AUGUSTA, Ga. -- One of the more anticipated Masters tournaments in years gets underway here Thursday morning with all manner of intriguing possibilities for a champion to succeed Phil Mickelson, the very popular winner of the 2004 event.
The probability, in my opinion, is that Tiger Woods will emerge with his fourth green jacket and end a run of 10 major championships without a victory dating back to the middle of the 2002 season.
_____Shapiro's Top 10_____
1. Tiger Woods: Hes hungry after 10 straight majors without a title, and playing like it as well with two wins already this season.
2. Ernie Els: Second twice at The asters, losing by a stroke last year, Els game suits the course as he goes for a fourth major.
3. Phil Mickelson: Hell be in the hunt on Sunday afternoon and obviously can win here. Back to back may be a bit much to ask, though Ill pick him in June at Pinehurst in the U.S. Open.
4. Retief Goosen: Hell glide along under the radar, then pounce on Sunday. He was second here in 2002, and has the long game to win his third major.
5. Vijay Singh: The No. 1 ranked player will be in the mix, but several late gaffes that cost him wins at Honda and Bay Hill make him a little nervous down the stretch on Sunday.
6. Adam Scott: The kid belts the ball a mile, has sweet touch around the greens and is the next great Aussie to come from down under.
7. Sergio Garcia: Hes altered his swing in recent years and still hits it a ton, but can he stand the Sunday heat in a major through a full 18 holes?
8. Davis Love III: His father, a long-time teaching pro, led here after one round in 1964, and Love has plenty of game to contend, especially if his putter gets hot.
9. Mike Weir: He hit less than 50 percent of the greens in winning here in 2003, a remarkable testament to his short game.
10. Charles Howell: It would make a sweet local boy makes good story for this Augusta native who has mysteriously disappeared in past majors.
But hell have to work hard for the money and the new addition to his closet, because countless players in the field of 101 will have a decent chance.
Much has been made of the emergence of a Big Four or Fabulous Five that includes, in order of their world ranking, No. 1 Vijay Singh, No. 2 Woods, No. 3 Ernie Els, No. 4 Mickelson and No. 5 Retief Goosen. Any and all of the above can win this tournament, along with a gaggle of slightly lower ranked players like Sergio Garcia, Davis Love III, Adam Scott, David Toms and Padraig Harrington.
But Woods remains my choice, and here's why:
* The swing changes he initiated last year have definitely started to work, evidenced by two victories already this season after going winless in stroke play events in 2004.
* This golf course, with generous fairways, no deep rough and accessible greens after rain here earlier in the week, was made for his long-ball game. After all, he holds the course records for 72 holes, an 18-under 270, and margin of victory, 12 shots, both set in his first Masters victory in 1997.
* This is a ravenous Tiger eager to put all the talk about his major winless streak behind him. Like his idol, Jack Nicklaus, the majors consume Woods. Everything he does is designed to bring him to the proper peak for each one of the four championships he covets the most. Some of the people who know him best say he's been pointing to this week ever since the PGA Championship at Whistling Straits last August. They say he has the old eye of Tiger look that tells them hes ready to make more history by Sunday afternoon.
If Woods falters, my second choice is Els, last year's heartbreak second-place finisher when Mickelson made that dramatic 20-foot putt for birdie to win his first major. Els has won twice this year on the European Tour, and my only concern is that hes played an awful lot of golf during the past two months and may be worn out.
Woods was the last to win this event back-to-back (2001-02) and before that it was Nick Faldo (1989-90). Mickelson looks and sounds loose enough, and he has continued to throttle back some off the tee in order to hit a controlled fade -- a right-to-left shot that is always preferred at Augusta. Although Woods was outhitting him by 20 yards off the tee last month at Doral, Mickelson is still long enough to make sure hes got short irons in his hands on most holes, and will have little difficulty reaching all the par 5 holes in two shots.
Singh has won here before, and as the world's No. 1 ranked player, he has many supporters. Hes long off the tee, a superb ball striker with a deft touch around the greens, but not on them. Hes clearly the worst putter among the top five. On Augustas famously fast and undulating greens, running at warp speed at the moment, his putting will make him -- but likely break him.
Goosen has become golf's silent assassin. Hes the most low-key, no-pulse, two-time U.S. Open winner in history. But every time you look up at a leader board, his name seems to be in the mix at most events. He hasnt missed a cut this season and has three consecutive top-13 finishes here the last three years, including a second place in 2002.
Darkhorses lurk all around. Australian Adam Scott is only 24, but already ranked No. 8 in the world. Garcia has the game to finally break through in his quest for his first major. But does he have the temperament to stay calm and focused if hes in the hunt on Sunday coming down the stretch?
A lot of folks here are talking about young Ryan Moore, the 22-year-old U.S. Amateur champion who had a remarkable season last year, when he also won the U.S. Amateur Public Links, the NCAA championship and the Western Amateur. Some say no amateur since the iconic Bobby Jones of the 1920s has had such a spectacular amateur season. And Moore is certainly not lacking in confidence coming in this week.
He recently told Golf magazine that "nothing is guaranteed, but lets just say that I wouldnt be surprised to see me playing late Sunday afternoon."
Wed all be stunned if Moore wins. But dont be surprised to see Woods's name back on top of the leader board early Sunday evening.
Leonard Shapiro can be reached at Badgerlen@hotmail.com