Picking the Masters winner is getting even more difficult

 It’s a golf tradition like no other.  The Masters – first of the year’s four major championships — is coming up next week.

That means for me – and many of you – it’s time to predict the champion.  That fun competition is much more difficult in golf than any other sport. I covered my first Masters in 1986 and am sure I entered winner’s pools for years before that.  My success record isn’t impressive – only two winners, Fred Couples in 1992 and Scottie Scheffler in 2022.

This year the prognosticating is more difficult. Blame the controversial LIV Golf League for that.  The three-year old Saudi-based circuit has its detractors, at least based on the mild hate mail that I usually receive when there’s a LIV mention in one of my pieces. Some even comes from friends who should know better.

Scheffler is the comfortable choice this year, what with his March wins at the Arnold Palmer Invitational and Players Championship and a runner-up last Sunday in Houston. An excellent lead-in to the year’s first major by an excellent player.

I’m going in a different direction this year, though.  I’m predicting a LIV player will win – though you’ll have to read a few more paragraphs to find out who.

LIV has the numbers.  Last year, when the PGA Tour and LIV players gathered for the first time in a big tournament, the fledgling circuit had three of the top six finishers.  Brooks  Koepka and Phil Mickelson tied for second behind Jon Rahm and Patrick Reed tied for fourth. And now Rahm is a LIV member, too, but still without an individual victory on his new tour.

LIV has 13 players in this year’s Masters.  Twelve were exempt based on the club’s rules for determining  invitees.  Augusta National selectors also gave a special invitation to Joaquin Niemann. LIV players don’t get respect in the Official World Golf Rankings, a policy that greatly diminishes their significance.

Niemann, from Chile, beat the system with strong showings in two big non-LIV events, winning the Australian Open and tying for fourth in Dubai. He won two of the first four LIV events this year as well.

The LIV roster includes seven former Masters champions and has six players who are exempt from all four of the major championships.

I also like the fact that LIV, with only 14 tournaments in 2024, has one of its biggest ones the week before the Masters.  It runs Friday through Sunday on the Blue Monster course at Trump Doral in Miami.  Finding it on TV won’t be easy, but Doral is a former PGA Tour site.

“It’s the first big boy golf course that we’ve played this year,’’ said Koepka, who followed up his Masters runner-up by winning the PGA Championship last year.  “You’ve got to be able to ball-strike it (at Doral) and ball-strike at Augusta.  That’s why it’s such good prepare.’’

Seven LIV golfers have been the champion at 10 Masters. Mickelson won in 2004, 2006 and 2010 and Bubba Watson was the titlist in 2012 and 2014. Based on their play this year they don’t have a chance this time. Charl Schwartzel (2011), Sergio Garcia (2017) and Reed (2018) don’t have much of a chance, either, but defending champion Rahm and Dustin Johnson do.

Johnson won the Masters in 2020 with a record 20-under-par score.  The only drawback was that it was during the pandemic, the event was played in the fall instead of the spring and spectators weren’t allowed on the course.

In 2017 Johnson was playing his best golf, with three wins leading into the Masters, but he took a fall while in Augusta and withdrew from the tournament a day before it started.  That freak accident still haunts him.

“Without that I’d have two green jackets instead of one,’’ he said before a small media group last week. “I had a fantastic prep going into that week. I’ve never felt unbeatable but, when I’m on the course and playing my best, I don’t feel anyone can beat me.’’

At 39 he can still play.  He dominated the LIV season in 2022, tailed off last year but has a LIV victory this season and competing against his former PGA Tour rivals again is inspiring.

“The majors are the pinnacle of the sport,’’  said Johnson, “and there’s only four times we’re all together playing now. Maybe that makes them more special.’’

That’s good enough for me. I’ve got great respect for Johnson’s talent. I’ve picked him informally to win other tournaments over the years when he didn’t do it.  Now it’s the Masters, though, and DJ’s going to win this one.