2021 Masters Preview: Rating the field, from contenders to pretenders

Golf’s first major is more than merely a tournament. The Masters is an event and a tradition.

Past often meets present and future in the same grouping on a Thursday, and if we’re lucky sometimes they collide on a Sunday afternoon. Even with alterations and “Tiger-proofing” over the years, the course at Augusta National remains the same one that has hosted this event since 1934, although they reversed the front and back nines after the inaugural tournament.

From the green jacket worn by the champion to the pimento and cheese sandwiches — reasonably priced — available for purchase, this tournament evokes tradition.

Instead of fans, there are “patrons.” Instead of the rough, there is a “second cut.” And Augusta Nationals’ year-by-year contract with CBS creates a relationship between broadcaster and event unlike any other.

Recently, tradition has taken a back seat: the 2020 tournament was moved to November due to the COVID-19 pandemic while the final round in 2019 was moved earlier due to thunderstorms in the forecast (the leaders teed off at 9:20 a.m. instead of the customary 2:40 p.m.).

With Tiger Woods recovering from his car accident, the game’s biggest name will not be on the scene to give the TV ratings a spike in 2021. So forgive us if we’re a little starving for tradition this year.

But barring the unforeseen (the unforeseen has had a way of being seen over the last year) there will be a winner Sunday evening who will wear the green jacket, perhaps for the first time. Let’s rate this April’s field:

The favorites:

All odds are courtesy of cbssports.com.

The big names that will dominate the headlines over the next few days, especially if they get off to subpar starts and miss the cut:

Dustin Johnson (9-1 odds): The defending champ posted a record 20-under par score en route to his first green jacket last November. He’s also finished in the top 10 the last five times he’s played at Augusta National. Repeat winners aren’t as rare as in other majors in the modern 1960’s-onward era, but only Jack Nicklaus (1965-66), Nick Faldo (1989-90) and Tiger Woods (2001-02) have been able to pull off the feat.

Jordan Spieth (10-1): The 2015 champ enters this week fresh off a win at the Valero Texas Open, but only Sandy Lyle (1988) and Phil Mickelson (2006) have won the Masters after winning a tournament the previous weekend. Spieth has also tailed off in recent years, finishing 21 in 2019 and 46 in 2020.

Justin Thomas (10-1): The 2017 PGA Championship winner has improved each year he’s competed at this tournament, from missing the cut in 2014 to tying for 39, 22, 17 and then 12 before last November’s fourth place finish. He also won the Players Championship last month.

Bryson DeChambeau (11-1): The 2020 U.S. Open champion has yet to finish in the top 20 at Augusta National. His best finish was in 2016 when he tied for 21 and was the low amateur. He’s the proverbial bull in the china shop, and the course at Augusta National neuters most bulls.

Jon Rahm (12-1): The Spaniard is only 26 but already has three top 10 finishes at Augusta National, tying for seventh last fall after placing ninth and fourth the previous two years.

Rory McIlroy (14-1): It’s not as exhausting as Mickelson’s drive to win the U.S. Open, but the no-longer-young four-time major champ is still searching for his first green jacket. A rough Thursday torpedoed his 2020 hopes but Rory bounced back to tie for fifth. He actually has three top five finishes and six top tens in his career at the Masters.

Second Tier Contenders: If they contend you’ll say, “I should have taken him in my pool …”

Xander Schauffele (22-1) tied for second in 2019 and the 27-year-old has a top 10 finish in all four majors. He’s currently fourth on the PGA money list, entering this week behind Thomas, DeChambeau and Johnson. Each of these men has won at least one major.

Patrick Cantlay (22-1) was the low amateur in 2012. Since turning pro, he’s played in the tournament three times, missing the cut in 2018, finished in ninth in 2019 and ended in 17 in 2020. He’s currently sixth on the money list.

Brooks Koepka (25-1) has been money in major tournaments with four of his eight tour wins coming at the U.S. Open or PGA Championship. His best finish was tying for second in 2019 and Koepka tied for seventh last November. But he also had knee surgery last month after withdrawing from the Players’ Championship.

Patrick Reed (28-1) won the Masters in 2018 and tied for tenth last year. Other than that he’s had a rough go at Augusta National: two missed cuts and one top-30 finish.

On the Fringe-guys: They will make you say, “Man I didn’t see that happening …”

Collin Morikawa (30-1) took the PGA Championship last year before tying for 44 in his Masters debut. The 24-year old will likely find his second shot at the course a little more forgiving.

Tony Finau (33-1) is perhaps most famous for dislocating his ankle during the par-3 tournament three years ago (he’d wind up tying for tenth), but the 31-year-old tied for fifth in 2019.

Daniel Berger (33-1) has the buzz of February’s AT&T Pebble Beach Pro-Am victory, but is making his first appearance at Augusta National since a 32 place finish in 2018.

Viktor Hovland (33-1) was the low amateur (tying for 32) in 2019 and became the first Norwegian to win a PGA Tour event last year at the Puerto Rico Open.

Webb Simpson (35-1) has finished in the top 10 each of the last two years after posting one top-20 finish in his first six tries (with three missed cuts).

Sentimental Choices: Their last best chance may have been a few years ago, but that won’t stop us from rooting for them.

Lee Westwood (33-1) has finished second twice while posting six top tens in his career, but the window of opportunity may be closing on the 47-year-old. Westwood is ninth on the PGA earnings list and may be the sneaky pick to be involved Sunday afternoon.

Tommy Fleetwood (45-1) is often confused for Lee Westwood by those who follow the game just close enough to be dangerous (why is everybody looking at me?). Both are English and neither have won a major, but Fleetwood is 17 years younger and has never won on this side of the Atlantic.

Sergio García (45-1) remains the favorite of those who play the Smirnoff Ice commercial on YouTube (Did you say … Sergio?). The 2017 champion has one other top five finish and has missed the cut since winning the green jacket (Garcia did not play last November).

Bubba Watson (50-to-1) will deliver a spike to Waffle House stock with a victory, but the 42-year old has just one top 10 finish in a major since his 2014 triumph. He placed 57 in last fall’s Masters.

Phil Mickelson (100-to-1) has already begun his Champions Tour career, but not many have enjoyed a better second act in the majors (all five of his titles coming after the age of 33) than lefty. If a 50-something would get it done on this course in this tournament, I’d put my money on him.

He’s still playing?

Winning the Masters gives a player a lifetime exemption from having to qualify in future years. For example, other major winners get a five-year exemption, while those who won on the tour over the last year or are in the top 50 of the world rankings are invited.

Enter the likes of former champs José María Olazábal, Vijay Singh, Sandy Lyle, Larry Mize and Ian Woosnam, who are long-shots to make the cut. While they’re not “ceremonial” players, for the most part they’re rarely in the mix, with the exception of Jack Nicklaus tying for sixth at age 58 in 1998. Last year, two-time winner Bernhard Langer became the oldest player to make the cut at the age of 63, but the usual order of business is watching these guys record consecutive 70s before taking their bows Friday afternoon. Even so, it’s great to see them on the stage of their greatest golf triumph. Past, present and future reconvene Thursday.

Dave Preston

Dave has been in the D.C. area for 10 years and in addition to working at WTOP since 2002 has also been on the air at Westwood One/CBS Radio as well as Red Zebra Broadcasting (Redskins Network).

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