The More The Merrier?
The list of potential masters winners is growing longer
The Masters has long been the major with the most pleasingly predictable leader board. The golf course and the way it was prepared clearly favored marquee names —almost by definition the most physically talented golfers—more than golf's other championships.
Augusta National's wide fairways encouraged unfettered power play without much demand for precision off the tee. At the same time, its firm greens favored high-trajectory approach shots most easily attainable by fast-swinging long hitters. The Masters became known for classic duels between bombers with soft hands. From the 1930s right through 2002, Augusta's succession of multiple winners was a neat continuum of de facto world No. 1s —Nelson, Snead, Hogan, Palmer, Player, Nicklaus, Watson, Ballesteros, Faldo and Woods —with only Faldo a shortish hitter. Among the Grand Slam events, it has been the potency in those names and games that has given the Masters the most oomph.
But in the last decade, things have changed. For one thing, the golf course was lengthened, a cumulative 460 yards from 2002-'06, so that the equation for winning became more complex than simply dominating the par 5s. Pars became tougher on the par 4s because they require straighter driving and longer approaches. Even without real rough, the Masters has become more like the U.S. Open, the only major Nicklaus conceded even he couldn't win unless he was playing very well. "You can't fake it at the U.S. Open," he says, and the same has become increasingly true at Augusta. A tight tolerance approach has been the way of the most recent winners, although Phil Mickelson and Bubba Watson have earned green jackets with some retro swashbuckling.
Still, power remains the big ticket at Augusta. But whereas power players were more rare and stood out more easily in previous eras, the advances in equipment and an influx of better athletes to the game has made the style less a separator and closer to the norm. The biggest reason the Masters had fewer upsets than other majors was that yesterday's most gifted players could usually overcome a big week by a less-talented shorter hitter. Now there are so many talented power players that winning more than ever comes down not so much to who is better, but who happens to be hot.
Bottom line, in today's global game, more players —on their week —are capable of winning. Which means that though the top names might still deserve to be favored, picking the winner at Augusta is probably harder than it has ever been. With that caveat, here are our six top picks, with some wild cards thrown in.
1. RORY MCILROYThe young Irishman is coming off an eight-stroke victory at the PGA in the last major, and he entered the new year as No. 1 and playing for a new club company. Throw in what will be perceived as the unfinished Masters business from his fourth-round collapse in 2011, and he will be facing potentially suffocating expectations. But he answered the post-meltdown scrutiny with an eight-stroke victory in the U.S. Open at Congressional. If we are indeed entering the McIlroy Era, nothing would validate it more emphatically than his making this Masters the third leg of the career Grand Slam at 23.
2. TIGER WOODSWoods has four green jackets but hasn't won at Augusta since it was stretched to its present length, suggesting that the increased driving demands have made it less of a Tiger Track than it used to be. He has been consistently close in this period, a T-40 last year being the only time he has finished out of the top six, but slow starts have been a pattern, with a 68 in 2010 the only time he has broken 70 in the first round. In his January victory at Torrey Pines, Woods showed a restored short game, perhaps the key to solving his 2012 pattern of poor weekends at majors.