You could summon a proper narrative for every single participant in this year’s Masters field, but when you start to consider the top players in the first major of the year, the list of top-shelf storylines starts to get short. There are probably 12 or maybe as many as 15 golfers who truly matter in the golf world today. Each has constructed a world for himself that has a variety of layers, many of them more curious than the last.
This list of golfers is not necessarily congruent with pure talent, either. Justin Rose is one of the top three players in the world, but does he truly matter to a public teeming with questions? Maybe, but if he does, it’s barely. And while Rose narrowly makes my list of nine storylines to watch for at Augusta this year, his is certainly not the juiciest nor the richest. For the beginning, we must start with a trio of former green jacket champs and one man looking to complete what has only been done five times in all of history.
1. Can Rory McIlroy win the career slam? It has been for the last few years (and will be until he wins it) one of the three or four biggest stories going to Augusta. This year is a little different, though. With seven top 10s on the PGA Tour, you could argue that McIlroy is playing the best pre-Masters golf of his life. And, gulp, this stat from Justin Ray suggests he’s playing some of the best pre-Masters golf ever.
Since 1980, there are only two players to record seven or more top-ten finishes, including a win, on the PGA Tour before April 1 in a PGA Tour season: Tiger Woods in 2000 and Rory McIlroy in 2019.
2. Which Jordan Spieth will we get? I’m lost. Maybe more lost than Spieth seems right now. There are two seemingly contradicting realities we have to deal with here. The first is that Spieth is outside the top 150 in strokes gained on the PGA Tour right now and doesn’t have a top 30 finish in 2019. The other is that he’s never finished worse than T11 at Augusta. Your guess as to what that means for this year is as good as mine.
3. Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson: For the first time ever, they will play the Masters with a combined age of 90. Both are contenders — Woods more so than Mickelson — although there would be some surprise (maybe a lot of surprise) if either won. Still, they will be bit players in these festivities when they start teeing off first on Thursday morning to start the event and not before then. Both are vying for something vital, too. Mickelson is trying to join Woods and Arnold Palmer with four green jackets and become the oldest major winner ever, while Woods is trying to get within one of Jack Nicklaus’s record of six career jackets.
4. Sergio, Sergio: It’s been a year for the 2017 champion. He was disqualified from an event in Saudi Arabia for scuffing up multiple greens. He was also embroiled in more controversy at the recent WGC-Dell Technologies Match Play for wanting Matt Kuchar to concede him a hole after he botched a 4-inch putt. And then there was the 13 he took last year on the par-5 15th after hitting five balls in the water. A combustible Garcia combined with a place where he has both tasted glory and tasted the bottom of the cut line in the last two years should make for some must-see television.
5. Changes to the course: We won’t know the full extent of the changes to the fifth hole until the event starts, but Spieth spoke about the lengthening of the tee boxes recently. “It’s different,” he said. “Kind of forces driver in your hand more than 3-wood. So it makes it a little bit tougher. And then they have a new pin position that can pretty diabolical, and I think they’ve softened the green little bit. It’s definitely a little bit different, yeah.” Any type of change to that iconic course is noteworthy, and even more so when the changes are to make one of the five hardest holes on the course even harder.
6. Rules and Augusta: One of the biggest storylines in golf so far this year is the rules. Players are clapping back at some of the changes, and it’s all been a pretty huge mess, even if the individual rules themselves make sense. The primary issue has been — at least in my opinion — introducing so many at once and expecting everything to turn over quickly. It hasn’t — the USGA has even hired a player relations liaison! — and there has been little smoothing out before the year’s first major. Thankfully (thankfully!) we’ve never had a major rules incident in the last decade at the Masters.
7. Brooks Koepka goes for No. 4: Remarkably, Koepka has a chance to surpass Spieth and tie McIlroy on the career major list. He missed last year’s Masters with an injury, but a win here would give him three of the last four and four of the last eight. It doesn’t feel like he’s getting talked about nearly enough given his success at majors and his ability to deconstruct par 5s. An unintended benefit of him winning here is that it would mean for the foreseeable future we would get an attempt at the career grand slam at every major (Rory at the Masters, Spieth at the PGA, Mickleson at the U.S. Open and Koepka at the Open).
8. Joining the club(s): Here is a list of all the active golfers under age 50 with exactly two majors: Bubba Watson, Zach Johnson, Martin Kaymer. There are as many that have three or four (Spieth, McIlroy, Koepka) as there are that have two. That’s pretty odd to me, and I think Jason Day, Dustin Johnson and Justin Rose are probably your biggest favorites to join the two-major club. Each of those golfers is among the 10 best scorers in Masters history, and yet none have put on a green jacket.
9. Let’s do the Rickie thing … again: You guys know the numbers for Rickie Fowler by now. He’s played in 34 straight majors as a professional without winning one. He finished one shot out of a playoff last year. Along with Jon Rahm and Bryson DeChambeau, he’s the best player in the world without a major. And while it feels like this narrative is going to go on forever, at some point it will end. Maybe this week, mercifully, will finally be that week.