Masters Keys, Faves and Just Some Chitchat
By Stephanie Wei under The Masters

Phil and Freddie fist-bump after Freddie knocked it tight on No. 12

I’m blogging for the Wall Street Journal‘s Daily Fix regularly throughout the day beginning tomorrow morning (Thursday), but early on Wednesday, Journal golf writer John Paul Newport and I caught up for a Masters preview discussion where we covered some of our expectations for the week. Here’s a snippet or five:

NEWPORT: The thing that made Jack Nicklaus’s victory so great 25 years ago at the 1986 Masters was his age, 46. Well, that and his heroic back-nine 30. I’ve been trying to identify a crafty old timer to root for this year. Two years ago Kenny Perry at 48 tied for second, and last year Fred Couples at 50 opened with a 66 and finished sixth. But neither of them are playing as well this year, and Nick Faldo told me yesterday under the big tree outside the Augusta National clubhouse that he didn’t see anybody over 40, except for Mickelson capable of winning. I guess that rules out Davis Love III, 46, and Vijay Singh, 48. Do you think we’ll have a young winner? Someone in his twenties?

WEI: Freddie’s back is really bad this year, too. He mentioned that a bunch last week in Houston and a few caddies told me he didn’t play any practice rounds this week because it’s that bad. I saw his looper Joe LaCava walking the course and taking down the yardages yesterday. Some fans hollered, “Where’s Freddie?” Joe just shrugged and said, “I don’t know.” Hope his back feels better. It was so exciting to see Freddie play well last year.

I’m liking a young-ish winner – there’s Dustin Johnson, Rory McIlroy, Charl Schwartzel, Martin Kaymer and Nick Watney, who is my favorite of the 20-somethings. He’s played sneaky well at Augusta. In three starts, he’s always finished in the top 20. That’s a pretty good track record for a young guy. At a course where experience is so important – knowing which side of the green to hit to, for instance – I’d have to guess that Watney will only keep improving his finishes, especially with how well he’s playing this year. He proved that he can win under pressure last month at the WGC at Doral (it’s not Augusta, but strong field, big event). His short game was impressive, which has been the weakest link in his game up until recently. And he’s been a top-10 machine – five in six starts so far in ’11.

NEWPORT: I’m with you about Watney. He’s 29, long off the tee, plays a natural draw (ideal at Augusta) and worked hard in the offseason to improve his chipping and putting. He made every putt he looked at down the stretch at Doral. He’s got a reputation as something of a Nuke LaLoosh-style airhead, but I was impressed with his golf smarts yesterday at his press conference. He said he learned a lot from the final round at the PGA Championship at Whistling Straits last summer, where he was in contention in the final round at a major for the first time and felt incredibly rushed and out of sync. He said those feelings won’t go away, but he’s learning how to handle them. I asked him how he’d change his strategy if he were in contention on Sunday but needed to make a charge, and he responded very smartly. “Most of the low rounds around here are a result of making some putts that you would not make every day,” he said, as opposed to firing aggressively at the pins and leaving yourself short birdie or eagle putts. Shooting at more pins is very dangerous, he said, because the margin for error on these green complexes is so very small. Sounds like veteran thinking to me.

WEI: Yeah, that’s smart of Watney. Experience plays a big role. I’ve heard it’s amazing how much you learn from the first time you play in The Masters – you’ve gotta play it under the gun once to know how to play it under the gun. And yes, shooting at most pins is dangerous, but you also have to hit it on the correct part of the green since it’s all about quadrants. If you miss it on the wrong side, you’re hosed and you’ve got no chance of even a three-putt sometimes. The greens generally run 13-14 on the Stimpmeter, but if you’re in the wrong place, it can be like 18.

Augusta is such a second-shot course – even on the par fives, choosing whether to lay up or go for it. The course begs you to take risks and it’s hard to resist, but you have to throttle back a little, which isn’t always easy.

There’s a lot of talk about bombers having an advantage. Luke Donald is considered a fairly short hitter. How do you feel about his chances this week?

You can read the extensive overview in full HERE.

A few other fun snippets before I get some sleep…

*Carl Pettersson is wearing a wide-brimmed hat this week to mock the trend. Earlier in the week when he was in the Nike trailer, he saw a pile of them and asked about them. He was told the hats were made for Anthony Kim. Carl, who has a great, dry sense of humor, asked if he could wear one, and of course, the rep said yes. His caddie is also sporting the look, flipping up the brim of his uniform green Masters cap. It’s quite a funny sight!

*As a joke, Ryan Palmer’s caddie, James Edmondson is sporting a bright gold chain (Walmart brand!). His buddies make fun of him because he doesn’t wear a t-shirt under his white jumpsuit, which exposes his chest. James says it’s too hot to wear a shirt and he thinks it’ll lighten the mood for Ryan on the first tee. It’s hard not to laugh at how ridiculous he looks — or maybe you just have to be in on the joke…

*Poor Gregory Havret will show up on the first tee to find himself playing with a Swede wearing a funny-looking hat (or should I say a funny-looking Swede?) and a dude that looks like he’s some creature from the Jersey Shore.

*Tim Clark, who hasn’t played since the Sony Open, showed up at Augusta, but isn’t certain he’ll tee off on Thursday morning. Before Tuesday, Tim hadn’t touched a golf club in three months due to a nagging injury, tendinitis in his elbow. He hasn’t recovered, but he figured since it’s The Masters, why not show up? It’s not like he’s taking someone’s spot in the tournament, anyway. “I’m not going to be 100 percent, but if you’re going to play hurt somewhere, you do it here,” said Clark. “The key is how I feel later. It’s a little stiff, but it’s not painfu. There’s a chance I could play.” That’s not exactly a convincing sell. He played in the Par 3 Contest, but it’s still iffy whether he’ll play. It doesn’t sound good from what I heard earlier this week. On the bright side, his wife Candace had their first child, a baby boy, last Friday.

*My picks this week to contend (for reasons I listed here — one or two I may have left out and/or removed): Nick Watney, Dustin Johnson, Justin Rose, Paul Casey, Hunter Mahan, Steve Stricker, Rory McIlroy, Lee Westwood, Ryan Moore and Steve Marino. I don’t choose Tiger or Phil because it’s become a Masters tradition for me.

*Pictures from Wednesday and the Par 3 Contest to come later…my camera ran out of batteries right off the bat (I’m an idiot), but I have a few friends sending me their shots and vids! Balls in the Air in the AM, too!

(AP Photo/Chris O’Meara)