The golf season arrives in earnest when they tee it up at Augusta and play the first major championship of the season.
We are not going to debate whether the Masters is the premier event on the PGA Tour, but it is clearly one of the three biggest tournaments golfers will play in all season. (There's no doubt that the PGA Championship ranks fourth of the four majors.)
Tiger Woods is the big story in golf once again. He announced his return last year with a strong showing as the second-ranked golfer on the PGA Tour behind Rory McIlroy, but he could not perform at his best in the majors.
This year, Woods is the top golfer in the world once again, and he is expected to be at his best in the first major championship of the year.
Woods has had some of the most memorable performances of his career at the Masters. He should be on top of the leaderboard when the event comes to a close on Sunday.
Here are our predictions for the top 10 finishers in the Masters.
It’s easy to overlook Ernie Els at this year’s Masters, but it would be a mistake. Els is in a positive frame of mind after missing last year’s tournament.
He’s also not putting as much pressure on himself, according to PGATour.com. Els has confidence in himself and his game, and he has finished second twice during his Masters career.
That means that if Els finds himself in contention at any point in the tournament, he’s not likely to get hit with a case of nerves.
If Els struggles, look for his putter to be the problem. Els is using a long putter, but he says this is the last time he will use it (via PGATour.com) and he’ll go to a short putter as soon as his time in Augusta is over.
Brandt Snedeker is often recognized as one of the most well-liked and easy-going players on the tour. He’s also one of the most accomplished. Snedeker is second to Tiger Woods on the money-earned and FedEx points lists.
But Snedeker says he is not quite the easy-going golfer he usually is this week. He admits he is “on edge” and will probably remain in that position until he tees off on Thursday (h/t Mike McAllister, PGATour.com).
Snedeker may be concerned about his state of mind, but he is healthy. A strained intercostal (rib cage) muscle has healed completely, so he should be in excellent condition for the Masters.
Matt Kuchar has been steady this year on the PGA Tour. He has one tournament win and two other top-10 finishes, and he has made the cut in all eight events he has entered.
Kuchar should not be intimidated by playing at Augusta. After tying for third place in last year’s Masters, he'll want to pick up where he left off. He'd like nothing more than a chance to win on the back nine on Sunday.
Kuchar is not a big hitter compared to the other top pros on the tour. He is averaging 279.8 yards per drive, ranking 136th in that category. However, at No. 3 in sand save percentage, he is among the best when he’s in a green-side bunker.
That passion could be on display once again at Augusta. He has been a steady and proficient golfer again this season, and his confidence is high for this year's Masters.
Bradley is a huge hitter (averaging 301.0 yards per drive, ninth on the tour), and if he can keep his drives accurate, he has a chance to challenge for his second major championship. Bradley won the 2011 PGA Championship.
Phil Mickelson may have to take a backseat to Tiger Woods at the Masters, but he does not have to hold the door for anyone else.
Mickelson has the persona and the game to win at Augusta at any time. He has three Masters championships (2004, 2006, 2010) to his credit, and his game is in excellent shape.
He ranks fifth on the money-earned list so far this year with $1.746 million, and he has one victory to his credit.
Mickelson loves playing at Augusta and is the kind of keen shotmaker who can seize control and not let go. However, his moxie can also be his downfall. Mickelson will often see a shot that he believes he can execute, but he doesn't always think ahead to what is best for his final result in the tournament.
That makes for great theater and drama, but it doesn't always help him come out on top. Mickelson is confident coming in and should be able to put on a solid performance—not a winning one, but perhaps a memorable one.
If Steve Stricker is going to have a strong Masters and have a chance to win, his ideal scenario would include starting quickly and getting close to the pack by the end of the first round.
After that, he would rise steadily in the second and third rounds and then get to the lead after nine holes on Sunday. With three or four strong golfers chasing him, Stricker could use his exceptional putting ability to make a few long ones and possibly earn his first green jacket.
Stricker is well liked on the tour, and he's respected for his shot-making. However, he does not seem to have the personality that would allow him to dominate a huge tournament like the Masters.
If he's going to win, he's going to have to sneak in.
Stricker has been consistent this season and has already had three top-10 finishes, earning more than $1.8 million.
Stricker should finish in the top five, but a win seems unlikely, as the 13-year pro has never won a major. His best finish in any of the big four championships was a tie for second in the 1998 PGA Championship.
Rory McIlroy is not planning on a fourth-place finish at the Masters.
McIlroy has struggled much of the season, but his second-place finish at the Valero Texas Open indicates he may be close to returning to top form. McIroy shot a 12-under 276 and closed with an impressive 66 to finish two shots behind tournament winner Martin Laird.
McIlroy surrendered his top spot in the world rankings to Tiger Woods, but he is so talented that he could get his game back at any time.
McIlroy has won majors the past two years, so he can rise to the occasion at Augusta. He may start slowly, but he could find his game on moving day and surge on the final day of competition.
That will be good enough to help him get up to fourth place, but it won't be good enough to get him his first Masters title.
Bubba Watson has not come anywhere near the form he had last year on the PGA Tour.
He has had earnings of $767,300 and has not finished better than 14th in any 72-hole tournament that he has entered this year.
However, Watson returns to the scene of his greatest triumph. If he can get his feet on the ground and play well early, he's one of the few golfers in the world who can come close to Tiger Woods in popularity and charisma.
Watson won the Masters last year, and his explosive play with his driver and his overall shot-making ability allowed him to win the championship by beating Louis Oosthuizen in a playoff.
Watson may not be able to win this year, but he should have a steady showing and come close to the championship by finishing a strong third.
Dustin Johnson has the same kind of big-hitting ability that Bubba Watson used last year to earn his first major championship.
Johnson is sixth on the tour this year with more than $1.6 million in earnings. He tends to be an all-or-nothing kind of player. He has made the cut in six of the nine events he has entered, has two top-10 finishes and picked up a victory in the Hyundai Tournament of Champions in early January.
Johnson is one of the biggest hitters on the tour. He is averaging 303.5 yards per drive, ranking fifth among all golfers.
Look for Johnson to harness his talent and remain in contention until the late going on Sunday. However, he still needs to show some improvement with his putter before he can win at Augusta.
Johnson has never finished better than a tie for 30th at Augusta, but this will be his time to give it a run.
Tiger Woods has been on the upswing the last two years.
He has improved his game to the point where he is once again the No. 1 golfer in the world. Still, a lot of golf observers won't believe he is "back" until he wins another major championship.
Woods has won 14 major titles, a figure that has stuck since the 2008 season, when he won the U.S. Open in a dramatic playoff with Rocco Mediate.
Woods has won four Masters titles, with his last coming in 2005. He has three tour victories this season and is the favorite to get his fifth green jacket this time around.
Even though Woods has been on top of his game this year, a victory at Augusta won't come easily. In last year's major championships, Woods tended to play well in the first two rounds, but he fell apart on moving day and was unable to rally in the final round.
He must play championship golf in all four rounds to earn his 15th major championship.
Look for Woods to be within three strokes of the lead after the first round and to take the lead in the second round. He will open up a four-stroke lead after moving day and cruise home with a three-stroke margin.
Bubba Watson will hand him the green jacket, and Jack Nicklaus will send him a congratulatory text.
By all measures, Tiger Woods will be back.