Sizing Up My Preliminary Masters Favorites — Who Are Yours?
By Stephanie Wei under The Masters

It’s never too early to start making Masters prognostications. Usually, I don’t begin thinking about this until Tuesday during the week of the tournament, but it’s a slow news day and I’m tired of beating my head against the wall, not to mention Reader Kevin is already obsessing over his Fantasy Golf picks for Augusta and would like a forum to discuss his opinions.

We can’t count out the “usual suspects” because regardless of the kind of season they’re having (or not having, like Tiger last year), they tend to always pop up on the leaderboard on Sunday afternoon. You see, experience comes into play at Augusta more than it does just about anywhere else. Knowing the intricacies of the greens and the slopes, along with the right spots to miss shots, is key to conquering the course.

By “usual suspects,” I mean Phil Mickelson, who has been struggling for most of 2011 but he lives for The Masters and he’s defending champion. Despite Tiger Woods’ inability to put together two good rounds, it’s hard to count him out. After all, last year he finished T4 at The Masters without posting any competitive rounds prior to Thursday at Augusta.

We must assume world No. 1 and No. 2 Martin Kaymer and Lee Westwood to be factors. Actually, Lee is my favorite to win. He was the bridesmaid at The Masters and The British Open last year. In his last five starts at majors, he finished in the top-five four times. (He had to sit out the PGA Championship due to injury.) Nobody strikes the ball as well as he does. I figure he’s going to catch a break one of these days, right? He has the demeanor of a major champion, but a few titles have slipped from his fingers, which can cause any competitor to start to second-guess themselves. Lee’s just got to get that monkey off his back and then more majors will follow.

Oh, and what about Luke Donald? Well, length might be an issue, but if conditions are dry and Luke’s got his A game, then why not? I asked the caddie of a top player on the chances of a short-hitter contending at Augusta. He said, “Totally depends on weather and firmness of fairways. If Phil, Bubba, Tiger, DJ are hitting mid-irons to par 5s, the short guys can’t reach, that’s a lot of shots to spot them. All respect to Zach Johnson but I don’t think you’ll see that again with bad weather.”

Alright, here are six more guys who I expect to have a decent week at Augusta.

Rory McIlroy: Well, he doesn’t have the best record at The Masters, but he’s only 21! In two starts, his best finish came in 2009 when he T20. He missed the cut last year. But Rory has the game to win anywhere. His length off the tee is an advantage to cut off some of the corners at Augusta, particularly the par 5s. He’s shown resiliency at majors, like at the British Open last year, where he shot 63-80 and rebounded over the weekend to finish T3. And he also finished T3 at the PGA Championship. Actually, he could have easily won at Whistling Straits had he made half the putts he missed within 10 feet (I walked the front nine with his group). Rory hasn’t played since Doral, opting to put in extra practice at Augusta. If he takes advantage of his solid ballstriking and rolls in those important five-footers, I wouldn’t be surprised to see him in contention on Sunday.

Justin Rose: He’s playing some fantastic golf right now. He’s striking the ball beautifully and he doesn’t remember a time where he was stroking the putter better. In five starts at Augusta, his best finish was T5 in 2007 and he hasn’t missed a cut. Rose shot an excellent 68 in the final round at Bay Hill, including sinking a long putt for birdie on the 18th — that’s not a bad last memory in competition before heading into the year’s first major and must give him some added confidence. No word yet if he plans to putt with his eyes closed inside 10 feet.

Dustin Johnson: He missed the cut at Bay Hill, but with his distance at Augusta and fine touch around the greens, the course suits him nicely. Plus, Augusta is quite generous off the tee, so even if he’s a little off his mark, he usually won’t be hugely punished. There’s no way he can get himself into a Bunker-Gate situation, so let’s just make sure he has his correct tee times and doesn’t try to chip it left-handed on Sunday.

Nick Watney: Is there anyone having a better year than Nick Watney so far? (Maybe Mark Wilson, but Watney has been more consistent and he won against a stronger field.) This season in five starts, Watney finished in the top-ten each time. He broke his streak at the Transitions Championship where he placed T13. His ability as a ballstriker has never been questioned, but Watney has shown tremendous improvement with his short game. He also has a decent record at Augusta. Last year he notched a top-ten, coming in seventh. In his two previous starts, he finished T11 and 19. With the last two weeks off, Watney should be refreshed and ready to take on Augusta. Does he have the mental temperament to win a major? He was pretty clutch on No. 18 at Doral…which, of course, isn’t the same thing. We’ll see.

Paul Casey: He missed the cut last year at Augusta, but he also has several top-tens. He hasn’t had a remarkable year, but he’s had a few top-25 finishes and has been flying under the radar. He’s got the length off the tee that will be an advantage next week. He hits a nice, high draw, which doesn’t hurt at Augusta.

Padraig Harrington: Say what? Paddy’s been sneaking in a few good rounds — usually they’re early in the week. But maybe his game is peaking right in time for The Masters. According to Conor, who isn’t biased at all, “Paddy is really hammering it off the tee.” Few have a better short game than Harrington, and as a three-time major champion, he’s got the experience of knowing how to close the deal. Question is, can Paddy put together four good rounds?

And never count out…

Fred Couples: Okay, so realistically, last year was probably the last time Freddie had a real shot at winning The Masters, but despite a poor second round, he finished 6th. Not bad for a 50-something-year-old, eh? Freddie knows Augusta as well as anyone does — he could play the course with his eyes closed. For Freddie, he’s shown he can still contend with the kids…for three days. It’s that pesky fourth round that gets in the way. Who knows, maybe Freddie can conjure up some magic one last time (before crushing our hearts after we get our hopes up).

Potential dark house pick? — Steve Marino. He bombs the ball and can work it both directions. His irons have been looking pretty solid. He finished T14 in his first start last year at Augusta. Let’s just hope his ball doesn’t plug twice in bunkers during the last four holes!


Alright, your turn. Let’s get a Masters discussion going! Who are your favorites to take home the green jacket? Dark horses? Or if you haven’t thought that far ahead, you can talk about what’s happening in Houston, where Phil is showing signs of life.

(AP Photo/Bob Levey)