Another indelible Masters is in the books, and a lasting image emerged late on Sunday evening when Hideki Matsuyama's caddie, Shota Hayafuji, took off his cap and bowed toward Augusta National while his boss walked toward that famous jacket.
It was the perfect ending to an underrated Masters. However -- though I will watch that bow at least 100 more times -- it is time to spin things forward toward both the PGA Championship and the rest of the professional golf season.
We learned a lot from a single week at Augusta National -- or at least we think we did right now -- and much of that can be applied to the rest of 2021. Some of it was simply confirmation of what we already believe, and some of it was brand new information. But any time the 50 best golfers in the world get together to compete for a championship, there are always some fascinating takeaways for the near (and maybe even long-term) future.
Let's take a look at a few of the things we learned from the 85th edition of the Masters.
Will Zalatoris, not a faker: You might not have known the name coming in -- in fact, I would be surprised if you did know the name -- but Zalatoris is no underdog one-hit wonder. He's now the No. 27 player in the world, and that fits nicely with a pedigree that includes a Junior U.S. Amateur Championship and a Walker Cup appearance in 2017. This breakout was foreshadowed by some of his advanced statistics, and now Zalatoris making the U.S. Ryder Cup team in September is a real conversation. He has stickiness in that top 30 in the Official World Golf Rankings, and while he putted out of his mind last week, it's his ball-striking that will make him a problem in big tournaments for a very long time.
Jordan Spieth, extremely back: If you didn't believe it before -- and my Twitter mentions indicate that many of you did not! -- I'm guessing you do now. Spieth has been back for over a month, but now there is a win and a top-five at a major to prove it. His Augusta record is both supreme and a tad bit haunting. In five of his eight appearances there (2014, 2015, 2016, 2018 and 2021), only six total golfers (Bubba Watson, Danny Willett, Patrick Reed, Rickie Fowler, Hideki Matsuyama and Will Zalatoris) have defeated him. And he only has one jacket, which is outrageous. He putted terribly this week and still nearly won. That's good news for the PGA at Kiawah where he will go for the career grand slam.
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Hideki is endearing: I wrote deeply on your new Masters champion on Sunday night, but I found myself astounded at how much he won me over this week. Hideki can be a wall of nothing emotionally. To see him try and hold it together on the walk from No. 18 to the scoring area was about as much as we have ever gotten. However, that one moment -- 30 seconds in all -- said a lot. He said nothing, but somehow conveyed that he's a grateful, overwhelmed champion and that maybe he doesn't keep us at bay because there is nothing there but rather simply because he's uncomfortable expressing himself in the ways we ask him to.
Rory McIlroy, work to do: I was probably 50-50 coming into the week on whether McIlroy would do his usual thing at Augusta or play really poorly. It was clearly the latter, and McIlroy has a lot of work to do with new swing consultant Pete Cowen between now and the PGA Championship. It's extremely easy to trust that McIlroy will just figure things out at some point, and it will click and he will start winning again. However, the Masters confirmed what the last month has hinted at. Inasmuch as McIlroy's game gets derailed, it definitely is right now in a way that's unusual over the course of the last 10 years.
Cam Smith, Masters wizard? Smith now has three top 10s in his last four appearances and has started to feel like an auto-contender here like Justin Rose did for most of the 2010s. I do not recommend starting to think about your 2022 Masters fantasy lineup in April 2021, but when you do, he should likely be in it.
What to make of Xander Schauffele: He's been unbelievable in major championships with seven (!!) top-six finishes in his 15 appearances. But I cannot shake this feeling that he's a bit allergic to leading coming home. Over the last few years, he's ejected from leads or near-leads with alarming regularity. The major success is undeniable, but a double and a triple when things got tense in the final round on Sunday at Augusta National was more ammo if you're in the, "not a closer" camp. I don't totally think I'm there with him, but the evidence is starting to mount. Given his talent level and good history, this is probably just a coincidence, but in five of the last eight times he has entered a final round in the top five -- according to Data Golf -- he's essentially given himself no chance. Again, probably a coincidence (golf is very hard), but it's worth monitoring.
The Masters is always so meaningful: This one seems obvious, and maybe it is. But consider the last three champs and how overwhelmed they have been in victory. Tiger Woods with his children in 2019. Dustin Johnson unable to speak after his win in 2020. And now Matsuyama, emotional and understated as noted above. I've been thinking about this tweet all morning. About how important and almost otherworldly this tournament is. It stands alone as the golf event of the year, every year. Part of that is because of the golf, but part of it -- as you can read here -- is very much not because of the golf.