Masters storylines to watch: Spieth surging, Johnson ready to defend

Indy Jeff joins Follow The Money to talk about a couple good longshots that can actually win the Masters outright, in Canadian Corey Conners and Aussie Cameron Smith, and then fires off a few others to take and stay away from.

The Masters is back and, more significantly, is back in its usual April time slot.

We're not complaining about an unorthodox November version of the tournament in 2020 because any Masters is better than no Masters at all. But we think most golf fans would admit to missing the traditional picturesque shots of the Georgia azaleas in full bloom that we didn't get in November.

Luckily, Augusta National is once again primed and ready to take centre stage in the spring, for as Jim Nantz famously coined, it is “a tradition unlike any other.”

Here’s a look at some of the top storylines heading into the 2021 Masters.

Double D.J.?

It would be hard not to start with defending champion Dustin Johnson, and no, not because his Masters Champions Dinner menu included pigs in a blanket.

We need to talk about Johnson because of what he did at Augusta National just five months ago, lapping the field and setting the course record in the process with a 20-under 268.

The 36-year-old won by five strokes, the largest margin of victory at the Masters since Tiger Woods won by 12 strokes in 1997. Speaking of Tiger, Johnson is hoping to become the first back-to-back green jacket winner since Woods did it back in 2001-02.

While his form has not been stellar in his past few tournaments, Johnson is clearly comfortable around Augusta, finishing no worse than T10 in his last five Masters appearances.

As the odds-on betting favourite, expect Johnson to be near the top of the leaderboard come Sunday.

Spieth's resurgence

Arguably the most anticipated storyline of the week is the return to form of Jordan Spieth. The 27-year-old won his first tournament since 2017 last weekend at the Valero Texas Open, taking some much-needed weight off his young shoulders.

Talk about a win coming at the perfect time, as with his confidence sky-high, Spieth is heading to a place where he knows something about winning. A Masters champion back in 2015, he probably should be a two-time champ but for an epic collapse in the final round of 2016 tournament.

Once touted as the next “Great One,” Spieth has been underwhelming in his past few seasons, lacking confidence, particularly in final rounds.

But wouldn’t Augusta be the perfect place to officially announce his return to prominence? We will find out soon enough.

November Masters? Forget about it

Not taking anything away from Johnson’s accomplishments at the 2020 November tournament, but that wasn’t the traditional Augusta course that we'll be seeing this week.

During last year’s final round, one of the favourites in this year’s tournament, Jon Rahm, gave his rookie playing partner, Sebastian Munoz, some straightforward advice.

“Anything you learn today, this week, forget about it,” Rahm told Munoz. “Because it will never play like this again – period.”

Expect a firmer, faster Augusta National, with the famous lightning-quick, undulating greens tormenting the players as they make their way around the course.

Also making a return this week will be the famous Augusta roars. OK, maybe roars might be a bit of a stretch, especially with only a limited number of patrons being allowed to roam the course. Regardless of the exact number of fans or the decibels they create, it will be reassuring to see some socially distanced spectators amongst the dogwoods at the Masters.

Rory and the career grand slam

Every year for a decade, some part of the buzz heading into the Masters has revolved around Rory McIlroy’s pursuit of the green jacket, the one major that has eluded him in his illustrious career.

In years when he is playing well, like last November, the career grand slam talk dominates the headlines; in others, such as this year’s tournament, when the Northern Irishman isn’t in top form, it is more of an under-the-radar storyline.

But rest assured, if McIlroy is in contention come the weekend, you will hear about it – probably a time or two more than you care to if we're being honest.

After a final-round collapse cost him the championship at the 2011 Masters, the majority of the golf world assumed it would only be a matter of time before he slipped on a green jacket.

It's now 2021, and 10 years later, McIlroy is still trying to join Gene Sarazen, Ben Hogan, Gary Player, Jack Nicklaus and Tiger Woods as the only golfers to win all four major championships.

A Tiger-sized hole

When you think of the Masters, it’s hard to not picture Tiger Woods. The five-time champion has left his mark on the famous course, most recently with his historic victory in 2019.

Unfortunately, Woods will not be in attendance at the 85th Masters, as he continues to recover from serious injuries he suffered in a car wreck back on Feb. 23.

Fans are not the only ones who will feel the golf icon’s absence at Augusta, as his fellow competitors have already commented on how it's not the same without him.

Justin Thomas, one of the favourites this week, has played a practice round with Woods at the previous four Masters tournaments. The 27-year-old explained at a pre-tournament press conference that he had visited with Woods last week, and is staying in touch with the 15-time major champion.

"He said it's kind of starting to set in," Thomas said. "He's bummed he's not here playing practice rounds with us, and we hate it, too."

Their usual third for the practice rounds, 61-year-old Fred Couples, shared a picture on Twitter donning Tiger-themed COVID-19 masks, explaining how he would also miss Wood’s presence.

But Woods has not been completely absent from the Masters’ festivities, poking fun at Dustin Johnson ahead of the Champions Dinner on Tuesday.

Whether we will see Woods tee it up at Augusta ever again remains to be seen, but our guess is that he will make a few appearances on this year’s broadcast. After all, he has been known to conjure up a few Augusta roars of his own.

Canadian hopefuls

Three Canucks will make their way down Magnolia Lane when the Masters commences on Thursday.

Corey Conners, Mackenzie Hughes and Mike Weir will carry the Canadian hopes at this year's tournament, with one of them hoping to become the first man from the Great White North to win a major since Weir won this very tournament back in 2003.

The two youngsters set up a practice round with Weir, hoping to pick his brain about the course. Hughes explained to Adam Stanley just how surreal it was to actually be out on the course with the 50-year-old Weir.

Conners will tee off at 9:12 a.m. ET on Thursday, Hughes at 11:30 a.m. ET and Weir will head out at 11:42 a.m. ET.

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