Think of the last five Masters champions—Charl Schwartzel, Phil Mickelson, Angel Cabrera, Trevor Immelman and Zach Johnson. Of those five guys, only one can be considered a tournament favorite. The rest were dark horses at best. So while Tiger Woods heads into the 2012 Masters as the favorite, who are the dark horses looking to surprise him and the rest of the golfing world?
Alvaro Quiros, Kyle Stanley and Patrick Cantlay are all players who could find themselves in the hunt on the second nine on Sunday.
Quiros was among the early leaders in 2011, as he shot an opening-round 65 and was tied with Rory McIlroy for first place heading into Friday. He fell off after that with a second-round 73, a 75 on Saturday and a 74 to close out the tournament.
Stanley was an early winner on the PGA Tour this year, as he took home the championship trophy at the Waste Management Phoenix Open. This was just one week after he knocked on the door at the Farmers Insurance Open and ended up with a solo second-place finish.
Cantlay burst onto the golfing scene during last year's U.S. Open as the low amateur. He ended the tournament tied for 21st, but made headlines again a week later at the Traveler's Championship. There, he shot a second-round 60, which was the lowest round ever by an amateur on the PGA Tour.
Each of these players has the game to compete at the Masters. All three can hit the ball long, which is one thing that has helped Woods win four green Jackets. Quiros led the European Tour in driving distance in 2011 with an average drive of 312 yards, Stanley has averaged over 300 yards per drive each of his last five years on tour and Cantlay had a 304-yard average in his five PGA Tour start last year.
That being said, each is a dark horse for a different reason. The opening-round 65 at last year's Masters shows what Quiros can do with Augusta National specifically. He is the only one of the three to have played in the Masters before, and his 2011 experience will have him better prepared for 2012.
As an early winner, Stanley has had the best year of the three. He is currently third in the FedEx Cup standings but needs to pick up some momentum after missing the cut in the Honda Classic and tying for 51st in the WGC-Cadillac Invitational.
Cantlay qualified for the Masters by finishing in second place in the U.S. Amateur tournament, but it is his consistency on the PGA Tour that makes him a dark horse at Augusta. In six starts, Cantlay finished in the top 25 four times and finished in the top 10 once. He missed the cut in this year's Northern Trust Open, but also has two top-10 finishes golfing for UCLA this season.
While Quiros gets to experience Magnolia Drive for the second time, Stanley and Cantlay will be mesmerized by its beauty for the first time in their lives next week. If the setting doesn't get to them mentally, they are all well-prepared to make runs at the green jacket.
Rory vs. Tiger may be the headlining battle going into the 2012 Masters, but there are so many good players in this tournament that someone else will inevitably join that battle. Whether it's an unexpected early leader like Quiros or surprise late winner like Schwartzel, something will happen to take the spotlight away from golf's top guys.