April 6, 2009

Still The One

Tiger Woods heads into the 2009 Masters as the favorite to win yet again. But what about the rest of the field's chances?

Oh, how the tide has turned. Prior to the Arnold Palmer Invitational it was Phil Mickelson, not Tiger Woods, who was barreling toward the Masters with a world of confidence and no discernable weaknesses in his game. Mickelson won the Northern Trust Open and the WGC-CA Championship and appeared primed for the Masters, while Woods, who had only played two events after returning from knee surgery, was anything but, especially after struggling on the greens at Doral.

But after Woods' 72nd-hole victory at Bay Hill and Mickelson's wind-aided missed cut at last week's Shell Houston Open, the position of the two favorites to win the year's first major has juxtaposed.

There are no longer any questions whether Woods' rehabilitated left knee can withstand the pressure of 72 holes. Nor are there concerns about Woods' putting, which is what happens when you make a 14-foot birdie putt to win a tournament. Mickelson, on the other hand, likes to prepare for majors by competing in the previous week's PGA Tour event. But the missed cut left that work incomplete.

Now the concern is that the early exit forces Mickelson into a different routine as the Masters nears. For Phil, preparation is the mother of coronation, and although he can win at Augusta after a MC--just as Trevor Immelman did a year ago--he has fallen behind Woods on Golf World's list of favorites. Here then is the entire 96-player field at the Masters, listed in order of their chance to win:

1. Tiger Woods: As if we needed a reminder, Bay Hill proved the focus and incredible will to win is still there. But he didn't battle through eight months of rehab to win Arnold Palmer's tournament. Remember, Woods has only won one of the last six Masters, a fact that certainly eats away at him. And when Tiger's hungry, watch out.

2. Phil Mickelson: In 2004 and 2006 Mickelson won PGA Tour events prior to winning the Masters, but that doesn't mean his wins at Riviera and Doral assure a Masters title. Only three times in his career has Mickelson not won a tour event prior to the Masters (1992, 1999, 2003). Mickelson takes pride in his prep work prior to majors and we're not sure he got anything out of his time in Houston. Phil is still a viable contender, but it's enough to push Woods past him on our ranking.

3. Geoff Ogilvy: The tour leader in putts per GIR and birdie-conversion percentage, Ogilvy is the favorite to become the first Australian to win the Masters. However Ogilvy hasn't shot a round in the 60s at Augusta and has five rounds of 75 or higher.

4. Paul Casey: Truth be told, Casey was on our short-list of contenders before the Houston win, but his first PGA Tour win came not a moment too soon. The only players to get their first win at the Masters were Claude Harmon in 1948 and Bernhard Langer in 1985.

5. Retief Goosen: Only six players have won the Masters after turning 40. Five are hall of famers (Ben Crenshaw, Ben Hogan, Jack Nicklaus, Gary Player and Sam Snead). Mark O'Meara rounds out the list. Goosen turned 40 on Feb. 3, but with top-three finishes in four of the last seven Masters and the win in Tampa a few weeks ago, he deserves this lofty perch.

6. Padraig Harrington: Harrington, Nick Price (1994) and Tiger Woods (2000) are the only players in the Masters era to win the British Open and PGA Championship in the same year. Woods, of course, completed the Tiger Slam by winning the Masters in 2001. In 1995 Price missed the Masters cut. Which path will Harrington follow?

__7. Justin Rose:__A well-known frontrunner at Augusta, Rose has held or shared the first-round lead three of the last five years. His first-round scoring average is 69.3. It's 74.75 the rest of the week.

8. Henrik Stenson: Although he has never shot a subpar round at Augusta, Stenson has finished T-17 the last two years. A quality player with the game to compete in any tournament he plays.

9. Luke Donald: Tied for fifth on tour in putting and ninth in scoring in 2009, Donald hasn't finished lower than T-25 in six Masters starts. Hey, if Trevor Immelman, Zach Johnson and Mike Weir can win the Masters, why not Luke?

10. Nick Watney: Off to the best start of his career with a win, three top-fives, and no missed cuts in eight starts. Watney finished T-11 in his first Masters a year ago.

11. Sergio Garcia: He's much improved, especially with the putter, from where he was a year ago at this time, but consecutive missed cuts at Augusta and the fact his improvement hasn't resulted in tournament success in 2009, temper optimism for the Spaniard.

12. Mike Weir: A good start is essential. The Canadian shot a first-round 70 when he won in 2003; it remains his best first-round score in nine Masters.

13. Miguel Angel Jiménez: Why has the Spaniard had such a sparkling career at Augusta National, with a T-8, a T-9, a T-10 and a T-11 in the last seven years? Because he knows how to putt on the ultraslick, undulating greens.

__14. Angel Cabrera:__The 2007 U.S. Open winner has more top-10s at the Masters (three) than at any other major.

__15. Rory McIlroy:__While we wait to coronate the next big thing, let's remember the first young superstar of the modern era to excel at Augusta and say a prayer for Seve Ballesteros, who won four days after his 23rd birthday in 1980.

16. Andres Romero: Romero finished T-8 in his first Masters a year ago. Since 1990, 19 players have finished in the top 10 in their first appearance at Augusta. Only Carlos Franco (2000) and Tom Lehman (1994) would repeat the following year. None of the 19 have won a Masters.

17. Zach Johnson: Johnson is one of five players whose only top-10 finish(es) in the Masters have been victories. The list includes George Archer, Sandy Lyle, Fuzzy Zoeller, and Nick Faldo, whose only three top-10s were his three wins.

18. Stewart Cink: One of three players who have finished in the top 20 in the last five Masters, joining Vijay Singh (nine times) and Retief Goosen (seven) on the list.

19. Vijay Singh: Singh's indifferent play (no top-10s in 2009), health issues (he missed time because of knee surgery and has complained of a sore back) and age (he's about a month younger than Jack Nicklaus was when he became the oldest winner in tournament history in 1986) drop him from the top tier of contenders.

20. Jim Furyk: Normally a very accurate hitter (he led the Masters field in fairways hit in 2007), he's had a bit of a downswing after consecutive top-10s at the WGC-Accenture Match Play and WGC-CA championships. His three top-10s at Augusta are his fewest in any major.

21. Justin Leonard: The last time Leonard shot a round in the 60s at Augusta was 1998, yet he has made the cut in eight of his last nine Masters.

22. Ernie Els: This is Els' 16th Masters, which holds no notable connotation until you realize that Mark O'Meara holds the record for most Masters played before winning, when he capitalized on his 15th try in 1998.

23. Hunter Mahan: Among amateurs who made the cut and eventually competed as professionals, only Mahan, Casey Wittenberg and Matt Kuchar had their best career finish while playing for pride. Mahan was T-28 as an amateur in 2003 and missed the cut last year in his only start as a pro.

24. Stuart Appleby: After five MC's in his first seven Masters starts, Appleby has been trending in the right direction. He has made five straight cuts at Augusta National, and has finished in the top 20 three years in a row.

25. Jeev Milkha Singh: Singh finished T-37 and T-25 in his previous Masters. He has made the cut in six of his eight career majors, but has only been under par twice in 28 rounds.

26. Camilo Villegas: It used to be that dominating the par-5s was a sure sign of success at Augusta--remember Phil Mickelson's 13-under performance on the long holes in 2006--but last year Trevor Immelman showed success on the par-4s are equally important, as he set a tournament record at 10-under for the week on the medium-length holes. Which brings us to Villegas, who leads the tour in par-4 scoring and is 51st on the par 5s.

27. Stephen Ames: Ames has made the cut in every one of his four Masters, shooting scores between 70 and 76 and finishing between 11th and 45th.

28. Alvaro Quiros: One of the game's longest hitters, Quiros will have no problem overpowering the course, it's how he handles the nuances, especially the greens, that will determine his outcome.

29. Pat Perez: Perez hasn't missed a cut since winning the Bob Hope Classic, but his T-4 at Bay Hill is his only finish better than 30th at a stroke-play event in that span. Was T-45 in his only other Masters (2003).

30. Bernhard Langer: The two-time champ has prepared for his 27th Masters with six straight top-10s to start his Champions Tour season.

31. Adam Scott: Scott is tops among active players for most rounds played at Augusta (26) without once shooting in the 60s. His 117 putts in his initial Masters in 2002, when he finished a career-best T-9, was the lowest figure in his seven appearances.

32. Steve Stricker: One of 13 players to shoot four rounds of par or better in 2001, the last time anyone has done so in an odd-numbered year at the Masters.

33. Tim Clark: Clark has won more money than any PGA Tour player without a victory. He's in the top 10 on tour in fairways hit, greens in regulation and all-around rank.

34. Fred Couples: In 2008, Cool Hand Fred failed to make the cut at Augusta National for the first time in 24 Masters starts. He tends to play well at tournaments he likes, and this one is his favorite.

35. Robert Allenby: Allenby shot 81 in the final round a year ago. No player who has shot as high as 78 in the final round returned to win the following year since Jack Burke, Jr. (final round 80 in 1955 to No. 1 in 1956.)

36. Sean O'Hair: The strong Bay Hill performance should boost his confidence. O'Hair has six top-12 finishes in 2009, but the only time he has done that well in a major was the 2006 PGA.

37. K.J. Choi: Aside from his third at the Northern Trust, Choi hasn't been on many leader boards in 2009. He hasn't been within 10 strokes of the winner at the Masters since his third-place finish in 2004.

38. Trevor Immelman: From 1997 to 2006 the average rank in fairways hit for the Masters winner was 24.3. But Zach Johnson and Immelman have shown that accuracy and caution are one way to tackle the course now. Johnson was T-2 in fairways hit in 2007 and Immelman led the field during his win a year ago.

39. Robert Karlsson: Did his 15 minutes pass? The Swede had a very impressive major season a year ago, but aside from a T-4 at Dubai hasn't done anything in 2009 to indicate he'll repeat his three top-10s in the big-four events this year. (No, a T-14 with a final-round 75 at Houston doesn't count.)

40. Anthony Kim: It's hard to believe, but for all the hoopla surrounding the 23-year-old star-in-the-making, this is Kim's first Masters. Is he the next Fuzzy Zoeller? He's the highest ranked of the first-time participants, but he's still too much of a loose cannon, both on the course and off.

41. Aaron Baddeley: Needs a good week off the tee because he can save himself strokes with his solid play on and around the greens. He has made only one cut in four Masters.

42. Chad Campbell: Campbell's T-3 finish in 2006 came with three subpar rounds, his only such rounds at Augusta National. In 2003 and 2007 he missed the cut with consecutive rounds of 77.

43. Boo Weekley: Weekley qualified for the Masters when he won the Verizon Heritage in 2008 for the second straight year. Since 1987 no player who has won the Heritage has also won the Masters in his career. From 1969 to 1986, nine Heritage champs also won a Masters title.

44. Lee Westwood: The Englishman was T-11 a year ago, his best finish at the Masters since a T-6 in 1999.

45. José Maria Olazábal: The two-time champ has a Masters scoring average of 72.11, fourth (behind Tiger Woods, Phil Mickelson and Ernie Els) among players with between 50 and 74 rounds at Augusta.

46. Steve Flesch: It will be interesting to see how Flesch rebounds from the 78 he shot in the final round in 2008. Did he overachieve a year ago, when he finished T-5, his best ever in a major?

47. Bubba Watson: Finished T-20 in his first Masters a year ago despite finishing tied for last with Sandy Lyle in fairways hit. He hasn't shot a round in the 60s since the West Coast Swing.

48. D.J. Trahan: Off to a good start in 2009, making his first eight cuts before an MC at the Arnold Palmer Invitational.

49. Ken Duke: Got into the Masters after qualifying for the FedEx Cup final in 2008, but isn't trending in the right direction in 2009. A T-38 at Honda is his best finish.

50. Dustin Johnson: One of the longest hitters on tour, the DUI Johnson picked up in South Carolina recently won't help the Pebble Beach champion prepare for the Masters. Although Augusta's greens have been known to drive one to drink.

51. Ian Poulter: Still being mocked for his "Just me and Tiger" comments, which may have been taken out of context. But he hasn't performed up to those standards. Poulter doesn't have a top-10 finish in a stroke play event on the European or PGA tours since his runner-up at the British Open.

52. Ben Curtis: After hitting more than two-thirds of his fairways each of the last three years, Curtis is down to 56.82 percent this year. That shouldn't hurt him at the Masters, but being 136th in greens in regulation will.

53. Y.E. Yang: Given their initiative to promote golf in Asia, how happy were Augusta National members when Yang won the Honda Classic and qualified for the Masters? It's actually Yang's second trip. Remember in 2006 he beat Tiger Woods in an event in China and earned a special invitation.

54. Louis Oosthuizen: The 26-year-old South African got the last spot off the World Ranking after the Arnold Palmer Invitational, nipping Davis Love III by less than a point at the wire.

55. Danny Lee: Winning the European Tour's Johnnie Walker Classic was a nice story, but subsequent poor performances in Nationwide Tour events in New Zealand (his homeland) raise doubts about Lee's ability to perform under a major microscope at age 19.

56. Kenny Perry: Despite his solid start in 2009 (one win, three other top-10s), Perry's age (48) and indifferent Masters performance (five missed cuts in eight starts) will keep him off the leaderboard.

57. Briny Baird: Baird has hit more than 69 percent of his greens in regulation the last six years and has never been below 12th on the year-end ranking in that category. He missed the cut at Augusta in 2004, his only Masters.

58. Martin Kaymer: The German finished T-2 in Abu Dhabi and T-4 in Dubai, but has gone cold since leaving the desert.

59. Ross Fisher: Another long-hitting Englishman, Fisher reached the semifinals of the WGC-Accenture Match Play, but struggled on the grainy greens at Doral.

60. Rory Sabbatini: The T-2 in 1997 was an anomaly, only once in five other Masters has the South African made the cut.

61. Brandt Snedeker: Among PGA Tour players, Snedeker is the shortest hitter (statistically) in the Masters field, which makes one wonder how he contended for as long as he did a year ago.

62. Søren Kjeldsen: Prepped for his first Masters by winning the Euro Tour's Andalucia Open at the end of March. Perhaps more impressive was his T-7 at the WGC-CA Championship two weeks earlier.

63. Ryuji Imada: Tommy Nakajima and Toshi Izawa are the only Japanese players with top-10 finishes at the Masters since Jumbo Ozaki first turned the trick in 1973.

64. Graeme McDowell: He won't be as awestruck as he was in his first Masters in 2005, but he hasn't been sharp in 2009. Of a practice round at Augusta, he said he was "pleasantly surprised the course wasn't playing ridiculously long."

65. Richard Sterne: The South African fared well with a T-25 at Augusta a year ago, his only cut made in six career majors.

66. Oliver Wilson: Wilson had his wisdom teeth removed prior to the Arnold Palmer Invitational and still made the cut. Smart move having that done before his first Masters.

67. Prayad Marksaeng: After getting a special invitation last year, the Thai had to withdraw because of a back injury. He's back in 2009, getting a bid thanks to being in the top 50 on the World Ranking.

68. Mathew Goggin: The Tasmanian is the second Goggin to play the Masters, following in the footsteps of Willie, who had top-10s in 1940 and 1941. Now 52nd on the ranking, he spent one week in the top 50, it just happened to be the right one to get him into Augusta.

69. Søren Hansen: The Dane qualified for the Masters by being ranked 47th on the World Ranking at the end of 2008. Now 61st, he is one of three players (Richard Sterne and Wen-tang Lin) who got in solely because of their rank at the end of 2008.

70. Carl Pettersson: It's well known that Fuzzy Zoeller in 1979 is the only player since Gene Sarazen in 1935 to win the Masters in his first try. What's less known is that Zoeller and Gary Player (1974) are the only players since 1946 to win the Masters without having played the year before. Pettersson played the Masters in 2006 and 2007, but did not qualify last year.

71. Chez Reavie: Reavie has played in four career majors, three as an amateur, including the 2002 Masters. He missed the cut that week after a second-round 86.

72. John Merrick: Merrick is entered in his first Masters thanks to a T-6 at the 2008 U.S. Open. His best finish in 2009 was a T-2 at the Bob Hope Classic.

73. Greg Norman: The course has evolved quite a bit since he last played in 2002 and those changes won't help Norman, who visited Augusta National a few weeks ago and was amazed at how long it was playing.

74. Dudley Hart: Like Ken Duke, Hart got in for playing last year's Tour Championship. Like Duke, he hasn't done much in 2009.

75. Rocco Mediate: Rocco's playing time has been hampered by a knee injury. He hasn't been a contender in 2009, but he hasn't missed a cut either.

76. Kevin Sutherland: In 22 majors Sutherland's first-round scoring average is a shade under 74, with just one subpar round. He hasn't played the Masters since 2003.

77. Ryo Ishikawa: The Humble Prince is gunning for the trifecta of low teen, low first-timer and low Japanese player. Of the three, the latter is his best bet.

78. Michael Campbell: The 2005 U.S. Open champ has played in eight Masters and never made a cut, three more appearances than any other player who has failed to play the weekend.

79. Drew Kittleson: Kittleson was the 2008 U.S. Amateur runner-up. The Amateur runner-up has had as much success at the Masters in recent years as the Amateur champ. Five of the last 11 made the cut, with Casey Wittenberg's T-13 in 2004 the best finish.

80. Wen-Tang Lin: The Taiwanese player took advantage of a down period in the PGA Tour schedule to qualify for the Masters at the expense of American Woody Austin. Lin replaced Austin in the World Ranking's top 50 on Nov. 30 and held that spot until the end of the year, when invitations were determined. Austin who had been ranked in the top 50 from April to November was left out because he had no tournaments in which to boost his rank.

81. Billy Mayfair: Of all full-time PGA Tour players in the Masters only Todd Hamilton ranks below Mayfair on the 2009 money list. He has, however, made the cut in all four Masters he has played this century.

82. Mark O'Meara: Shares the all-time mark with Jeff Maggert for fewest putts in a Masters with 101 in 2003.

83. Larry Mize: Charles Howell III and Vaughn Taylor didn't qualify, but the city of Augusta will always have a native son in the field as long as 1987 champ Mize chooses to play.

84. Ian Woosnam: At least one senior has made the Masters cut each of the last four years, with Woosie (one month after turning 50) joining Sandy Lyle on the weekend in 2008.

85. Todd Hamilton: This is the last year of his five-year exemption for winning the 2004 British Open and Hammy has acquitted himself quite well for someone whose game has deserted him. In 2008 his $36,785 Masters earnings of was his third best check of 2008 in regular season events. He has made two cuts in nine starts in 2009.

86. Tom Watson: Would like to reclaim the honor of being low Watson at the Masters, after relinquishing that title to Bubba last year, but would settle for making the cut for the first time since 2002.

87. Shingo Katayama: The only non-senior in the field who has all-but-admitted he cannot win, saying in Golf World's April 6 issue that for his generation of Japanese player, "winning a major is not going to happen."

88. Sandy Lyle: Where's Monty? Lyle, the 1988 champ, is the only Scot in the field this year. He has made the cut the last two years.

89. Craig Stadler: The Walrus has made the cut in the last three Masters held in odd-numbered years, but he hasn't shot better than 77 on the weekend in any of those years.

90. Jack Newman: Newman has a tough act to follow, as other past U.S. Publinks winners include Trevor Immelman, Ryan Moore and Brandt Snedeker, all of whom made the Masters cut the following year.

91. Ben Crenshaw: With the right breaks Gentle Ben still thinks he can make the cut and finish in the middle of the pack. Why not? He has made two of the last three cuts and was in the top 10 after two rounds in 2006.

92. Reinier Saxton: The British Amateur has this going for him: He prepped for the Masters with a runner-up finish at the Georgia Cup. Of course, he and U.S. Amateur champ Danny Lee were the only players in the field.

93. Steve Wilson: No U.S. Mid-Amateur champion has made the Masters cut since the tournament began giving invitations to the tournament winner in 1989.

94. Fuzzy Zoeller: Long recognized as the last player to win the Masters in his first attempt, Fuzzy has announced that this will be his last appearance in the tournament. He claims he's tired of hitting fairway woods into greens, but he did make the cut in 2007, finishing T-60.

95. Raymond Floyd: This will be Floyd's 45th consecutive Masters, moving him past Sam Snead for third on the all-time list behind Doug Ford (46, 1956-2001) and Arnold Palmer (50, 1955-2004). Floyd last made the cut in 1999 and last broke par in the final round in 1996.

96. Gary Player: Sometime early in the second round, Player will take his 12,000th stroke in the Masters. Entering this year he has taken a tournament record 11,900 strokes in 162 rounds, an average of 73.46 per round in 51 starts.