The Masters, usually the stodgiest place on Earth, is experiencing a youth makeover. Which player will carry it forward this year?
The accepted narrative is that because playing Augusta National requires so much experience and knowledge, the course favors veterans. For years, the proof of that belief lay in the results.
Between 2000 and 2012, only five players scored their first top 10 Masters finish before their 26th birthday. In nine of those 13 years, no player did so.
Since 2013, however, when 23-year-old Thorbjorn Olesen tied for sixth, youth has increasingly been served at Augusta. Olesen’s breakthrough has touched off a string of nine consecutive Masters with at least one 25-or-under achieving a first-time top 10.
In 2014, 20-year-old Jordan Spieth tied for second, 25-year-old Rickie Fowler tied for fifth, and 24-year-old Rory McIlroy tied for eighth.
Last April it was Will Zalatoris, 24, upholding the honor of the youth movement with a solo second behind Hideki Matsuyama. The previous November, Sungjae Im, 22, tied for second. Xander Schauffele made the top 10 in 2019, Jon Rahm and Cameron Smith in 2018, Thomas Pieters in 2017, Matthew Fitzpatrick and Daniel Berger in 2016, and Hideki Matsuyama in 2015.
All were 25 or under at the time.
Since 2013, Youth has excelled at the Masters
It is a measure of the extent to which youth has taken over on Tour that so many young players of recent vintage have performed well, and a further measure that so many more could so this week.
More than a dozen members of this week’s field will not yet have seen their 26th birthday when they tee off Thursday, and several of them are given a solid chance to win, or at least contend for a high place.
- Begin with Scottie Scheffler, the world’s new No. 1 player following his victory at last week’s Match Play. Scheffler won’t turn 26 until June.
- How about Viktor Hovland, 24, and fourth-ranked in the world? He’s already won once this season, at last November’s Mayakoba. Hovland tied for fourth at the Genesis, for second at the Arnold Palmer, and for ninth at the Players.
- Sam Burns, 25, is ranked 11th in the world. Burns has two victories this season: at last fall’s Sanderson and two weeks ago at the Valspar.
- Perhaps you favor Joaquin Niemann, 23. He won the Genesis in February and is ranked 20th in the world.
Those four are probably the front-runners among the young set, but there are others. It would surprise no one if Matthew Wolff, the 22-year-old phenom who was a college teammate of Hovland at Oklahoma State, made the Masters his major breakthrough. Wolff, second at the Shriners in October, is at this stage best known for having won the 2019 3M Open in only his fourth pro event.
Other serious young contenders seeking their top 10 Masters breakthrough include Cameron Young, 24, Takumi Kanaya, 23, Garrick Higgo, 22, and Min Woo Lee, 23.
The Masters used to be inhospitable to new blood. Only nine players under age 26 have ever won it, Spieth (21 in 2015) being the only one to do so since Woods won at age 25 in 2001.
But making a top 10 run has become increasingly possible in recent seasons. That fact alone makes some of the Tour’s young bucks – Scheffler, Burns, Wolff, Niemann, or Hovland – worth a close look this week.