Augusta, Ga. — There is one overwhelmingly obvious question this week at the Masters tournament: If not Tiger Woods, then who?
You’ve read the buildup. Writers aren’t wondering whether Tiger is going to win the Masters, they’re wondering whether Tiger is going to win the Grand Slam. Well, that will be a moot point unless he can unseat defending champion Zach Johnson.
So who can beat Tiger at Augusta? Here are my baker’s dozen choices of the most likely candidates, starting with those who have the best prospects.
1. Phil Mickelson. Well, duh. He’s won the Masters twice since 2004 and the course plays to his strengths-power and short-game mastery. You don’t win in Augusta unless you’re a great putter or have a great putting week. Phil has the experience, he knows where to play the shots and he has greatly improved his formerly somewhat limited shotmaking skills in the last five years, making him an annual threat to contend. It was tough in the early 1960s to win a Masters when you had to beat guys named Palmer and Nicklaus. Now you’ve got to beat guys named Woods and Mickelson.
2. Geoff Ogilvy. The 2006 U.S. Open champion could have won the Masters last year if he hadn’t made a triple-bogey eight at No. 2 on Thursday and a quadruple-bogey nine at the 15th on Saturday. The Aussie actually led the field in birdies for the week. He fits the winner’s profile: He hits it long and high, he’s won a major, he’s got experience, he’s got a very good short game (don’t forget his chip-ins at Winged Foot and the recent one at Doral) and he’s playing well going into the tournament.
3. Lee Westwood. Call him a sleeper pick. The Englishman hasn’t been a factor in a major for some time but he’s coming off a period of hard work and rededication, and is playing his best golf in years. He hasn’t won in Europe this season but he’s been second twice and was third in his last appearance, at Andalucia in Spain. He’s got the experience to handle the pressure. The timing could be right.
4. Padraig Harrington. Now that the pleasant Irishman has the major monkey off his back, who knows what else he might win? He’s a very solid player, has an excellent short game and though he looks mechanical with his putting stroke, he gets the ball in the hole. His record at Augusta is just good enough to be interesting-a fifth, a seventh and a 13th in eight tries. Twice he’s led in fewest putts, a good sign.
5. Jim Furyk. He’s been fourth twice, sixth once and in the top 15 on six occasions. True, he doesn’t have the length to overpower the course and take advantage of the par 5 holes–but then neither did Zach Johnson last year. Furyk’s recent showing at Doral (where he tied for second) indicates he’s back on top of his game. He led the tournament in greens hit in regulation. He can play this course well enough to win-he just needs to score slightly better. He’s too tough to count out.
6. Retief Goosen. You wouldn’t exactly call it a slump, but in the last few years Goosen hasn’t played to his previous standard. That’s odd to say, since his last three Masters finishes are third, third and second. The South African did look like his old self at Doral, joining Furyk and Vijay Singh as runners-up to Ogilvy. Goosen’s swing has never looked better and his putting stroke, once one of the most feared on Tour, suddenly seems back in the groove. If he’s truly the Goose of old, he’s a serious challenger.
7. Ernie Els. The best player never to have won a Masters, Els came close in 2004 when he played solidly on the back nine but was edged out by Mickelson’s memorable last-hole putt. Els has been in the top ten six times. The Big Easy’s window appeared to have closed following his knee injury and subsequent slow recovery, but his recent win in the Honda Classic was a healthy sign. (True, he finished 75th at Doral a few weeks later.) Els can play Augusta well if he can forget about his past history here.
8. Vijay Singh. It appears his swing renovation is successful, as his play at Doral showed. Vijay’s struggles with the putter continue, though, and it’s difficult to see him holing enough putts to win, whether he’s using a conventional-length model or a belly putter-he changes back and forth on a whim. Singh hasn’t ranked among the top 20 in fewest putts in the last six Masters even though he hasn’t been out of the top ten in greens hit in regulation during that time.
9. Rory Sabbatini. The mercurial South African was runner-up to Johnson last year. He can handle the greens. The big question is whether his feel-based swing can hold up under the pressure for four days. I think he proved last year that it can. He hasn’t cracked the top 30 in his last four appearances this year, however, and is coming off a final-round 79 at Doral. And clearly, if he ends up in a duel with Tiger, Woods has his number. Then again, who wouldn’t be at a disadvantage versus Woods?
10. Andres Romero. The young Argentinian is an impressive talent. He scored his breakthrough PGA Tour victory two weeks ago in New Orleans and has the tools to succeed here. He’s long, powerful, sharp with his irons and a streaky hot putter. He simply makes a lot of birdies, as he showed last summer at Carnoustie when he unleashed 10 birdies in the final round but finished double bogey-bogey and missed out on a playoff for the British Open title. This is his first Masters-which means he has to process a big learning curve of local course knowledge. Give him a few rounds here, though, and he could be a factor one of these years.
11. Fred Couples. Can somebody really win the Masters at the age of 48? Fred seemed to have his Nicklaus moment two years ago when he played in the last group Sunday with Mickelson, his charge ending only when he three-putted from close range at the 14th hole. You don’t usually get a second late-career chance like that. However, Fred is seeing a new back specialist, he’s feeling better than he has in a long time and he’s been able to practice and play more than he has in years. He has already played seven events, four more than he managed in 2007. His 67-66 finish in Houston earned him a fourth. He’s a sentimental pick but he plays Augusta as well as anyone-he’s never missed the cut here.
12. Justin Rose. The Englishman is coming off his best year in ’07, when he was a factor in several majors. He led the Masters after the first round last year (he finished fifth) and after the first two rounds in ’04 (he faded to a tie for 22nd). He is quietly progressing in his career and while he hasn’t won in the U.S., he’s got four victories in Europe. In his last three events, he was 15th at Honda, 14th at the PODS Championship and 15th at the CA Championship.
13. Adam Scott. For a player with his potential who is ranked among the top 10 in the world (he’s No. 8 going into the Masters), he has been in the hunt in surprisingly few majors. He’s never been a factor at Augusta and hasn’t finished in the top 20 in the last five. It’s all about the greens and he hasn’t found a way to handle them yet-he’s never ranked among the top 25 in Masters putting stats.