Without a doubt, The Masters is a tournament unlike any other. From the club's many valued "patrons" to the presence of the "first cut" around fairways—as opposed to the standard "rough" of most other golf courses—Augusta National has long hosted a golf spectacle that ranks as a must-watch event for every sports fan.
This year, however, arguably the stakes are even higher. With Tiger Woods returning to action after his highly-publicised troubles of recent months, the 2010 Masters promises to be the most watched since the same player emerged on the world stage as a fresh-faced 21-year-old in 1997.
The intrigue and expectation surrounding the 14-time Major champion is palpable, but in the end their is still a tournament for one of the 96-strong field to win.
With that in mind, here are five favorites to wear the famous Green Jacket in the tournament's 74th iteration:
World ranking: 1st
Major Titles: 14 (inc. Masters 1997, 2001, 2002, 2005)
Last five Masters finishes: T6 (2009), 2, T2, T3, 1.
Last tournament result: 1st, JB Were Masters, Australia, Nov. ‘09.
In the end, whatever happens, the 2010 Masters will be remembered for Tiger Woods.
How he fares will be analysed and dissected for weeks, and depending on circumstances most likely remembered for years. If Woods wins, it will be as dramatic a story as his first triumph on Augusta’s turf 13 years ago.
If he misses the cut, it’ll lead to hours of doom-mongering about the player long considered the greatest of all time.
Either outcome seems equally probable, and the watching world seems almost split on whether the 34-year-old can grab his 15th major title in the most testing circumstances of all.
The case against him: He hasn’t played competitively for almost six months (and for a few months of that he reportedly didn’t even practice).
Other top players are in fantastic form. His playing partners at the start of this week have almost universally described the state of his game as “good, not great”—hardly a glowing endorsement—and the attention on him from all angles is bound to weigh on him eventually.
The case for him: You don’t forget how to win—certainly not after 97 worldwide victories—and his recent schedule has meant he has been able to make more practice trips to Augusta than ever before.
He’s going to tee it up on the first with more freedom than he’s felt in a long while, not to mention the support of the vast majority of the gallery. And, he’ll be competing in a tournament where he's done consistently well for the best part of 15 years.
Perhaps most importantly of all, unless he’s had his personality modified in rehab the Tiger of old would never enter a tournament unless he genuinely believed he could win it.
With Tiger’s track record, it’s difficult to rule him out. But with recent events thrown into the mix, it’s hard to fathom how anyone could come through all that and still win one of the biggest tournaments of the year.
But if anyone can do it, Tiger can.
World ranking: 3rd
Major Titles: 3 (inc. Masters 2004, 2006)
Last five Masters finishes: 5, T5, T24, 1, 10.
Last tournament result: T35, Shell Houston Open, April ‘10.
The long-time No. 2 in world golf, at least among fans, Mickelson could be perfectly primed to take advantage of Woods’ current predicament to add a third Green Jacket to his collection.
The American’s recent results hardly inspires confidence (a top 10 at Pebble Beach is the best he has managed this year), but he showed glimpses of some form last week in Houston.
Moreover, he seems to relish the Georgia surroundings, the setting for his long-awaited Major breakthrough in 2004.
"There's something that relaxes me about this golf course because I don't feel like I have to be perfect," Mickelson said this week.
"I don't feel like I have to strike it great. As long as I can control my misses and put it where I can get up and down, I can let my short game save me strokes here and there.”
And that is perhaps why Mickelson is such a strong favourite this week.
He has the best short game in the field, and having worked with Butch Harmon in recent weeks is making confident noises about his consistency with the driver. On a course that demands precision in both departments, considering that and his memory of winning twice on the back nine on Sunday, it wouldn't be a surprise if the 39-year-old is in the hunt come the tournament’s conclusion.
World ranking: 8
Major Titles: 3 (best Masters finish: 2nd, 2000, 2004)
Last five Masters finishes: MC, MC, MC, T27, 47.
Last tournament result: T44, Shell Houston Open, April ’10.
The 40-year-old’s recent record at Augusta might hardly be that of a likely winner, but in truth over the past few years "The Big Easy" has looked a shadow of his former self. His record of three straight missed cuts at the tournament has to end sometime.
This year, however, the South African looks like getting back to the sort of form that saw him denied a Green Jacket by the brilliance of Vijay Singh and Mickelson, in 2000 and 2004 respectively.
Els has the length and iron play to cope with Augusta’s particular tests, not to mention the technically smooth swing, but he also has the demeanour to cope with the inevitable bad breaks that will come every player’s way at some point in the tournament.
He may struggle if the tournament comes down to a back nine shootout—his competitive mentality is questionable. If, however, he gets off to a solid start there is no reason why the two-time US Open champion cannot rediscover the sort of scores that saw him post five successive top six finishes in the tournament from the start of the decade.
World ranking: 4
Major Titles: 0 (best finish: 3rd, 09 USPGA, 09 Open Championship, 08 US Open)
Last five Masters finishes: 43, T11, T30, MC, MC.
Last tournament result: T8, Shell Houston Open, April ’10.
There is a case to suggest the 36-year-old is the best player in the world right now, having performed on a consistently high basis for over a year.
He finished top of the European Tour money list last season, winning twice in the year (although the ’09 Dubai Classic is considered part of the 2010 tour schedule). More importantly, he is coming off the back of T3 finishes in the last two major championships—showing his pedigree on the biggest stage in coming agonisingly close to that first Major title.
At his age the Nottinghamshire native should be entering the prime of his career—recent results suggest that is the case—and with his combination of pinpoint driving and exquisite ironplay, if Westwood’s putter gets hot for a sustained period across the tournament he could easily be entering the winner’s circle come Sunday evening.
World ranking: 10
Major Titles: 3 (best Masters finish: T5, ‘02, ‘08)
Last five Masters finishes: T35, T5, T7, T27, MC.
Last tournament result: T40 Shell Houston Open, April ’10.
The Irishman went from nearly man to main man in little over a year, picking up three major titles in a whirlwind 18 months from the middle of 2008.
Two Open Championships and a USPGA title now sit proudly in his trophy cabinet—and there is no reason to suggest a Green Jacket could not yet be added to his matching wardrobe.
Harrington has a decent record around Augusta, with two top five finishes to his credit and strong performances in each of the last four years. More importantly he has form this season, with two top 10 finishes already in the bag from just seven tour appearances.
He is a grinder, one who has no particularly strong area of his game (he ranks 67th in driving distance this year, 166th in greens in regulation, but 15th in scoring average), but knows how to get the ball in the hole.
If he is in with a shout on Sunday, chances are he will wear his opponent out with his refusal to give up and his ability to get up-and-down whenever the situation demands it.
One of the best big-game hunters in the modern game, it’s a safe assumption that Harrington will be in or around the action come the weekend.
The defending champion
World ranking: 31
Major Titles: 2
Last five Masters finishes: 1, T25, T37, T8, MC.
Last tournament result: T73, Shell Houston Open, April ’10.
A prodigious hitter, Cabrera used his power off the tee and under-appreciated short game to pull a memorable victory out of the bag in last season’s event. Still with those same qualities to his game, unfortunately it seems unlikely the Argentine will be back at the top of the leaderboard this time.
Cabrera isn’t exactly tearing it up on tour this season, with a variety of underwhelming, cut-scraping performances hardly suggesting he is about to launch a successful defence of the title he won impressively last year.
The man affectionately known as "El Pato’"("The Duck") defended his ’08 US Open victory rather ignominiously with a missed cut, and although this time he is returning to the site of his initial victory, it seems a fair bet that blood sausage (his reported choice this week) will not be on the menu for the Champions' Dinner again.
And as a bonus…
A few outside bets to grab their maiden major title:
Dustin Johnson: Has a lot of admirers in the media, and is tipped for Major success in the near future. Fourth in the FedEx Cup race after a winning start to the year, form suggests he could feature.
Martin Kaymer: The young German has excelled at every level as he has made his way to the PGA Tour. With an unshakable demeanour, he has the temperament to cope with Augusta and is likely to challenge at a major sooner rather than later.
Oliver Wilson: The Englishman showed his ability with three solid Major finishes after missing the cut in his first Masters. Reminds many of Nick Faldo—who won three times around Augusta.
Tim Clark: The short-hitting South African is an expert at punching above his weight. If the weather stays nice all week (as it is expected to) his consistency could see him in the mix.