Just after the new year hit, I offered up my five early favorites to win the Masters along with three honorable mentions. You can read that piece here.
Knowing what we know now -- stuff like Tiger's struggles, Dustin Johnson's return, Patrick Reed's continued solid play, etc. -- there are a few amendments I'd like to make to the list.
So, here's my new -- and certainly not "last" Masters favorites list -- before that first full week in April that we all long for finally arrives.
5. Patrick Reed
This spot was previously occupied by Matt Kuchar (more on him later). Reed has earned a place in my five to watch because he has put his money where his mouth is plenty of times over the last 12 months when he easily could have put his foot there instead. Reed has established himself as one of those players where the rest of the field takes notice when his name appears on the first page of a leaderboard. He's a winner already this season, having won the Hyundai Tournament of Champions in a playoff over 2014 U.S. Ryder Cup teammate Jimmy Walker. Along with that, Reed just finished in a tie for seventh at the Honda Classic, where he just as easily could have won. He's also looking to avenge that missed cut in his first Masters from a year ago. I'm not saying he'll win this time around, but all indications are that he will be a factor.
4. Bubba Watson
Jordan Spieth was here in January, but moved up leaving this spot open for two-time Masters champ Bubba Watson (who, in all honesty, should have been among the top 5 on the last list). Watson's four starts in the 2014-15 season include a win at the World Golf Championships-HSBC Champions and a tie for second at the Waste Management Open. He's proven himself to be a force at Augusta National and should be a factor there for as long as he's one of the game's longest hitters and most creative shot-makers.
3. Jordan Spieth
Yes. This guy is still firmly among my top-5 to watch at Augusta National. He was No. 4 when I made these predictions a couple of months back, but has propelled to No. 3 after a strong start to 2015. Five starts this season and Spieth has already got himself three top-10 finishes, highlighted by a T4 at the Northern Trust Open. He nearly became the youngest ever to win the Masters in 2014.
2. Jason Day
The Aussie was holding down the No. 3 spot last time around, but has moved to No. 2 (Rickie Fowler, who occupied this position previously, has moved on to an honorable mention) with three top-10 finishes in four starts this year, including a win at Torrey Pines in the Farmers Insurance Open. I love Day at Augusta National too -- he tied for second in 2011 and finished third in 2013. It's only a matter of time before he wins a major. Since he started playing the majors in 2010, Day has snagged a top-10 finish at least twice in the Masters, U.S. Open and PGA Championship. He has yet to crack the top 10 in the Open Championship.
1. Rory McIlroy
Forget the missed cut last week in the Honda Classic -- his first appearance of the 2015 PGA Tour season. McIlroy is still the guy to beat at Augusta National as he looks for his third consecutive major championship victory. His position on my list hasn't changed since December and, unless someone else does something otherworldly before April, it won't.
Honorable mentions: Matt Kuchar, Rickie Fowler, Dustin Johnson
Honorable mentions from January were: Tiger Woods (who knows when he'll play again?); Henrik Stenson (hasn't played competitively on the European Tour or PGA Tour in a month); and Ernie Els (three missed cuts in four starts this season on the PGA Tour).
Just always one of the most consistently solid players out there. Loves Augusta National, evidenced by three consecutive top-8 finishes there. He's won seven times on the PGA Tour, including the Players, a World Golf Championship and a playoff event. The only thing left to do is win a major. In my next rendition of this list, I suspect Kuchar will have worked his way back into the top 5.
I just want to see how he backs up 2014 in the majors, which will be nearly impossible. He top-5'd in all of them a year ago. Fowler hasn't finished any better than a T41 in his last three starts. That's not of much concern, however. He really didn't turn it on in stroke-play events until the beginning of April in 2014 (he finished third at the WGC-Accenture Match Play held in February a year ago).
A sixth-month layoff doesn't seem to have impacted Johnson's game negatively. The booming hitter has four starts on Tour already and two of those resulted in missed cuts while the other two -- impressively -- resulted in a T4 at Pebble Beach and a playoff-loss the following week in the Northern Trust Open. The Masters is the lone major in which Johnson has yet to top-10, but that's going to change. It's too much of a bomber's paradise for it not to.
We've had no shortage of trick-shot videos in this space over the last 12 months.
In the video you're about to see -- a promo from Callaway Golf -- long-drive master Jamie Sadlowski teams up with Dude Perfect, a sports and comedy team (a while back, we brought their hilarious video of "golf stereotypes").
That video was terrific, but I especially loved the "What will the XR driver do to this" portion.
When Padraig Harrington stepped up to the tee at PGA National's daunting par-3 17th hole Monday for the first time, he was holding a one-shot lead. All he needed to do was make solid contact, put the ball on the green and walk away with par.
After all, he had put together a string of four consecutive birdies earlier in the round to put himself in that situation.
Instead, he blocked a 5-iron into the lake and wound up carding a double bogey. A clutch birdie putt on No. 18 got Harrington into a playoff with 21-year-old Daniel Berger -- and after both players parred their first playoff hole, Harrington found himself once again staring across the water at the 17th green.
And this is what happened:
So how did Harrington put the memory of that terrible first shot aside to hit the shot that won the Honda Classic?
PGA Professional Christian Czaja of Boca West Country Club in Boca Raton, Fla., said it's a matter of believing in yourself and your abilities -- and that comes from having mental toughness. If you've been in that situation before -- and had a positive result -- you can draw on that.
"If I'm Padraig Harrington, I'm thinking 'I'm a major champion, I've been there, I can do this,' " Czaja said. "Drawing upon his previous experience has got to be helpful. Even if you haven't won for awhile, you never forget how to win. That really gives you that belief in your ability."
You may never face that kind of shot to win a tournament, but Czaja said you can hone your own mental game -- both on the range and the course. There's no reason one bad shot should snowball into a bad day, if you learn how to eliminate it from your mind before you step up to hit your next one.
"The mental part of the game is so important, and it's often overlooked," Czaja said. "When you're practicing on the range, or especially when you're on the course, it's more important to focus on the process -- what you're supposed to do and how to do it -- rather than focusing on only the results. You should be thinking about what you need to do to create a good swing, not on what went wrong the last time."
And that's what separates the professionals from the recreational players, Czaja said. Sure, they have caddies and coaches to settle them down and help them refocus. But staying in the moment -- especially when it comes to developing a consistent routine -- is part of why they're able to shake off a shank or worry less about the water.
And that was never more evident than in the final round of the Honda Classic, when it seemed like everyone who grabbed the lead at some point ran into serious trouble.
"The best players in the world can have these poor shots, but almost always they're able to regroup and come back on the very next shot," Czaja said. "Even after hitting it in the water at No. 17, Harrington had enough composure to get a ruling on the very next shot.
"That's something players have to work on. And that's training yourself to go through a routine to prepare yourself for the next shot rather than worrying about what's already happened."
I wasn't sure I'd be holding this when I hit in the big lake behind in real time. pic.twitter.com/FFtKX2UrD6
— Padraig Harrington (@padraig_h) March 2, 2015
Czaja suggested a great pre-shot routine using these three steps:
1. Have a positive mental picture of the shot you want to hit
"Without question, you always visualize the shot in a positive light. Jack Nicklaus was one of the best at it. You want to see that successful shot in your mind first -- because it clears away any negative thoughts carried over from the previous one."
2. Prepare yourself by knowing the situation
"Before you hit a shot, you have to have a plan in mind of what you want to do. Look at the yardage. Check the conditions. Look at the lie. For pros, it's automatic. But what it does is puts you back in the moment. You're no longer worried about what happened in the past. Get in the habit of doing a checklist with every shot and you'll gain confidence in pressure situations."
3. Step up to the ball and execute
"The more you practice the routine, the more it becomes automatic under pressure. You go into autopilot. You'll know when to pull the trigger, because you've practiced it so much in your mind."
Czaja said any PGA Professional will be happy to help teach you more about the mental game, as well as assist you in improving your physical one.
Christian Czaja has been named PGA Teacher of the Year for South Florida. To reach him, visit his website at http://www.christianczaja.com or call (844) 236-8465.
Sometimes things just go your way on the golf course -- even if that "way" at first looks to be "wayward."
Just ask Luke Donald.
At 3-under par for the tournament and at that same mark for the final round of the Honda Classic on Monday, Donald stepped up to the 386-yard 13th hole at PGA National and unleashed a tee shot that was yanked way left. So far left that it hit the roof of a house out of bounds.
The Golf Gods were with Donald, however, as the ball caromed back into the middle of the fairway, leaving him 157 yards to the hole.
Donald got his approach shot on the green and two-putted for a not-so-routine par.
As for Donald's ShotLink stats, that'll count as just another fairway hit.
Check it out:
And, in case you were wondering: If your ball happens to bounce of a house and back into play, there's no penalty. However, that's not to say you wouldn't possibly receive a bill from the homeowner to repair a broken window.
How fast can a three-shot deficit (or lead) get wiped out on the PGA Tour? Faster than you can say "birdie, double-bogey."
Ian Poulter was seemingly in cruise control early in Sunday's final round at PGA National, while Patrick Reed -- three shots back -- was struggling just to stay in contention.
But on the par-3 fifth hole, the unthinkable happened for Poulter:
Then Reed followed shortly thereafter with this clutch birdie putt from off the green:
When Poulter two-putted after taking a drop, suddenly the two were tied.
Three holes earlier, Reed was faced with an awkward shot in a muddy lie, but pulled off a perfect recovery, splitting two palm trees and winding up on the green, a shot that allowed him to salvage par and stay within striking distance of the leader.
Poulter promptly dumped his tee shot on the sixth hole in the water -- this time with a hook. He had to settle for bogey and trailed Reed by one stroke, giving up four shots over a two-hole span.
However, Reed returned the favor on No. 7 when he missed a short par putt and Poulter drained his birdie putt -- a two-shot swing in the other direction.
And when the horn sounded suspending play because of darkness, Poulter was back on top -- although tied now with Paul Casey -- with Reed one shot back, setting up what should be a whale of a final 11 holes Monday morning at PGA National.