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Saturday, March 12, 2011

Scoping Out Masters Contenders

After watching the PGA players for the last few months, I find my thoughts wandering to the hallowed fairways of Augusta National. Who will be the main contenders at the 2011 Masters?

I know the standard spiel -- to win at Augusta, you must:
  • be a long driver, either by carry or by roll (aka "sneaky long"), in order to position yourself as close to the small greens as possible
  • be a strong player, capable of hitting high fades with the longer irons in order to stop them on rock-hard greens
  • have a killer short game, for all the delicate shots around the greens that you will almost certainly miss
  • putt as if you had a laser scope on your putter, and
  • be a master of strategy.
But I don't hold to most of these. I've seen shorter drivers win in wet, windy conditions. And I've seen players spray iron shots but miss them in the right places, which often means you don't need a great short game because you can putt most of the time.

I believe the likely winners are those who can think their way around the course (the strategists); who can control their shots well enough to use their strategy, whether they are long and powerful or not; and who can putt decently without getting too depressed by the number of putts they will certainly miss.

Because of this, and because of what I've been seeing over the last few months, I've begun to pick my list of contenders for this year.

I've already said I don't think Tiger will get a major this year, and that hasn't changed. I think he'll win some tournament later this year, and I expect him to get back on the major train in 2012, but it's going to take him a while to get this swing working well enough that he can just think about his target.

Phil? Well, Phil's proven there's something magical going on between him and Augusta, and his chances there don't seem to depend on how he's playing going in. For that reason, he remains on my contender list... though not very high on it.

And Westwood, as much as I like him, just doesn't seem to have his game in shape for Augusta. I think he'll get a shot at a major later this year, but I think the Masters is a bit too soon for him.

So who do I like? I've put together a list of 5 players who I think are contenders -- not just for the Masters, but for all 4 majors this year if they keep playing as they have been for the last several months:
  1. Matt Kuchar: Extremely consistent, but hasn't come through in a big tournament yet. (Although he could pull it off at the WGC this week -- he's got Top 10s in the last three he's played in.) Still, he's a US Amateur champion and he has Walker and Ryder Cup experience. Add a Tour win each of the last two years, and I've got to think he could be due.
  2. Francesco Molinari: Another increasingly consistent player with a Ryder Cup and the WGC-China under his belt.
  3. Luke Donald: Do I really need to give you the reasons for picking him? I'll just mention his Ryder Cup performances and that WGC-Accenture win.
  4. Hunter Mahan: Another consistent player with a WGC and Ryder Cup experience. The big complaint against Hunter is his short game. I say that he's good enough with his irons to leave himself mostly putts... and he's a good putter most of the time.
  5. Martin Kaymer: Without question, Kaymer has been playing better than anyone else in the world for the last several months. He already has a major, so he knows how to win one, and and he's just solid. In addition, he's been working for months on a draw, just to improve his chances at Augusta.
Now, I'm not saying no one else can win the Masters... but I think these guys are the most likely to win. And right now I'd pick Kaymer as "the most likely of the most likely."

We'll see how it all shakes out over the next couple of weeks, but I'm feeling pretty good about these guys. And I'm looking for one of them to win the WGC this week as well...

Which could mean the next Masters champion will be driving a Cadillac down Magnolia Lane. ;-)

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