Face it, no matter how highly regarded any PGA Tour event prior to The Masters is, it is simply a preamble to one of the greatest weeks in golf. That is even more significant this year with the return of Tiger Woods to the game.
It really is hard to believe that Tiger will be making his 16th appearance at Augusta National and despite his recent off course owes his four wins since 1997 cannot be disregarded when all comes into account this week.
I waited to publish The Masters tournament preview this week, not to allow the initial Tiger Woods press conference to come and go, but simply to have a little greater assessment of where his game stands. Flagstick Golf Magazine Instruction Editor Kevin Haime, the 2000 Canadian PGA Teacher of Year, followed the Tiger and Fred Couples during their practice round on Monday at Augusta National and says he gives the ball striking edge to Couples. Even Couples said that Tiger was not as sharp as usual.
Of course, by the time Thursday rolls around Tiger will have played approximately eight practice rounds over the venerable ANGC layout but is that enough to have him ready to compete in a major championship after a 20 week layoff? It is hard to say but with his track record at this major it is hard to leave him out of the picture. Since his win in 2005 he has only been out of the top five once…a tie for 6th last year. When he is at Augusta National you better make room for his name on the upper half of the leaderboard. He still has to be favoured to at least be in the mix when the final holes play out on Sunday. He will start at 1:42 on Thursday with Matt Kuchar and K.J. Choi, a congenial match-up that should favour Woods.
As always at Augusta you have to have a close look at the past champions and their ability to don another Green Jacket. After all, nobody but them has the knowledge of what it truly takes to win the coveted prize.
The slashing style of Angel Cabrera resulted in a win last year but I have hard time imagining him defending the title. Although he has made the cut in all his seven PGA Tour starts in 2010, he has but one top ten finish. A t-73rd at last week’s Shell Houston Open would not exactly measure up as a confidence boost for this week.
Mickelson has not lived up to the hype this year but wins of ’04 and ’06 are valuable memories he can draw on for inspiration.
Playing with Cabrera on Thursday will be Jim Furyk, not a past winner here, but a player who looks renewed and focussed for this season. Because of that, and his fine record of play at Augusta he is my dark horse pick – if that is possible in an elite field of 97 players, the largest field on 44 years. Without the ability to hit the ball exceptionally long, look for Furyk to surgically dissect the course much like Zach Johnson did during his 2007 victory. Furyk tied for 10th in 2009.
2003 winner Mike Weir might also be an unexpected factor this week. Like Woods, Weir will have to fight the physical stresses of allergies with the pollen count in Augusta at extreme levels.
Speaking with Weir last Tuesday he said his game is not as sharp as he would like, particularly with his driving. “My season, so far has been a bit of a mixed bag – there has been some good play in their just not the consistency I’m looking for. At the same time I feel confident with my game; I feel good. I am looking forward to Augusta.”
Weir says he will stick to the Scotty Cameron Napa blade putter he first put into play at the Accenture Match Play where he birdied 9 of his first 10 holes played with it. He expects to lean on that putter and his typically fine iron play this week, especially if his driving does not come into form.
Hard to be ignored in this mix is Ernie Els. The only 2-time winner on the PGA Tour this year, Els is not only hitting the ball exceptionally well, he is putting with renewed confidence thanks to a flat stick recently shortened by one and a half inches. That bravado, especially on the short putts, will be an effective tool at Augusta National if he can stay in form.
Other Hot Pairings
Group 7 / 8:56 – (International Flare) The early lead could come from this group on Thursday. Martin Kaymer, Luke Donald, and Geoff Ogilvy are strong prospects and don’t be surprised if they can post a strong number for others to chase.
Group 10 / 9:29 – (Power Play) I’m betting this trio will generate a few roars. Bombers Dustin Johnson and Alvaro Quiros will give Oliver Wilson a show he will have to try and stay out of. Hopefully DJ and AQ don’t get caught up in seeing who can reach the most par fives in two and remember there is a major championship taking place.
Group 13 /10:13 – (Hot Commodities) Ernie Els, Anthony Kim, and Ryo Ishikawa. Need I say more? Confidence and momentum are not lacking with the exception of Ishikawa who has yet to carry his Japanese success over to the United States. But certainly has the potential to do so.
Group 25 /12:36 (Two Studs & a Chaperone) – Will Kenny Perry shows Camilo Villegas and Rory McIlroy how to tackle AGNC with veteran poise or will the youngsters teach Perry what it is like to play golf without nerves again?
Group 29/ 1:29 (Three Corners) – Harrington, Schwartzel, and Cink may hail from different parts of the world but they share an affinity for winning. By week’s end Schwartzel might just join them as a major champion himself.