1. Rory McIlroy Will Make Things Extra Interesting
Rory hasn't cracked the top 25 at the Masters since his brutal back-nine 43 on Sunday in 2011, and you can bet he thinks about it every time he steps on the grounds. But he has his whole career ahead of him to make up for it. It's not like the weight Phil Mickelson carries at the U.S. Open, where Lefty's history of near-misses now stretches over 14 years. I give Rory a chance. In December he beat Adam Scott with a brilliant, final-round 66 at the Emirates Australian Open [shown above], which was a huge boost of confidence. And McIlroy solidified his relationship with tennis star Caroline Wozniacki by proposing over the holidays. Rory has his muse. The only thing missing is his putter. He finished 122nd in Strokes Gained in 2013. That won't cut it at the Masters.
Both Pinehurst No. 2 and Augusta National set up nicely for Lefty, but Phil wants a U.S. Open trophy more than a fourth green jacket. A victory at Pinehurst will give him the career grand slam and erase the sting of six second-place finishes at our national championship. Sure, he'll come out with guns blazing at the Masters, but his back is aching, and he's only won twice on American soil the past three years. I've picked Phil to prevail at Pinehurst, and I'm sticking to it. I just can't see him winning back-to-back majors. What happens on Thursday at Augusta will reveal a lot. In his three Masters wins, Mickelson's average finish after the first round? Fifth. If he tees off Friday near the top of the leaderboard, he should hang around through the weekend.
3. My Fantasy Team Will Incite Some Augusta Roars
Some big names are missing from the tee sheet this year: Tiger Woods, David Toms, Geoff Ogilvy, Padraig Harrington, among others. And Rory and Phil are iffy. As for Adam Scott, Augusta has given us only three back-to-back winners in history. The field sets up for an under-the-radar player to incite some roars. Someone like…
Marc Leishman [above]: His swing is smooth enough to make Ernie Els jealous. The big Aussie tied for fourth at last year's Masters and already has two top 10s in 2014.
Harris English: He's built like Dustin Johnson, hits it just as far, and contends almost every week.
Jimmy Walker: Not only did he notch three Tour wins in eight starts, but Walker has the game of a green-jacket winner: lots of length and can putt lights-out.
4. Henrik Stenson Will Look Very Good in Green
Has anyone been better over the last year than Henrik Stenson? What a 2013! Three wins, two top 3s in majors, and a boatload of cash [almost $20 million]. He's like Tiger and Rory: When all cylinders are firing, he can lap the field. He led the 2013 Tour in Greens in Regulation and was third in Total Driving — that's a tough combo to beat. Skeptics point to the fact that in Stenson's eight Masters appearances, he has missed the cut three times and finished no higher than 17th. Throw those stats out the Butler Cabin window. He's a completely different player now. He came to Augusta in 2012 ranked 165th in the world. This year, he'll tee off among the World Top 5. His resilience in remaking his game tells me he has what it takes between the ears to win a big one.