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Scheffler’s surge, LIV Golf’s encore and more Masters storylines


The 88th playing of the Masters arrives at a precarious moment in golf: Its defending champion has since departed for the Saudi-backed LIV Golf League, its greatest winner not named Jack Nicklaus has played only five full rounds of golf this year, and the sport’s overall ecosystem remains fractured and its future uncertain.

Yet once the first tee shot is hit Thursday, all eyes will be on the best players in the world navigating the sport’s most historic venue over 72 holes.

From the favorites to the newcomers to the way the course is playing, here are six storylines to watch at Augusta.

What will the LIV Golf League do for an encore?

A year ago, any doubt about LIV Golf League players being able to compete in the major championships after playing 54-hole tournaments with loud music probably was put to rest. Phil Mickelson and Brooks Koepka tied for second at the 2023 Masters, then Koepka won his fifth major at the PGA Championship at Oak Hill Country Club in Rochester, New York.

Defending Masters champion Jon Rahm, who jumped to the LIV Golf League in December, is one of 13 LIV Golf players in the field.

Read more: Jon Rahm wants LIV-PGA Tour unity, but ‘it’s not up to me’

LIV Golf captain Sergio Garcia, the 2017 Masters champion, insists everyone is getting along fine.

“I mean, you guys love these things,” Garcia said. “You keep building up these things, and there’s nothing. There’s nothing. You guys love to kind of dig and just kind of try to make it sound like we get in the locker room and we’re fighting each other and stuff like that. It’s not like that. At the end of the day, it’s golf. We’re all trying to play the best way we can, and that’s it.”

Eyes on the first-timers

Only one first-timer has slipped on a green jacket at Augusta National Golf Club since 1935: Fuzzy Zoeller in 1979. Reigning U.S. Open champion Wyndham Clark and Sweden’s Ludvig Åberg aren’t your typical Masters first-timers — they’re ranked fourth and ninth in the Official World Golf Ranking, respectively.

Clark has won three times since May and finished second to Scottie Scheffler at the Arnold Palmer Invitational and Players Championship.

“I mean, stats like that are meant to be broken,” Clark said. “I know it’s a tall task. It’s a challenging golf course. There’s a bunch of good golfers. With that said, you have to still bring your game, so it’s not like you can just flip a switch and win it.

“But, yeah, that would be an amazing accomplishment, and I like my chances. I really like myself on this golf course. I feel good on a lot of tee shots and approaches, and there’s so much creativity, so I feel good coming into the week.”

Aberg, 24, already has seven top-10s in 23 starts on tour, including a victory at the RSM Classic in November. The former Texas Tech star said he wasn’t aware that a first-timer hadn’t won the Masters in 45 years until a reporter mentioned it Tuesday.

“It’s a tricky balance, because obviously I’m feeling all the first-time feelings that everyone’s feeling, but I’m also trying to be OK with all those things coming at me at the same time,” Aberg said. “Because I think once you start fighting it, once you start trying to push it away, I think that’s when it becomes tricky.”

There are 20 first-timers at the Masters this year, such as Akshay Bhatia (who grabbed a Sunday invitation by winning the Valero Texas Open), Nick Dunlap and Jake Knapp. Dunlap became the first amateur to win a PGA Tour event since Phil Mickelson in 1991 by capturing the American Express in January before he turned pro.

Scheffler’s dominance

There is a certain aura of inevitability following Scheffler around these days that hasn’t been true of a golfer since the days of Jordan Spieth in 2015, Rory McIlroy in 2014 and Tiger Woods for many years before that.

The way Scheffler, the No. 1 player in the world, has been playing as of late, it feels like he is more likely to win his second Masters by multiple strokes than finish outside the top 10. Scheffler already has two wins this season, including at the Players Championship, and seven top-10 finishes.

He is, by all accounts, the player to beat this year and perhaps the best ball striker since Woods himself — no one is gaining more strokes this season than Scheffler, and he’s first in tee-to-green and approach shots.

It’s not just Scheffler’s ability to consistently be near the top of the leaderboard that’s impressive, but it’s also the way in which he has shown he can win even when he doesn’t have his best stuff.

Scheffler, for his part, isn’t leaning into any storyline that positions him as a Goliath of any kind, even if his statistics indicate that, and even if a win this week would only add fodder to such a comparison.

“I try not to look too far into the future,” Scheffler said. “I think it’s just one of those deals where all I’m trying to do is put myself in contention in the tournament and hopefully finish it off. I really am not looking much past tomorrow. I’m focused on my preparation right now. And those things don’t really occupy many of my thoughts day-to-day.”

For a 27-year-old, Scheffler appears to be hyper-aware of the fickle nature of the sport even given his dominant run. It’s why he has leaned on this adage: Golf doesn’t define him; it isn’t who he is. It’s just what he does.

“I happen to be good at it some weeks, and, you know, I come in here and you guys ask all nice questions,” Scheffler said. “And then the next week I’m bad at it, and then some of the questions are viewed more negatively. And that’s just kind of the ebb and flow of competing in front of people all the time.”

Whatever the first three days look like, it is likely that come Sunday, Scheffler — should his improvement in putting after switching to a mallet continue — will find himself with a real shot at his second green jacket. And even if it won’t change who he is, a win would further cement his status as the best player in the game.

Hovland’s big changes

Norway’s Viktor Hovland won back-to-back FedEx Cup playoff events at the end of the 2022-23 season, including the Tour Championship at East Lake Golf Club in Atlanta, which came with an $18 million bonus.

Hovland, 26, was ranked No. 4 in the world at the end of last year. He has finished in the top-10 in three of the past five majors, including a tie for seventh at the 2023 Masters.

After all that success, why would Hovland make significant changes to his swing? He parted ways with swing coach Joe Mayo, who helped him turn around his short game, and has been working with both Grant Waite and Dana Dahlquist the past couple of months.

“I’m still kind of looking for some opinions out there, but I feel like I’m on a good track right now and we’ll see where that takes us,” Hovland said Tuesday. “But, yeah, I mean, it’s one of those things. Like, I was playing great golf last year, but it’s not like I’m trying to change my golf swing. It’s just sometimes the game of golf, you try to do the same every day, but then things aren’t the same every day when you go to the golf course.”

After helping the European team run away with a 16½-11½ victory at the Ryder Cup in Rome in late September, Hovland played in just one official event, tying for second in the DP World Tour Championship in Dubai in mid-November.

When Hovland returned to the PGA Tour at the start of the 2024 season, his swing wasn’t the same. He didn’t have a top-10 finish in his first five starts on tour and still seems to be searching for answers.

“I took a huge break after last year and when I came back, things were a little bit different,” Hovland said. “I had to kind of find my way back to where I think I’m going to play my best golf. And even at the end of the last year, I still felt like, yeah, I was playing great, but I got a lot out of my game and it didn’t necessarily feel sustainable. But it’s not like I consciously went in and said, ‘Hey, we’re going to change everything up.'”

Augusta at its best

Even before tournament week began, the chatter in the lead-up to the Masters centered around the course being in incredible shape. Having now been on the grounds for a few days, it doesn’t take an agronomist or a professional golfer to be able to tell that Augusta’s fairways and greens are showing out, more so than usual. That being said, let the players explain it:

“The course is very firm,” Xander Schauffele said. “I think it’s in incredible shape. It’s probably some of the best shape I’ve seen it in previous years, to be honest.”

“The golf course is stunning,” Fred Couples said. “It’s firm and fast, and it’s really, really nice.”

“When we came up here last weekend, it was in perfect shape,” Tiger Woods said. “And it’s only gotten better, which is hard to believe, but it has.”

“Yesterday when I played, it was as firm as I’ve seen it in four to five years,” Koepka said. “The green speeds kind of felt like they were maybe all weekend already, and usually that’s not the case.”

Having experienced an inordinate amount of bad weather at this event in recent years, it appears that the tournament is due for a good stretch of days this week. The only potential hiccup will be Thursday, as the forecast shows potential thunderstorms and rain showers throughout the morning into the afternoon as well as winds ranging from 10 to 20 mph.

“Obviously can’t do much about the weather the rest of the week,” Justin Thomas said. “But I’m sure that everybody on the greens staff is very, very pleased with where the golf course is at.”

Despite Thursday’s forecast, the golf course’s current state should hold up well throughout the weekend, when the sun will reemerge and likely continue to dry out a golf course that only gets more challenging in such conditions.

“I was hitting 5-irons that were coming into par-5s that were bouncing, tomahawking over the green, and I was like this is pretty cool, it’s been a while,” Schauffele said. “And when this property plays that way, you’re in full team mode with your caddie trying to figure out if you’re middle of the fairway, you can be aggressive; but if you’re not in the right place, you’re playing to certain spots and trying to leave yourself an uphill putt even if it’s 12 feet versus a 4-footer that’s downhill.”

Another record on tap for Tiger Woods

Despite withdrawing early Sunday during last year’s tournament due to an injury that led to ankle surgery, Woods extended his streak of made cuts at the Masters to 23 in a row, tying the record for most made cuts at Augusta previously held by Gary Player and Couples.

Woods arrives at the Masters having played fewer rounds of competitive golf than he did last year, but the belief he could win — and make a record-breaking 24th straight cut in the process — is still there.

“I think it’s consistency, it’s longevity, and it’s an understanding of how to play this golf course,” Woods said of the record. “That’s one of the reasons why you see players that are in their 50s and 60s make cuts here, or it’s players in their late 40s have runs at winning the event, just the understanding of how to play it.”

Read more: Tiger says Masters win can be his if ‘everything comes together’

Woods’ institutional knowledge at Augusta is second to none given his history and success at the course. And while Woods said his body aches every day and he wasn’t ready to perform at any other tournament since his early withdrawal at Riviera due to sickness, he’s hoping that his familiarity with the course will help him overcome any physical limitations.

“You still have to go out and execute it, but there’s a lot of knowledge that goes into understanding how to play it,” Woods said. “The overall configuration of how [greens] roll and how they move and the angles you take, that hasn’t changed. That’s the neat thing about this. I can still go through the mental Rolodex and bring out a few putts from the ’90s that still move generally in that direction and the effect that Rae’s Creek has on certain shots and putts. And it means a lot.”


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