The 2011 Masters: Early Favorites

Michael FitzpatrickFeatured ColumnistMarch 22, 2011

The 2011 Masters: Early Favorites

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    During the first quarter of the golf season, it's all about one tournament and one tournament only: The Masters.

    Everything players do during the first three months of the season is done with an eye on Augusta.

    How much golf do they want to play before Augusta? 

    How will they create a schedule that will give them the best chance to peak for The Masters?

    How will they use the Florida swing to prepare for The Masters?

    Yes, it's all about azaleas, green grass, white sand and Raes Creek.

    We're still two weeks away from the first major championship of the 2011 season, but it's never to early to start looking at the favorites.

Paul Casey

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    Although Paul Casey missed the cut last year at Augusta, he has finished within the top-20 at each of the previous three Masters and tied for sixth back in 2004.

    Casey is finally healthy and has already notched one victory earlier this year at the European Tour’s Volvo Golf Champions in Bahrain.

    Casey was number one on the PGA Tour in putting from five feet in 2010, which should bode well for Augusta’s tricky green complexes that inevitably require Master’s champions to sink more than a few five foot par putts throughout the week.

    Casey is streaky if nothing else. 

    If he’s able to remain within striking distance heading into Sunday, he’s the type of player that could shoot right up the leaderboard and slip into a green jacket.

Matt Kuchar

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    This man has been on fire for more than a year now, and you’ve got to think he truly believes he’s capable of slipping into one of those iconic yet fashionably hideous green jackets that define golfing success at its highest level.

    Kuchar tied for 25th last year at Augusta, and if you can remember way back to 1998, you may remember a young, wiry looking amateur making headlines with a 21st place finish at Augusta – that amateur was Kuchar.

    Kuchar has the consistency and the short-game to tame any course, so why not Augusta?

    Kuchar’s go to shot is the high draw…hmm, has anyone every won the Masters while playing a high draw?

Ryan Moore

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    Moore may only have one PGA Tour win to his name, but the guy loves the game’s history which is why it’s no surprise that he happens to play well every time he steps foot onto Augusta National’s storied fairways.

    Moore tied for 13th at the 2005 Masters as an Amateur, and didn’t qualify for the event again until last year where he tied for 14th after a Sunday afternoon hole-in-one on the par-three 16th.

    Moore may be a long shot, but he’s been playing much better golf over the past few years, and he always seems to play well at Augusta.

    Call it a hunch.

Phil Mickelson

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    Phil Mickelson has not played well so far in 2011.

    Well, who cares?

    The man was in the midst of what many were describing as a slump heading into last year’s Masters and he wound up winning the event by three strokes.

    No one has owned Augusta National like Mickelson has over the past seven years.  The guy could not touch a golf club for six months, wake up one morning and finish within the top-five at Augusta.

    In fact, Lefty’s finished outside the top-five at the Masters just three times since 1999 and outside of the top-10 only three times since 1995.

    There’s something about the history and tradition of the event that just gets Mickelson’s competitive juices flowing from the second he turns down Magnolia Lane.  

    It would come as no surprise to anyone if Mickelson were to slip into a fourth green jacket this April.

Nick Watney

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    Is he ready?

    That’s the big question surrounding Watney when it comes to winning the Masters.

    Sure, he’s a top-10 machine and has now won two significant PGA Tour events, but the Masters is a whole other can of worms.

    Watney is certainly long enough to decimate Augusta, and he seems to finally have the short-game and putter to navigate Augusta’s tricky green complexes.

    But is he truly ready to move from a top-10 machine into the category of Master’s Champion?

    Watney finished seventh at last year’s Masters and hasn’t finished outside the top-20 since he first showed up at Augusta in 2008.

    But is he truly ready for something like this?

    We shall see.

Y.E. Yang

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    Here are two words for you: Angel Cabrera.

    No one ever believed that Cabrera would win another major after his shocking victory at the 2007 U.S. Open over Tiger Woods.  But he did.

    Cabrera demonstrated that if you have the stomach and nerve to win one major, it’s quite possible to do it again.

    Most people look at players such as Y.E. Yang, Ben Curtis, Todd Hamilton, Shaun Micheel, etc. as one-hit wonders.  Although these players were considerable underdogs when they won their major titles, they still had to hold it together on the weekend at a major championship and particularly coming down the stretch on Sunday afternoon. That is no easy task, and is a form of pressure that has gotten the best of many of the game’s greatest players.

    Ben Hogan blew major championships.

    Jack Nicklaus let majors slip away.

    Sam Snead blew more U.S. Opens than he’d care to remember.

    Arnold Palmer let a seven stroke lead slip away on the back-nine at the 1966 U.S. Open.

    And as we all know, Woods finally failed to close out a 54-hole lead at a major back in 2009, and Y.E. Yang was the man who took it from him.

    Yang has consistently demonstrated an ability to execute the big shots when he needs them most.

    He did it against Woods at the 2009 PGA Championship and he most recently mounted a Sunday charge at the Honda Classic that very nearly caught Rory Sabbatini despite Sabbatini’s five-stroke lead at the start of the round.

    We know Yang has the stomach to get the job done.  He’s also playing some great golf right now, and he tied for 8th at last year’s Masters.

    Can Yang be the next Cabrera?

    Why not?

Tiger Woods

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    Forget about the golf swing, forget about Sean Foley and forget about his “lost aura”, Woods simply knows how to play Augusta National.

    Woods won his first Masters back in 1997 at the age of 21 and hasn’t finished outside the top-10 at Augusta since 2004.

    For Woods, it all comes down to the putter.  Augusta National can be played from the tree lines, as Mickelson clearly demonstrated last year.  But Augusta National cannot be played with a cold putter.

    The only reason why Woods has not won at least three out of the last four Masters was due to his inability to sink anything on the greens.

    Plain and simple, if Woods gets the ball rolling well on Augusta’s diabolical green complexes, he could  very well win the 2011 Masters…”lost aura” and all.

Luke Donald

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    Luke Donald does not have the game right now to win the U.S. Open, the Open Championship or the PGA Championship.

    Why?

    Because he’s short and crooked off the tee.

    However, at Augusta where players are able play from the tree line and a premium is placed in precise iron shots, a fantastic short game and a solid putter, Donald ticks all the right boxes.

    Donald is arguably the best player in the game right now after he steps off the tee box.

    His driving ability is horrendous.  Last year Donald ranked 177th on tour in driving distance and 120th in driving accuracy.  So far in 2011 he ranks 177th in distance in 103rdin accuracy.

    But he currently ranks 7th on tour in total putting and 8th in scrambling.

    If Donald can just keep the ball in play at Augusta and get his irons going along with a hot putter, the Masters is a major he can win…and perhaps the only major he can win.

Notably Left off

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    Well, now we get to the pre-emptive section of the slide show.

    Before your arms raise into the air and you feverishly begin typing into the comments section asking how I could have possibly left off players such as Lee Westwood, Matin Kaymer and Dustin Johnson, here's the reasons why.

Martin Kaymer

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    In short, Augusta National does not suite Kaymer’s game at the moment.

    Kaymer likes to fade the ball and Augusta calls for a right hander to hit many difficult high draws during the course of a round.

    Kaymer has made it clear that he’s been working on an “Augusta draw”, but it’s difficult to believe that a life-long fader of the ball will have completely mastered a high draw in time for the second week in April.

Rory McIlory

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    At this very moment, the kid doesn’t have what it takes to win a major, particularly the most pressure-packed major on the planet.

    That’s not to say that McIlroy won’t win majors during his career, because I believe he will.  He’s just not ready yet.

    McIlroy has consistently demonstrated an inability to get the job done at big events when either holding the lead or near the lead.

    McIlory very nearly let his first win at Dubai slip away on the back-nine in 2009 with three bogeys in a row on 15, 16 and 17 and had to sink a six-footer on 18 to avoid a fourth straight bogey which would have put him in a tie for the lead.

    McIlroy’s win at Quail Hollow last year came amidst a flurry of birdies down the stretch.  This was a far less pressure packed situation because McIlroy was far enough back at the start of the day that no one expected him to win.  If he came up a shot or two short, no big deal, he gave it a good run.

    Most recently, McIlroy completely lost his game while holding the 36-hole lead at the 2011 Dubai Desert Classic.  McIlroy played flawless golf for two days, but virtually every aspect of his game disappeared when the heat was on Saturday and Sunday.

    McIlroy will more than likely win majors.  He’s too talented not to.  But he’s just not ready to win one right now.

Lee Westwood

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    Plain and simple, Westwood has not yet demonstrated that he has what it takes to reach out and grab a major championship with both hands.

    He’s been in contention on Sunday at numerous majors over the past few years and just couldn’t get it done.

    Westwood hasn’t really done anything I’d describe as “chocking” at a major, but he just doesn’t do quite enough on Sunday to win.  He has not shown that he possesses that killer instinct necessary to go out and take it on the back-nine on Sunday, which is more or less the only way to win at Augusta.

    Westwood may win a major at some point, but it will more than likely be the U.S. Open, the Open Championship or the PGA Championship due to his strong driver and ability not to post big numbers when par might be enough to win.

    In essence, Westwood’s first major will probably come as a result of him not making mistakes rather than him going out and shooting a 30 on the back-nine on Sunday to snatch a major.   

Dustin Johnson

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    For Dustin Johnson, it all comes down to the short-game and the putter, which is just not yet strong enough to win at Augusta.

    Johnson is plenty long enough to tear apart Augusta National.  But as important as length has become at Augusta, you simply cannot win the Masters with a balky putter and inconsistent short-game.  It’s just not that type of golf course.

    Although Johnson has improved his short-game and putting over the past year or so, these aspects of his game are not quite strong enough yet tame Augusta’s tricky, lightning fast green complexes.

    Johnson may very well contend at the 2011 Masters, but my best guess is that he will not be slipping into a green jacket for at least another couple of years.

    For more PGA Tour news, insight and analysis, as well as continued Masters coverage leading up to and through the event, check out The Tour Report.