2014 Masters Predictions: Last-Minute Picks and Projections

Lyle Fitzsimmons@@fitzbitzFeatured ColumnistApril 9, 2014

2014 Masters Predictions: Last-Minute Picks and Projections

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    Here’s a question.

    What is both “a tradition unlike any other” and quite possibly the only reason most sports fans are even aware that Augusta, Ga.—a city of 200,000 on the state’s border with South Carolina—exists?

    Answer: The Masters.

    The tournament that gets aficionados feeling reverential and renders on-air talent at CBS unable to speak above a whisper gets going for the 78th time on Thursday at Augusta National Golf Club. There, 97 players will tee off with an aim to have Adam Scott fit them with a green jacket on Sunday.

    Scott became the first Australian to win the tournament last year with a two-hole playoff defeat of ex-champ Angel Cabrera. His quest for a repeat will be one of the top storylines in the injury-prompted absence of the world’s top-ranked player, Tiger Woods.

    Woods will miss out for the first time in his career thanks to a back injury. That should delay chatter about his prospects for breaking Jack Nicklaus’ record for major championship victories until he presumably returns for the U.S. Open from June 12-15 in Pinehurst, N.C.

    Fortunately for the rest of us, plenty of storylines still exist in the interim…and it’s our job here to rattle off a couple of them on the day of play, as well as to venture a guess as to who’ll be accompanying Scott and a quiet-as-a-church-mouse Jim Nantz in Butler Cabin come Sunday.

    Read on to see what we think.

Someone Will Say or Do Something Silly

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    Just when we were sure that a player would make an inappropriate remark or a caddy (Steve Williams, perhaps) would speak out of turn and make headlines, it seems the powers that be at Augusta National have already gone ahead and made an entry into the "Really?" category for 2014.

    A report by James Corrigan, golf correspondent for the UK-based Telegraph, says Matt Fitzpatrick's prospective caddy, Lorne Duncan, was barred from work at the last minute for having the temerity to—wait for it—wear sandals on the course.

    "I can't wear trainers [because of my condition]," Duncan said. "Apparently aesthetics are more important than people."

    No matter that Duncan claims the footwear choice is not the product of terminal laid-backness, he was still waylaid and Fitzpatrick was forced to scramble for a late replacement. Expect another silly occurrence before Sunday wraps up.

Weather Will Not Be a Factor

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    In typical years, neither snow, nor rain, nor heat, nor gloom of night stays these intrepid golfers from making their appointed rounds. And in the case of the 2014 Masters, neither will pleasant conditions with light winds and no precipitation in the forecast.

    Indeed, if the folks at Weather.com are to be taken at their word (and c'mon, why wouldn't they be), the results this weekend at Augusta National will be determined by the steel in the players' wills and not by the absorption factors of their gloves and grips.

    Forecast high temperatures range between 75 and 81 degrees for the four-day event, with zero chance of precipitation and wind speeds wafting between six and 12 miles per hour. So if it's weather-addled golf you're looking for, you may have to wait until July, when the scene shifts to England for the British Open. 

Somehow, Tiger Will Still Get Worked into the Conversation

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    He won't be playing for the first time in what seems like forever, but don't be surprised if CBS and friends nonetheless manage to work ol' Eldrick Woods into the course of their daily broadcasts.

    Whether it's through footage of his four victories at Augusta, mentions of the fact that he's still the No. 1 player in the World Golf Rankings or recaps of the rules snafu that occurred last year at No. 15 and was the fodder for an eight-page Sports Illustrated article in last week's print issue, he'll be around.

An Old Guy Will Be in the Mix

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    It happens nearly every year, it seems. A player with a winning history, but a recent past that's included more misses than hits, is a fixture on the leaderboard into the weekend. He wakes up the echoes, generates a sentimental highlight package and titillates the 40-something crowd into renewed fervor.

    Tom Watson's stirring run through 71 holes at the 2009 British Open, at age 59, is the standard-bearer for this generation's old guys. And no, we don't expect anyone beyond his 50th birthday to be a factor for anything more than the first hole or two in Augusta this time around.

    But in terms of 40-plus players who could come from off the pace for something beyond a photo op, we'll go with Jim Furyk. He's come as close as fourth at The Masters on two occasions, was second at the PGA Championship last year and would benefit if the weather indeed stays uneventful for four days.

Matt Fitzpatrick Will Be the Low Amateur

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    The pre-tournament kerfuffle over his caddy's choice of footwear notwithstanding, 19-year-old Matt Fitzpatrick comes to Augusta as the player most likely to generate "he's going to be a big-timer before too long" chatter from the Jim Nantzes and Nick Faldos of the world.

    The former Northwestern University player was the U.S. Amateur champion in 2013 and the low amateur at the British Open as well, which provides all the street cred he needs to walk into Augusta National this week with a chance to extend his run all the way through Sunday.

    Pencil him in somewhere around even par and five-over for the 72 holes.

Rory McIlroy Will Finish Second

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    He's a six-time winner on the PGA Tour and a two-time major champion, yet Northern Ireland's Rory McIlroy made as much news last year for what he didn't do as for anything he did.

    The now-24-year-old was tied for 25th at Augusta after a lot of pre-tournament hype in his direction in 2013, and he could benefit this year thanks to a little less hoopla coming in and a little more determination to work his way back to the top of the World Golf Rankings.

    It says here that he'll open well and stay near the lead for the first 54 holes, ultimately exchanging the lead a couple times over the final day before coming in a close second, a shot behind the eventual champion.

Henrik Stenson Will Put on the Green Jacket

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    The reigning champion of the "Best Player Who's Never Won a Major" crowd, 38-year-old Swede Henrik Stenson has never finished better than a tie for 17th at Augusta in 2007 and 2008 but has done pretty much everything else that's required to be a world elite.

    True, his eight starts thus far on the European and PGA tours this season have included nary a victory and only two top-10 finishes, but he's still third in the World Gold Rankings to enter this week. He can vault to No. 1 with a championship come Sunday afternoon.

    We say he'll make it happen in a stirring back-nine duel with fellow elite Rory McIlroy, taking a one-shot lead on the 17th hole and holding onto it with a par on 18 amid the flashbulbs and revelry.