Okay, let's be clear about something right from the start.
Tiger Woods will win the 2009 Masters.
In my opinion, that's more a statement of fact than a prediction from another so called golf expert with dubious credentials. The planets just seem to be aligned for another memorable "Tiger moment."
His game seems solid, despite his recent eight month layoff, especially his short game, a key component of any successful title run at Augusta. He seems even more focused and mentally tough (is that even possible?) than he was before his hiatus. And he continues on course to break, no destroy, Jack Nicklaus' record of 18 professional majors, maybe as early as next summer.
That's not to say it will be easy or that he won't be challenged before winning his 5th Green jacket and 15th major championship. It just means that when the final putt drops on Sunday evening it will be Tiger heading to Butler Cabin for a meeting with Trevor Immelmann and Jim Nance.
So who are the main contenders who could make the "drive for five" more than a walk among the dogwoods and azaleas. Here for your consideration are the 10 players I feel have the best chance to finish second at the 2009 Masters Tournament.
10. Rory McIlroy
Okay, no one really thinks a 19-year old can actually contend at the Masters, do they? Of course this is no ordinary teenager, and it appears certain that a stall in the Champions locker room at Augusta National is an inevitability. No, it probably won't happen this week, but a top 10 finish is not outside the realm of possibilities.
9. Henrik Stenson
Stenson already answered one burning question in the minds of golf fans earlier in the season - boxers or briefs? Now we are only left to wonder if he has the game to be a major champion. Based on recent results, the answer is a definite yes. He's a premium ball striker and has more than enough length to be a Masters' contender. The only question is his sometimes erratic putter.
8. Retief Goosen
The two-time U.S. Open champion has a great record at Augusta with four Top-3 finishes on his resume, including second place money in 2002 and 2007. Showed he was fully back after a mysterious 18-month slump with a gutsy win at Innisbrook. Whether it's possible to tame the difficult greens at Augusta National with a belly putter remains to be seen.
7. K.J. Choi
Struggled in recent years, after a third place finish at the 2004 Masters, with his best finish since a tie for 27th in 2007. But his ability to hit it straight and not wilt under major championship pressure makes him a contender any time one of the big four is played. Closing in on 40, so his window for major championship success may be closing fast.
6. Jim Furyk
Maybe surprisingly, the 2003 U.S. Open champion only has three top 10 finishes in 12 Masters appearances, the last a fourth place finish in 2003. Not the longest player on tour, but one would have thought that his great putting and iron play and his mental toughness would have given him a shot to contend for a Green Jacket at some point. 2009 just might be his year.
5. Padraig Harrington
The winner of the last two majors will be under tremendous pressure to keep the "Paddy Slam" alive. That will make the challenge of Augusta that much greater. To make matters worse, the game just hasn't been all there so far in 2009, although recent results have been encouraging. Still if there's one thing we've learned about the Irishman, is that more than anyone other than Tiger he has the ability to rise to the big occasion.
4. Paul Casey
Casey has a game tailored perfectly to Augusta and comes in as one of the hottest players after his playoff win at the Shell Houston Open. He's also only finished outside the top 11 once in four starts, including a tie for 6th as a Masters rookie in 2004. Certainly should be on any short list of players ready for a major break through.
3. Geoff Ogilvy
Some may be surprised to learn that the 2006 U.S. Open champion has never finished better than tied for 16th in three Masters appearances, but the odds are he'll improve on that stat in 2009. Already a 2-time winner on the PGA tour this season, the 31-year old Australian has the all-around game demanded at Augusta and the knowledge that he can handle major championship pressure.
2. Zach Johnson
The 2007 Masters Champion is having an outstanding season including a win at the Sony Open in Hawaii and a recent third place finish at the Arnold Palmer Invitational. Made a solid defense of his title in 2008 and was in contention until a final round 77 gave him a tie for 20th. A great putter who seems comfortable on Augusta's greens. Has the form and the good memories to do well again in 2009.
Only in the age of Tiger Woods would the winner of two of the last five Green Jackets not be an overwhelming favorite. But if anyone can take Tiger down it's Mickelson, who heads into Augusta with two wins already this season and more confidence in his game than at any time in his career. Don't get hung up on the poor showing at Houston. Phil's been focused on this one tournament since the start of the season and is as ready as he's ever been. His short game has been nothing short of amazing in '09, something that should serve him well around the challenging Augusta greens.