AUGUSTA, Ga. — Brooks Koepka won two majors a year ago, and he credits sitting out the Masters because of an injury as rekindling his affection for golf. Justin Rose arrives at Augusta National Golf Club as the top-ranked player in the world and twice has played in the final group on Masters Sunday. Rory McIlroy hasn’t finished outside the top 10 in any tournament this year, nor has he finished outside the top 10 at the Masters since 2013, the kind of profile that makes for an easily identifiable favorite. Dustin Johnson has won in both Saudi Arabia and Mexico this year — further proof he can win anywhere at any time, regardless of course or competition.
Those are the top four players in the world at the moment, each a worthy pick at the 83rd Masters. Total green jackets among them: zero. The highest-ranked player in the world who has won here? That would be No. 12 Tiger Woods, whose most recent Masters title came in 2005.
This Masters, then, will do one of two things: It will provide either validation for one of the accomplished players who have never won here, or it will prop up a past champ who enters the year’s first major championship sputtering, to one degree or another. There’s almost no in between.
“No one’s really being that dominant right now,” Rose said.
He’s right about the global golf season because Johnson is the only player with multiple victories in 2019. But he’s also right about recent Masters.
There was a stretch — and it doesn’t seem that long ago — when Augusta National seemed a stage for only the familiar and the famous. From 2001 to 2006, a span of six Masters, Woods and Phil Mickelson won here five times. It was their time, their prime. If neither wins another Masters — a real possibility — their legacies are secure.
More than that, though, the 1980s and ’90s are littered with players who won here repeatedly: Seve Ballesteros and Ben Crenshaw, Bernhard Langer and Nick Faldo, Tom Watson and Jose Maria Olazabal, all with multiple green jackets, all predecessors to Woods and Mickelson.
But the 12 most recent Masters have gone decidedly off-script, producing 11 different winners. Yes, Mickelson’s third Masters title, from 2010, is wedged in there. Bubba Watson, though, is the only player to host the champions’ dinner twice. That group includes a star who seems certain to win here again: Jordan Spieth. It includes players who appear destined to remain in the discussion for “most random Masters champ ever”: Trevor Immelman, Charl Schwartzel, Danny Willett. It includes a player who has beaten back the demons for his home country: Australia’s Adam Scott. And it includes a player who has beaten back the demons in his own head: Sergio Garcia.
What it doesn’t include is a player who joined defending winner Patrick Reed at Tuesday’s champions’ dinner who would be included as an obvious favorite. Reed, as the first to repeat since Woods in 2001 and ’02? Maybe — except he hasn’t won in his 27 starts since.
“My expectations are high this week,” Spieth said. It’s a reasonable take; who has a better Masters résumé? In his first three appearances here, he tied for second, won and tied for second again. Last year, after seeming out of it Saturday night, he rose Sunday and, if not for a bogey at the last, would have matched the course record of 63, enough to finish third.
So maybe Spieth is the most likely former champion to become champion again. His problem: Since the 2017 British Open — a full 40 starts ago — he hasn’t won, anywhere.
“I know he’s close,” said Justin Thomas, Spieth’s good buddy who’s ranked fifth in the world. “He’s going to play well this week. I really do think that. He’s shown strides all year.”
Which is a strain of what so many players are saying this week — but about themselves.
“Confidence is up there for sure,” Rose said.
“I don’t think I’ve ever started a season this well in terms of finishes,” McIlroy said.
“I’m more ready than I’ve ever been,” Rickie Fowler said.
They’re among the players who feel like they should have won here but haven’t. That can create a crippling dynamic. Take Thomas, who has a major to his credit — the 2017 PGA Championship — but scrambles his brain when he steps to the first tee here.
“I’ve had a couple good majors,” Thomas said. “But as a whole, I would say I have very, very highly underperformed vs. what I feel like I should have, and that’s what we’re trying to figure out: if it’s me, if it’s someone else, if I’m putting too much work in, if my mental game is off, if I’m pressing too hard, if I’m being too aggressive or whatever it is. . . .
“As a whole, I think that we’ve figured out that I may be over-respecting the golf course, at least with the last couple years.”
That’s a lot to process, but it’s typical of what these guys think about. The pressure to do something they haven’t done before is real.
McIlroy may feel the pull between pressing and relaxing most intensely. He led here for three days in 2011 before melting down with a final-round 80. He entered the final round a year ago in the last pairing with Reed, only to falter and finish tied for fifth. He owns a U.S. Open, a British Open and two PGA Championships and needs only a green jacket to become just the sixth player to win all four majors.
“That’s always a challenge, when you put so much emphasis on winning a particular event,” Mickelson said. “But it’s also the chance to bring out your best, and he’s had such a phenomenal start to the year. He’s been playing such great golf consistently week in and week out, I think contending will be a given. He’ll be in contention.”
No pressure then.
“You can’t force it,” Mickelson added. “It just has to happen.”
That’s McIlroy’s approach, then. He won last month at the Players Championship, not because he was focused on that week but because of the work he put in to make playing well seem natural. The Masters is important, exceedingly so. Focusing on it as such?
“It’s definitely not a good place to be in,” McIlroy said. “It’s to make the most of the next 20 years of my career. It’s not just about one week. This is a lifelong journey of trying to improve and learn and try to master my craft, which is golf.”
Like so many of the top contenders, he just hasn’t mastered that craft at Augusta National, not for four consecutive days anyway. They come here knowing what’s at stake but also understanding they can’t force it. It just has to happen.