News & Opinion

5 stealthy picks who could shine in green

Matt Kuchar
Matt Kuchar

Everyone knows the favorites for this year’s Masters. Take your pick among Rory McIlroy, Dustin Johnson, Brooks Koepka, Rickie Fowler, Justin Rose, Justin Thomas and even Tiger Woods. But there are those who could be the next Danny Willett or Charl Schwartzel, a player who has the chops but has yet to perform in the game’s biggest moments.

Here are five on whom to consider taking a flier:

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Marc Leishman

Marc Leishman – He is perhaps the most underrated player on the PGA Tour. Leishman is the second-highest-ranked Australian, at No. 19 on the Official World Golf Ranking. He has four PGA Tour victories, including two in 2017. Starting the 2018-19 season, Leishman won the CIMB Classic and since then has three more top-4 finishes, including four rounds in the 60s at demanding Riviera for a T-4 at the Genesis Open. At last year’s Masters, Leishman shot 70-67 and was in second place, two shots behind eventual winner Patrick Reed. Leishman shot 73-70 on the weekend to finish ninth. The Sunday round included five birdies in his final seven holes. At 35, he could be in his sweet spot in time.

Paul Casey – The 41-year-old Casey is enjoying a renaissance of his

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Paul Casey

golf game. He stands No. 11 in the world and successfully defended the Valspar Championship in March. Casey tied for third at the WGC Mexico Championship and was runner-up to Phil Mickelson at Pebble Beach. Casey also reached the round of 16 of the WGC Dell Match Play, losing to Francesco Molinari. Much has been made of Casey’s having only three PGA Tour victories, but he has won 13 times on the European Tour. By his own estimation, he might be playing the best golf of his career. At last year’s Masters, Casey shot 69-65 on the weekend to finish T-15. The rap on Casey had been his habit of disappearing on Sundays. At Augusta, he will need to show up all four days.

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Tony Finau

Tony Finau – If Finau can survive the Par 3 Contest on Wednesday, he could have a real chance on Sunday. Last year, he dislocated sn ankle while celebrating a hole-in-one at the Par 3 and didn’t know whether he’d be able to walk the hilly Augusta National during the tournament proper. He still tied for 10th by shooting 68 in the first round and ending with a Sunday 66. He followed that performance by playing his way into a four-way tie for the lead with a third-round 66 at the U.S. Open at Shinnecock Hills and was in the final group on Sunday. He shot 72 to finish fifth. Finau, 29, has only one victory on Tour, the 2016 Puerto Rico Open, but he has been knocking on the door, with four top-5 finishes in 2017 and five top-5s last season.

 

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Cameron Smith

Cameron Smith – Smith is only 25 and perhaps the best stealth player on Tour. The Australian flies under the radar while popping up on leaderboards when it’s least expected. In 2015, his first year on Tour, a 21-year-old Smith tied for fourth at the U.S. Open at Chambers Bay. In 2017, he teamed with Jonas Blixt to win the Zurich Classic, Smith’s lone Tour title. Last season, he did everything but win, with three third-place finishes, including two in a row in the FedEx Cup playoffs. And, most importantly, he tied for fifth at the Masters in his first try, shooting 30 on the back nine on Sunday for a 66.

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Matt Kuchar

Matt Kuchar – The thing about Kuchar is that he has had a great deal of success at the Masters – all without winning. That makes him a darkhorse because virtually no one expects him to win this year, maybe not even him. In six starts at Augusta National from 2012 to 2017, Kuchar posted four finishes of eighth or better. At the beginning of the 2018-19 season, at age 40, Kuchar was more than four years removed from his last victory, the 2014 RBC Heritage. He wondered whether he’d ever win again. Kuchar won at Mayakoba in late 2018 and added another title in January at the Sony Open in Hawaii. He slipped to fourth at the Waste Management Phoenix Open with a Sunday 75. Last week, he lost to Kevin Kisner in the final of the WGC Dell Match Play. But Kuchar knows how to get it around Augusta National. The next step will be getting it across the finish line.

Mike Purkey has written about golf for more than 30 years for a number of publications, including Golf Magazine and Global Golf Post. He lives in Charlotte, N.C. Email: golfedit@gmail.com; Twitter: @mikepurkeygolf