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The Masters 2012: 5 Dark Horse Contenders at Augusta

David KindervaterCorrespondent IMarch 23, 2012

The Masters 2012: 5 Dark Horse Contenders at Augusta

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    Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson.

    Those are just two of the names you'll be hearing as favorites to win the first major of the 2012 golf season—the upcoming Masters Tournament April 5-8.

    You can add Rory McIlroy, Lee Westwood, Luke Donald and Adam Scott to that list. Those players have yet to win a green jacket, but nobody will be surprised if they do it in 2012.

    Inevitably, however, a few names will appear on the leader board that no one expects to hear from.
 Take last year's winner, Charl Schwartzel, as a perfect example.

    How many "experts" had Schwartzel tagged as a favorite entering the first round of play? Few, if any.

    But on a sunny Sunday at Augusta, Schwartzel made an eagle at the par-four fourth hole to get himself into contention—then he blistered the back nine, including birdies on the final four holes, to earn his first green jacket.

    You know it will happen this year. I'm not saying a relative unknown will win it all again, but some unexpected names will be in the hunt.

    I could probably list 20 players I think have a legitimate—albeit unexpected—chance to be in this thing. Whether they've done well here before, they're playing well now or I just have a hunch, here are five (or six) dark horse contenders at the 2012 Masters Tournament.

Sergio Garcia

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    I've been clamoring for a Sergio Garcia major championship victory, and Augusta might be the place he wins his first.

    I don't see it happening this year, though. I'm still predicting Tiger will win in 2012.

    I do expect to see El Nino's name on the leader board for four rounds, though. After all, he has 17 top 10s in majors throughout his career. And he knows the terrain at Augusta as well as anyone; he has played here for 13 straight years.

    Garcia has had a decent 2012. His best result was T4 at the Northern Trust Open last month. He had a fifth-place finish at the Qatar Masters, he finished 12th at Abu Dhabi and he was T16 at the Transitions Championship.

    Garcia has been "hanging around," as they say, and I wouldn't be surprised if he happens to be in the final few groups on Sunday. If he's paired with Tiger, all the better, I say.

Bill Haas

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    Bill Haas, the reigning FedEx Cup champion, is the very definition of a dark horse to challenge at the Masters Tournament this year.

    I don't think many people are talking about Haas right now—at least not in terms of winning a major. But, what's not to talk about?

    Aside from his Tour Championship victory and a slew of top-10 finishes last year, Haas has two top-fives this season, including a playoff win over Phil Mickelson and Keegan Bradley at the Northern Trust Open.

    A major championship run is the next logical step for Haas.

    He hasn't played particularly well at Augusta in only two starts. His best finish was T18 in 2010, but I think that's about to change.

Ryo Ishikawa

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    Twenty-year-old phenom Ryo Ishikawa needed a special invite just to make the trip to Augusta this year. But he did finish T20 in 2011 and I believe he'll take full advantage of the opportunity.

    Ishikawa is a superstar in Japan. During his brief career, he has earned nine victories, with his first coming as a 15-year-old amateur in 2007.

    Ryo Ishikawa's got game.

    I followed him when he tied for fourth at the WGC-Bridgestone Invitational last year. His third-round 64 at Firestone Country Club was a thing of beauty.

    If he can include just one round like that at Augusta, he'll be in the thick of it.

Bo Van Pelt

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    Bo Van Pelt has a PGA Tour-leading four top-10 finishes in seven starts this year. He was T8 three times—at the Waste Management Phoenix Open, the Northern Trust Open and the WGC-Cadillac Championship.

    Plus, he's an impressive third in Strokes Gained-Putting and fifth in Total Driving.

    Bo Van Pelt is a player to keep your eye on.

    At last year's Masters, rounds of 73-69-68-70 earned him a T8 (there's that number again) finish in only his second start at Augusta. And you know what that kind of result produces—an invitation to return in 2012.

    Look for Van Pelt to make some noise on the weekend leader board again this year.

Charles Howell III

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    Charles Howell III was born in Augusta, GA.

    You can probably see where this is going.

    Ever since Larry Mize chipped in for birdie from 140 feet on the second playoff hole to defeat Greg Norman (and Seve Ballesteros) for the title in 1987, we've been waiting for a hometown hero to get in the mix at the Masters Tournament.

    Enter "Chucky Three Sticks."

    Howell didn't qualify on a local exemption. There is no such thing.

    Rather, he simply played well enough in 2011 to get here. He was among the top 30 on both the PGA Tour's money list and in the Official World Golf Ranking at the end of 2011.

    And you know how much this tournament means to him, having grown up just down the road from Augusta National.

    The 32-year-old Howell has won only twice during his 11-year PGA Tour career. And his best finish at the Masters was a T13 in 2004.

    He hasn't played here since 2008, but he's got a T2 at the Sony Open in Hawaii to his credit, plus top 20s at the Mayakoba Golf Classic and the WGC-Cadillac Championship this season—so he's playing well enough to make a difference at the Masters this year. And I think he will.

Ernie Els

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    I want to include "The Big Easy," Ernie Els, on this list, but there is one problem: He didn't meet any of the criteria to be invited to the 2012 Masters.

    So, barring a special exemption—which I am fully in favor of and hopeful for—or a victory at the Arnold Palmer Invitational or the Shell Houston Open—or whatever it will take to get into the Official World Golf Ranking Top 50 the week before the Masters—Els will be watching the tournament on television.

    That doesn't seem right, especially considering what he has accomplished during his career. Plus, he had five straight top-six finishes at Augusta from 2000-2004.

    Sure, he had his chance at the Transitions Championship last week, but he squandered a final-round lead. It was difficult to watch that meltdown.

    Nevertheless, I think the Masters Tournament is better with Ernie Els than without him. I hope to see him there. I believe he'll play very well if he is.

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