My (probably wrong) pick to win the Masters

Justin Thomas, left, and Jordan Spieth wait to hit on the fourth tee during their practice round for the Masters at Augusta National Golf Club on Wednesday, April 7, 2021, in Augusta. Curtis Compton/ccompton@ajc.com
Justin Thomas, left, and Jordan Spieth wait to hit on the fourth tee during their practice round for the Masters at Augusta National Golf Club on Wednesday, April 7, 2021, in Augusta. Curtis Compton/ccompton@ajc.com

Credit: CURTIS COMPTON / AJC

Credit: CURTIS COMPTON / AJC

I predicted Dustin Johnson would win the 2020 Masters, and he did. That doesn’t make me confident about picking the winner again this year. I’m closer to thinking I will never again get the winner right. Being right sometimes or even most times on my picks only increases my anxiety about being wrong the next time. That would probably make me sad if I did any honest introspection about it.

I was tempted to pick a long-ish shot to win the last Masters. That’s usually a bad idea in major championships, but 2020 seemed to be the year to stray from safety. The tournament was in November, and the public wasn’t allowed on the course. Those circumstances gave me an excuse to do what my heart desires and back an underdog.

Instead, I stuck with my usual recipe for predicting the winner. It’s usually a golfer who’s played a lot of professional rounds at Augusta National. Not too many, though: The average age of winners 32.64 years. Recent results in tournaments tend to be less predictive than recent evidence of a sharp short game.

Focusing on the fundamentals paid off. Johnson met all my criteria. He won by five strokes. It wasn’t exciting to see one of the favorites win. It was satisfying to correctly pick the winner of a golf tournament, which is hard to do. Now I’m under pressure to repeat that feat.

Johnson (9½-1 odds via Vegas Insider) and Bryson DeChambeau are co-favorites to win this week. Johnson’s putting hasn’t been great since the Tour restart. But he’s been good around the greens and sharp with his irons. There are good reasons to pick him.

He won’t be my pick this time, though. I can’t go against history. Only three golfers have repeated as Masters champion: Jack Nicklaus (1965 and ’66), Nick Faldo (’89 and ’90) and Tiger Woods (2001 and ’02). That’s the two best golfers of all-time and Faldo, who’s probably the best from Europe.

All three men went back-to-back in the Masters during dominate periods of their careers. Johnson’s Masters victory was his second in a major championship. He had three top five finishes in majors before winning at Augusta, so maybe that was the start his own dominant run. I’m betting against it.

I’m also fading DeChambeau, though I would love it if he won. He’s a jolt of energy for a sport that can be sleepy. DeChambeau dares to take big chances in a game that harshly punishes risky plays that go wrong. He’s constantly innovating as the rest of the golf world moves incrementally forward.

Last year, DeChambeau shook up the sport with the total transformation of his body and game. He put on 40-plus pounds and started pounded balls as far as he could off the tee. It worked at Winged Foot, where DeChambeau won the U.S. Open in November. It didn’t work at Augusta, where DeChambeau was favored to win but finished 18 shots behind Johnson.

This year, DeChambeau’s changes include a mysterious new club design and a different approach to breathing. The latter was prompted by some dizzy spells during last year’s Masters. But I can’t pick DeChambeau to win the Masters this year for the same reasons as last. He lacks the necessary experience at Augusta (12 rounds now as a pro) and the ability to overcome his inevitable misfires from the tee.

I’ve also thrown out all but one of the other top-10 contenders for various reasons.

Rory McIlroy (19-1) last won a Tour event in November 2019, tends to fade at the Masters and is tinkering with his swing. Jon Rahm (12-1) has three top-10 placings in four tries at Augusta. But the only time he improved his Sunday position when he was too far back to win. Patrick Cantlay (22-1) has played only 10 professional rounds at the Masters.

I don’t like that Xander Schauffele (25-1) so often is runner-up in tournaments, including the 2019 Masters. I’d probably back Brooks Koepka (28-1) if not for his knee surgery three weeks ago. California phenom Collin Morikowa (29-1) won the PGA Championship in August. He’s won’t win the Masters in his second start.

Jordan Spieth (11-1) is an intriguing choice. He won the Masters and U.S. Open in 2015, finished top five in the other two majors that year and won the 2017 British Open. Since then he’s posted more cuts in majors than top-five showings. Spieth’s victory last weekend in the Texas Open ended a nearly two-year drought on Tour and raised the possibility that he has regained his form.

Spieth has long called the Masters his favorite tournament in the world. His results reflect the sentiment. Spieth has four top-five finishes at Augusta, two at the British and one each at the other two majors. I still need to see more from Spieth before I can believe he’s ready to win another major.

I’ve seen enough from Justin Thomas (11-1) to think he’s going to win his second major. The 2017 PGA Championship winner is playing in his sixth Masters, which is plenty enough experience. Here are his finishes: 39th, 22nd, 17th, 12th, and fourth. Thomas is on the come at Augusta, where his fine work around the greens gives him a chance to stay in contention when other things are going wrong.

Thomas is not yet 28 years old. and he’s already has won 14 times on Tour. Thomas flirted with the cut line at the Players Championship last month. He ended up winning by besting old pro Lee Westwood over the final three holes.

Thomas said his mental game “clicked” at Sawgrass. And he’s confident at Augusta after posting his best-ever finish there in November.

“I feel like it’s a place that I’m going to win at some point, at least I hope, and I feel like I can do it multiple times,” Thomas said.

Thomas’ time is now. He got a taste of contending at the Masters when he led after two rounds in November. This time he finishes the task. I expect to be wrong about that. I’d settle for a day or two when it looks like I could be right.

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