The new Big Three in golf have taken turns dominating the game over the past two years.
Each has an opportunity this week to claim they have gained the upper hand with a win in the 80th Masters Tournament at Augusta National Golf Club.
But Jason Day, Jordan Spieth and Rory McIlroy can only share the role of tournament favorites considering how many of the game’s top-ranked players and recent Masters champions are on top of their games entering Thursday’s opening round.
One of the top seven players in the world or a Masters champion have won six of the past seven weeks on the PGA Tour.
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“Leading into this Masters, there are probably 10, 12, 15 guys you could make a good case for that have a real shot at winning this tournament, even with the standard of golf that high,” said Adam Scott, the 2013 Masters champion who had a three-tournament stretch of two wins and a runner-up in February and March. “With guys like Jason and Jordan and Rory at the top of the world, I think they are … incredible talents pushing the bar even higher in the game for me to try to keep up with them and a whole bunch of other guys.”
Nobody is hotter in the game than Day.
With wins in his last two tournaments at the Arnold Palmer Invitational and WGC-Dell Match Play, the Australian has now won six of his last 13 tournaments, including the last major in the PGA Championship at Whistling Straits.
Yet it was only this time a year ago that McIlroy was the No. 1 player in the world and considered the undisputed dominant player in the game having won the British Open, WGC Bridgestone Invitational and PGA Championship in consecutive starts late in 2014.
That was before Spieth won the 2015 Masters and U.S. Open and was in contention for all four major championships last year, and Day won four tournaments in a span of six starts late last year including the PGA Championship and a pair of FedExCup playoff events.
McIlroy added a pair of wins last May in the Match Play and Wells Fargo Championship in Charlotte, and ended his 2014-15 season with a victory in the European Tour finale in November to capture the tour’s Race to Dubai points championship.
He is winless since November, though he has finished in the top four in two of his last three tournaments.
“I’d be lying if I said those guys having success doesn't motivate me. Of course it does,” McIlroy said. “What Jordan did here last year, the U.S. Open and the whole way through the summer and what Jason Day did during the summer and this year as well, yeah, I don’t want to be left behind. I want to be a part of that conversation. I’m clinging on at the moment. But a few wins will change that … I feel like I’m close.”
A win this week would make the 26-year-old Irishman the sixth player to capture the professional career Grand Slam, joining Jack Nicklaus, Tiger Woods, Gary Player, Ben Hogan and Gene Sarazen. “It’s a motivation to be able to put your name alongside those five guys,” McIlroy said.
McIlroy was the center of attention prior to the opening tee shot at Augusta National last year, but because of what Spieth, Day and Scott have done over the past year and in recent months, McIlroy’s Grand Slam quest is being overshadowed. He was 3-over par through 27 holes last year before playing his final 45 holes 15 under.
“I think part of that was having so much expectation and thinking of the Grand Slam and thinking of the Masters and thinking of all this, where I needed to just take a step back and relax and go out and try and play my own game,” McIlroy said. “I feel like the first 27 holes last year really cost me the tournament, and if I could have had those back, I would have went in there with a different mindset and a different disposition, I guess.”
Spieth, World No. 4 and two-time Masters winner Bubba Watson and Scott have already proven they can win at Augusta National, and McIlroy and Day have the prototypical games to play well with prodigious length and high ball flights with their irons.
McIlroy held a lead through 63 holes in 2011 and has finished in the top 10 at Augusta National in each of the past two years, while Day tied for second in 2011 and finished third in 2013.
“I’ve got a great game for here,” McIlroy said. “I hit it high. I can land the ball soft. I’ve got decent touch around the greens. The only thing that’s probably held me back in my career and here is putting. You would think that this was a golf course that I can definitely win on here, I know that. I just haven't quite been able to get myself over the hurdle.”
Other players in the top 10 in the world who have yet to win on the PGA Tour this year appear to be on the verge of winning.
Rickie Fowler has five top-10s in seven events in 2016 and a win in the Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship in January. Dustin Johnson has four top-five finishes in eight events, Henrik Stenson is coming off two consecutive top-threes, Justin Rose has five top-20s in six stroke-play events, and Patrick Reed is coming off three consecutive top-10 finishes and has an additional runner-up this year.
Phil Mickelson, who has three wins among his 11 top-five Masters finishes, is always considered a contender at Augusta and enters the tournament with six top-20s in eight starts this year, and 2011 Masters winner Charl Schwartzel has three combined wins this year on the PGA and European tours.
“I don’t think I’m the favorite this week,” Day said. “As you know, there's a lot of people out there that can play well this week and win, as well, because Jordan and Rory and Henrik, how he’s playing lately, and even Phil is a favorite here. There’s so many players that can win around here, and there’s not just one heavy favorite this week, which is fantastic.
“I think it’s good for the game of golf and I think it’s good for this tournament, as well.”
Weather will likely play a role in the outcome, as winds of approximately 20 mph with stronger gusts are expected for the first three rounds before conditions become ideal Sunday. So players aren’t expecting the winning score to be all that close to Spieth’s record-tying 18-under 270 last year.
“The greens, if they keep going with how they are, the greens are going to be pretty quick, and the wind is going to be pretty steady out there,” Day said. “Thursday and Friday are going to be a very difficult first two rounds.”