The Masters: 2016 Preview

The first major of the year is just around the corner, with The Masters looming large on the golfing horizon. Jordan Spieth is the defending champion and will be hoping to add another major to his growing collection, but if he cannot replicate last year's convincing win, there are plenty of players who are more than capable of toppling the champ. So let's take a look at the main contenders and some dangerous outsiders to look out for.

The New Big Three

Jack Nicklaus, Arnold Palmer and Gary Player were the original Big Three, battling it out for Majors in an era of domination spanning almost three decades. Fast forward to today, and we could have a similar situation of superiority on our hands with the current top three ranked players in the world.

Jordan Spieth was the main man last season, winning the first two major titles on offer, before coming very close to capturing the other two. He hasn't produced the same brilliant golf we saw last season, something that has been a great source of irritation for the 22-year-old Texan, but you wouldn't put it past him to bounce back in style with a second Masters victory.

It seemed inevitable that Jason Day win a major and he fulfilled that promise last year, cruising to victory in the PGA Championship. He has continued that outstanding form this season, with two victories under his belt already. The 28-year-old played some outstanding golf last week, securing his second World Matchplay title, he's shown good form at Augusta in previous years and I wouldn't bet against him to be pulling on that green jacket on Sunday evening.

After a season ruined by an ankle injury, Rory McIlroy has been left lurking in the shadow cast by Spieth and Day. He looks to be back to form this year, narrowly losing out to Day in the Matchplay semifinal after showing plenty of good form in the previous rounds. It's simply a matter of time before he wins The Masters, completing the much-heralded "Grand Slam" in the process. This could be his year.

Returning Champions

Bubba Watson has won two green jackets in the last four years and will be looking to add a third to his wardrobe in April. He's looked in very good touch already this year, winning the Hero Golf Challenge and The Northern Trust Open for a third time. His two previous Northern Trust wins, in 2012 and 2014, were followed by wins at Augusta. Will this year be the same?

Three-time winner Phil Mickelson finished second behind Spieth last year, but the rest of his season was pretty forgettable, finishing well down the FedEx Cup standings and going the whole season without a win. He's changed coaches at the start of this year and he looks to have rediscovered some form, missing a short putt to make a play-off at Pebble Beach last month. Surely it won't be long before Phil returns to the winners circle.

Along with his Australian compatriot Day, Adam Scott has been the outstanding player of 2016 so far, winning two of the eight tournaments he has entered and finishing in the Top 10 in four of the other six. He really struggled after giving up his favored long-putter last season, but his form on the greens has returned in dramatic fashion. He will bring form and plenty of confidence with him to Augusta, as he looks to repeat his 2013 success.

Credible Challengers

Rickie Fowler is looking to push himself into the same bracket as the likes of Spieth, McIlroy and Day, but to do this he really needs to win a Major. He has become much more consistent in the last two years, finishing in the top five of all four majors in 2014, but failed to make the break through last year. He's looked in good form so far in 2016, with his stats for both driving distance, greens in regulation and strokes gained through putting making very impressive reading. This could be his year for a maiden major win.

With long driving becoming so important at The Masters in recent years, many eyes will turn towards Dustin Johnson. Dustin hasn't enjoyed many good weeks at Augusta, a tied sixth-place finish last year is the best he has been able to manage. His driving remains as long as ever, but I don't think his short game is at a level to really get to grips with the Augusta greens.

Justin Rose has also struggled with the flat-stick so far this season. The current world No. 8 had a very consistent four days last year, eventually finishing tied for second, four shots adrift of Spieth. He is incredibly solid from tee to green, so if he can get that putter to hot up on the greens, he could be in with a very big shout.

Outsiders

Japan's Hideki Matsuyama rose all the way up to No. 13 in World Rankings after two very successful seasons in 2014 and 2015. Last year, he finished fifth in the Masters, in the top 20 in both the U.S. and British Opens and only lost one game in the Presidents Cup. He kicked off 2016 by beating Rickie Fowler in a play-off at the Phoenix Open, he could be a big danger at Augusta.

Patrick Reed hasn't won yet this season, but six top-10 finishes in ten events so far show that his game is in a good place. He was in dominant form in winning his group at the Matchplay, his destruction of Phil Mickelson being one of the outstanding performances of the week. The confident Texan almost cracked the top 20 at Augusta last year, he could make a big impact this time round.

2010 Open Champion Louis Oosthuizen came incredibly close to winning a Green Jacket in 2012, eventually losing out to Bubba in a playoff and he clearly has the quality to go one better this time round. He's returned to form in the last 18 months, finishing second at both the U.S. and British Open last season and won down in Perth at the start of the year. He might have been thrashed by Day in the World Matchplay final last week, but it was a tournament he can be very proud of when he looks back, especially beating both Spieth and Dustin Johnson on the Saturday.

Shane Lowry burst onto the PGA Tour scene last season when he won the WGC Bridgestone Invitation in August. He failed to make the cut at Augusta last year, but he has the driving distance and quality around the greens to be a contender at The Masters. He can be a bit of a streaky putter, but currently sits second in Average Putts on the European Tour and his excellent short game skills will prove very handy.

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