The 2013 Masters Tournament will get underway at Augusta National Golf Club on April 11, and four golfers stand out as primed to take home the green jacket this year.
Without question, the biggest headline entering the event will be whether Tiger Woods can end his five-year majors drought with a win on golf's grandest stage. In particular, does Woods finally have what it takes to play four solid rounds at Augusta and take home his first green jacket since 2005?
Tiger, however, will face a number of challengers poised to win the 77th Masters with three of the top challengers having yet to win a major championship, but their times are near.
Cue CBS' Masters music in your head, as we look at Woods and the golfers who will battle him at this year's Masters.
With a recent win at the Arnold Palmer Invitational, Tiger Woods finally reclaimed the No. 1 ranking in the world.
For the first time in a long time, Woods is the clear-cut favorite to win the Masters.
In 2013, he's already won three times on the PGA Tour, including the Farmers Insurance Open, Cadillac Championship and Arnold Palmer Invitational. There's just an air about Tiger that looks different this spring.
His game looks as sharp as ever, as does his mental focus for the first time since things went downhill for him, personally and professionally, following the infamous November 2009 car accident.
Statistically speaking, as of March 28, Woods is No. 1 in total putting (34.8), eagles (48), strokes gained putting (1.48), scoring average (68.33), front nine scoring average (33.25), scoring average before cut (67.88) and par five birdie or better leaders (64.29 percent).
The numbers speak for themselves, supporting the claim that Woods is primed to win his fifth Masters with him back at the top of his game.
However, the Woods camp is probably a little concerned about the golfer's following 2013 stats: No. 109 in back nine scoring average (35.63), No. 117 in final round scoring average (71.75), No. 120 in greens in regulation fairway (45.5 percent) and No. 142 in driving accuracy percentage (55.80).
If Tiger can get past his recent troubles at Augusta and win his first major since the 2005 U.S. Open, it'll be largely because he conquered his back-nine demons in majors.
ESPN's Bob Harig suggested of what Woods must overcome to win at Augusta this year:
There are, of course, no guarantees. Last year proved that. And three previous times, Woods had three PGA Tour victories going to the Masters, and did not prevail, the latest in 2008 -- when he won four of his six starts in an injury-shortened year.
In 2012, Woods' difficulty with major championships was pronounced. Beside the Masters finish, he was the 36-hole leader at both the U.S. Open and PGA Championship and didn't finish in the top 10; and at the Open Championship, he couldn't make a weekend move, although he did tie for third.
Despite his poor performance at the Masters last year (tied for 40th), since 1997, Tiger has 10 top-five finishes. Furthermore, the world No. 1 golfer finished outside of the top 15 at Augusta National only three times.
Assuming Woods has a productive weekend and a strong back nine in the final round at the Masters, it will be tough to bet against him winning.
That being said, there are a host of other golfers poised to challenge him.
Ten days before Lee Westwood will turn 40 years old, he has a chance to win his first major championship. There's a great storyline to follow at Augusta National.
In his past five Masters appearances, Westwood has four top-11 finishes and two top-three finishes.
ESPN's Bob Harig commented on the golfer's recent solid performances at Augusta:
Although he had great success on the European Tour -- and bounced back from a slump that saw him drop out of the top 200 in the world -- he has yet to win a major championship, despite a strong record.
Westwood has 14 top-10s in majors, including six in the past 12. During that time, he has been in the top three on four occasions. At Augusta National, he has not been out of the top 11 in the past four years, giving Phil Mickelson a strong run for the title in 2010.
Playing in the Houston Open this week ahead of the Masters, Westwood expressed his new short-game confidence to The Telegraph's James Corrigan:
My short game has been brilliant recently. I’m not just getting up and down because I’m holing loads of seven to 10 footers – I’m getting up and down because I'm chipping it to two feet a lot. My bunker play’s been really, really good as well. In fact, from 60 yards in it’s been great.
In addition to a renewed short-game confidence, Westwood also recently relocated with his family from England to Florida. The new Floridian suggested to ESPN's Harig how living in the United States will provide him better preparation:
Those extra two days are huge. I expect to feel better this year because of less travel and less going through time zones. I found that the older you get, the harder it is to sort of get your head around that, really. It becomes frustrating to play a couple of weeks and then have to fly back to England and go through the time zones, and then come back and do it all over again. It just wears you down after a while. That was one of the main reasons for moving.
One of golf's most-likeable figures, Westwood is primed to make a serious run at the green jacket this year. In doing so, he could end his lengthy majors drought and celebrate turning 40 in grand fashion.
Ian Poulter is another Englishman chasing his first major championship.
In four PGA Tour events this year, he's made the cuts in every event, earned two top-10 finishes and placed no worse than tied for 28th. A player who has won over 10 times between the European and PGA Tours, Poulter has fared quite well at the Masters throughout his career.
In eight career starts at Augusta National, he has made the cut every year. In his past six Masters appearances, Poulter has finished no worse than No. 27. Over the same period, he has three top-13 finishes. The Englishman played, arguably, his best tournament ever at Augusta National in 2012, as he notched a seventh-place finish.
As Poulter told augusta.com's Scott Michaux, he simply feels comfortable in Augusta:
I enjoy the place and challenge and enjoy the test – what the course gives up to you when you hit good shots and the challenge you get when you’re out of position. It allows you to be creative. I like that. It’s a place that I feel comfortable. I’ve been in there and been burnt. There’s no scarring in there in any way, shape or form. Don’t have any regrets about what’s happened in any of those rounds. It’s all a learning experience and hopefully I can come through and win one.
With his Masters resume, it's understandable why he feels so good playing at Augusta. Moreover, the European Ryder Cup team member had remarkable success on U.S. soil at Medinah Country Club in 2012. The catalyst behind Europe's historical comeback win over the United States, Poulter went 4-0 in his matches at Medinah depsite many jeers from American patrons.
Having performed so well at the 2012 Ryder Cup and in recent Masters events, Poulter has ample reason to feel confident heading into the 2013 Masters, which he explained to augusta.com's Michaux:
I was a marked man at the Ryder Cup. They wanted to shut me up. That was plain and simple. Everybody knew that and they couldn’t do it. I guess I frustrate certain people in that format, and you know, hopefully I’m going to be in the same situation if I’m coming down the stretch in a major. You know, I’d like to think that I’ve got the game and I’ve got the mindset if I’m in the position to obviously try and finish one off.
If Pouler is in the thick of things in the final round at Augusta, he's someone capable of closing the deal. He's a fiery competitor that shows no lack of emotion on the course. That winning combination could lead way to a classic Masters Sunday this year.
Justin Rose is one player who comes into the 2013 Masters somewhat under the radar.
While the 32-year-old Englishman (born in South Africa) is the No. 3 player in the world golf rankings, he simply has not drawn as much buzz as players like Tiger Woods, Rory McIlroy and Phil Mickelson.
However, that's a pretty good position to be in for a young player with three top-20 finishes at the Masters in his last three outings. Having never missed the cut in seven starts at Augusta National, Rose has only finished worse than No. 22 twice in his Masters career. In 2012, he finished eighth.
Despite having over 10 career wins as a professional, Rose is still chasing that elusive first major championship. However, he's playing dynamite heading into this year's Masters.
In 2013, the Englishman has made the cut in each of his four PGA Tour starts. Moreover, Rose has posted three top-eight finishes. Last week at the Arnold Palmer Invitational, he finished second behind Woods.
Heading into the Masters, Rose is near the top of several notable PGA Tour statistical categories : No. 2 scoring average (68.68), No. 2 back nine scoring average (34.43), No. 2 scrambling (71.72), No. 2 sand save percentage (70.59 percent), No. 6 scoring average (69.33), No. 8 driving distance (301.3) and No. 8 all-around ranking (359).
While his scoring stats are impressive, especially heading into a tournament flavored with back-nine drama, it's Rose's scrambling and sand-save numbers that stand out as positive indicators before the year's first major.
Sports Illustrated's Gary Van Sickle also feels Rose is well-positioned for a 2013 Masters run:
It’s indicative of how little everyone else has done that Rose has quietly become World No. 3 despite not having won anything in over a year. Oh, wait, I’m forgetting that huge Tyco Skills Challenge in November. My bad! Justin is doing his best Luke Donald impression and top-tenning the daylights out of his opponents. He had eight top-10 last year, including the win at Doral, and he’s been fourth, eighth and second in his last three tries, respectively, in 2013.
The pressure, at least from a media standpoint, should be fairly light on Rose at the Masters this year. With Tiger deservedly the talk of golf right now, Rose has to like his own chances based on his history at Augusta National and on how well he's playing at the moment.
Don't be surprised if Rose becomes the big story in the final round of this year's Masters. He's due.