By Andrew Both
AUGUSTA, Ga. (Reuters) – World number one Justin Rose is the man to beat at this week’s Masters, where recent history suggests the sport’s heavyweights will populate the leaderboard by Sunday at a major championship that is more predictable than any other.
Northern Irishman Rory McIlroy is the second favourite from a formidable European contingent, while Dustin Johnson and Justin Thomas are the best American bets, even if Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson will loom larger in the public imagination.
There has been no long-shot winner at Augusta National since 69th ranked Angel Cabrera collected the Green Jacket in 2009, though even the Argentine’s victory was far from a huge shock given his pedigree as a U.S. Open champion two years earlier.
Nobody ranked outside the top 30 in the world has won since then, and even Patrick Reed, though not one of the favourites last year, was still ranked a healthy 24th and not a completely unexpected champion.
An Augusta winner must be able to draw his driver, fade his irons from hanging lies and have the artistry to hit great recovery shots. He must also be on form and mentally resilient.
Englishman Rose ticks all these boxes.
It is almost as if Augusta National was designed with him in mind.
He has finished top-15 each of the past five years, including a pair of runner-up finishes, most notably a playoff loss to Sergio Garcia in 2017.
Rose has been a machine from tee to green at Augusta, and if the putter co-operates it will take a mighty performance from someone else to beat him.
But to win, he will have to put out of his mind the thought that the clock is ticking.
Though playing as well as ever at age 38, Rose cannot realistically expect too many more chances.
MCILROY IN FORM OF HISCAREER
Waiting to pounce could be McIlroy, though he too has plenty of pressure as he tries to complete the career grand slam at a tournament where he wilted in the final round last year after starting three strokes behind Reed.
McIlroy’s stock drive is a right-to-left draw, ideal for Augusta, and he has been working with his irons on hitting the soft, high fade that is required with many approach shots.
He has been the best player in the world in 2019 and top-10 finishes the past five years is all the proof needed to be confident he will be in contention again.
However, can he expunge the demons from last year’s collapse and take the final step to the pinnacle?
World number one Johnson is also in sizzling form. His game is not a perfect match for Augusta, but he is good enough to win anywhere, anytime.
The same goes for Thomas.
Others capable of victory include Europeans Francesco Molinari, Jon Rahm, Paul Casey and Tommy Fleetwood, and Americans Brooks Koepka, Rickie Fowler and Bubba Watson.
Australians Adam Scott, Jason Day and Marc Leishman, and South African Louis Oosthuizen are also capable.
It would be foolish to write off 43-year-old Woods and 48-year-old Mickelson given their respective records at Augusta, where the former has won four times and the latter three.
That said, time waits for no man and age is not on their side.
A victory would make Mickelson the oldest Masters champion, supplanting Jack Nicklaus, who was 46 when he won in 1986, while Woods would become the second-oldest champion.
A victory by either would be monumental, but a herd of lean and hungry young bucks stand in the way, none of them interested in letting a couple of middle-aged guys steal the show.
Even if those middle-aged guys have seven Green Jackets between them.
(Reporting by Andrew Both in Cary, North Carolina; Editing by Christian Radnedge)