When it comes to major championship golf, the Masters is the ultimate final exam. That hasn’t always been the case. It used to be a place for power-hitters who had a hot week with the putter.
The course changes over the last decade, some of which were a little excessive (the trees planted at the seventh, 11th and 15th, and the new tee at the seventh), have turned Augusta National into a course that favors no one specific type of player or ball flight. You’ve got to do it all now. Length and power never hurt, of course, but there is such a premium on every facet of the game, especially around the greens, that anyone in the field should feel like he has a chance.
The winner also has to survive what may be the most crushing pressure and the hottest spotlight in golf. Which makes picking a winner more difficult than ever.
The Six Players Who Can Win:
Tiger Woods. This just in from Captain Obvious. Too obvious to ignore, actually. The guy has three wins this year, three times as many as anyone else on the PGA Tour, and six victories in the last year. He reclaimed the No. 1 ranking from yesterday’s news Rory McIlroy. He’s swinging better, his short game is better, his putting is as good as ever (that’s the scary part!) and his swagger is back.
It used to be that if Tiger putted great, he won by a bunch and if he putted only pretty well, he still won. Well, he’s putting great right now. (Thank-you note to Steve Stricker again.) Combine that with his course-management skill and his experience at Augusta and uh-oh, Major Win No. 15 may be one of those objects that suddenly appears closer in your side-view mirror.
Phil Mickelson. Of all the dozen or more major titles that Phil has Phrittered away over his career, none may sting more than last year’s Masters. Two bad swings and two helpings of bad luck led to a pair of triple bogeys—one at No. 10 in the opening round where a drive off to the left was never found, and one off a grandstand railing into an unplayable lie at the par-3 fourth in the final round. Phil outplayed the field over the other 70 holes. Give him two bogeys instead of two triples, a reasonable gift, and he wins handily. There is one place Phil can win any year and that’s Augusta National. It’s a concern that he’s tinkering with his putting—the claw grip, conventional grip, sticking an oversized fat grip on the putter. That means he’s got a glitch in his stroke that he’s trying to overcome. Not a good sign. But he’s Phil. His iron play always makes him a contender here.
Charl Schwartzel. It’s easy to forget that this quiet South African already won a Green Jacket. His swing is smooth, his game is effortless and he can putt. There is no hole in his game. He has played consistently well this year -- better than that, actually, since he won two events in South Africa at the start of the year. His four-birdies-in-a-row finish to win his only Masters is a record likely to stand for years. He should be on your short-list of potential champs.
Louis Oosthuizen. It only seems like he’s related to Schwartzel because he, too, is quiet and unassuming and prefers to let his clubs do the talking. It’s also easy to forget that he’s already got a major on his resume, the 2010 British Open at the Old Course, where he romped past the field. He had a chance at last year’s Masters but made bogey on the tenth hole and lost to Bubba Watson’s crazy par from the pines. He also had that mesmerizing double eagle at the second hole in the final round.
Oosthuizen looks like a world-beater, one of those guys who could go on a tear and rack up bunch of major titles, if he proves that he’s got that killer-instinct closer gene. He’s got one major, and it’s hard to see him not winning a Masters one of these years.
Justin Rose. He’s been a quick starter out of the gate at past Masters and been unable to sustain it, but his game has been slowly improving ever since he began working with teacher Sean Foley. His putting can be inconsistent but he’s been putting himself into position to win more and more often. If an English rose is going to bloom in Augusta, it’s going to be Justin.
Bubba Watson. One thing we’ve learned about Bubba Golf, don’t bother trying to predict what he’s going to do next. Win another Masters? Drive the General Lee down Magnolia Lane? Play golf out of a hovercraft? He’s got a homegrown swing, a sense of fun and an offbeat personality, and he can play golf. Watson obviously got overwhelmed by winning the Masters last year, but he’s the kind of player who will rise to the occasion and has the talent to be able to turn it on any time. Count him out at your own risk.