With Darren Clarke's withdrawal Monday, the Masters field is now set at 93. Despite the event's prestige, that doesn't mean 93 big names will tee it up at Augusta.
The likes of Tiger Woods, Rory McIlroy, Phil Mickelson, Ernie Els and Keegan Bradley will all set off on Georgia's most hallowed grounds Thursday—names of notoriety pulling their opening punches in the battle for the green jacket.
There are 88 players besides that quintet, though. Many of these remaining contestants do have some semblance of golfing fame (whether it be large or small). A modest few are hanging under the general golfing public's radar.
That is unfortunate, because any player that qualifies for the Masters has a good deal of talent. Among those unknowns, six* in particular stand out.
Yes, the headline only promises five golfers, but this man deserved special notice. Why? Well, two weeks ago he would've been atop this list. In case you forgot, Olesen was in the penultimate group Saturday at last year's Open Championship. And the first time major contender really treaded water quite well, adeptly handling the pressure of a major championship weekend, not to mention playing with Tiger Woods on Saturday, to post a tie for ninth finish.
He wasn't going to be the headliner here just for that, though. Olesen has ticked his game up a notch further in 2013. The 23-year-old Dane has been a fixture on the first page of leaderboards, posting two top-threes on the European Tour in late January and early February. For good measure, he placed seventh at the Arnold Palmer Invitational three weeks ago.
Olesen is an über-talent budding star. This being his maiden Masters appearance isn't the culprit in keeping him off the list. A bad case of whiplash is. The injury occurred less than two weeks ago, the result of a car crash the day before that week's Shell Houston Open.
He then went out, shot an opening 82, withdrew on doctor's orders and has barely hit a ball since. It's an unfortunate circumstance, only heightened by the untimeliness of it all.
With little practice and the lingering doubt that his whiplash won't be completely sedated, Olesen can't be a good pick. Without such concerns, he would've been the No. 1 sleeper to look out for.
We'll stick with the European Tour on this one. Except we're going to move on to a slightly more productive golfing factory than Denmark. (Thomas Bjorn, anyone?)
It probably comes as no surprise that a South African makes it on here, with the country having a long history of major champions, and, more and more, becoming a pool of incredible golfing depth.
Grace was the latest South African flower to blossom. After years in golfing purgatory, the 24-year-old broke out with a season to remember in 2012, registering four victories on the European Tour, a circuit he had yet to win on before that time. A fluke? For a one- or two-win season, sure. Not four, though, especially considering the guy had the nerve to beat out two of his greatest golfing idols, Ernie Els and Retief Goosen, in a playoff for one of such victories.
So, from the near ground floor, Grace is a no-brainer of a buy for this week and for the long haul. Four wins last year, he has remained in form in 2013 with three top-10s, and, oh, South Africans really seem to do well at Augusta.
Yes, Grace has missed his last two cuts coming in. His overall game has looked sharp, though, and the consecutive cut slip is not a death sentence to one's green jacket chances. The same thing happened to Angel Cabrera in 2009 and he did just fine after he stepped onto Augusta's grounds.
Like Olesen, it's Grace's first time here at Augusta. Yet, not only does he have the game now to contend here in his maiden appearance, he also has enough in his tank to become the first Masters rookie to win since Fuzzy Zoeller in 1979. Not that you should expect that, but it would not be totally shocking if it happened.
It's highly possible that you glanced over this guy's name and thought nothing of it. Massive error in judgement there.
Don't get me wrong, Scott Piercy could easily shoot 77-77 this week and miss the cut by half a mile. Or, the two-time PGA Tour champion could do something spectacular. That is what you cannot overlook.
Piercy's name may be buried under a flurry of young American stars, but it will be dug out for these purposes. After all, the American's game may be the perfect fit for Augusta. He's not Bubba Long, but Piercy can power a drive down there with almost anybody on tour. (And if you buy into that garbage that recent course changes have nullified much of the long hitters' advantage at Augusta, just check out the last decade of winners at the Masters: a short-hitting victor here and there surrounded by a bunch of bombers.)
His putter is an asset, a matter of great importance at an Augusta track where precision with the flatstick is at a premium. Finally, Piercy is no stranger to birdie barrages; both of his victories included a round of 62 or lower. That also may imply a certain proneness to mistakes, but birdie (or eagle) runs are the way to stay in the mix at Augusta. A Masters winner rarely finds his way to a green jacket without at least one hot stretch of play during the tournament.
In these three ways, Piercy is really the model of the golfer to subdue Augusta. His play of late has been poor, but if the 34-year-old American can find his form by Thursday, watch out.
This might be one of the few guys on tour who can outdrive Scott Piercy. In fact, Robert Garrigus could give Bubba Watson a run for his money in a long-driving contest.
Unfortunately for the fiery American, this is not the method used to decide the Masters winner. That's not to say a regular 72-hole format will signal the end of the 35-year-old's bid. Garrigus is slightly longer than Piercy and shares an affinity for pounding a course with red numbers.
Both of those attributes bode well for a course like Augusta. Where Garrigus runs into trouble is his putting. Unlike Piercy, Garrigus simply cannot roll the flatstick with consistency, routinely finishing outside the top 125 on tour in the strokes gained category.
This is certainly a harrowing weakness, but something in his stroke clicked three weeks ago at Bay Hill. It wasn't anything worthy of mistaking him for Ben Crenshaw, yet one solid putting performance can beget another.
Garrigus had better hope so. He can bomb it all day at Augusta and set himself up with some good looks. That won't be enough to keep him in contention. The putter has to cooperate, even if only moderately, in order for Garrigus to take a serious run at a green jacket.
Fortunately, Arnold Palmer's joint saw the American roll in some nice strokes on the greens. Carry that over to Augusta, and Garrigus is a dangerous, dangerous man.
Usually a player with a 10-shot PGA Tour victory on his resume will get some attention. Not Brian Gay.
The unassuming 41-year-old has quietly put together a solid PGA Tour career. In addition to that blowout victory four years ago at Hilton Head, Gay has three more tour wins on his record. In fact, his latest triumph came less than three months ago, when a final-round 63 was enough to force a playoff that he would go on to win.
Not seeing the wisdom in picking a journeyman pro? Understandable. This might change your mind. Gay, who is already the most underrated putter on tour, might have the flatstick that burns the hottest when everything is clicking. It was the instrument in 2009 which provided him that 10-shot margin of victory and, later that same year, another PGA Tour win, this time by five. We're not simply talking memorable weeks on the greens here, these were putting displays worthy of their own spots in the World Golf Hall of Fame. They were Retief Goosen-at-Shinnecock Hills-good.
Does that convince you? Hopefully it does, because the hot putting angle is the way Gay serves as a threat this week. He's one of the shortest hitters on tour, a disadvantage only Mike Weir and Zach Johnson have been able to overcome in recent years at Augusta.
How'd they do it? With great wedge play and excellent putting. Gay's flatstick is capable of a knockout performance, if that club can work its magic and the wedges also play a starring role, Gay's green jacket chances will be alive and well Sunday afternoon.
Olesen may be on the sidelines as the No. 1 sleeper, but he has a highly capable replacement.
The second South African on this list, Richard Sterne, once made up one part of the country's new potential triumvirate of young golfing stars. The other two names, Charl Schwartzel and Louis Oosthuizen, showed just how impressive being associated with that trio was.
And it wasn't that Sterne was even the third wheel in that crew. He was every bit as good as Schwartzel and Oosthuizen. Sterne won five times on the European Tour between 2004 and 2009, including twice in the latter year alone. The South African appeared poised to break out.
The pain he experienced while playing near the end of 2009 was unbearable for Sterne, though. He soon found out why. He was suffering from a form of arthritis in his back. He would have to rest for a few months before he could start playing again.
Months turned out to be optimistic, as persistent pain relegated Sterne to just 10 starts in 2010 and 2011 combined. He returned to a full schedule in 2012, but had two years of rust to shake off. So, understandably, the South African struggled a bit in his comeback from injury.
In 2013, Sterne has found his groove again. He finished second in Dubai in early February, and, a week later, won his first European Tour title in four years by cruising to a seven-shot victory over, who else, Charl Schwartzel.
If Sterne is not fully back to his 2009 form, he is about 95 percent there. Remember that he was just as good as Schwartzel and Oosthuizen all those years ago. The former won the Masters in 2011 and the latter lost in a playoff here a year ago.
Sterne's game is almost back in peak condition. If he can continue his resurgence at Augusta, he may just become the third member of the triumvirate to take home a major title.
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