In the days leading up to the 2010 Masters, the focus will be squarely on Tiger Woods. But for me, one of the most intriguing storylines at Augusta will be which group of players are more likely to produce the winner: the Over 40s or the Under 30s.
Here's my take on several golfers who fall into those categories.
Ernie Els, who turned 40 last October, will roll into Augusta as the only player to win two PGA Tour events this season (WGC-CA Championship at Doral and the Arnold Palmer Invitational at Bay Hill). I think it could be the Big Easy's time, and finally winning the championship that has eluded him for so long could well mean more to Els than any other victory he's had. Ernie really enjoys hanging out with the boys, and he would love to be able to return every year to the club, attend the Champions Dinner and be a part of the tournament that he loves so much. I've been really impressed with how he's rededicated himself to the game especially his putting and how he has worked to help kids like his son, Ben, who have Autism. If he can finally get the long-awaited W, a lot of people are going to be really happy.
Steve Sticker, who turned 43 in February, might not be long enough to win the Masters, but if the weather gets bad, it could help his chances. In 2007, when Zach Johnson won, the winds howled, drying the fairways and making the greens play even faster and firmer. Similar conditions would put more emphasis on each player's wedge game and putting, and those are the best parts of Steve's game. It's been almost 12 years since Stricker was the runner-up at Sahalee to Vijay Singh in the 1998 PGA Championship, but if the course plays especially tough, he could finally break through and collect his first major.
Kenny Perry, who will turn 50 in August, should have won last season's Masters, and he knows it. He had a two-shot lead walking to the 17th tee, and wound up losing on the second hole of a playoff to Angel Cabrera. This season he's battled some injuries and has just one top-10 finish (Kapalua). His next-best finish is a tie for 33rd at the WGC-Accenture Match Play Championship. As powerful as Perry still is and as much as he wants to win I'm not sure he's going to be fitted for a green jacket this year.
I'm going to lump two other notable players into this group because they will be turning 40 in the coming weeks.
Jim Furyk, who won his first PGA Tour event in more than two years at the Transitions Championship, turns 40 in May. He still hits a ton of fairways, but has missed a lot of greens this season (he ranks 116th in GIR). But at the Transition Championship he hit 72% of the greens, and followed that up by hitting almost 60% on the challenging course at Bay Hill. If he can keep his iron game sharp, and continue his solid putting, there isn't a tournament played that Furyk can't win.
Phil Mickelson, who turns 40 in June, will be playing in his 18th Masters this year. He hasn't played well so far this season, but I think he's been working toward Augusta the whole time. He'd never admit to using the West Coast and Florida Swings as tune-ups, but I honestly think that Phil has been using this entire year to prepare for the Masters. A two-time champ, he's only been outside the top 10 at Augusta once since 1998, so look for him to feel confident as soon as he arrives.
Rory McIlroy has the most complete game of any golfer under 30. He's got power off the tee, hits a lot of greens and is a sneaky-good putter. The only thing you can really knock about this 20-year-old from Northern Ireland is that he hasn't been able to close out some events when he's been in contention, but that skill will improve with experience. I would not be surprised if he adds a green jacket to his wardrobe very soon.
Camilo Villegas, the winner of the Honda Classic in early March, also has power to spare off the tee. But the 28-year-old Colombian's swing relies on a lot of leg action, which on the hilly, uneven ground at Augusta National could make it difficult for him to maintain good balance. He missed the cut in his first two Masters, but in his fourth trip to Augusta he could be ready to build on last season's T13 finish.
Germany's Martin Kaymer won twice last season on the European Tour and then won this season's event in Abu Dhabi. At last month's WGC-CA Championship at Doral he finished third. The 25-year-old's game is sound, but he has never been in the heat of the battle Sunday at a major. It's the next step in his development, and Kaymer might be ready to take it.
Winning the Waste Management Championship at TPC Scottsdale gave 28-year-old Hunter Mahan a big shot of confidence. He's always been one of the best iron players around, and when his putter gets hot, he can make a lot of birdies. Like everyone else at Augusta, Mahan is going to go as far as his putter takes him.
And speaking of birdies, 24-year-old Anthony Kim can sure make a lot of them when he gets hot. In fact, Kim set a record last year when he shot a 65 in the second round of the 2009 Masters that included 11 birdies. He epitomizes the new generation of powerful, aggressive players that are finding their way onto the PGA Tour. If Kim can sty in the moment and feels healthy, his potential is almost limitless.
Looking over this sheet, and then glancing at all the red slashes on my NCAA Tournament pool bracket, makes me think one thing: A guy in his 30s is bound to win.