Forelinx Fantasy Golf Preview ⏤ The Masters Tournament

Fantasy Golf

2021 Augusta National07

Golf's springtime tradition unlike any other is finally upon us as the world's best players descend on the immaculate grounds of the Augusta National Golf Club for this week's 2021 Masters Tournament in Augusta, GA. This 85th playing of the tournament will mark something of a return to normality in major championship golf, as the patrons we missed so much during the pandemic edition of this event will finally be back in limited numbers. Their presence should help bring back the dramatic atmosphere that makes the Second Nine on Sunday at Augusta the preeminent golf viewing experience of the year.

Dustin Johnson will attempt to defend the title he won here last fall, but he'll have to contend with a fully-loaded field that is missing only five-time Masters Champion Tiger Woods. Justin Thomas comes into the event fresh off a huge win at the Players Championship, while friend and rival Jordan Spieth has finally gotten back into the winner's circle just last week at the Valero Texas Open. Rory McIlroy is nearly always a point of focus as a win at Augusta is the only thing that stands between him and the career Grand Slam, but oddsmakers better fancy the chances of fellow European Jon Rahm. Brooks Koepka arrived in Augusta with questions surrounding the health of his body post-surgery, but no matter the state of his body or his game he nearly always figures to factor down the stretch at this event.

The Field and the Favorites

Predictably, the defending champion and the world's number one player Dustin Johnson will enter the week as the betting favorite at +900. DJ cruised to victory during the first-ever fall playing of the Masters Tournament last November, with a record total of 20-under 268 that prevailed by five shots over Australia's Cameron Smith and South Korea's Sungjae Im. Between last year's demonstration of his ability to dominate Augusta National as well the general standard of golf he's played to over the last nine months, Johnson deserves his place atop the list of contenders going into the week.

Nevertheless, DJ is hardly a runaway favorite over the pack of contenders that lines up right behind him. Given Augusta's reputation as a bomber's paradise, we shouldn't be surprised to see Bryson Dechambeau lined up on the board right behind him at +1100. Dechambeau's length will present options for how to attack the golf course that are totally unavailable to most other players. He can easily carry the fairway bunkers at one and two, drive the green at the third with a three-wood, fly the corner at five, drive it to the bottom of the hill on nine, reach the flat at ten, carry the trees at thirteen and maybe even the bunkers at eighteen. However, despite these advantages he earns through raw power, Dechambeau is yet to record a top-twenty finish at Augusta National in four tries.

Perhaps the largest surprise going into the week is the fact that Jordan Spieth (+1100) is tied with Dechambeau as the second favorite. At the start of the year, Spieth was mired in an eighteen-month or more slump and would not have been on anyone's radar for a threat come Augusta. He hadn't won on the PGA TOUR since his victory at the 2017 Open Championship and the potential for greatness we all saw back in 2014-2017 seemed to be fading away. 

Spieth opened the year with a missed cut at Torrey Pines, but a third-round 61 at TPC Scottsdale in the Waste Management Phoenix Open sparked a run of golf from the Texan that we hadn't seen in years. He finished 4th in that event and 3rd the following week at Pebble Beach, and just like that it seemed like the Spieth of old might be on his way back. This surge back to relevance culminated in a much-overdue win at last week's Valero Texas Open. Given that Spieth is obviously in good form and authored one of the great three-year runs at the Masters of all-time (T2 in 2014, 1st in 2015, T2 in 2016), he certainly cannot be overlooked.

Rory McIlroy needs only a win at the Masters Tournament to complete the career Grand Slam, but he comes into the event somewhat under the radar as "merely" the sixth favorite at +1800. His game would appear to suit the golf course almost perfectly as his high draw fits the shape of the tee shots at the second, fifth, ninth, tenth, thirteenth, fourteenth and seventeenth holes. Moreover, it's not like his results since the start of the 2021 calendar year have been all that terrible. He's amassed four top-sixteen finishes on the PGA TOUR including two consecutive top tens at the WGC Workday Championship and Bay Hill. He finished T3 at Abu Dhabi back in January and managed top-tens in both the fall majors at Winged Foot and here at Augusta.

These results, however, fall short of the expectations most (including himself) have for Rory McIlroy. He's expected to contend at major championships and the fact remains that he hasn't won one since the 2014 PGA Championship. He's also struggled on the best golf courses the TOUR has faced so far this year--with missed cuts at both Riviera as well as TPC Sawgrass. These two courses tend to be good indicia of players whose approach play is Augusta-ready and failures at both have left Rory concerned. He recently changed coaches (to noted British instructor Pete Cowan) and the uneasiness he brings into Augusta makes him an unpopular choice among bettors this week.

Justin Thomas' (+1200) surgical performance en route to victory on Sunday at TPC Sawgrass has resulted in a rise in his stock heading into the week. That win just a few weeks ago answers any questions one might have about his form and he's played his fair share of quality rounds around Augusta National in the past. Perhaps most impressively, he's finished higher up the leaderboard every year in his five-year run of playing in the Masters. He opened with a T39 in his rookie year back in 2016, T22 in 2017, T17 in 2018 and T12 back in 2019. His solo fourth place finish last fall was not only his best Masters finish, but his 12-under total of 278 also represented his lowest 72-hole score around Augusta National Golf Club. Don't be surprised if JT manages to improve on that strong performance as well this week.

The Golf Course

The Masters Tournament at the Augusta National Golf Club is the only major championship on the calendar that does not rotate golf courses from year-to-year. Accordingly, no major championship venue rewards veteran players for their course knowledge like the Bobby Jones/Alistair MacKenzie design here on the grounds of the old Fruitland Nursery in Augusta, Georgia. One need look no further than its two most decorated champions (six-time winner Jack Nicklaus and five-time winner Tiger Woods) and recognize the value of strategic and tactical savvy at Augusta. In fact, with the obvious exception of Horton Smith and Gene Sarazen (the first two Masters Champions), only Fuzzy Zoeller in 1979 has won the Masters Tournament in his first appearance at Augusta. The learning curve at the Masters can be steep, but the higher you climb the more you gain an advantage over those lesser-experienced Masters participants.

Jack Nicklaus describes Augusta National as a second-shot golf course on account of the emphasis it places on the approaches into the well-defended and undulating green complexes. Most of the greens are multi-tiered with small shelves on which the various days' hole locations are placed. Some of those hole locations are in the low areas of bowls where quality iron shots will yield birdie opportunities, but others are found on the greens' high points that repel imperfect shots away from the flag. Accordingly, you see quality iron players have success here as the ability to control your distance and shape the approaches to use the slopes can help separate those players from the pack. Two names that jump out in this category are Collin Morikawa and Justin Thomas, both of whom are in the top 3 in Strokes Gained: Approach on the PGA TOUR this season.

Rae's Creek at #12
The difference between a birdie putt and a watery grave can be just a few feet at the 12th hole (above)

The greens at Augusta are routinely the fastest the players face all year, and the severity of some of their slopes renders putting perhaps the next most important quality around Augusta National. Long putts with breaks that measure in feet not inches are the norm here and short putts can be especially tricky given the speed and contour of the greens. Players who struggle to marry the proper pace, read and line will not find many putts that are forgiving of imperfection in any one of those areas. This challenge of making putts at Augusta only further underlines the need for wisdom and control in a competitor's approach play. The ability to leave your approach in a spot from which you can putt aggressively will make a big difference in a players' ability to convert quality iron shots into birdies.

While the fairway corridors here are reasonably wide, it is perhaps one of the great myths that quality driving is not an important ingredient for success at Augusta National. For starters, most hole locations on most greens at Augusta tend to offer a better angle to the player who can place their tee shot on the proper side of the fairway to best access the flag. Perhaps more importantly, the best scoring opportunities on the golf course come on the five-par holes that require a well-placed drive in order to give the player a chance to reach the putting surface in two shots. For example, the thirteenth hole requires players to bend their tee shot around the corner of a hard dogleg left that is guarded by a tributary of Rae's Creek on one side and a grove of trees on the other. The "safe" shot will miss right into the pine straw from where second shots to the green become very dangerous while the bad miss to the left is likely to find the creek. The player who can bend the ball between these obstacles will have a very realistic eagle opportunity.

The Driving Area at #13

The player who can fit his tee shot into the thirteenth fairway (above) should have a chance to make eagle.

The weather is certainly a wild card entering this week at the Masters Tournament. While the hope is always that the golf course will play firm and fast, there always seems to be the lingering potential for thunderstorms during the week of the event. Sadly, this year's edition of the Masters is no exception as a 40-50% chance of thundershowers exists for three of the four tournament days. The length and intensity of the potential rain, as well as what (if any) wind it may bring, will be major factors as the week goes on. Some players might benefit from playing after whatever small cells come through the Augusta area, while those stuck on the golf course in the winds ahead of the squalls might find themselves quickly eliminated from contention. Fantasy players this week should keep a keen eye on who is teeing off when and how those start times might be impacted by changing conditions.

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