My safe pick to win a strange Masters

Dustin Johnson dries off his club while getting in some practice for the Masters on the range at Augusta National Golf Club on Wednesday, Nov 11, 2020, in Augusta.   “Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@ajc.com”
Dustin Johnson dries off his club while getting in some practice for the Masters on the range at Augusta National Golf Club on Wednesday, Nov 11, 2020, in Augusta. “Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@ajc.com”

Credit: Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@

Credit: Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@

There are so many confounding elements to this Masters that it makes the difficult task of picking a winner even harder. The tournament is in the fall, not the spring. It’s the last major, not the first. There will be no blooming azaleas or fans — um, patrons on the course. Augusta National may be wet.

The conditions seemingly are ripe for me to lean into my love of underdogs. It’s an odd Masters, so make a wild pick. Get it right, and I’ll look smart. If I’m wrong, well, I took a shot in a strange year.

But that’s not my approach to analyzing this tournament. I love 'dogs, but I’m no dummy. Long shots don’t often win major golf championships. When they do, it’s usually someone everyone knew could win, or had done it before, but had long odds because of age or other circumstances.

That brings me to the 2019 Masters. I didn’t pick Tiger Woods, the guy I wanted to win. Woods did win, at 16-1 odds, and he’s 45-1 to repeat as champion. Once again, I won’t take Tiger to win while hoping he proves me wrong.

I picked Rickie Fowler to win last year. He was excruciatingly close to the lead throughout the final round before finishing three strokes behind Woods. Fowler was second in 2018. I’d back Fowler (70-1) again if not for the major swing changes he’s still trying to master.

However, I will stick with the formula that led me to pick Fowler last year. I’m looking for golfers who have significant experience at Augusta, which data show is important, but who aren’t over the hill. I’m de-emphasizing recent results if guys are doing good work around, and on, the greens.

ExploreFirst-round pairings and tee times

The favorite, Bryson DeChambeau (8-1), doesn’t check enough of those boxes. He’s played only two Masters tournaments as a pro, finishing tied for 38th in 2018 and tied for 29th in 2019. DeChambeau overpowered Winged Foot to win the U.S. Open in September. It will be fun to watch him try to do the same to Augusta, like Tiger used to do, but I doubt his ability to scramble.

Rory McIlroy (13½-1) is intriguing now that’s he’s not favored. But I can’t pick McIlroy when he’s always faded at the only major he hasn’t won. He was the 8-1 chalk last year and finished tied for 21st. McIlroy was the 9-1 favorite to win in 2018. He closed with a 74 and finished tied for fifth.

There’s a group of golfers who have all the traits of a contender except meaningful experience at Augusta. The best among them, Brooks Koepka (17-1), stopped playing in August because of knee and hip pain. I’ll pass. Jon Rahm (10½-1) has won two big tournaments since the restart, but he’s played only 12 rounds at Augusta. That’s not enough.

Lack of Augusta experience also is why I’m low on phenoms Collin Morikowa (35-1) and Matthew Wolff (45-1). The second-year pros will make their first starts. Morikowa, 23, won the PGA championship in August, but missed the cut at Winged Foot. Wolff, 21, was top five at the PGA and U.S. Open, but first-timers rarely win at Augusta.

I’ve eliminated a lot of guys with a good chance to win. There are plenty left who have the right mix of talent and experience at Augusta. Those golfers include three returning champions with a chance to win again: Bubba Watson (2012 and 2014), Adam Scott (2013) and Patrick Reed (2018).

Scott (50-1) hasn’t played since the U.S. Open. His plan to peak for the Masters was complicated when he contracted the novel coronavirus two weeks ago. Reed (30-1) has had a good year, but after finishing tied for 36th in his title defense last year, he has the look of a one-off Masters winner.

It would be cool if Watson (33-1) wins another green jacket. The University of Georgia alum bloomed late as pro, won the Masters twice and then suffered through a long slump in majors. Watson rediscovered his form at Augusta in 2018 (fifth place) and 2019 (12th). He’s 42 years old, but still hits it plenty long (30th in driving distance on the Tour this season).

The possibility of rain during the tournament is why I’m wary of picking Bubba to win. Watson does not like wet golf. He also won’t have his usual pro-Bulldogs contingent there to lift him up. Bubba might win again, but I can’t back him.

ExplorePhotos: Wednesday at the Masters

I’m choosing from among others who fit my criteria: substantial experience with the course, enough game to win the Masters and not too old to pull it off. Fowler and McIlroy are on that list, but I’ve explained why they aren’t my pick. Dustin Johnson (9-1) also makes the cut, and there are more reasons to like his chances.

Johnson’s three victories this year include the Tour Championship at East Lake. The PGA Championship was one of his three runner-up finishes. Johnson finished among the top 10 in his past four Masters starts. He was a top contender to win in 2017 when he had to withdraw because of a slip-and-fall accident.

This year, COVID-19 was Johnson’s health issue. A positive test after his sixth-place finish at the U.S. Open forced Johnson to sit out. He returned to play the Houston Open last week and finished tied for second, three strokes better than Koepka.

The results aren’t the only reason to like Johnson’s odds to win. He’s a long hitter who’s also good with the irons. Johnson has been putting great. Johnson, the 2016 U.S. Open champion, is primed to win his second major.

Johnson isn’t the favorite to win the Masters, but only DeChambeau is getting shorter odds. He’s a safe pick by my standards. That’s not exciting, but I’m fine with it. Just because everything about this Masters is weird doesn’t mean I’m going to make a peculiar pick.

Dustin Johnson wins the 2020 Masters.

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