The most exciting tournament in golf is nearly upon us, and most of us are anxious to see if its a new pair of shoulders that the coveted Green Jacket is draped over on Sunday or one of the wily veterans. With The Masters set to begin on Thursday and some people still feeling the sting from their busted NCAA Tournament brackets, a Masters pool can be a great way to try to erase some of those bad memories.
For those of you who dare to trust my golf intelligence, I’ve broken down some of the contenders and pretenders.
The obvious choices:
1. Tiger Woods — Could anyone use a win this weekend more than Tiger? Woods has not won a major since 2007, when he won the PGA Championship. It has been almost eight years since his last victory at the Masters. Just when it appeared that Tiger was a lock to shatter Jack Nicklaus’ record of 18 major victories, the whole sex scandal hit and it was all downhill for a few years.
Now, it’s heading back uphill. Tiger has three victories already this season and is putting as well as he ever has. He is once again ranked the No. 1 golfer in the world. His driving has still been inconsistent, but there’s no reason to think the Tiger of old can’t show up at Augusta this year. If ever there was a time to announce to the world that his career is long from over, this is it.
2. Phil Mickelson — No player at Augusta is more exciting to watch than Mickelson. Whether it’s wrapping an insane shot around a tree en route to his third Green Jacket or nailing a 30-foot putt to remain in the hunt, Phil always has plenty of magic up his sleeve at The Masters. He has not played particularly well as of late, but sometimes 42-year-old players need a little extra motivation to get the adrenaline flowing. Augusta always seems to do that for Phil.
3. Rory McIlroy — McIlroy’s switch to Nike has been anything but seamless. He played horribly through the first part of the season, but came away with a much-needed second place finish at the Valero Texas Open last weekend. McIlroy seemed to figure out his drive, which had been killing him all season long. No one will forget Rory’s final-round collapse at The Masters two years ago — himself included. This is a young kid with a ton of confidence who openly admitted he’d trade 10 missed cuts in a row for a Green Jacket. Counting him out this weekend simply because of his inconsistent play would be a mistake.
The serious contenders:
1. Keegan Bradley — Bradley is one of the most popular picks to win this year’s tournament. He finished 27th at Augusta National last year, but Bradley is only 26 and has already won a major (2011 PGA Championship). He’s one of the best clutch putters in the game and showed the world that his confidence is through the roof at the 2012 Ryder Cup. Bradley has played consistently well this season, finishing in the top 10 of his last four tournaments. He hits his irons high and long, which comes in handy at Augusta. Physically, he has all the tools. My gut tells me he does mentally as well.
2. Justin Rose — If it feels like Rose has been around forever, that’s because he has. The 32-year-old turned pro in 1998 at the age of 17. He has yet to capture his first major victory, but Rose has finished in the top five at some point in all four of them. His inability to sink putts at crucial moments has always been an issue, but his putting looks vastly improved this season. Will he eventually be able to overcome the pressures that come with playing in a major on a Sunday afternoon? Time will tell, but very few people would be shocked if that happens this weekend.
3. Angel Cabrera — Can you say experience? Cabrera is 43 years old and already captured a Green Jacket in 2009. It seems like every year there is an “old guy” who comes out of nowhere to put himself in the running on the final day. Cabrera should be feeling very little pressure during this tournament, as expectations for him have never been sky-high despite his two major victories.
4. Graeme McDowell — Graeme “Close But No Cigar” McDowell was in the hunt during all four majors last season. His worst finish in a major last season was 12th place, so McDowell had himself in contention on Sunday each time. He has also played his way to three top 10 finishes this season. He has only one win on the PGA Tour, which came at the US Open in 2010. Expect his name to be near the top of the leader board for much of the weekend. Whether or not he can stay there on Sunday remains to be seen.
5. Jason Dufner — Dufner finished 24th in The Masters last season after posting a final round 75, but he has played well in majors recently. He finished 4th at the US Open last year and none of us will forget his epic battle with Keegan Bradley that required extra holes at the 2011 PGA Championship. Unlike guys like Tiger, Phil and Rory, Dufner won’t have much heat on him throughout the weekend. Like the aforementioned players, he hits the ball very long. He should be very much in the hunt.
6. Lee Westwood — He has to win one of these things eventually, right? The 39-year-old Westwood has finished in the top three of all four major tournaments. Since 2010, he has two top-three finished at The Masters and six top-10 finishes in major tournaments overall. Can he finally hit those one or two shots he needs to capture his first Green Jacket? I wouldn’t mind seeing it.
It’s tempting, but don’t count on it:
1. Bubba Watson — Winning back-to-back majors is difficult enough, let alone from a player with Bubba’s playing style. Watson is one of the biggest risk-takers on the PGA Tour, and that was on display with his famous shot from the woods that resulted in a Masters victory in 2012. Typically, that style of play does not result in two-straight Green Jackets.
2. Luke Donald — Donald spent a great deal of time on the top of the World Golf Rankings, but he has yet to capture a major victory. He finished 5th at The Open Championship last year but 32nd at both The Masters and The PGA Championship. He did not make the cut at the US Open. In addition, Donald’s last PGA Tour victory came more than a year ago. While it wouldn’t exactly shock the golf world if Donald won the Green Jacket, I don’t see it happening.
3. Dustin Johnson — Johnson has seven victories on the PGA Tour and has five top-1o finishes in major tournaments, but none of them came at The Masters. DJ has played at Augusta National three times. He finished 30th once and 38th the other two times. He can hit the ball a long way but his putting always seems to become an issue. As we have seen countless times in the past, the greens at Augusta can humble even the most consistent putters.
Enjoy the drama, folks. We’re certainly going to.