Stock Watch for the Top 20 Golfers in the 2013 Masters

Steve SilvermanFeatured ColumnistApril 8, 2013

Stock Watch for the Top 20 Golfers in the 2013 Masters

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    Even under the worst of circumstances, the Masters would be one of the most highly anticipated events of the golf year.

    These are not the worst of circumstances. Quite the opposite.

    Golf is going to command the sporting world this week with Tiger Woods at the top of his game, Rory McIlroy looking for his first Masters championship, excitable Keegan Bradley trying to mount a surge and Phil Mickelson looking for yet another major championship.

    Woods is the headliner, having won three tournaments already this season and reclaiming the title of the top-ranked golfer in the world.

    With the dogwood and azaleas in bloom at Augusta, we rank the 20 golfers with the best chance to win the Masters. Some are surging, while others have had some recent difficulty, but these are the 20 golfers who should write the script for the golf's first major championship of the year.

20. Ian Poulter (Stock Down)

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    Ian Poulter has had two PGA Tour wins to his credit.

    That's not a great resume for somebody who has designs on winning a major. Poulter finished seventh in last year's Masters.

    He had a solid start to his season, finishing tied for ninth in the Hyundai Tournament of Champions, and he followed that with a fourth-place finish in the WGC-Accenture Match Play Championship.

    However, he has been slumping since then. Poulter finished tied for 37th in last week's Valero Texas Open and does not seem ready to contend for a major championship since he ranks 172nd in hitting greens in regulation.

19. John Merrick (Stock Up)

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    If you want an under-the-radar golfer who has a chance to make a strong showing in the Masters, give John Merrick some consideration.

    Merrick has earned $1.375 million this season, a figure that ranks 10th on the PGA Tour. Merrick won the Northern Trust Open in mid-February, earning $1.188 million for his efforts.

    Merrick is not a huge hitter, but he hits his approach shots accurately. That should allow him to remain in contention.

18. Hunter Mahan (Stock Down)

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    Hunter Mahan looked like he was on his way to a stellar season through the first two months of the year.

    In mid-February, Mahan had four consecutive top-25 finishes, including a tie for eighth in the Northern Trust Open. From there, Mahan had his best showing of the year in the WGC-Accenture Match Play Championship. He made it all the way to the finals, where he was defeated by Matt Kuchar.

    That defeat has appeared to stay with Mahan. He had ordinary performances in the WGC-Cadillac Championship and the Arnold Palmer Invitational.

    When he attempted to tune up his game at the Shell Houston Open, Mahan failed to make the cut.

    If Mahan can wipe away his recent play and put it out of his mind, he has a chance to have a solid performance. However, he's trending downward. It seems much more likely that he will struggle at Augusta.

17. Sergio Garcia (Stock Down)

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    Sergio Garcia is one of the most colorful and exciting golfers in the world.

    However, when it comes to fulfilling potential and winning major championships, he has been one flat pancake.

    Garcia has never won a major title. He has come close, finishing second once in the British Open and twice in the PGA Championship. He has never done better than tying for fourth in the Masters.

    Garcia is 37th on the money-earned list in 2013 with just under $790,000 in winnings. 

    He will have to improve his accuracy if he is going to make a real run at the title. He is hitting 69.26 percent of his greens in regulation, ranking 31st on the tour in that area.

16. Luke Donald (Stock Down)

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    It has not been an easy year for Luke Donald.

    He has not hit the $500,000 mark in earnings yet this year, and he has not played like the player who hit the top spot in the world rankings before Rory McIlroy took it from him in 2012.

    Physically, Donald has the game to win the Masters. He tied for third in the 2005 tournament, and that's his best finish in Augusta.

    More often than not, Donald's issues are with his mental game. In the video above, Donald explains that he's probably at his best four or five times a year in a tournament. If the Masters are not one of his peak moments, it's hard for him to win against such a competitive field.

    Donald may be a little too thoughtful and analytical for his own good.

15. Dustin Johnson (Stock Up)

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    Dustin Johnson is going to attract attention on the golf course.

    On a tour filled with players who can bomb the ball down the fairway, Johnson is one of the longest hitters in recent memory. When he uncoils his 6'4" frame and launches the ball, he's likely to outdrive his fellow tour members on a regular basis.

    Johnson is averaging 303.5 yards per drive this year, a figure that ranks fifth on the tour.

    Johnson has won one tournament this year. He has earned $1.6 million this year, ranking sixth on the tour. He finished tied for second in the 2011 British Open. That's his best finish in a major championship.

14. Jason Dufner (Stock Down)

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    Jason Dufner was one of the best golfers on the tour last year. He won two tournaments and just under $4.9 million in prize money.

    The 2013 season has not been as bountiful for Dufner. He failed to make the cut in two of the seven events he has entered, and his highest finish this season is a tie for 12th in the WGC-Cadillac Championship in early March.

    Dufner has won just a bit over $316,000 on the tour this year. He has struggled with his driver, averaging 277.0 yards off the tee, ranking 148th among his peers.

    He's also 101st in birdies average.

    That makes him a long shot to contend in this year's Masters.

13. Justin Rose (Stock Down)

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    Justin Rose looks like he should be primed to win a major event.

    He has the swing, he has the accuracy and he has the putting stroke. However, when it comes to winning majors, Rose is not a serious contender.

    He can play well on occasion, but he has not shown the ability to win. Rose's best finish in a major was tying for third in last year's PGA. He has never done better than tying for fifth in the Masters.

    Rose has made the cut in all four PGA events he entered this season, and he has finished in the top 10 three times.

    Coming close may be in his script. Winning the Masters is not.

12. Webb Simpson (Stock Down)

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    Webb Simpson announced his presence to the golf world when he won the 2012 U.S. Open.

    That was a spectacular triumph that raised Simpson's profile dramatically. Simpson has not come close to winning since, and there is little reason to believe that it's going to change at the Masters.

    Simpson has not performed well at Augusta. He has never done better than a tie for 44th in the Masters.

    Simpson has won $938,000 on the tour this year, but he only has two top-10 finishes in the nine events he has entered.

11. Graeme McDowell (Stock Down)

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    Graeme McDowell made it to the top of the golf world when he won the 2010 U.S. Open.

    McDowell used his stellar shotmaking and play down the stretch to win it.

    However, McDowell has regularly been in the close-but-no-cigar mode since winning that event. He has not won a PGA Tour event since earning that championship.

    McDowell has made the cut in four of five events this year and has three top-10 finishes. While he has won about $866,000, he doesn't seem to be at his best when the tournament is on the line.

    Unless that changes, McDowell is not going to win the Masters.

10. Keegan Bradley (Stock Up)

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    Keegan Bradley became one of the most popular golfers on the tour during the Ryder Cup last fall.

    Bradley was partnered with Phil Mickelson, and they were able to focus and rally the crowd as if the Ryder Cup were a college football game between two national powers.

    While Bradley doesn't get as worked up for regular tour events, he is an energetic live wire who can pounce and go on a hot streak to take over a golf tournament.

    Bradley has been quite consistent this season with five top-10 finishes and more than $1.4 million in earnings. Bradley is averaging 301.0 yards per drive, ranking ninth on the tour.

    If he can improve his ability to hit the fairway just a tad—he ranks 89th in driving accuracy—he'll have a chance to make a run at the best golfers in the world.

9. Steve Stricker (Stock Up)

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    Steve Stricker may be known best as being one of Tiger Woods' best friends on the tour.

    While that's great for Stricker's social status, he's a lot more than that as a golfer. Stricker is one of the best shotmakers on the tour.

    He specializes in the short game. His putting gives him a chance to contend on an every-week basis.

    Stricker has been sharp in 2013, with three top-10 finishes in the four events he has entered. He has two second-place finishes, and he has earned more than $1.8 million.

    Stricker will not dominate with his long hitting. However, he will keep mistakes to a minimum, and that will allow him to contend if there is any slip-up by his high-profile competitors.

8. Matt Kuchar (Stock Up)

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    When it comes to having a consistent and dependable swing, few golfers can match Matt Kuchar.

    Kuchar was at his best in the WGC-Accenture Match Play Championship, winning that tournament and capturing $1.5 million in the process. Kuchar also has two top-10 finishes besides his match play title.

    Kuchar finished tied for third in last year's Masters, and that's his best showing in any major tournament.

    His victory in match play shows he can handle pressure situations should he get into the lead in the late stages of the tournament.

7. Ernie Els (Stock Down)

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    Ernie Els is known for his smooth and easy swing. It has made him one of the great golfers in the game.

    However, Els has not been on his game in 2013. He has finished in the top 25 in just one event this year. His earnings of $265,232 are not very Els-like.

    Still, Els is one of the game's most iconic figures. He has earned more than $45 million in prize money during his career and has won four major championships.

    While he has never won at Augusta, he has finished second twice. Els is going to try to summon up his past performances when he tees it up at the Masters, but he has a long way to go to contend this year.

6. Bubba Watson (Stock Up)

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    Bubba Watson can't wait to defend his Masters championship.

    Watson won the Masters in a playoff last year, and he did it in a crowd-pleasing manner. Watson's backstory is fascinating—he is a completely self-taught player who claims he never took a lesson.

    On the tee, he is one of the biggest hitters in the game. He has raw power from the left side, and the Masters sets up as a spectacular course for left-handed players as well as right-handers who play a draw.

    If Watson can hit his drives in the fairway and make greens in regulation, he is going to be a formidable force with tremendous crowd appeal.

    Tiger Woods may be the only golfer in the field who can match or exceed Watson's charisma. Watson is 39th on the tour in earnings this year, but he is a defending champion who has the power and big-game talent to put on another spectacular show.

5. Phil Mickelson (Stock Up)

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    Is it possible that Phil Mickelson is getting overlooked at the Masters?

    Once play is underway, Mickelson will almost certainly get his share of the attention. However, going into the tournament, it seems like Tiger Woods, Rory McIlroy, Bubba Watson and Brandt Snedeker command the stage.

    But the Masters has been one of Mickelson's signature showpieces throughout his career. Mickelson has won four majors in his career, and three of them have been Masters championships.

    Mickelson's game suits Augusta very well—and he has been on his game this year. He has earned just under $1.75 million this year, a figure that ranks fifth on the tour.

    Mickelson is perhaps the game's best shotmaker. He is inventive and gutsy. But sometimes, his refusal to take the safe shot hurts him.

    The key for Mickelson should be his putting. He is constantly changing his grip and putting style. If he happens to get hot with the putter in Augusta, he could come away with his fourth green jacket.

4. Jim Furyk (Stock Up)

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    Jim Furyk is one of the PGA Tour's steadiest players.

    Furyk won his only major 10 years ago when he took the 2003 U.S. Open. While Furyk has an awkward-looking swing that many top-teaching pros urge their students not to emulate, he can put the ball in the center of the fairway when he needs to hit a clutch shot.

    Furyk was struggling throughout the season, but he seemed to find his game at the Valero Texas Open. He fired an 11-under and tied for third.

    He seems to have found his game again and may be ready for a solid showing at Augusta.

3. Rory McIlroy (Stock Down)

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    Rory McIlroy looked like he was going to walk with the giants of the game a year ago.

    McIlroy rose to the rank of the No. 1 golfer in the world. He picked up his second major, winning the PGA Championship.

    When it came to hitting for distance, hitting great recovery shots and sinking clutch putts, McIlroy was alone.

    He was being chased by Tiger Woods and every other golfer.

    But McIlroy is learning that you have to do it every year if you want to stay at the top of the golf world. McIlroy has played in five events and has two top-10 finishes. The latter of which was in last weekend's Valero Texas Open. McIlroy finished second to Martin Laird, as he closed the tournament with a 66 and was back on top of his game.

    Whether he will be able to string four excellent rounds together at the Masters is the key question.

    While McIlroy has not been in top form this year, he is one of the best golfers in the world. He could put it together and win his first green jacket.

2. Brandt Snedeker (Stock Up)

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    Brandt Snedeker is capable of winning the Masters.

    He ranks second in money earned in the PGA this season with just under $2.9 million. He followed up back-to-back second-place finishes in late January and early February with a first-place finish in the AT&T Pebble Beach Pro-Am.

    While he failed to make the cut in his last two events, Snedeker has the kind of well-rounded game that should make him a threat at Augusta.

    First off, he is a very accurate hitter. He is hitting 72.95 percent of his greens in regulation, a figure that ranks fourth on the tour.

    Secondly, he is averaging 5.03 birdies per round, ranking first among all golfers.

    Snedeker doesn't have the sizzle of the top golfers in the game, but he can raise his game to their level and could be a serious contender.

1. Tiger Woods (Stock Up)

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    "He's not the old Tiger Woods."

    That's the line that Woods' many critics have been so quick to mouth ever since he took his well-publicized personal tumble in 2009.

    In addition to having his personal life thrown open for everyone to examine, Woods had health issues that impacted his golf game. In particular, his left knee has caused him serious problems over the years.

    But Woods has been rebuilding his life and has regained his health. He rose to the No. 2 ranking in the world last year and has continued to improve this year. His three victories on the tour have allowed him to pass Rory McIlroy and regain his status as the world's top-ranked golfer.

    However, Woods won't satisfy his critics or himself until he starts winning major championships again.

    There's no time like the present. Woods has won 14 majors—second to Jack Nicklaus (18)—and he has won the Masters four times.

    He has not won a major since taking the 2008 U.S. Open in a playoff over Rocco Mediate, and he hasn't won the Masters since 2005.

    He is in prime position to win once again and quiet his critics, who seem to delight in his faults and failures.