If you find all the frenzy about Tiger Woods’ apparent return to competitive golf at this week’s Masters to be grating, you are on your own. All of it is tremendous—the private jet-tracking, the breathless reports about how he’s absolutely striping the ball on the driving range, the swooning crowds following him around Augusta National for his practice rounds this week. It’s fun. It’s exciting. It’s stunning, just 13 months and change after what could’ve been a life-ending, not just career-ending, car crash. Differing opinions on this don’t matter. The point is that even at 46, Tiger is inescapable in professional golf whether he’s playing or not. He did not play a professional round last season and won the PGA Tour’s bonus money for being the most talked-about player on tour anyway. He will be the sun, moon, and stars this week, and we’ll all have a more enjoyable time with the 86th Masters if we come to terms with that.
And yet! You won’t actually see that much of Tiger playing this week. That’s because he’ll take fewer shots than everyone else (at least who makes the cut), because he’s going to win. So it’s better to focus on the players who will play more golf, to find things to focus on during the moments when Tiger isn’t piping drivers around doglegs at Amen Corner and playing the contours of the par-3 16th green like they’re an electric guitar. It’s important to have other viewing interests to keep you engaged when Tiger is leading by 14 shots on Sunday afternoon.
Fortunately, there is more happening this week to hold your attention. This Masters is coming at an exciting moment for the sport, when the best players in the world are disproportionately young and several of them are still hunting their first major championship wins. For a fleeting moment in March, the top five players in the world were all under 30 for the first time ever. That cohort of players is set to run the show for a long time, and this week is the first major in an era that feels like it belongs entirely to a youth movement. Or at least it would—if Tiger weren’t playing. But you get the point: There are a lot of great 20-something and early-30s golfers right now. They’ll be at each other’s throats this week and for the rest of the decade.
On the precipice of the first tee, let’s check in with these prominent non-Tigers.
Phil Mickelson, the No. 2 player in the world for so many of Tiger’s dominant years, is not here. He remains on a hiatus from golf after he said the quiet thing out loud about his dalliance with a Saudi Arabia–backed startup tour: that he knows the government killed Jamal Khashoggi and are “scary motherfuckers to get involved with,” but that he was doing it for negotiating leverage anyway. Phil announced in late February that he’d be taking a break. The PGA Tour has refused to say whether he is under an official suspension or not, while Augusta (which governs itself independent of the tour) answered speculation on Wednesday by saying Phil could’ve shown up this week but did not.
Nobody seems to know how Mickelson is doing. “I’ve tried to reach out, but he’s gone dark,” Bryson Dechambeau told reporters on Tuesday. “There’s no contact.” DeChambeau himself has not played recently while dealing with various injuries, and he says he’s operating at around 80 percent for the Masters. DeChambeau was also rumored to be closely involved with the Saudi operation before Mickelson’s comments blunted whatever momentum the burgeoning tour might have had. He is probably pleased to let Mickelson take the public heat these days, given that DeChambeau has deservedly gotten plenty of that in the past year.
Nobody out here hits it as far as DeChambeau when he really gets into a drive, and his reduced capacity is good news for some of the other big hitters in the field. Jon Rahm, the Spaniard who won last year’s U.S. Open, leads the sport by a mile in strokes gained off the tee over the past six months. Augusta puts a premium on driving distance, of which Rahm has plenty.
What Rahm does not have is a bunch of insider tips on the golf course from Tiger. He has asked Woods for advice over the years and not gotten it. “I think there’s only one man in this field that hears advice from Tiger, because I’ve asked before and I get nothing,’’ Rahm told reporters this week. “So, you might need to ask Justin Thomas.” Rahm explained that he once asked Tiger for course tips and got basically nothing. “Meanwhile, I turn around and J.T.’s there with him, and he’s getting a whole dissertation on what to do.’’ If Tiger can influence a proxy war between the younger players vying to lead the next generation, he has picked his horse. Thomas has always been an elite iron player, but this year has made strides off the tee and putting, too, going by the strokes-gained figures that measure shot-by-shot performance.
Other notables in this cohort are Collin Morikawa, Cameron Smith, Viktor Hovland, and (dare I say?) Joaquin Niemann, who won the February Genesis Invitational over a lot of elite players. They’re all very good, but Smith has played the best lately and has two wins this season against stacked fields at the Sentry Tournament of Champions (which is open to the prior year’s tournament winners) and the Players Championship (which arguably has the strongest field of any event). Beating the Masters field would barely be a step up for him.
Nobody’s as hot this year as recently crowned world No. 1 Scottie Scheffler, who’s won three events since February, all against deep, competitive fields. Scheffler looks like he is about 46, but swings like the 25-year-old he is. Conversely, Rory McIlroy turns 33 shortly and now qualifies as old by the standards of the top players in the world. But save for a missed cut in a de facto warmup appearance at the Texas Open last week, his game has been in nice form this year. McIlroy has a lot of reason to focus on peaking for this specific tournament, the last one he needs to complete a career grand slam. Never disregard him on this course.
The same rule applies to Jordan Spieth, who almost always contends at Augusta and feels like he has several more green jackets than the one he actually has. His career finishing places at the Masters: T-2, win, T-2, T-11, 3, T-21, T-46 (in that weird November Masters in 2020), T-3. Spieth isn’t the player he used to be, but at this course, he has a better chance than probably anywhere else. Along this same line, keep an eye on Brooks Koepka, the four-time major winner who has all but admitted he does not care about nonmajors but must always be considered a threat in these environs. Koepka, when he is on, still hits the ball as authoritatively as anyone and has flashed championship putting. Koepka’s buddy Dustin Johnson is also the sort of talent who could always win at Augusta—and he did, in that historical anomaly of a November Masters in 2020. Johnson has not been atop his game lately but is so skilled and strong that he is a potential factor on any layout anywhere.
Convention holds that winning the Masters requires masterful putting. But last year’s first- and second-place finishers, Hideki Matsuyama and Will Zalatoris, specialize more in just hitting the hell out of the golf ball. Another ball-striker is Daniel Berger, who hits it great and can also be a whole lot when he has arguments with his playing partners about where to drop water balls.
My favorite pick for the week, though, is Patrick Cantlay, another tour elder at 30 years old. Last season’s FedEx Cup winner has firmly entered the “matter of time” zone to win a major. His robotic demeanor is genuinely Tiger-like, though he doesn’t celebrate as explosively as Woods does in good moments. Few players look as firmly in control as a good Cantlay. He is a killer and at some point will kill on a major track.
You can also watch the old guys. The Masters grants a lifetime invitation to all of its past champions, which creates annual situations analogous to Joe Montana strapping it up and returning to an NFL field against today’s 23-year-olds. Sixty-somethings Sandy Lyle, Larry Mize, Fred Couples, and Bernhard Langer are all still in the field. Langer might beat some young guys, and Couples was in the hunt for a while as recently as 2017. Tiger is a spring chicken compared to several of his fellow Masters champs still giving it a go.
There is always drama at this tournament, but Augusta tends to convince everyone involved to be on their best behavior, at least as far as broadcast cameras will let us see. But this year, a Netflix documentary crew is on the scene, so here’s hoping Berger, DeChambeau, or someone else gets hot-headed enough to give us a captivating episode of streaming television. There is no chance we get more than one of those before Augusta kicks the cameras out.