April beckons. So does Tiger Woods.
CBS makes us salivate with those classic Masters Tournament commercials, so we’re ready for an avalanche of azaleas, magnolias and Amen Corner even before March Madness begins.
Six weeks ago, only a few of the game’s most recognized players looked ready for the Masters, but most of the rest have shifted into high gear lately. In fact, the resurrection of Tiger Woods makes this feel as if it could be the most scintillating Masters, well, ever…
Here’s a quick peek at how ready they are. I assigned each player a Masters Readiness Factor (MRF, to you new insiders) on a scale of 10 based on what I’ve seen in 2018. Anything from 2017, I ignored as old and as irrelevant as Larry King.
© GOLFFILE/EOIN CLARKE
Based on the Masters Readiness Factor, Jason Day stands poised to win at Augusta National.
Jason Day. I’ll write off his winless 2017 to a bothersome back, his mom’s health issues and other distractions. That’s all lava under the Hogan Bridge now. Day is rested and refreshed. He made only two PGA Tour starts until his tuneup at Bay Hill last week, where he finished 22nd. He won at Torrey Pines in a playoff, then tied for second at Pebble Beach. Day ranks No. 1 in strokes-gained putting. That’s notable because if he’s going to blast it a mile and chip and putt like Jordan Spieth, the way he did during that brilliant 2015 stretch, look out, above. Analysis: Primed and ready. Masters Readiness Factor (MRF): 9.2
Dustin Johnson. The curse of being a mega-talent is making winning look so easy that it’s bigger news when he doesn’t. Johnson romped in the 2018 opener at Kapalua, didn’t win at Pebble Beach when he shot a disappointing 70-72 on the weekend and tied for second, placed T-16 at Riviera and T-7 in Mexico. He was 54 under par in those four tournaments, though, so he’s just fine. The only question is how many majors he wins this year, and which ones. Analysis: Gird yourselves for D.J. 2.0, but save the staircase quips. MRF: 9.1.
Phil Mickelson. How does Mickelson feel at 47? You tell me. He played five tournaments in a row, finished top six in three straight events before winning a World Golf Championships title in Mexico over Justin Thomas in a playoff. Never mind that Mickelson got in contention in Phoenix, Pebble and Riviera and couldn’t get it done. He did get it done in Mexico. His iron play – his ultimate strength – is sharp, and so is his short putting. He’s in such a good place that during Woods’ run at the Valspar Championship, Mickelson joked that Woods one-upped him during his entire career, so he’d probably do it again and at Innisbrook. Tiger and Phil, warrior chums? This can’t get any better. Analysis: Lefty likes history, which is good. He is poised to make more. MRF: 9.0
Justin Thomas. Just when you were wondering whatever happened to the PGA Championship winner during a slow start to the year, he won the Honda Classic in a playoff with some manly shots, he was 16 under par on the weekend and holed out from the fairway at the 72nd hole to barge into a playoff in Mexico, where he lost to Mickelson. Two playoffs, one win. Analysis: Anyone else have the feeling that Thomas is ultimately the best player of this era? MRF: 8.6.
Rory McIlroy. After four dismal PGA Tour starts that included two missed cuts, a five-putt green and a “Hollywood horror show” headline about his inept putting, McIlroy roared through Bay Hill’s closing gantlet of holes with a stunning array of birdies. He not only won the Arnold Palmer Invitational, but he looked like the McIlroy who used to make winning majors by a bunch look easy. Cancel the search parties. McIlroy is back. He improved his putting (he had ranked 160th in putting average) via a session with greensmith Brad Faxon and regained control of his iron play, which had been so poor that he’d actually ranked 185th in greens hit in regulation. Analysis: The putter is the one club that must be trusted at Augusta National, where he never has mastered the greens, but suddenly there’s new hope. MRF: 8.1.
Tiger Woods. Which version are we up to now, Tiger 5.0? His clubhead speed, clocked at 125 mph-plus, is a clear indicator that, against all odds, he is healthy again. In his last two outings, at Valspar and the Arnold Palmer Invitational, Woods has had two chances to win. He didn’t get it done, mainly due to errant driving (sound familiar?), but he showed that he owns the best short game on the PGA Tour (sorry, Mr. Spieth). When Woods holed that 44-foot must-make putt on the 71st hole at Innisbrook, he left no doubt about whether he will win again. Now it’s a matter of where and when. Analysis: This famous object in your rearview mirror is closer than it appears. MRF: 8.0
Sergio Garcia. The reigning Masters champion spent a quiet off-season getting ready to be a first-time father. He won the Singapore Open by five shots. After a Honda Classic tuneup week, he finished T-7 in Mexico and fourth in the Valspar Championship. No matter what Garcia wins, this year’s highlight will be his new daughter, Azalea. Maybe she is just the wonderful distraction that he needs to shed the Masters defending-champion pressure. Analysis: Beware the sleep-deprived golfer. MRF: 7.8.
Jon Rahm. The 23-year-old Spaniard began the year with a runner-up finish and a victory, then fumbled three straight tournaments. Trying to defend his Torrey Pines title, he shot 75-77 on the weekend after being one off the lead. He was in the mix in Phoenix, posted 72 on a low-scoring final day, and blew up with a closing 76 when he was near the lead at Pebble Beach. What-ifs don’t matter. What does matter is getting in position to win four times and getting valuable experience. What also matters is that he’s long off the tee, he can putt and he wants it. Analysis: Short-term outlook: spring. Long-time outlook: Hall of Fame. MRF: 7.3.
Jordan Spieth. To quote Homer Simpson: “Operator, get me the number for 9-1-1!” A two-alarm fire rages in SpiethWorld. He had a spotty start to the year after a bout with mononucleosis in December but appeared to be rounding into form at Riviera (T-9) and Mexico (T-14). Then he blew up with 76 at Innisbrook, where he was paired with Woods in the first two rounds. Incredibly, it’s the putter that’s killing him. Spieth ranks eighth in strokes-gained driving (usually his weakness) and 24th in greens hit in regulation but 169th in strokes gained putting and 197th in total putting. He has yet to seriously contend in a tournament, which is shocking for his skill set. Analysis: You’ve gotta hole putts if you’re going to beat, um… Tiger? MRF: 6.2.