The Masters is less than 100 days away, so it isn't too early to start looking at potential winners.
As we've seen as a general theme over the last few years on the PGA Tour, there's been a youth movement. With one exception, I think that trend could continue once we focus in on Augusta National in the first full week of April.
With that, here are my five early favorites to win the Masters:
5. Matt Kuchar
Kuchar is my "exception to the youth" rule. Then again, at 36, he really isn't that old. Kuchar's first Masters appearance was in 1998 when he tied for 21st as the reigning U.S. Amateur champ. After a little rough patch in his professional career in the early 2000s, Kuchar has gone on to become one of the most consistent players in the world. His name is routinely on the first page of leaderboards. A winner of the Players Championship and two World Golf Championships, the lone item missing from Kuchar's resume is a major championship. He'll head to Augusta National this spring having finished no worse than a tie for eighth in his last three trips to the Masters.
4. Jordan Spieth
If it weren't for his victory in Australia followed by his win a week later in Tiger's tournament late last year, I may have been a little reluctant to give Spieth the nod in this space. Not because he doesn't have the talent -- we know he has that. It's just that given the short sample size, he hadn't quite yet established himself as a "closer"... that all changed in November and December when he established himself as a bonafide obliterator, romping the field by six shots in Australia and then crushing the Hero World Challenge field by 10 shots just seven days later. Spieth tied for second in his first Masters appearance last year and -- for a while in the final round -- looked poised to become the youngest Masters champion in history before Bubba Watson turned it on. With the exception of Rory McIlroy, the 21-year-old Spieth is the player I'm most looking forward to watching in 2015.
3. Jason Day
It seems like Day has been around forever, but he's still only 27 years old. In his last eight majors played, Day has notched four top-8 finishes, including a third-place finish in the 2013 Masters (he tied for second in 2011) and a tie for second at the 2013 U.S. Open. Really, the only thing that seems to have held Day back from breakout seasons lately are injuries -- back injury, thumb injury -- the guy has been plagued with the injury bug. But, when healthy, he's one of the most exciting players out there. He came so close to becoming the first Aussie to win the Masters in 2013 before being edged out by his buddy Adam Scott. Day strikes me as the type of player who is destined to win a major. So, why not this April at Augusta National?
2. Rickie Fowler
Surely you've heard, but the 26-year-old Fowler was the only player to finish in the top 5 at all four majors in 2014. That's a terrific stat unless you're Fowler and realize that along with being the only player to top 5 in the four big ones in 2014, you were also the first player to accomplish that feat without one of those being a win. Fowler has morphed from the talented player with the flashy clothes to a world-class player whose game matches the flash of his clothes. His 2014 major finishes: T5 Masters; T2 U.S. Open; T2 Open Championship; T3 PGA Championship. That's crazy good. Fowler is hoping the adage, "If you put yourself in a position to win enough times, eventually you're going to win" applies to him. The Masters will be our first look at how much "major" confidence Fowler took away from 2014.
1. Rory McIlroy
He's the most electrifying player in the world right now. Already a four-time major champion at age 25, McIlroy is looking to complete the career grand slam at the Masters in April and also win his third consecutive major. All eyes will be on Rory and rightfully so. That's the position he's put himself in and -- furthermore -- no one's expectations for McIlroy are higher than those he has for himself. Anything less than a win at Augusta National would be disappointing... first and foremost for Rory and, secondly, for golf fans who want to see him take a crack at a "Rory Slam" with a fourth straight major win in June at Chambers Bay in the U.S. Open.
Honorable mentions: Tiger Woods, Henrik Stenson and Ernie Els.
Well, let's remember that he's looking healthy for the first time in a long time. Before the back/neck injuries that plagued him in 2014, the 39-year-old Woods was coming off a five-win 2013 season. Also, aside from a T40 in 2012, the 14-time major champion has finished no worse than a tie for sixth in every Masters from 2005 to 2013. He did not play due to injury in 2014. With 13 top-10 finishes in 18 starts at Augusta National as a professional, it's silly for even the biggest Woods cynic to think he won't be a factor.
The 38-year-old has four top-four finishes in his last eight majors played. His four wins on the PGA Tour are made up of a Players Championship, a World Golf Championship and two Playoffs wins. Oh yeah, there's also those nine wins on the European Tour, including back-to-back victories in that Tour's version of the Tour Championship -- the DP World Tour Championship in Dubai. At Augusta National, he has to be considered more of a dark-horse than a favorite (strange to say about the No. 2-ranked player in the world at the time of this post) seeing as it's the lone major where he's failed to top 10.
Because I love a great story. Sue me. There's no major the Big Easy would rather win -- which is probably a little easier for him to admit than most, seeing as he already has two U.S. Opens and two Open Championships. A win from the 45-year-old is a big ask at Augusta National. He's top-10'd there on six occasions, including five in a row from 2000-2004 with bookend runner-up finishes, but hasn't done a whole lot lately. The consensus is Els presses a little too much at Augusta National. What a story it would be if he could get the job done at a place where he's been so close so many times in the past.