Conventional wisdom suggests that gamers avoid first-time competitors at the Masters. There may not be another tournament in which understanding the nuance of the host course is more relevant. Given that Augusta National Golf Club is the only recurring track for a major, and majors are often used to delineate great golfers from Hall of Famers, you can understand just how challenging it is for a Masters' rookie to fight through that static.
Jimmy Walker (No. 18) and Patrick Reed (No. 20) are the only first-timers in my Power Rankings. Any other week and they'd likely sit higher, so that they cracked the feature at all is an acknowledgment to what each has achieved in the last several months, never mind the systematic approach each takes at course management and the readiness to succeed.
But there are another 22 first-timers in play this week. Sixteen are professionals, all but two of which (Stephen Gallacher and Joost Luiten) possess a spot somewhere in the overall pecking order on the PGA TOUR. Ten are winners on the circuit. Many are featured below. Because of the learning curve, all should rightfully be reserved for observation only, and I'm not fading any. In fact, I've offered a pair of mild endorsements based on impressive recent form and precocious moxie.
Meanwhile, if you're looking for Graham DeLaet, he's included in Global Glance. If you weren't already aware, it's a weekly feature in which I highlight a handful of international golfers. If he weren't included there, he'd be a Draw below.
Finally, if you email, tweet or ask me questions in the discussion thread below the Power Rankings about golfers not included in that feature, and I reply with something like, "See my Fantasy Insider on Wednesday," it's because I haven't had the time to properly research. So, thanks for your patience and rest assured that you'll likely see the focal point(s) of your inquiry here.
Power Rankings Wild Card
Ian Poulter ... He's a big-time performer that deserves a long look in every format. His consecutive cuts made streak at the Masters ended at eight last season, but he placed T10 in 2010 and solo seventh in 2012. His recent form is inconsistent, but that's nothing new. The convincing element, as it always is with him, is his touch on and around greens. Because he can spray it around and still score at Augusta National, this is the other major (after the Open Championship) where it makes sense for him to contend.
Henrik Stenson ... While I may suspect it or even suggest it, I'll never accuse a golfer of looking ahead. The 2013 FedExCup champ was trending wonderfully for last week's Shell Houston Open only to settle for a share of 54th place. Hey, it happens, and I'm not sour this week, but it prevented his inclusion in the Power Rankings. Despite the roller coaster of his career, he's making his ninth consecutive appearance and should better the pair of career-best T17s.
Keegan Bradley ... His propensity to stop short of putting four rounds together is maddening despite two top 10s and another five top 20s on the season. He's also 2-for-2 at Augusta National (no top 25s) despite three 73s, a 77 and an 82. Gamers would very much prefer a steady dose of cuts made with the kind of quality he's provided, but the persnickety have a tough time adjusting their gauges in the long-term.
Luke Donald ... I was surprised that there wasn't more if any arguments about his omission from the Power Rankings. He's connected four top 25s upon arrival and tied for 25th here last year. Overall, the Brit has three top 10s in nine consecutive appearances. If you want an under-the-radar gem, look no further.
Matt Every ... Undeniably in form and making his Masters debut since breaking through at Bay Hill. Top 10s in three of his last four starts; five on the season. Ranks 22nd in greens hit, T11 in proximity and fourth in strokes gained-putting. I could go on, but your angle here is obvious and does not include course experience.
Jim Furyk ... If you were drafting career records among the elite in the field this week, his would go in the first round. He's 15-for-17 with four top 10s and another seven top 25s, including in each of the last three editions. Took last week off following a T6 at the Valero Texas Open.
Harris English ... Perfect in 13 starts this season with six top 10s and another three top 20s. He may be the street favorite among first-timers based on consistency alone. He certainly seems to have the makeup and game on paper. Currently T14 in distance of all drives, first in greens in regulation and T24 in proximity. Also T14/T3/T4 in the par-3/4/5 scoring slash line. Barring an absolutely dreadful experience putting, you expect him to contend year in and year out at Augusta National.
Marc Leishman ... It's impossible to understand the value of what he witnessed first-hand in regulation last year. After being paired with eventual runner-up Ángel Cabrera in the third round, the Aussie drew fellow countryman and champion Adam Scott in the finale. Lifted by a share of the 18-hole lead, Leishman coasted to a T4. He could stand to draw on those memories given he's been virtually silent since coming relatively close to holing out for eagle to force a playoff at the Farmers Insurance Open in late January.
Ryan Moore ... If the Masters was contested two months ago, he may have been a favorite. He hasn't picked off anything better than a T25 (WGC-Cadillac) in his last three stroke-play starts, but he's 5-for-5 at Augusta National with a pair of top 15s (2005, 2010). Sterling complement to any lineup.
Hideki Matsuyama ... Not many first-time professionals can say that they appeared twice as an amateur in this tournament, but he can. A wrist injury among other assorted maladies has peppered his career in recent months, but he's proven that when he's committed, he's more than likely to make noise.
Louis Oosthuizen ... Has yet to rebound from a back injury that prevented him from teeing it up at The Honda Classic. Just 1-for-3 since with a T40 at Doral. Only cut made in five tries at the Masters resulted in a playoff loss in 2012. He scored par or better in every round that week, but all of his other eight rounds are over par.
Steve Stricker ... I won't talk you out of him, but he's still shedding some competitive rust during what has been an even thinner schedule than last year's.
Ernie Els ... A great example of a guy in below-average form that rises in the ranks given the knowledge he's acquired in 19 starts at Augusta National. Still, as I wrote in this space previously, his 4-2 slate at the Match Play is misleading since he won his first three rounds with over-par scores. No better than a T35 (Northern Trust) in his other seven starts in 2014.
Webb Simpson ... Lost his putting touch after the West Coast Swing. He's still eighth on TOUR in strokes gained, but he hemorrhaged strokes on the greens in his last three starts. He's 1-for-2 at the Masters with a T44 in 2012, but even if he were the defending champion, Augusta National is not the kind of track where one goes to find his touch. It's a piece of property when you go to test it.
Francesco Molinari ... Quintessential example of a ball-striker that needs to find a groove on the greens, and that's almost impossible to sustain over four rounds at Augusta National. Comes in as a trap in the wake of a T5 in his last start at Bay Hill.
Tim Clark ... Course history buffs must ignore last year's T11 given his form at the time. Since withdrawing from the Sony Open in Hawaii to begin 2014 and a six-week break for an injured elbow, he's 2-for-4 with a pair of MDFs.
Thorbjørn Olesen ... Still don't know how he was able to muster a T6 in his debut last year after suffering whiplash in a car crash in Houston two weeks prior. The Dane went the rest of the year without a top 15. After concluding the European Tour's Desert Swing this past January with a pair of top fives, he's 0-for-3 in stroke-play starts.
Peter Hanson ... Hasn't placed better than T35 in his last six stroke-play starts. His T3 here in 2012 seems like eons ago especially after he battled a back injury last year.
Matteo Manassero ... As a youthful bunter, it will probably take some time before he sheds the horse-for-course label. He'll finally turn 21 years of age on April 19, so an endorsement would be a surprise. In due time.
Branden Grace ... Tied for 18th last year during a stretch similar to the current, but the overall ramp is less encouraging. No better than a T40 in his last five stroke-play starts. Barely qualified via the top 50 in the 2013-ending Official World Golf Ranking.
Keep an Eye On
Matt Jones ... Classic victory in Houston. Simply put himself in a position to win, and then converted the shot of the year in the playoff. But overall, his game was brilliant. The Aussie ranked second in greens hit, first in strokes gained-putting, first in par-3 scoring and T5 in par-4 scoring. While the Golf Club of Houston has set up as a primer for Augusta National since 2007, Anthony Kim is its only champ (2010) that has parlayed victory into a top 10 at the Masters.
Jordan Spieth ... First-timer du jour. I love him on par 72s on layouts where par breakers are there for the taking, but this is Augusta National. Respect the course.
Rickie Fowler ... Strokes gained-putting is revolutionary, but it can be a useless tool, too. Consider that he ranked 52nd in SG-P en route to a solo sixth at the Shell Houston Open. However, he more than compensated tee to green, finishing second in total driving and T5 in GIR. He also ranked T5 in proximity and T25 in putts per GIR. Meanwhile, the SG-P clip was weighed down by nine misses from 4'1" - 7'0" despite dropping in 10 tries outside 10 feet. It's those latter conversions that buoyed his scoring. The moral of the story is that I'm concerned about his long-term proficiency nearer the hole.
Chris Kirk ... The University of Georgia product has survived 14 consecutive cuts, but he's placed no better than a T40 (no-cut WGC-Cadillac) in his last three. The sum of his game is greater than its individual parts, and that's a comfortable skill set for a rookie at Augusta National, but he's still lacking in the primary asset -- experience.
Victor Dubuisson ... Given his incredible arc since November and short-game wizardry at Dove Mountain, it would surprise no one if he contended, but Augusta National is likely to be more kryptonite than coronation. Reserve only for weekly salary games if he's affordable.
Jamie Donaldson ... Missed the cut in his debut last year, but he rolls in this time having survived 14 consecutive cuts worldwide. His only notable finish recently on U.S. soil was a T2 at Doral, which was a course brand new to the entire field. That dynamic doesn't exist this week.
Returning to Competition
Nick Watney ... Might be flying under the radar better than anyone right now. While his withdrawal during his last start at Doral went in the books as attached to a back injury, his first child was born the following day. He sat T14 through 54 holes following a third-round 71 that featured only one over-par hole on a treacherous track. Meanwhile, he's making his seventh consecutive appearance at Augusta National where he's logged four top 20s, including a T13 last year despite an opening 78. He's long been considered the kind of talent that could win here, so don't let his recent absence deter you from investing.
Tiger Woods ... Out indefinitely after having surgery to relieve a pinched nerve in his back.
Well, I won't say that I painted myself into any kind of corner, but the stars have aligned in such a way that I'm without Nos. 1, 2, 3, 4, 7 and 9 from the top 10 in my Power Rankings. As for the others, I won't deviate from the documented plan to burn Phil Mickelson (No. 5) at the U.S. Open where he'll be chasing the career grand slam. Bubba Watson (No. 6) is tantalizing as a former champ (2012) but he'll look even tastier at the Travelers Championship where he's also won. Zach Johnson (No. 8) will get the call at the John Deere Classic. And Graeme McDowell (No. 10) doesn't register as strongly in this format as the guy for me this week.
At No. 11, Brandt Snedeker is my pick. His comfort level is so strong at Augusta National that all I needed was a T8 at Bay Hill to seal the deal. Since his heartbreaking defeat here in 2008, he's added three top 20s, including a T6 last year.
The broad stroke is simple this week. Choose a guy that's had success here before. Two-man games should take the approach of 1 and 1a given the predictability factor that we simply won't experience the remainder of the season.
Shell Houston Open: Henrik Stenson; T54; $14,656.00; 15.500 FedExCup points
Overall Record: 18-for-21
FedExCup points: 935.629
Top 5s: 2
Top 10s: 7
Top 25s: 11
Missed Cuts: 3