jason Day and Paul Casey, who have won on tour this year and are in great form.
Then again, the field is loaded, but we gave it our best shot.
Masters record: Nine starts — won in 2012 and 2014. Does not have another top-10 finish. Last year he missed the cut.
The skinny: When he’s on, few people carve up Augusta National like Watson, whose power and supreme touch on and around the greens are a lethal combo. Watson, whose world ranking dropped as fast as his weight last year because of an undisclosed illness (he lost 40 pounds), is back on the beam again as his victory in the Genesis Open in February showed.
He loves being an artist at Augusta National — one who can hit 350-yard drives, mind you — as the sparkling green holes framed by the bright red pine straw and rimmed by the Georgia pines are pleasing to his eye. A third green jacket would not be a surprise.
Masters record: Nine starts, four top-10s (all coming in his past four starts). He led by four after 54 holes in 2011 but shot 80 in the final round. He really hasn’t been in contention since. Last year he finished strong but tied for seventh.
The skinny: McIlroy became McIlroy again in winning the Arnold Palmer Invitational in March, ending a drought on the PGA Tour that stretched to his victory in the 2016 Tour Championship. A rib injury bothered the four-time major winner throughout 2017, but he’s finally healthy — and confident — again.
A putting tip from Brad Faxon, well known for his work on the greens when he was playing the PGA Tour, freed up McIlroy’s mind and stroke, and he needed just 100 putts in winning Arnie’s annual bash. When he’s on, the former world No. 1 is as feared as anyone. A Masters victory would give him the career Grand Slam.
Masters record: Four starts — won in 2015, tied for second in 2014 and 2016, tied for 11th last year.
The skinny: How can you not put Spieth on the list of favorites? He could have won three green jackets by now. He was outdueled by Watson in his first Masters, then won the green jacket, then blew a five-shot lead with nine to play in his third Masters. Last year he was in the penultimate group but shot his worst round in Masters history. Yes, he hasn’t been Spieth this year; his putter being the main culprit.
But the man wakes up when he drives down Magnolia Lane, and his tee to green game has been superb this season. He loves everything about the tournament — how it’s run, the setting, the course, the history. He relishes playing off all the uneven lies that Augusta National dishes up and others dread. If he gets the putter going, and gets by the famous 12th hole, a second green jacket is well within reach.
Masters record: 20 starts — won in 1997, 2001, 2002 and 2005. Was low amateur in 1995. Has 13 top-10s, with seven of those coming since he last won in 2005.
The skinny: We know he hasn’t won a tournament since 2013. We know he hasn’t won the Masters since 2005. But Woods knows Augusta National as well as anyone, a place where his power, imagination and putting prowess feel right at home.
And he knows he’s healthy to compete in the Masters for the first time since 2015 following spinal fusion surgery last April, his fourth back surgery in three years. In a remarkable return to the game, Woods heads to Augusta National coming off his best two performances since returning in December, a tie for second in the Valspar Championship and a tie for fifth in the Arnold Palmer Invitational. His power is back, his feels are back, his confidence is back. A fifth green jacket is well within reach.
Masters record: Seven starts — his best finishes were a tie for sixth in 2015 and a tie for fourth in 2016. Did not play last year becaue of an injury suffered on the eve of the tournament.
The skinny: Johnson and his powerful ways was the clear favorite last year, for he was the No. 1 player in the world and he rolled into Augusta after winning his previous three starts. Then he took a nasty fall in his rental home, bruised his back and withdrew just moments before his scheduled tee time in the first round.
He started this year with a victory in Hawaii and has been close two other times. He’s still the No. 1 player in the world. And his power is a force, and his wedge game is top-notch. He certainly has all the firepower to win a green jacket. And he’s staying in a different rental home this year.
Masters record: 12 starts — five top-10s, including in his past three starts. He finished in a tie for second in 2015, tied for 10th in 2016 and lost in a playoff to Sergio Garcia last year.
The skinny: He keeps banging on Augusta National’s door. Last year was his closest encounter with the green jacket. The 2013 U.S. Open winner led by two with six holes to play but missed a 5-footer for birdie on the 13th. A bogey on the 17th — he missed a 7-footer for par — vanquished his lead.
A pushed drive into the trees on the first playoff hole doomed him. He loves Augusta National, and his superb iron play is well rewarded there. He’s used to playing on a big stage, including in the Ryder Cup where he’s a hardened veteran for Europe. He’s rounding into form, having finished in a tie for fifth in the Valspar Championship and third in the Arnold Palmer Invitational. Big chance.
And the winner is:
Masters record: 25 starts — won in 2004, 2006 and 2010. Was low amateur in 1991. Has 15 top-10 finishes, including eight in a row starting in 1999. Tied for 22nd last year.
The skinny: Yes, Lefty, at 47, is going to pass Jack Nicklaus as the oldest winner of the green jacket, and he will join the Golden Bear, Arnold Palmer and Woods as the only players to win the tournament four times. The guy adores Augusta National and the Masters.
He knows the course, and how to play it, as well as anyone. His power, iron play, touch and imagination play well there. And he will head down Magnolia Lane playing some of the best golf of his career. After winning his fifth major at the 2013 British Open, Mickelson went five years and 102 starts without a victory, a stretch, however, that didn’t temper his optimism.
He kept talking a good game, telling anyone who would listen that he was close to playing his best golf again, that he was in great shape and it was just a matter of time before he would win again. That time came the first week of March when he topped Justin Thomas in a playoff to win the World Golf Chamionships-Mexico Championship, his 43rd PGA Tour title.
It also was his fourth consecutive top-five finish. He said he has some more great golf in him, and after winning in Mexico his goal is to get to 50 Tour titles. He said with confidence that he would indeed get there.
Talent, confidence, form and success at Augusta National all come together in another green jacket.
Selections were made at the conclusion of the Arnold Palmer Invitational (March 18).