For most North American golfers nothing gets the juices running more than the thought of the Masters. The annual rite of Spring signifies not only the first major championship of the year but, for many, the true start of the golf season for the fans…errr, patrons, themselves.
It’s been an unusual year on the PGA Tour and professional tours around the world. The lack of domination by a single player has made many feel that this year’s Masters is a wide-open affair where just about any of the top players could slide into a green jacket. That is, before this past Sunday.
The defending Masters champion, Phil Mickelson, was a man with an untidy record for 2011 coming into the Shell Houston Open, making it very easy to believe he would be just another member of the pack chasing in Augusta. That all changed with his performance at Redstone where a 63-65 weekend and 18 birdies in those final 36 holes pushed him on to the lips of many as the front-runner for this week.
His play at Houston might have convinced many that Phil would be a best bet at the hallowed grounds where he has already earned three green jackets but his past overall record really makes him stand out. The teaming of length, intelligence, and short game wizardry make Augusta a fertile ground for players like Phil and his modern rival, Tiger Woods.
With Phil’s recent form he will be considered far ahead of Woods, despite Woods’ four titles and a tie for fourth last year.
There is no doubt about it; Phil is the easy choice as the frontrunner. In 17 career professional starts at the Masters Phil has an amazing 12 top-10’s including his three wins and 11 top-10’s in his last trips to the most glorious course in Georgia. His only missed cut came in 1997.
With a win this week Mickelson would attain a historic standard, not only would he join Jack Nicklaus (1965-66), Nick Faldo (1989-90), and Tiger Woods (2001-02) with wins in back-to-back seasons but he would also enter the vaulted class of Nicklaus, Palmer, and Woods as a four-time winner..
Which brings us to one of the biggest questions of the Masters; just how will Tiger Woods perform and could he possibly surprise the field (and the world) with a win? Logic says he should be discounted but with his record of nine career top 5 finishes (the same as Phil), he has the knowledge and history component of a potential winner covered but is currently lacking the confidence provided by a repeatable swing. I would expect to see flashes of brilliance from the Tour’s active win leader but with the demands of 72 strenuous holes needed to win a green jacket, I have my doubts about him being a real contender come the back nine on Sunday. He has not won in his last 17 PGA Tour starts dating back to the 2009 BMW Championship.
As the current #1 ranked player in the world I have heard lots of talk about Martin Kaymer and his chances this week but Kaymer has been a skilled player for some time and that has not translated to success at Augusta National. In his three starts at the Masters he is yet to make a cut and is a collective 12-over par in six official trips around the nearly 7,500-yard layout. He is riding a streak of top-ten finishes in the last three major championships but the skill set in those events are slightly different than those necessary to tackle Alister MacKenzie’s masterpiece.
As for my pick this week? I will take Phil for #4 with Hunter Mahan as a backup. Mahan tied for 8th at Houston last week and earned the same position last year at the Masters. As long as Hunter can hit greens and eliminate the need to get up and down too often he has the possibility of fulfilling his own Green Dream come Sunday night.
The other players I have my eye on will be Anthony Kim and Nick Watney. Kim had one round of 65 in the 2009 and 2010 Masters. His 2009 round included 11 birdies showing he has not fear of this golf course.
-Vijay Singh will be making his 67th consecutive start in a major championship, the longest active streak. Mike Weir is second place in that category with this Masters being his 48th start in a major.
-The Perennial Ryegrass rough is cut at just 1.38” in length.
– Twenty players will be making their first start at the Masters, including Arjun Atwal, David Chung, Jason Day, Rickie Fowler, Hiroyuki Fujita, Peter Hanson, Gregory Havret, Charley Hoffman, Jin Jeong, Kyung-Tae Kim, Lion Kim, Martin Laird, Hideki Matsuyama, Jeff Overton, D.A. Points, Kevin Streelman, Peter Uihlein, Jhonattan Vegas, Mark Wilson, Gary Woodland.
– Six amateurs will be participating: David Chung, Jin Jeong, Lion Kim, Hideki Matsuyama, Nathan Smith, Peter Uihlein.
– Eight players qualified for the Masters via 2011 TOUR wins in the first 12 weeks: Jonathan Byrd, Mark Wilson, Jhonattan Vegas, D.A. Points, Aaron Baddeley, Rory Sabbatini and Gary Woodland.
Dates: April 4-10, 2011
Where: Augusta National Golf Club; Augusta, GA
Field: 98 (as of April 1, 2011)
Format: 72-hole stroke play
Defending Champion: Phil Mickelson
Purse: TBD Winner’s Share: TBD