The 2021 Masters is here. This time around, it's only been five months of a wait because the Masters was also the last major of 2020. However, it's also been two years since the shrill sounds of spring have sliced open winter's grip on the world and welcomed a new season. There will also be golf played this week.
Coming off a first quarter of golf that gave us a little bit of everything, the Masters is rife with storylines (as always). Though two of the biggest names (and winners) in the sport's history will not be in attendance this week (more on that below), there is still plenty to follow heading into the 85th edition of this tournament.
The beloved son of modern American golf has revived his career, and his old pal from their junior golf-touring days is maybe the best player on the planet right now. Last year's winner is trying to become just the fourth to go back to back, and somebody who hasn't won a major in seven years is trying to become just the sixth to win them all. We'll take a look at all of those narratives and plenty more as we dive into 10 storylines for the 2021 Masters, which starts later this week.
1. Justin Thomas' improvement: There are a few trends converging this week for the reigning Players Championship winner. The first is that this is Thomas' sixth Masters. Why does that matter? Well, of the 53 golfers who have won the Masters, the average champion wins in his first green jacket in his sixth Masters appearance. Thomas has also, somewhat incredibly, improved his position on the final leaderboard in every tournament he's played at Augusta National. His first Masters was in 2016 when Jordan Spieth fell apart and Danny Willett swooped in. Thomas has seemingly learned at least a few of the old nursery's secrets. It also helps that he's the best iron player on the planet.
Year Finish 2016 - T39 - 2017 - T22 - 2018 - T17 - 2019 - T12 - 2020 - 4th
2. Jordan Spieth's return: Spieth has not been relevant -- either at a Masters or on the PGA Tour -- basically since he nearly shot 62 in the final round at Augusta National in 2018 in what would have been the greatest round in the history of golf had it won him a second green jacket. However, his three-month run into this Masters has been revelatory. He's again a top-10 player in strokes gained overall, which for him (and most players) has recently been a tell for how an Augusta effort will play out. Spieth watch is on again this week, and though he's unlikely to win (because everyone is technically unlikely to win), all the evidence we have points toward him once again contending at a place that has become so synonymous with his golf persona.
3. Increased difficulty at Augusta National: Though there was a Masters in November, it was quite different than any we've ever seen. One of the themes running throughout the minds of players this spring is how much more difficult Augusta is likely to play this time around than it did not just five months ago but over the past few years. Several have noted it, and Spieth is the most recent to do so at the Texas Open last week.
"I expect it to be a very different Masters than what we've seen in the last couple," said Spieth. "Rumors that I've heard already are that it's already firm and fast two, three weeks out from the golf tournament. I think it will play significantly different and I'm looking forward to that challenge."
4. Breaking Bryson: The Big Boy -- Bryson DeChambeau -- has put together a truly marvelous last 10 months. He's won three times since the COVID-19 pandemic landed in the United States, remains the reigning U.S. Open champion and recently lit the Arnold Palmer Invitational on fire by taking a heretofore unforeseen line across a lake on the par-5 6th hole. Despite all of that, he has yet to finish inside the top 20 at the Masters in four career appearances. To this point, Augusta National has clapped back at the Big Boy, though he certainly has an unending well of plans for how to shred the place just like he did Winged Foot. This year, that might include a less spinny ball, which he said hurt him in November. If he does somehow figure out the course this year and rolls to a second major in his last three tries, it could represent a tectonic shift in the golf ecosystem.
5. MIA: With Tiger Woods and Brooks Koepka on the shelf for the Masters, you're removing 19 combined major wins and the winners of five of the last 14 overall. That shifts the entire tenor of the tournament, and though it doesn't lessen the win for whoever grabs the green jacket, it certainly alleviates some of the pressure whoever is leading might feel on the weekend.
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6. Dustin Johnson repeat? Only Woods (2001-02), Nick Faldo (1990-91) and Jack Nicklaus (1965-66) have ever won back-to-back green jackets. D.J. is certainly capable given how much wiggle room he had last fall when he beat Sungjae Im and Cameron Smith by five apiece. D.J. is on a low-key heater at this event, and though his putter has been ice to start 2021, ball-strikers win the day here and I'd expect he makes a healthy run at major No. 3.
7. Old guys? Lee Westwood and Sergio Garcia (combined age: 88) have played some of the most inspired golf of anyone in the last month. Throw in Paul Casey (age 43) -- who has been the best player in the world from tee to green in 2021 -- and you have three guys who could all call Matthew Wolff, "son." The average age of Masters winners in the last decade has been surprisingly high compared to other major championships, and while I don't truly expect any of those three to win, they all have tremendous histories at Augusta National and are playing far better golf than a lot of guys three-quarters (or even half) their ages.
8. D-Rahm: Jon Rahm is perhaps the best player in the history of golf without a major championship. Though he's been his usual excellent self statistically so far in 2021, he's without a victory this calendar year. Could that come at Augusta? Well, he's finished in the top 10 in each of his last three appearances here and is one of just three golfers gaining 2.0 strokes or better from tee to green in the three months preceding the Masters. In six of the last nine Masters, the eventual champion was at 2.0 or better coming in. There's more, though. Rahm said at the WGC-Dell Match Play a few weeks ago that his wife Kelley is due with their first child on Masters weekend and that he'll be leaving if it comes to that. I'm always rooting for drama, and Rahm always brings loads of it, maybe even more than normal this year.
9. Collin Morikawa's leap: We have underrated what Morikawa has done thus far in his career. Winning four times, including a major championship and a WGC in his first 40 career PGA Tour events is extraordinary. However, if he jumps into the five-win club before even playing his 50th event and two of those are majors (and one is the Masters), I think we have to start thinking about what his ceiling is a lot differently than we currently do. Winning two majors overall in this era is like winning three or four in other eras, and he would have done so two months after turning 24. He gets a bit lost among the other monstrous figures (most notably the Big Boy) in the game, but a jacket would make his superstardom inescapable.
10. Rory McIlroy's quest: The first quarter of 2021 has not been great to McIlroy. It culminated in an absolute ejection from The Players Championship in March in which he nearly shot 80 in the first round and confessed that he's been chasing DeChambeau, who is wearing a yellow jersey in the speed race. Things seemed to have calmed a bit as McIlroy hired Pete Cowen to help him dial in his swing, and even despite all the hoopla, McIlroy is still gaining strokes in every category in 2021 coming into this tournament. He's tried everything else, maybe what he needs to touch off the grand slam is for everyone to forget he's even going for it.