HOUSTON – This week marks the 81st playing of the Masters Tournament, and with it comes yet another wave of fresh, young talent. A group of newly minted tour stars will stride down the fairways at Augusta National this weekend as they contend for this year’s championship, and they will not be the household names so frequently referred to by golf fans across the country.
Most fans are now intimately familiar with the youthful players atop today’s world rankings. Dustin Johnson, the tour long driver, is the favorite in Vegas to don the green jacket on Sunday. He is, relatively speaking, a grizzled veteran at 32.
Jordan Spieth and Rory McIlroy have the best odds outside of Johnson, and neither has seen his 30th birthday.
Rickie Fowler, at 28 years of age, sits at eighth place in the current FedEx Cup Rankings.
These players are well known throughout the sport, having won dozens of tournaments and a handful of majors between them. They are the same players whom I have written about over the years that now define their sport.
While this year’s tournament is full of young talent, it is not solely focused on those familiar names at the top of the world standings.
There are other young lions who deserve attention.
Such as the winner of last weekend’s Shell Houston Open, Russell Henley.
The Shell is not much of a predictor of Masters success, as most of the top stars skip this one to freshen up for America’s greatest golfing spectacle and the first major championship of the year.
But Henley, 27, did have to contend with Fowler. Henley made 10 birdies during his final round in the Shell en route to a 7-under 65, while Fowler finished in a tie for third.
Henley seems capable of staying hot as he begins play in Augusta on Thursday. He will have plenty of crowd support, as a Georgia native who attended the University of Georgia and turned professional in 2011.
Going younger, 22-year-old John Rahm is the No. 5 betting choice to win in Augusta this weekend. The Spaniard ranked 133rd in the world at the end of the 2016 season but has risen to 12th in the current rankings. He has five top-10 finishes in his last six starts.
A 25-year-old Englishman, Tyrell Hatton, has made a meteoric rise, from 122nd twelve months ago to 15th place today. He is making his first trip to Augusta in search of Masters glory.
Hideki Matsuyama, 25, ranks fourth in the world. This Japanese superstar has shown the promise of a major champion for nearly two years. His odds of winning this weekend are 22/1, which ranks him eighth on the big board.
Justin Thomas may be the greatest of under-the-radar golfers, though he grew up playing with Jordan Spieth. He has won three tournaments this season and four in a lifetime that numbers just 23 years. He shot a 59 in the Sony Open, and he has the best putting average on the PGA tour. He tied for fifth in the WGC Mexico Championship, and he ranks seventh in the world standings.
The field is clearly loaded with young talent. Tiger Woods is missing yet another go-around due to his lingering health issues, and to be honest, this year’s championship will be better off without Mr. Woods and his generation of has-beens.
We may not feel much of a presence from Phil Mickelson, who finished 55th in the tournament in north Houston. He expects better in Augusta, of course. “I’ll get some rest, go through my routine and be ready on Thursday.”
But chances are you will look up on Sunday and see one of these less-familiar names atop the leader board. Golf has simply entered a new era. The sport known as an “old man’s game” finds itself in an unfamiliar place; where a group of talented young men are taking over.