• The 85th Masters begins on Thursday at the Augusta National, Georgia
  • Dustin Johnson defending champion after Green Jacket win last November
  • Justin Thomas eyeing first Masters crown, with Jordan Spieth and Bryson DeChambeau amongst contenders
AUGUSTA, GEORGIA – Just five months after winning the 2020 Masters, Dustin Johnson defends the Green Jacket this weekend as major season begins at Augusta.

 

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As the Masters regains its rightful springtime slot in the major golfing calendar this year, this Thursday the 85th Masters begins at the Augusta National Golf Club in Georgia.

Pushed back until November of last year due to the coronavirus pandemic, the shorter than usual five-month turnaround between trips to the Peach State, is no less anticipated in 2021.

Indeed, after an autumn jaunt to the famous Augusta pines last time out, there is nothing like the Masters in full colour at this time of year, as Amen Corner waits quietly amidst the glistening leaves, as the patrons return in reduced numbers also.

So rejoice! It’s Masters time once more. Here is the lowdown.

 

Johnson defends Green Jacket

For Dustin Johnson, a return to Augusta will be a very sweet one.

However many majors the 36-year-old may win during his golfing career, November 2020 will forever remain one of the proudest moments for the South Carolinian.

Perhaps the only disadvantage to his winning the Masters last year however, is that the Johnson may have one of the shortest Green Jacket reigns in tournament’s 87-year existence, should he not retain his crown this year.

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Claiming his second major to back up an an inaugural 2016 US Open win at Oakmont, Johnson held his nerve after a dominant week to ease home by five strokes in the fall of last year, after the challenges of the dogged Cameron Smith and Sung-Jae Im finally faded.

Perhaps considered a soft touch last year due to its less punishing environs, Augusta’s teeth will be at their sharpest this week, and though Johnson will arrive having proved much already, the world number one will be keen to further showcase his status as the best in the game right now.

 

The form book

Aside from Johnson, this particular edition of the Masters could be one of the most unpredictable in recent memory, with no less than 15 different names having won a PGA Tour event since the turn of the year.

The top of that list will undoubtedly be filled by Justin Thomas, who was classy in his victory at the Players’ last month, and whose game has gone up a notch since the onset of the COVID-19 era.

Synonymous with his struggles of late in major competition, a T4 for JT at Augusta six months ago was an impressive step for the Kentucky native, who was part of a five-way tie for the lead after 36 holes last autumn.

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Having failed to keep pace with Johnson’s electric 65 on the Saturday though, Thomas was too far off the pace to be a genuine contender in 2020, but his win at Sawgrass feels like a corner has been turned. Thomas is a serious contender this week.

As suddenly, is Jordan Spieth. Winner at Augusta six years ago, the 27-year-old’s tale has been one of woe of late.

This season however, his rise in form has been noted, underpinned by victory in his home state at last weekend’s Valero Texas Open.

Bringing to an end 1,351 days without a win, Spieth has been haunted by his meltdown in 2016 after surrendering a five-stroke final round lead to eventual winner Danny Willett. In 2021 though, Spieth looks like a man on a mission.

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The the field will also have a job in stopping Bryson DeChambeau, who after a valuable learning curve five months ago, believes he has the game to tame Augusta this year.

Victorious in his first major in New York last summer, DeChambeau’s power game was not enough to take the Green Jacket last time out, but both the Californian and the entire golfing fraternity know, slight tweaks could see him hard to beat this week.

Still only 27 and a player who causes much consternation in the game’s hierarchy due to his uncompromising methods, DeChambeau took home the a win at the Arnold Palmer Invitational last month, and providing he is in the shake-up come Sunday, is a player to fear this weekend.

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The contenders

Of course, it is not only the form book to take note of ahead of this week, with the pandemic having given many players a metaphorical shot in the arm during the past 12 months.

On the flip side however, and considered a favourite in any other year, Rory McIlroy has slipped into the ‘also-rans’ category, after perhaps his worst year to date, which included shooting a 75 during his opening round at Augusta in 2020.

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Missing the cut in the his defence at Sawgrass, the Northern Irishman is winless on either PGA or European Tour since 2019 – not to mention in the midst of a seven-year major drought – and his form of late does not point to a bucking of the current trend at Augusta.

That said, this is McIlroy’s latest chance to complete the Grand Slam at Augusta and perhaps arriving here somewhat under the radar – with the course playing significantly faster this time around – McIlroy could yet make an impression.

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The story is rather different for fellow Briton Lee Westwood, who is enjoying something of a Indian summer in what is now the twilight of his career.

Finishing T2 in back-to-back weekends at the Arnold Palmer and at the Players’ earlier this year, the 47-year-old from Worksop came agonisingly close to ending a 10-year Tour win drought.

Despite his latest near-misses, Westwood has again proved to be one of the most consistent players of his generation not to win one of the big four, and having come home second at Augusta in 2010 and 2016, could 2021 finally be his year?

From one veteran of the game to a relative filly, Brooks Koepka is set to make his major return this weekend after an injury-plagued 2020, that forced his absence from the US Open and Masters last year.

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Having nursed his way through hip and knee pain, the Floridian won at the Waste Management Open in Phoenix back in February, and has already proven his ability to rise to the occasion on the big stage.

A four-time major winner and a runner-up in 2019, whether Koepka has the stamina to go the distance this week however, remains to be seen.

Elsewhere, former number one Jon Rahm has been earmarked as the next big name to win a major, whilst Xander Schauffele – despite an uncertain last few months – has been in the top 10 of every major at least once since 2018, and came runner-up to boot two years ago.

Of the other former Green Jacket winners, Patrick Reed could perhaps be the biggest contender and is only 14 months removed from a WCG Championship victory, whilst also winning at the Farmers Insurance Open in California back in January.

 

The outsiders

From the outsiders pack to watch this week, Corey Conners could make a name for himself, after proving his credentials at the Players’ with a T7, on the back of a third-placed finish in the Arnold Palmer a week prior.

Now in the top 50, the Canadian has showed his mettle in storming up the leaderboards over the final 18 holes of tournament golf already, and could come up on the rails on Sunday.

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After a stellar 2020, Tyrrell Hatton has not built on last year to the degree he would have liked, but as the lead Briton in the field, is the best placed to become the latest winner from home shores.

Having lost the red cardigan to DeChambeau earlier this year, Hatton still holds the BMW Championship crown, and cannot be overlooked.

Abraham Ancer was another late mover to emerge from the pack last year, and after at one point standing a mere shot off Johnson on the final round, rather faltered to finish T13. The Mexican is again fancied to do well.

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Finally, perhaps the name that has cropped up most in the ‘dark horse’ column in many Masters sweepstakes for the week, is Norway’s Viktor Hovland.

The 23-year-old Oklahoma State University collegiate graduate picked up his second win last December at the Makayoba Classic in Mexico, having become the first Norwegian to win on the Tour in February 2020.

Tipped by many as name that could be in the major winners’ enclosure in the coming months and years, could Hovland accelerate his progress in the grandest way at Augusta?

 

The 2021 Masters begins on Thursday at the Augusta National, Georgia.

 

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