The 76th Masters gets underway Thursday. Here are the players to watch at Augusta National:
THREE WHO CAN WIN
The tournament was his to win a year ago, and he infamously lost it. “I wasn’t ready to win the Masters,” he said. He is now. What happened since – a win at his next major, the U.S. Open – is well-documented. But what makes him a favorite here, as much as anything, is his recent form. His five starts this season: 2, T5, 2, win, 3.
“It’s my favorite week of the year,” Mickelson said this week. Nowhere is he more comfortable. In his last 12 Masters, he has 10 finishes in the top 10 and eight in the top five, including his three wins. Plus, he’s playing well now: a win and two top-fives in his last five events, and realizes, at 41, how important each major opportunity is.
Hasn’t won a major since 2008. Hasn’t won the Masters since 2005. Blah, blah, blah. Woods arrives here back in the top 10 in the world rankings, having won his last start to end a two-and-a-half year drought. His record here, though, may be most important. Since his last Masters victory, even with a litany of issues, his results: T3, T2, 2, T6, T4, T4.
THREE WHO CAN WIN, BUT WON’T
Much will be made of his tie for second last year, when he made his Masters debut. He followed that up by finishing second to Rory McIlroy at the U.S. Open. But for all Day’s ability and accomplishment, he hasn’t backed up his first PGA Tour victory – at the 2010 Byron Nelson Championship – with another win. Plus, he has one top-10 finish in six events this year.
The world No. 1 is a seasoned, accomplished player with a brilliant short game who has beaten the best of fields. He tied for fourth here a year ago. So why not now? Donald’s lack of length, particularly on a soggy Augusta track, could be an issue. More concerning is his record in majors: In 33 starts, Donald has four top-five finishes, and has never been a runner-up.
A year ago, Scott stood on the 17th tee with a one-shot lead, and finished par-par. Solid, but not enough to win. The Australian’s not-so-secret weapon now: Steve Williams, Tiger Woods’s former caddie. Still, his experience last year is really his only true Sunday test at a major championship. Plus, can a belly putter win the Masters?
THREE DARK HORSES
“I’ve won every major I’ve ever played in,” Bradley said. Funny, but true. The PGA champ arrives at his first Masters trying to buck conventional wisdom: No first-timer has won the Masters since Fuzzy Zoeller in 1979. But Bradley is long enough, has made a couple of pre-tournament trips to Augusta and is a ferocious competitor.
The 41-year-old South Korean, a former power lifter, doesn’t arrive in Augusta in top form – no top-20 finishes in his last eight events. He has, however, beaten elite fields in the past, such as at The Players a year ago. And he has been in the weekend mix at the Masters the past two years, finishing tied for fourth and tied for eighth.
Take five minutes to figure out the world’s top-ranked American. Now take five more. Got it yet? It’s Mahan, who moved into the fourth spot in the rankings by winning in Houston over the weekend. More notably: He beat Rory McIlroy in the finals of the World Match Play Championship in February. Missed the cut here last year, but was top 10 the previous two.
This is what the world knows about Schwartzel: He is the only player to ever finish birdie-birdie-birdie-birdie to win the Masters, which he did last year. But do they know of his upbringing on a South African farm? Of his nine top-10 finishes in his last 14 events? His swing, and his accomplishments, say he could contend here again.
He has been ranked No. 1 in the world, has been on the international scene for more than a decade and a half, and hits the ball as purely as anyone. Yet Westwood is now 38, and he is still without a major. “It’s quite frustrating,” he said. Will the frustration finally end? If so, he’ll have to have the best putting week of his life.
The Masters has focused recently on expanding its global reach. So in March, it extended a special invitation to the 20-year-old Ishikawa despite his standing, at the time, outside the top 50 in the world rankings – an invitation it didn’t grant to longtime contenders such as Ernie Els and Retief Goosen. Ishikawa tied for 20th last year — his only top-20 finish in 11 majors — after missing the cut in his first two Masters.
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