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.
Five Players Who Might Win:
Rory McIlroy. It’s been a tumultuous year for Rory. Every part of his life has changed. He bought a house in Florida, moved to the U.S. He got the additional attention of being No. 1 in the world — well, for a while. Then he changed out all of his clubs, and his golf ball, for a mega-deal with Nike that has surely added a layer of pressure. That’s a lot to adjust to and until San Antonio last week, he hadn’t shown a lot of signs of his game coming around. He can find it in a day, though. He’s proven he can handle Augusta tee to green. Can he handle the greens? That’s his big question.
Luke Donald. Just because his reign at No. 1 is over, possibly forever, doesn’t mean he’s not a Masters contender. He’s had a few chances to win here. Donald isn’t as short off the tee as you think. His bunker play, the best in the business, and his short game make him a threat to contend any year. His biggest concern? It’s been over a year since his last PGA Tour win, at Innisbrook.
Keegan Bradley. It would add some spice to the conversation if some of the next 12 major champions are players who use the destined-to-be-banned anchored-putting style. Bradley is tough with his belly putter and among the Americans, there may be no one else (besides Tiger) you’d rather see facing a must-make 12-footer. He’s got the length, he’s got the towering iron shots, he’s got the short game, and, let’s not forget, he’s got a PGA Championship to his credit already. A Masters would put him on the fast track for an extremely special career.
Dustin Johnson. He fits the power-hitter profile at Augusta and looks to have all the tools of a big winner. He’s racked up wins, too, just not in majors. But he has had a few stumbles. He was a contender in Houston a few weeks ago, a course well-suited to a big hitter, but he made some errors on the final nine. His putting has looked spotty at times. Can he really handle the nightmarish speeds and slopes of Augusta National? We’re still waiting to see.
Adam Westwood (combining Adam Scott and Lee Westwood into a field entry). Both of these players have felt the wrath of the haven’t-won-a-major monkey and in both cases, it’s because of the short game. Scott displayed superb ball-striking as he appeared to be en route to winning last summer’s British Open, but a few missteps with his long putter and a tactical error off the tee on the 72nd hole cost him a lead and a title he won’t soon forget. Westwood, also a terrific ball-striker, has racked up a batch of high finishes in majors. But the weak chip here, the short missed birdie putt there, has kept him out of the winner’s circle. The clock is ticking on both gentlemen. Will they or won’t they?