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The Masters - Golf: Three storylines to look out for this year

The 86th Masters Tournament it set to get underway on Thursday with as many as 12 players priced below 25/1 to don the Green Jacket.

And that excludes the likes of big-hitting Bryson DeChambeau, last year's runner-up Will Zalatoris, last year's winner Hideki Matsuyama, and of course, a certain Tiger Woods.

We look at three storylines to watch out for at Augusta this week.

Rory McIlroy

There would be few more popular winners this week than Rory McIlroy.

Imagine if someone had said to you on Sunday of 2011 that not only would McIlroy fail to win the Masters that year – remember he had a four-shot lead going into the final round – but he’d still be waiting 10 years later. It seemed impossible. His game is perfect for the course, and that’s reflected in his record at Augusta: six top-10 finishes in the last eight editions.

But still no Green Jacket.

What still holds him back is his annual stinker of a round. Go back to 2020 and his shocking start, an unthinkable 75 to start the Masters. From there was vintage McIlroy. Zero bogeys across his final three rounds to finish 5th. That he actually outscored winner Dustin Johnson from Friday to Sunday likely won’t have improved his mood.

In 2019, he started with a 74, immediately playing his way out of contention. In 2018, it was his final round that scuppered his chances. Playing in the final group with Patrick Reed, he was three shots behind the eventual winner. A 74 meant he’d finish six shots behind.

In 2016, he carded a 77 on Saturday. Easier said than done, but level par that day would’ve left him in the final group on Sunday, one off the lead. There was another 77 in 2014. How immensely frustrating it must be for the Northern Irishman to know he has the game to win the Masters, and to consistently play three rounds well enough to win the Masters, and constantly be scuppered by one horrible round.

Though McIlroy won’t see it this way, his career still threatens to be one of unfulfilled potential. In 2014, he won the BMW PGA Championship; two months later, The Open; two weeks after that, the WGC-Bridgestone, and the following week came the PGA Championship. His fourth major at the age of 25 and becoming the third man, post-war, to reach double figure major wins was well in his sights.

Still only 32, time is just about on his side, but he won’t get many more shots at a Green Jacket.

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Jordan Spieth

Like with McIlroy, imagine if someone had said on Sunday evening in 2016 that not only would Jordan Spieth not win that day, but six years later he’d still be waiting for a second Green Jacket.

Back in 2015, the world was at the 21-year-old’s feet. He’d tied Tiger Woods’ record score to win the Masters, followed that up with the US Open, and then contended for the final two majors of the year.

2016 saw that devastating collapse, and while you wouldn’t want to suggest the beginning of his downfall started there – he won The Open the following year – he was no longer the world’s best golfer.

Still amongst them though, it wasn’t until 2018 and 2019 that the troubles really began. In 2018 he had as many missed cuts as top-10s. In 2020, there were six MCs to just two top-10s. People began to wonder if he’d ever get it back.

He’s still not quite there, and is unlikely to ever reach his 2015 peak, but last year saw a return to the Spieth of old. Five top-3s including a win at the Valero Texas Open saw him catapulted from a nadir of 92nd in the world to 12th later in the year.

Of course it came the week before the Masters, and people happily backed him as he finished T3.

His form has dipped again this year, but you wouldn't be surprised to see Spieth contending again on Sunday.

Jon Rahm

The top of professional golf is arguably as stacked with talent as it’s ever been. Even now, players like Hideki Matsuyama, Jordan Spieth, Bryson DeChambeau, Brooks Koepka and Daniel Berger are all outside of the top 10 of the world rankings.

But for 12 months, Jon Rahm has stood quite clearly above his colleagues. Only 10 days ago was he deposed by Scottie Scheffler as world number one, and even that took three wins in five events to do it. There are no weaknesses in Rahm's game, and he’s typically the betting favourite for any tournament he enters, including this week.

But professional golf tournaments are notoriously difficult to win; you’re often up against another 150+ competitors and the smallest margins can be the difference between winning and losing.  Rahm’s three PGA Tour victories in the last two years criminally mis-represents his talent and ability.

He’s at the peak of his powers, and who knows how long that will last for? He needs to make hay while the sun is shining, and there’s no better venue than Augusta National.

He’s still relatively young at 27, and his ascent to the top of the game has been remarkable. He only turned pro in 2016, and in that time he’s recorded nine top-10 major finishes in just 20 starts, as well as a win at last year's US Open. Augusta in particular has been a happy hunting ground.

In his first start, he finished T27. He’s been top-10 every year since, finishing a combined 21 shots off the winner (and that includes the 10-shot gap between him and Dustin Johnson when Johnson blitzed the course in 2020).

The only thing you could criticise Rahm for is his lack of wins. In the last year, he’s finished in the top 10 a total of 10 times, and ‘only’ has one win to show for it, and is bidding to become the fourth Spaniard to put on the Green Jacket this week.

By @LiamWilliamsSJ

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