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Tour Confidential: Is Rory McIlroy the new favorite to win the Masters?

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After struggling throughout much of 2013, Rory McIlroy's play has been solid, if not entirely strong, in 2014.

Every Sunday night, conducts an e-mail roundtable with writers from Sports Illustrated and Golf Magazine. Check in every week for the unfiltered opinions of our writers and editors and join the conversation in the comments section below.

1. Rory McIlroy tied the low score of the tournament at the Shell Houston Open with a 7-under 65 on Sunday and was already in Augusta before the tournament finished. Does this momentum make him your new Masters favorite, if he wasn't already?

Jeff Ritter, senior editor, Sports Illustrated Golf Group (@Jeff_Ritter): Rory was my pick to win before and remains so today. He's playing well, is due for a win, and has demonstrated that he can handle the course (for three rounds, anyway). The stars are aligned, but somehow there are still a few seats left here on the bandwagon. Anybody else want on?

Michael Bamberger, senior writer, Sports Illustrated: Picking a pre-tournament favorite has all the weight of a large cotton candy. Yes, Rory's got a good shot. I like Angel Cabrera, Patrick Reed and Charl Schwartzel better. I'm not even going to bring up Fred.

Mark Godich, senior editor, Sports Illustrated (@MarkGodich): One round does not a favorite make. Adam Scott remains the man to beat until someone takes the jacket away.

Joe Passov, senior editor, Golf Magazine (@joepassov): It's really great to have Rory back in the mix. Yet he's not really topping the leaderboard much, is he? Good stuff at the Honda (sort of), and a great win late last year in Australia, but he hasn't done enough to make him my favorite -- not even close. Jason Day, even with his injuries, has been better in that same period and has a stellar Masters record, and Adam Scott is in the same boat. Rory's in my Top 10 contenders for the week, but not my top three.

Eamon Lynch, managing editor, (@eamonlynch): One swallow doesn't make a spring, and a 65 in Houston doesn't count for an awful lot in Augusta. But it sure beats an 85. McIlroy was my pick for the week and remains so.

Cameron Morfit, senior writer, Golf Magazine (@CameronMorfit): I'd say he's as much of a favorite as most, but this year we're going to see a strong run made by one or more of the more recent jacket winners. I'm thinking Phil, Bubba, Charl, Zach, players like that. Guys have actually gotten it done.

Gary Van Sickle, senior writer, Sports Illustrated (@GaryVanSickle): Rory was a Masters favorite by default already, wasn't he? Now he looks like the guy to beat, maybe by default. Would I bet on the Aussies? No. Would I bet on Rory? Definitely.

Josh Sens, contributing writer, Golf Magazine (@JoshSens): Two words: Lee Westwood. Okay, a few more words. I know he struggles with his short game and has a special talent for shooting himself in the foot, but now that he's finally out of the conversation … when you least expect it, in other words.

2. What are the odds that Houston Open winner Matt Jones gets back-to-back wins by claiming a green jacket at Augusta?

BAMBERGER: Not better than 1 in 100. He has a slightly better chance than Sandy Lyle but his odds are not as good as Bernhard Langer's. I'm not going to even bring up Fred.

LYNCH: The odds are stacked against first-timers winning at Augusta National, there having been just one such champion since 1935. Plus, Jones has only ever finished one major championship in his career, though I suppose that at least puts him one up on Patrick Reed.

GODICH: We'll have an Aussie winner, but it won't be Jones. He and Bowditch will just be happy to be there (in other words, they won't be around for the weekend.) Scott will contend, but in the end he'll be slipping the green jacket over the shoulders of countryman Jason Day.

MORFIT: The odds that Jones wins at Augusta in his first look, a week after finally breaking through for his first Tour win, are better than Greg Norman's odds of winning. But perhaps not by much.

PASSOV: The odds of Matt Jones winning the Masters are slim, though perhaps they're better than what they must have been for him to drain a 46-foot birdie putt on one of the Tour's hardest closers, then dunk a chip-shot for birdie on the same hole to win his first PGA Tour event -- against a Top 10 player, no less. Yes, I'm picking an Australian to win the Masters with four letters in his first name, five in his last, but it's not Matt Jones, it's Adam Scott.

SENS: Vegas currently has him at 100 to 1, which means his true odds of winning are probably closer to 500 to 1. And I'm still not sure I'd take him at that number.

VAN SICKLE: I think those odds are pretty long, mate. I'm not taking that bet. Matt Jones fits the Aussie stereotype of great ball striker, so-so putter. When a guy like that gets hot with the putter, as Adam Scott did when he led the field in putting during last year's Masters, it can be lights out. Two weeks in a row anywhere is a stretch. When the second one is the Masters, well, I'd be dumbfounded.

3. This was the second final-round disappointment for Matt Kuchar in as many weeks. Last Sunday, he shot a 75 at TPC San Antonio to finish fourth; this Sunday, he gave up a four-stroke lead after 54 holes and lost in a playoff. Does Kuchar have the fortitude to win a major or is he just a Top 10 machine?

SENS: Can't it be both? When all is said and done, I think we'll look back on Kuchar and his career as Furykian: consistently among the top handful of players in the world, with a possible major win to his credit, but even more near misses. And an equally poor record in the Ryder Cup.

PASSOV: Kuchar is better -- much better -- than just a Top 10 machine. Recent wins over the best fields in golf at the Barclays, WGC Match Play, Memorial and the Players reflect that. Because he is THAT good, he contends that often, on almost any kind of course, and that's what makes his recent snafus so surprising. I can't pinpoint it, but back-to-back three-putts at 18 on Saturday and at 1 on Sunday were really strange -- he left both first putts well short, and his yanked approach into the water at the 72nd was surreal. He didn't need to be anywhere near the water or the flag, so how did that happen? He's still got the stuff to win a major, but Houston was a real head-scratcher.

VAN SICKLE: Kuchar's deal is scoring. He gets the ball in the hole. Sometimes when the pressure is on, you need to hit perfect shots. I'd say he's in that category of guys who are successful for their scoring skills more than their ball-striking skills. When his ball striking is on, he's extremely impressive. When it's not, it's hard to make up for mistakes.

MORFIT: Certainly anyone capable of winning as much as Kuchar has can win a major. But based on what we saw in Houston I expect the usual suspects like Mickelson and McIlroy to be in the hunt at Augusta, plus Sergio and Charl and at least one first-timer like English or Reed.

LYNCH: For a 35-year-old with six Tour wins, Kuchar's major record is underwhelming, just five Top 10s. He's a classy guy, but you don't sense fire in the belly when someone sighs “Golly, Matty” after rinsing one on the final hole to throw away a routine win. Still, guys who play a steady, drama-free game tend to be a recurring presence in majors, so Kuchar's chances can't be easily dismissed.

GODICH: Kuchar has won the Players, but it will take a long time for the scar tissue to heal on the last couple of weeks. It's not just that he shot 75 last week with the third-round lead. It wasn't just that he led by four at the start of the day in Houston. It's that he bogeyed two of the last three holes and rinsed one from the middle of the fairway at the last when he needed only a par to win. How is he going to handle the pressure if he gets in the hunt at a major if he can't close the deal at a pair of petroleum opens?

BAMBERGER: If Kuchar contends enough, in majors or other events, he'll win some percentage of them. You can't expect him to win the first major he contends in. If he contends in eight, he should win one of them. That's about how it goes for most of the good-not-great players, all the Jim Furyks and Justin Leonards and Tom Lehmans. I'm not going to even bring up Fred.

RITTER: As it stands now, Kuchar is America's Luke Donald: a really good dude whose performance on the big stage hasn't quite mirrored his talent. But let's remember that Kuchar has six PGA Tour titles, including two last year. I think he'll eventually get that major, but this Masters won't be the one.

4. The last six PGA Tour tournaments have been won by golfers who earned their first Tour win in 2014. Many of them have come at the expense of some of golf's biggest stars -- Rory McIlroy, Adam Scott, Matt Kuchar. Does parity help or hurt the Tour?

BAMBERGER: The issue here is not parity. The issue here is golfing manliness. Good golfers will be set for life no matter what they do on Sundays. But if you want the attention and respect of the golfing public and your lodge brothers, you got to close.

MORFIT: It's hurting. There's nothing to grab onto as we head into this Masters. Phil and Rory are the closest we've got to a narrative.

GODICH: It's nice to have the surprise winner every now and again, but this is getting a little tiresome, especially when you consider that those victories have come at the expense of potential superstars. The game needs a star or two who can dominate.

LYNCH: Sports thrive when there is parity among kings, not cobblers. Tennis has been elevated by Federer, Nadal and Djokovic facing off in almost every event. Golf needs more than a couple of dominant players, it needs a genuine rivalry.

SENS: It hurts. What applies to movies applies to sports: always better to have a strong lead character than an ensemble cast. The best narratives require outsize figures, whether they inspire our love or stir our outrage. Some fans may think of Tiger Woods as golf's Darth Vader, but the picture wouldn't be nearly as compelling without him.

PASSOV: Wins by Russell Henley, John Senden, Matt Every and Matt Jones are all well and good for themselves -- but not good for the Tour. Golf, like football, basketball and the other major sports, relies on the star system to succeed. We want our big guns to win a bunch, occasionally in exciting, heroic fashion and we'd like a few of those guys to go head-to-head as rivals down the stretch in those events. None of the four guys I mentioned moves the needle. It's nice to see a Cinderella story, but if they happen every week, it shatters the glass slipper.

VAN SICKLE: Parity is good for building new stars that the game will eventually need. Golf has always needed a compelling central figure or two, a superstar, to command attention. I'd say the same for tennis, too.

RITTER: The Tour is, like all sports leagues, most compelling when there are a few big stars. But what's happening this season feels like something other than parity -- it's the birth of the next generation of stars. Nothing wrong with that, either.

5. What impressed you the most at the LPGA Kraft Nabisco Championship -- Lexi Thompson's dominance or Michelle Wie's resilience?

LYNCH: Thompson's aggressive, flawless play was the highlight of the weekend. It's tempting to note that her performance in the final round of a major is what was long expected of Wie, but never delivered. Yet being armed with a Stanford degree and a seemingly balanced outlook on life isn't a bad place for Wie to be at just 24. If she can ever overcome her putting issues, she'll have a long, trophy-filled career.

VAN SICKLE: I'm impressed that Michelle Wie can practice putting bent over like that for any length of time without needing a back brace. It looks painful. Good for her for making a run at a major. She has star power that the LPGA could really use.

MORFIT: Lexi. Pretty strong stuff at that age. Let's see Jordan Spieth top that. Nice sportsmanship by Wie, who hit some great shots out there, too.

RITTER: It was nice to see Wie get in the mix, but you have to hand it to Lexi: bogey-free in the final round while going head-to-head with the highest-wattage star in women's golf. Lexi just completed the final step from star-in-the-making to dominant force. Wouldn't be surprised at all to see her grab another major or two this year.

GODICH: Let's give Lexi her due. That was an impressive round (and week) of golf. Sadly, it's an indictment of Wie that we have resorted to commenting on her resiliency in the face of defeat. This could have been her week. She just ran into a buzz saw.

SENS: Wie. Thompson has always been a world-beating talent, slowed mostly by a temperamental putter. It's no shock to see her win. But Wie … all we hear about her is how she's lost the love and missed her window, so having her contend was a sweet surprise.

PASSOV: All credit to Lexi. Mission Hills is a tough driving course, and she put her driver in play often enough to dominate. It's easy to criticize Wie for hitting so many of those 3-wood stingers into safe positions, but that's what got her in position to win in the first place, so credit to her for sticking to her game plan. The problem is that when your opponent is outdriving you on every hole, it adds pressure to every approach. Wie didn't choke, or play poorly, she just couldn't compete with a longer, better player on this day.

BAMBERGER: Lexi, winning a big event by a big margin. Only the thoroughbreds do that. Jones, Wright, Nicklaus, Woods. Welcome to the club, Lexi.

6. Augusta National hosted its inaugural "Drive, Pitch and Putt" contest on Sunday. Nine-year-old Kelly Xu was the first youngster to win her age division, making her the first female champ to be crowned at Augusta. There's a lot of talk about what the Tour and its administrators need to do to "grow the game," but how can golf's top clubs do their part?

BAMBERGER: Follow the lead of National Golf Links and Seminole and Merion by hosting Walker Cups and other competitions. Promote caddying as an ideal job for young people trying to learn the game. Raise money by opening the clubs a couple times a year to paying outsiders and use that can money for golf initiatives like teaching the game in to phys-ed classes. Also, people who are lucky to belong to nice clubs should make sure they play public golf a few times a year, to be reminded of how the vast majority of golfers play the game.

MORFIT: Augusta National and the game's governing bodies did a smart thing here, and the smartest part about it was that it was televised. You can't overstate the impact of TV on kids especially, and if it looks like fun, then those kids will get their parents to set them up with clubs and lessons. The most excited I've seen my daughter get about golf was when we watched "The Short Game" documentary that showed a similar kids' event at Pinehurst.

GODICH: Try as they might, the folks at Augusta National aren't going to grow the game with a five-hour Sunday morning exhibition. We need to start by making golf more affordable, speeding up play and making courses easier.

VAN SICKLE: Forget the clubs. They're too often about profit-and-loss statements. To grow the game, every golfer out there needs to bring one more person into the game -- a kid, a spouse, a relative or a friend. That would be a huge start.

PASSOV: We keep asking this question every year, usually at the PGA Merchandise Show. There seems to be many answers and few solutions. We know golf takes too much time, it's too expensive and there aren't enough facilities for juniors of modest means to develop their games. Figure out a way to transform some acreage into low-priced, six- or nine-hole courses, with a paucity of hazards, so that they can be played quickly, and you'll see more participation. That said, the chance to compete at Augusta National, on television, is fantastic. Kudos to the poo-bahs at Augusta National, the USGA and the PGA of America for making this happen. "Drive, Pitch and Putt" provides genuine incentive for kids to participate and improve.

SENS: They could go public. But since the majority of "top clubs" in this country build their identities around exclusivity, not inclusiveness, that's not going to happen. But I know we're playing make believe and pretending that these clubs really are 100 percent committed to growing the game. So in the meantime, they could increase funding for junior caddie programs and allow greater access to local junior golfers, even if it's just to their practice facilities.

RITTER: The event was extremely cool and kudos to Augusta for staging it -- a new tradition is born. Private clubs have a right to make their own rules, but they can certainly play a part in golf's growth movement simply by being more inclusive. ANGC, as the most high-profile club on the planet, has the power to start trends. Hopefully we just saw the start of another one, as similar contests would work at the local level at clubs around the world.

LYNCH: Most clubs could start by putting as much thought into making the game fun as they do into compiling frequently arcane, scolding regulations that often exist only to appease a rump of members who have one foot in the grave. Throw open the doors once in a while to junior camps and events. Sunday's DC&P was a welcome reminder that even usually austere clubs can loosen the tie and play a vital part in exposing kids to the game.

The Tour Confidential roundtable continues Monday on our new weekly show hosted by Jessica Marksbury. Tweet her your questions @Jess_Marksbury.

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