While March 20th may indicate the official start of spring, nothing signals spring more than the lush rolling hills and verdant Magnolia trees at Augusta National Golf Club in Georgia each year at the storied Masters Golf Tournament. The green of the course and the signature green jacket ring in the season more than anything else. Even without Tiger Woods, who will miss the event due to an ailing back, the Masters is a delightful spectacle of golf's finest talents. With tenacious young up-and-comers along with the familiar names of golf’s seasoned veterans, the 2014 Masters will be must-watch television. As the tournament nears and players make their final tune-up events, make sure you know which players to watch for come April 7th. Because, as Jim Nantz says each year, the Masters truly is a tradition unlike any other.
10 Henrik Stenson
If it were still last year, Henrik Stenson could very well top the list of Masters favorites. Stenson did, after all, sweep both the PGA and Euro Tour playoffs en route to a No. 1 World Golf Ranking. In the month of September alone, Stenson won both the Deutsche Bank Championship and the Tour Championship to cap a torrent streak of six top-five finishes in his final eleven events in 2013.
But this is now, and that was then. In 2014, Stenson has not only cooled off, he’s gone ice cold. In five 2014 events, Stenson has averaged a meager 71.2, finishing in the Top-10 only once. Regardless, the striker from Sweden is still No. 3 in the world, and will undoubtedly be a name to watch at Augusta. If 2013 taught us anything, it’s that Henrik Stenson is a force to be reckoned with.
9 Patrick Reed
Patrick Reed seemingly came out of nowhere this year, edging out Bubba Watson and Jamie Donaldson to win the WGC-Cadillac Golf Championship at Doral, Fla. Reed’s victory was quite impressive, especially for a 23-year-old on a notoriously difficult course. What wasn’t as impressive was his post-tournament rant. When asked about his performance, the bullish youngster boldly stated, “I feel like I'm one of the top five players in the world. I feel like I've proven myself.”
Call it boisterous confidence if you like, but those words are sure to follow Reed throughout his career. It remains to be seen if those words will ring true, or if they will instead plague Reed’s future as a professional. In any case, a win at the 2014 Masters would go a long way in validating Reed’s bold words. With three wins as a pro by the age of 23, who knows what the future holds for Reed, but with the bar set, we’ll all be watching.
8 Dustin Johnson
Dustin Johnson has all the raw tools necessary to climb the leaderboard at Augusta. Ranking second in driving distance on the tour in 2014, Johnson combines unprecedented power with finesse in his short game. The 29-year-old has eight wins on the PGA Tour, but is still searching for his first major championship victory. Even still, Johnson is no stranger to the leaderboard in major championships with six top-10 finishes in majors.
In 2014, Johnson has been perhaps the most consistent player on tour. The sharp shooter from South Carolina has already racked up an impressive five top 10s in six events thus far, and took home the WGC-HSBC Championship last fall. While Johnson has never fared well at Augusta, he is primed to continue his early success into this year’s major championships.
7 Sergio Garcia
With eighteen Top-10 finishes in major championships and a No. 8 world ranking, Sergio Garcia certainly has the talent and experience needed to contend at Augusta. But what makes Garcia a must-watch is the streaky nature of his play. At times, Garcia is head and shoulders above his competition, only to turn into the worst player on the course a few holes later. Take the 2013 Players Championship at TPC Sawgrass for example: Garcia was tied for first with Tiger Woods entering the 17th hole, only to find the water on two of his next three shots and finish the day tied for eighth place.
Garcia is also no stranger to controversy, which makes him a lighting rod for attention. Whether he’s chucking an iron into the water, or bashing Tiger Woods, Sergio is always a player to watch, especially if he is in a dogfight with Woods down the stretch. Regardless of his antics, Garcia is still a top talent in the golf world, and a legitimate contender for the green jacket. Just don’t be surprised if he squanders a late lead at Augusta.
6 6. Jimmy Walker
No one has played better in 2014 than Jimmy Walker. Already securing three tournament wins and ten Top-25 finishes, Walker heads to Augusta National with unmatched momentum.
The one scratch against the 36-year-old from Oklahoma is his lack of experience in majors, and lack of wins throughout his career. After turning pro in 2001, Walker earned his very first win on tour just this year, enduring a winless drought lasting 187 events. The lack of wins and experience certainly don’t bode well for Walker’s chances entering his first Masters Tournament, but his impressive 2014 numbers have made Walker a must-watch player at Augusta. In a sport heavily reliant on confidence, don’t be surprised if you see Walker strutting across Magnolia Lane with a lead during the Masters.
5 Jason Day
Widely considered one of golf’s top young talents, Jason Day, 24, finally earned his first win on tour in 2014 at the WGC Adventure Match. While it took him nearly eight years to win a tournament since turning pro in 2006, Day is no stranger to the leaderboard – especially in major championships. Day has finished or tied for second in three major championships including the 2011 Masters, the 2011 and the 2013 U.S. Open, and also finished eighth in the 2013 PGA Championship.
With the 2014 major championship season set to begin, Day is primed for his first major win. He is surely tired of playing second fiddle, especially to his fellow countryman Adam Scott. The golf world has been warned: this is Day’s year to win a major.
4 Bubba Watson
Bubba Watson became an instant fan favorite in 2012 when he won the Masters in dramatic fashion with a miraculous 163-yard recovery shot out of the woods to set up an improbable playoff win. However, Watson’s glory didn’t last long as the lefty suffered a 41-tournament winless streak spanning nearly two years after his Masters win.
After being written off by many as merely a one-hit wonder, Watson has stormed back to relevancy in 2014. The 35-year-old has accrued five top-10 finishes in just nine tournaments this year, with a victory at the Northern Trust Open and a second-place finish at the WGC-Cadillac Championship. Watson has struck the ball extremely well all season, racking up the best average driving distance (317.7 yards) on the PGA Tour, but in order for Watson to continue that success at the Masters, he’ll have to sure up his short game. Putting hasn’t come easy to Watson, especially during his two-year drought. But he certainly found his stroke on the greens two years ago at Augusta, and he should be able to do it again. Look for the resurrected Bubba on the leaderboard at the Masters.
3 Rory Mcllroy
Just two years ago, Rory McIlroy sat atop the World Golf Rankings at No. 1. Last year, however, McIlroy and his shot seemingly disappeared from the golf world, reportedly due to a change in clubs. But in 2014, it seems the Irishman is back to form – racking up two Top-10 finishes in four starts after winning the Australian Open in December 2013. McIlroy nearly won this year’s Honda Classic, but after holding a lead through the first 54 holes, he suffered a dreadful collapse on the back-nine at Palm Beach, eventually losing to Russell Henley in a playoff.
McIlory’s tendency to falter on Sundays has to be concerning heading into this year’s major championships, but his raw talent is enough to place him among the leading contenders for the green jacket in 2014. Already a two-time major champion and just 24 years of age, McIlroy is primed to make another run up the World Golf Rankings in 2014; that run starts in Augusta.
2 Phil Mickelson
Phil Mickelson has more green jackets than just about anyone on tour not named Tiger Woods. With three wins at Augusta National and five wins overall in major championships, the lefty has already secured his place among golf’s storied elites. With 14 Top-10 finishes and wins in 2004, 2006, and 2010 at the Masters, there is no question Phil Mickelson loves the rolling hills at Augusta.
Despite the lefty’s crowded trophy case, Mickelson has been nowhere near the leaderboard this season. In what has been a career worst start, Mickelson has yet to finish in the Top-10, averaging 71st place through eight events in 2014. Despite still holding a No. 5 World Golf Ranking, Mickelson sits well back at No. 91 on the FedEx Cup Board as the Masters approach. Even still, Phil cannot and should not be overlooked at Augusta. When the stakes are highest, the 43-year-old fan favorite always comes to play. After posting one of his best seasons ever in 2013, Mickelson certainly still has the talent and prowess to contend on golf’s biggest stage.
1 Adam Scott
Not only did Adam Scott squander a seven-shot lead at the Arnold Palmer Invitational last week, he also effectively lost his chance to secure golf’s No. 1 ranking heading into the Masters Tournament. Rather than closing out a dominant weekend in Orlando, Fla., Scott couldn't find his short game at the most critical times, closing with a 4-over-par round that drowned his lead and perhaps his confidence in his final tune-up before Augusta.
Despite his recent shortcomings, Scott still has to be considered one of the favorites to open the 2014 major season with a win. Last year, Scott beat out Angel Cabrera at the Masters, becoming the first Australian player to win at Augusta. After a strong start to the 2014 season – earning top-10 in three of five tournaments this year – Scott will look to become the first player to win consecutive green jackets since Tiger Woods’ victories in 2001 and 2002.