By Stephen Delaney Hale
Photos courtesy of Augusta National Golf Club

Picking the winner of each year’s Masters has been a tradition almost as long as the the tournament. For a brief time in the 1930s, the players were present for a high-end Calcutta Party auction. No doubt the presence of Sam Snead or Ben Hogan staring at you would influence a higher bid than you had planned.

Calcutta parties still abound around the greater Augusta area, but instead of Gene Sarazen and Byron Nelson, you must be prepared to face down your neighboring golf buddies. Not as glamorous, but it can still be very important for the bragging rights until next April.

 What makes things interesting is that for every Danny Willett there have been four Arnold Palmers, for every Mike Weir, there have been five Tiger Woods,  for every Herman Keiser, there have been six Jack Nicklaus’. 

There will be more Charl Schwartzels, but there will probably be only one Rory McIlroy, who would wring roars from the pines the way Arnie used to drive his Army to jubilation. 

I’m betting on Rory the way I used to cheer for Jack, Seve and Arnie.

Below are our staff picks for the 2023 Green Jacket and a few reasons why you might consider them. Good luck!

World Golf Rankings as of February 8, 2023 

Rory McIlroy | World Golf Ranking 1

Rory McIlroy capped off his steady march back to No. 1 in the world in October 2022 with an explosive burst of birdies late in the round to hold off Kurt Kitayama to win The CJ CUP in South Carolina. At the 2022 Masters, McIlroy shot an amazing eight birdie, no bogey, round of 64 on Sunday, but had started too far back to catch Scottie Scheffler, who won by three. Late in the season, McIIory won the Tour Championship and the FedExCup. The CJ Cup victory was the fifth tournament in a six-event string to close out the season; his highest finish was a tie for 4th, including two wins. We would expect McIlroy and Scheffler to put on another great show in Augusta this year. He has won the other three major championships, including the PGA Championship twice. After the CJ Cup in South Carolina, McIlroy was quoted as saying, “I feel like I’m enjoying the game as much as I ever have. I played with that joy, and it’s definitely shown over these last few months. It’s a big achievement, and I’m really proud of myself right now.” When McIlroy is playing well, he is smiling and has a bounce in his step. If you see McIlroy bouncing in the practice rounds, he’s your best bet for the Green Jacket.

Scottie Scheffler | World Golf Ranking 2

Scottie Scheffler stormed the beaches of the PGA Tour after winning the Korn Ferry Tour Player of the Year in 2019 to win his PGA Tour card. He came out of the gate with strong results for a rookie, including a tie for 7th at his second tournament, the Waste Management Phoenix Open. He saw a 5th place at the World Golf Championships (WGC)–Workday Championship, followed by a 2nd place in the WGC–World Match Play Championship. Later that summer, Scheffler finished tied for 8th at the PGA Championship. He finished 3rd at the Jack Nicklaus’ Memorial Tournament and continued making high finishes at important tournaments ­— a tie for 7th at the U.S. Open and a tie for 8th at The Open Championship. He had three more top-4 finishes on tour in 2020. Then Scheffler unleashed a victory stretch that would have enhanced any major player’s record: four wins in six tournaments. He started with a win at the WM Phoenix Open, followed soon by another at the Arnold Palmer Championship. He secured another win, this time over Aiken, S.C. native Kevin Kisner at the WGC–World Match Play Championship. That win bounced the 24-year-old Scheffler from 5th place in the world rankings to 1st. True golf fans were very aware of this display of great golf, but in his next start, the wider world tuned in when he won the Masters Tournament by three strokes over Rory McIlroy. As of early February, Scheffler is headed for Augusta, holding the No. 2 spot in the world. There’s only one more place to go.

Cameron Smith | World Golf Ranking 4

It’s eerie that the top three in the world rankings at the end of 2022 were also the top three in the 2022 Masters. Shane Lowry tied with Cameron Smith for third. Smith started last year with a victory in the season opener at the Sentry Tournament of Champions in Hawaii. A few months later, he won the PGA Tour flagship event at THE PLAYERS Championship. At his next event, which was the Masters, Smith spent most of the tournament in second place behind Scheffler before being passed by McIlroy.His next win was at another major, the oldest prize in golf, The Open Championship. He also won at the Fortinet Australian PGA Championship in late November. In his rookie season in 2021, he was fourth in his second tournament on the PGA Tour at the Genesis Invitational and took second at the Northern Trust. Smith seems to have that rare and valuable talent of playing his best at the biggest tournaments. If that holds true, Smith’s next “big one” is the Masters in Augusta.

Patrick Cantlay | World Golf Ranking 5

Patrick Cantlay, 31, born on St. Patrick’s Day in 1992, has been a force on the PGA Tour for several years. At the University of California, Los Angeles, the California native held the No. 1 spot on the World Amateur Golf Rankings for 54 months. After a year on tour, Cantlay suffered a back injury that kept him off the fairways for four years. Within two years of returning, he reached the top 10 in the World Golf Rankings. In June 2021, Cantlay grasped his first trophy on tour at the Memorial Tournament in the hardest way — a playoff against Collin Morikawa. That win started a string of eight straight top-10 finishes. His next win came in August 2021 at the BMW Championship. He and Scott Stallings matched scores in three of the four rounds, with just a one-stroke difference in the other. They matched identical rounds of 68 on Thursday and Friday and matched 69s on their scorecards on Sunday. It was on Saturday when they posted different scores, Cantlay with what turned out to be a winning 65, while Stallings shot what would have otherwise been considered an excellent 66. His next victory came in the 2022 BMW. He has won the Memorial Tournament twice, in 2019 and 2021, the ZOZO Championship in 2020, and the 2017 Shriners Hospital for Children Open. 

Jon Rahm | World Golf Ranking 3

John Rahm, of Spain, is on a roll. Since the end of 2022, Rahm has risen from No. 5 in the world to No. 3, as of early February. He has recently held the World No. 1 title. In his last six tournaments, Rahm has won four times. He won the first tournament of the 2023 season at the Tournament of Champions in Hawaii and then in late January at The American Express in California by one stroke over Davis Thompson. That moved Rahm from 4th place in the rankings to 3rd. He also won the DP World Tour Championship (originally called the European Tour) and the Spanish Open, by six strokes over Frenchman Mathieu Pavonin last October in Madrid. In May 2022, Rahm won the Mexico Open at Vidanta by one stroke over Tony Finau. When Rahm won the 2021 U.S. Open, he started a six-week run of top-10 finishes that ended in his tie with Kevin Na at the Tour Championship. (The Tour Championship does not hold playoffs.) That highly lucrative win started a streak of 16 out of 17 weeks at the top of the World Rankings. His broad stature makes him a formidable opponent on the course.

Xander Schauffele | World Golf Ranking 6

Xander Schauffele is our sixth pick to win the 2023 Masters Tournament, and he is also ranked No. 6 in the world. Schauffele has already tied for third this year at The American Express in California in January. Last year, he posted wins in what were back-to-back tournaments on his schedule, The Scottish Open in July and The Travelers in June. He finished his season with four top-10 scores, including a tie for 3rd at the BMW Championship during the PGA Tour Playoffs and a tie for 6th at the Tour Championship. After a two-month break, Schauffele posted a tie for 9th in the ZOZO Championship and a fourth in the Hero World Challenge. In 2021, he won the Olympic Golf Competition, finished in a tie for third at the Masters, finished 3rd at the Tour Championship, and posted ties for second place earlier this season at the Phoenix Open and the Farmers Insurance Open. He has a window in his career at the Masters, but with enough experience to be viewed as a strong contender.

Will Zalatoris | World Golf Ranking 8

Playing his freshman year on the Korn Ferry Tour in 2020, Will Zalatoris won the TPC Colorado Championship, which earned him an exemption into the U.S. Open, where he finished in a tie for 6th in his first major championship. By the end of the year, he had earned a special exemption onto the PGA Tour. Ready to take advantage of the promotion, Zalatoris finished second in the 2021 Masters, just one stroke behind champion Hideki Matsuyama. He was later named 2020-21 PGA Tour Rookie of the Year. Now, feeling like a “seasoned tour member,” Zalatoris put his new stature to use early in the season when he earned, but lost, a playoff to Luke List at the Farmers Insurance Open in January 2022. Another playoff loss came in May — the PGA Championship to Justin Thomas. The 2nd place finishes in majors continued when he tied Scottie Scheffler behind winner Matt Fitzgerald at the U.S. Open. In August, Zalatoris would finally break his deadlock when he won the Fedex St. Jude Classic in Memphis on the third hole of another playoff, defeating Sepp Straka. The win moved Zalatoris to the top of the FedExCup standings, just ahead of Scheffler. Both of them would lose the FedExCup and the Tour Championship on the final putt in Atlanta to Rory McIlroy. Ranked No. 8 in the world, Zalatoris has made himself a threat to win anywhere.

Justin Thomas | World Golf Ranking 9

Jordan Spieth was the first to tell most of us about Justin Thomas. When asked about the wave of very young golfers winning around the world, Spieth told the media, “Wait ‘till you see this guy, Justin Thomas.” Spieth defeated Thomas in the featured match of The National Collegiate Championship, playing for his University of Texas, 3 to 2, over Thomas who was playing for the University of Alabama. Thomas and Alabama won the next year. Spieth and Thomas faced each other in numerous junior, amateur and collegiate tournaments since their early teens, Spieth from Texas and Thomas from Kentucky. They played on Junior Ryder Cup and Walker Cup teams together. Thomas’ first two PGA Tour victories both came at the CMB Classic in Malaysia in November 2015 and October 2016. Three months after that second win, Thomas posted back-to-back victories at the 2017 Tournament of Champions at Maui, Hawaii, followed by the Sony Open in Hawaii. The three victories vaulted Thomas to the No. 1 FedExCup ranking early in 2017. More recently, Thomas won the the 2021 PLAYERS Championship and the 2022 PGA Championship. It’s no longer, “Wait ‘till you see this Thomas guy.” Now it’s, “Do you think this will be his second major win?”

Dustin Johnson | World Golf Ranking 50

When we first wrote our top 15 favorites to win the 2023 Masters, it did not include Dustin Johnson or Jordan Spieth. Those choices were heavily influenced by the current World Golf Rankings. But both players have a reason for their fall in the rankings. Johnson resigned from the PGA Tour in summer 2020 to join another tour, and any success he’s had has been in tournaments that are not recognized by the WGR. Yet in mid-winter 2023, Masters Chairman Fred Ridley announced that players who had otherwise qualified for the 2023 Masters would be invited. Johnson has fallen from No. 1 in the World during his 2020 Masters victory, to No. 50. It is an unfortunate division in the world of golf; the pros and cons are both significant and complex. But Johnson has long since validated his inclusion as being among the elite golfers of our time. The Masters often identifies the game’s truly great players and separates them from the merely “really good.” He has 24 PGA Tour victories and 22 top-10 finishes in major championships, including the 2016 U.S. Open and the 2020 Masters Tournament. The natural athlete from nearby Columbia, S.C., took some time to get his six-foot-four frame to stay on the plane, with one of the longest swings on tour. But that dominant height and a natural easy swing give Johnson among the fastest clubhead speeds on tour, crushing golf balls farther than most gallery members can see. When he learned to keep the ball in the fairway, most of the time, success began courting him. His recent form suggests that it will be the “old” (38) Johnson who tees it up here this year.

Matthew Fitzpatrick | World Golf Ranking 10

Matt Fitzpatrick stamped himself a “Major Championship Winner” with a victory in the U.S. Open last year. That would always be remarkable, but making it more dramatic was the pair just one stroke back, Scottie Scheffler and Will Zalatoris. In fourth and fifth place were Hideki Matsuyama and Rory McIlroy, respectively. In May, Fitzpatrick had another tie for second, this time at the Wells Fargo Championship, with Keagan Bradley and Cameron Young, two strokes behind Max Homa. He tied for fifth at the PGA Championship, but that was just two strokes behind eventual winner Justin Thomas after he won a playoff with Will Zalatoris. He tied for fifth in the DP World Tour Championship and finished second at the Italian Open after losing a playoff to Scotsman Robert McIntyre. He tied for second at the DP World Championship–Dubai, five weeks after his victory at the Andalucía Masters. With his 2020 U.S. Open victory, coupled with his win at the DP World Championship and his 5th place showing in the PGA Championship, Fitzpatrick has shown his prowess for major championship competition, and it seems he’s just getting going.

Appears in the April 2023 issue of Augusta Magazine

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