Masters 2014: Latest News and Predictions Heading into Augusta

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Masters 2014:  Latest News and Predictions Heading into Augusta
Lynne Sladky

The piece of news that will continue to dominate headlines ahead of the 2014 Masters Tournament is Tiger Woods' injury situation.

Woods is a four-time champion at Augusta National Golf Club but won't be in the field for the first time in his professional career due to back surgery.

A release on his official website recorded what Woods had to say on the matter:

I'd like to express my disappointment to the Augusta National membership, staff, volunteers and patrons that I will not be at the Masters. It's a week that's very special to me. It also looks like I'll be forced to miss several upcoming tournaments to focus on my rehabilitation and getting healthy. I'd also like to thank the fans for their support and concern. It's very kind and greatly appreciated. This is frustrating, but it's something my doctors advised me to do for my immediate and long-term health.

Another fan favorite in Phil Mickelson has worn the green jacket three times, and his status was in some doubt after he withdrew from the Valero Texas Open with a pulled oblique muscle.

However, Mickelson tied for 12th at last week's Shell Houston Open, showing some fine form ahead of the year's first major. PGA Tour Stats points out how having both missing from contention at Augusta—much less absent from the Masters altogether—would create a dynamic unseen in decades:

With Woods out of the field and Mickelson not faring too well since winning the Open Championship in 2013, the race for the green jacket is as wide open as it's been in recent history. Anyone from this elite field could emerge as the new champion.

Since seven different winners have triumphed in the past seven Masters, it's conceivable that another fresh face will break through.

Now let's look at some of the other notable news ahead of the event's commencement on Thursday, along with some early predictions for the tournament.

 

Latest on Jason Day's Thumb Injury and Masters Prediction

Rob Carr/Getty Images

Good news for Day fans, because he is reportedly pain-free with regard to the thumb injury that's kept him out of competition for quite some time.

Brian Wacker of PGATour.com reported the development on Monday, as Day set out for a practice round at Augusta National:

Day figures to be among the favorites as long as he's fit. He finally got his second PGA Tour win by seizing victory at the WGC-Accenture Match Play Championship.

Even though that event wrapped up in February and is the last time Day hit the links competitively, Golf Channel's Kelly Tilghman notes that he can even become the No. 1 player in the world with a win:

Getting into contention at big tournaments hasn't been a problem for Day, but closing the deal has. After finishing tied for second in the 2011 Masters and enduring struggles the season after, Day came back strong last season and was solo third in the year's first major.

It's safe to say he likes taking the trip down Magnolia Lane. Even with Australian compatriot Adam Scott winning last year, the hunger is still there for Day to achieve the same pinnacle, per The New York Times' Karen Crouse:

It’s heaven. There’s not one thing out of place. The patrons are so respectful. It was the one major I grew up watching every year, and you’d always hear them say, 'An Australian has never won the Masters.' I still want to win it as much as I did before.

At age 26, not many players have the combination of natural talent, youth and maturity to handle the grind of a major. It's only a matter of time before Day wins one of golf's four most prestigious tournaments, and this might be the week it happens.

In fact, let's go on the record here and say that Day will be in the hunt on Sunday. Familiarity and tangible results are assets at this venue, and Day turns it on whenever the stakes are highest.

To say he'll win may be a little bold based on his long hiatus, but anything less than a top-five finish would be a bit of a surprise nevertheless.

Prediction: Top-five finish

 

Phil Mickelson Feels Challenged Ahead of Masters

Scott Halleran/Getty Images

The usual confidence Mickelson has in his own abilities is part of what makes him so compelling and magnetic for galleries across the globe.

One of the best shots in Masters history came in the final round of Mickelson's last triumph at Augusta in 2010 on the par-five 13th:

It sparked perhaps the most emotional win of the many Mickelson has accumulated over the years.

That aggressiveness has also been the source of Mickelson's demise multiple times, yet that's what makes him so likeable—and unpredictable. His mindset seems much different entering the 2014 event, per PGATour.com's Sean Martin:

It will be a challenge for me to deal with the pressure of the Masters and how much I love that tournament when I haven’t been (in contention) much this year. ... I think it’s important to have some momentum and to have been in contention heading into the Masters because there’s a lot of pressure there, you feel it. And it’s not the easiest thing to deal with and control if you haven’t been exposed to it.

Usually when Mickelson makes an off-the-wall comment or crumbles the conventions of course management, it's entertaining. This is an ominous sign that the veteran may be waving a white flag of sorts.

Not to say he is thinking that way, but this is far from Mickelson's typical persona. Ever the optimist and self-justifying decision-maker, Mickelson should stir some buzz for these recent remarks.

Lefty almost cracked the top 10 in his last appearance, but you wouldn't know it. He has been in contention countless times at Augusta, so he has plenty of success to draw on in preparing for a run at his fourth title here.

Since he just had his best finish of the 2013-14 season, Mickelson should be a safe bet to improve on that in a historic environment he embraces.

Prediction: Mickelson finishes in the top 10

 

Power Ranking Top Contenders and Projected Winner

5. Graeme McDowell

Ted S. Warren

With the driving accuracy McDowell has, he can set himself up for all the angles on this shot-maker's golf course. The past U.S. Open champion can grind for pars with the best in the world and has proven his ability to hole critical putts.

That is especially so this season, as McDowell ranks first on tour in strokes gained putting according to PGATour.com. He's also second in scoring average.

McDowell has five top-10 finishes in six starts this season but did miss the Masters cut as a heavy favorite in 2013. That's the only reason he's not higher in the rankings. It would not be a shock to see him win at all.

 

4. Rory McIlroy

Andrew Redington/Getty Images

To keep the Northern Irish theme going, a final-round 65 shot McIlroy into a tie for seventh at the Shell Houston Open. It was needed, too, because McIlroy didn't do much in the first three days.

The Masters Tournament has been a mixed bag for golf's premier young gun. A four-shot lead in 2011 was blown in the final round, and McIlroy has made little noise at Augusta since.

Doubting a player who has blown away the field by eight strokes in two previous majors would be silly, though. McIlroy is also a co-favorite at 10-1 alongside defending Masters winner Adam Scott, per VegasInsider.com.

It suddenly doesn't seem unrealistic that McIlroy could get the third leg of the career Grand Slam this weekend.

 

3. Jason Day

This ground has been pretty well-covered in the news regarding Day's injury above, but his credentials can't be emphasized enough. Among the young players hoping for a major breakthrough, Day has knocked on the door more than most.

Winning the match play after Victor Dubuisson pulled off two of the most extraordinary up-and-downs in golf history showed how much mettle Day has amassed in his young career. He carries himself like a veteran, yet he's just scratching the surface of his potential.

A victory at Augusta may not be in the cards following his lengthy hiatus, but bet against him at your own peril.

 

2. Sergio Garcia

Scott Halleran/Getty Images

Speaking of players who have not quite lived up to the hype, perhaps no one fits that billing as much as Garcia. The Spanish star has still not won a major, but he has a ton of golf ahead of him yet.

Garcia took the co-lead after last year's opening round and just finished third in the Shell Houston Open. Rather quietly, he's sixth in the world rankings and attributes a better off-course life to his improved play, per Augusta.com's David Westin:

I think that when things off the golf course are going well and everything, it’s calm and where I want it to be, more or less. It’s obviously easier to go on the course and think about what you want to do on the course. Obviously, if you’re struggling a little bit outside, there’s a lot more things going in your head.

Improvement with the putter in recent years has helped make up for some slippage from tee to green. If he can put it all together for most of 72 holes, there's reason to believe Garcia can don the green jacket.

 

1. Dustin Johnson

Scott Halleran/Getty Images

A lower launch angle and the immense power generated by his unique athleticism make Johnson a dangerous force at Augusta. Now that he's improved his putting (11th on tour in strokes gained), there's reason to believe he is in line for his first major win.

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Johnson has won at least once every season since 2008, and after being well out of contention at the Masters in the past, he had by far his best finish in tying for 12th last year.

Similar to how Bubba Watson used power to his advantage in 2012, this could be a case of Johnson hammering his way around the pristine grounds and running away with the tournament in the beginning. But since it's the Masters, the pressure of holding on around Amen Corner on Sunday should set up plenty of drama.

As of now, though, Johnson is in line to become the next legitimate superstar with a victory. His game seems to match up better with the Open Championship, but he's playing arguably the best golf of his career right now—last week's withdrawal at the Shell Houston Open aside.

Golf Channel's Jason Sobel reported what Johnson's agent had to say, implying it was a precautionary measure more than anything:

A trend of Masters champions in recent years has consisted of stars attempting to confirm their status among golf's elite. It takes an extraordinary effort just to get into this field, but the latest green-jacket bearers are continuing to thrive.

The finishes have also been incredible. Playoffs have determined the outcome the past two times, so perhaps a virtuoso is due to run away with the title. Chances are, though, in lieu of an intimidating presence such as Woods, this one will come down to the wire yet again.

That will make the roars at Augusta National just as loud and the kickoff to golf's major season just as exciting in the heat of the moment as it'd be if Woods were there all along.

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