2017 Masters: Watching Best Putters When Putting Counts

Mar 2, 2017; Mexico City, MEX; Phil Mickelson putts on the 14th green during the first round of the WGC - Mexico Championship golf tournament at Club de Golf Chapultepec. Mandatory Credit: Orlando Ramirez-USA TODAY Sports
Mar 2, 2017; Mexico City, MEX; Phil Mickelson putts on the 14th green during the first round of the WGC - Mexico Championship golf tournament at Club de Golf Chapultepec. Mandatory Credit: Orlando Ramirez-USA TODAY Sports /

Will the 2017 Masters come down to putting? Possibly . . . and here’s my list of the ‘usual suspects.’

It’s hard to pick a winner at any golf tournament, and the 2017 Masters is no exception, except that the field is smaller, and the number of potential winners from that small field is an even tinier number.

The odds of isolating a winner are better, but that doesn’t mean it’s easy.  There could be 93 – not 94 – who tee it up Thursday. The only unknown invitee is the winner from this week’s Shell Houston Open, should it be someone who isn’t already in the field.

Of the past champs playing, you have to like Jordan Spieth, Bubba Watson, Phil Michelson, Adam Scott and Zach Johnson because they are good-to-great putters, depending on the golfer, and putting is the key to winning at Augusta National Golf Club.

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Johnny Miller called the Masters Tournament “the Augusta spring putting contest” while he was on Tour.  Larry Mize said, “I just can’t see you winning there without putting good.” And he lives in Augusta.

But putting has never been the whole story, not in the past and not at the 2017 Masters.

Posting a good score when it looks like you can’t is a big part of it, as Tiger Woods showed in 1997 when he started with a front nine 40 and finished with a new Masters record low score and a victory.

Jordan Spieth and Phil Mickelson are experts at getting from nowhere into the cup by sheer determination.  That combined with their putting skill and love of the golf course has to move them up on the list of possible 2017 Masters winners. In fact, they have to be favorites.

The actual top 10 scoring average leaders on the PGA Tour this season are Jordan Spieth, Justin Thomas, Jon Rahm, Rory McIlroy, Marc Leishman, Bill Haas, Hideki Matsuyama, Henrik Norlander, Rickie Fowler, and Dustin Johnson.  The leader in three-putt avoidance is Martin Kaymer, former No 1, who has looked like a world beater from time-to-time.  The low man in putts per round is Phil Mickelson.  And the top five (or low five) in putting average are Phil Mickelson, Justin Thomas, Anirban Lahiri, Rory McIlroy and Francesco Molinari.

But no one ever won the Masters on stats.

There are players not to be overlooked on account of determination, and that would include Jason Day, Henrik Stenson, Justin Rose, Emiliano Grillo and lately, Dustin Johnson. When they get near the lead, they are not likely to run the other way out of fear of success.

There are players who just love the golf course so much that they overcome everything else about their lives or personalities or the state of their game and play well, like Bubba Watson.

Who’s Probably Out?

Tiger Woods.  Don’t read between the lines. It doesn’t look like he is going to be there.  There have been no stealth visits reported and he’s not played in a tournament since his withdrawal from the Dubai event in January. Nobody goes from not playing to Augusta National no matter how many green jackets they’ve won because the course is just too demanding.  I would be happy to be wrong about this, but I just don’t see it.  Even Jack Nicklaus would have played a couple of practice rounds somewhere in 1986.

Jason Day is questionable, depending on the outcome of his mother’s surgery for lung cancer.

There are six past champions who are PGA Tour Champions eligible, and of the group, only Bernhard Langer and Fred Couples have shown any signs of being able to compete with the youngsters.  Langer’s putting has been a continuing problem since after his first Masters victory, and he doesn’t have a lot of length.  Couples’ back prevents him from practicing enough to have his skill set sharp enough to compete with the young guys who are morning, noon and night at the range. And he’s also learning how to non-belly putt.

Who’s Probably In?

From this season’s flock of winners, you have to like Justin Thomas, Jon Rahm, and Marc Leishman, who was T4 in 2013.  But Leishman’s best finish was four years in the rear-view mirror. Thomas and Rahm are more likely to be today’s guys, and they both have a lot of confidence and excellent putting skills, necessary for the Masters tournament and conditions.

The highest up on the potential champ list,

according to Jordan Spieth in an interview at the Shell Houston Open

, is Dustin Johnson.

In other words, as the line from Casablanca goes, round up the usual suspects: Jordan, Rory, Dustin, Phil, and some surprising candidate who isn’t even at the top of our consciousness now.

Next: 2017 Masters: An Early Look at the Top Five

Who’s on the top of your list to slip on the green jacket on 2017 Masters Sunday?