This is the last in my five-part series of articles leading up to the year's first, and my favorite, major, The Masters Tournament.
Held at the beautiful Augusta National Golf Club in Augusta, GA, the Masters is unique amongst the major championships in that it is held at the same course every year and it technically is not the championship of anything.
When you win the U.S. Open or the Open Championship, you have won the championship of an entire nation. When you win the PGA Championship, you are the champion of the Professional Golfers' Association.
When you win the Masters, you are not the champion of anything except the Masters. Augusta National has its own club championship and most of the field of the Masters is not invited to play in that.
Still, it is a considered one of the four most important tournaments there is, and heaven knows, there are legions of golf players and fans who would love just one chance to slip that green jacket on as champion of the Masters.
Who will get that chance this year?
Will it be some young gun with all the length in the world, a silky putting touch, and just enough naivety to think he can win it? Will it be a wily veteran who has been making his bones for a few years and finally has everything going just the way he likes?
Will it be a first-time major winner like Dustin Johnson, Bubba Watson or Justin Rose would be? Will it be a guy who has won one major and is looking to solidify his mark on Tour as a multiple major champion like Jim Furyk, Martin Kaymer or Trevor Immelman? Or will it be a guy who has already reserved his place in the Hall of Fame and just wants to add to his legacy like Tiger Woods or Phil Mickelson?
We'll find out April 7-10, but here are some things it takes to win and my guess who will be this year's Masters champion.
Note: All stats are from pgatour.com and are valid through the Transitions Championship.
Getting the ball in the hole is what the game is all about and putting well is the easiest way to do that.
Augusta National is known for its rolling terrain, and that includes the greens. The greens are massive and are sloped with humps and hollows that defy description. Plus, they are always really, really fast.
Kevin Na is leading the Tour in putts per round with 27.36. Behind him are Brad Faxon, Ricky Fowler, Nick Watney and Jimmy Walker (DY-NO-MITE! I couldn't resist that. If you don't get it, Google it)
Faxon and Walker have not qualified for this year's event, so you can eliminate them.
Other men high up on the list for putting are Steve Stricker, who has come close to winning a couple of majors; Zach Johnson, who won the 2007 Masters; three-time major champion Padraig Harrington; and Matt Kuchar, who was low amateur in this event in 1998 and is playing very well right now.
On the European Tour, Robert Karlsson and Charl Schwartzel are in the lead for putting (of the men who have qualified for the Masters). Given the strong European showing on Tour recently, it would be folly to omit the fine players from the other side of the pond.
As previously noted, the greens at Augusta are massive and hilly. That means that not only hitting them, but hitting them in the right places is imperative.
Even people who have never set foot on Augusta can tell you where you can't miss on these greens. For example, you cannot be on the right side of the 10th green; you cannot be on the back of the 13th, especially on Sunday; and you cannot be on the right side of 16 on Sunday.
So who are our hot iron players right now? Who is getting the ball close to the hole? Those are the guys with a good chance to win the Masters.
Joe Affrunti is leading the Tour in proximity to the hole with an average of 30 feet. As he has not qualified for this year's Masters, we can eliminate him.
Of the men who have qualified, Davis Love III is leading with an average distance from the hole of 31'8". Behind him are David Toms, Heath Slocum and Alex Cejka. Toms is a major champion, while Slocum and Cejka are journeyman pros.
In Europe, Francesco Molinari is leading the Euro Tour in Greens in Regulation, while Rory McIlroy is near the top of that list, too. If you check the Euro Tour's "One Putts" stat (which is the number of one-putt greens per round, a good indicator of how close to the hole you are hitting the ball), you will find Retief Goosen, a two-time major winner, and the aforementioned McIlroy.
There isn't really any rough at Augusta; certainly not like we see at the U.S. Open. There is still plenty of trouble to get into, however.
There are bunkers on 17 of the 18 holes, water in play on five of the holes on the back nine, and of course, the trees that frame every hole.
Any player will tell you (with the possible exception of Mickelson) that shots from the fairway are much easier than from sand or the middle of a forest, so the guy who is going to win the Masters has to be able to get his rock around the course without getting into too much trouble.
Thankfully, the Tour has a stat that tells us how a player is doing in relation to other players when it comes to hitting fairways and greens. It is called Ball Striking. Your Ball Striking value is a combination of your ranks in the Total Driving and Greens in Regulation stats.
The leader on Tour this year in Ball Striking is Boo Weekley with a score of 10 (lower is better, just like your golf score). Unfortunately, the popular Weekley has not qualified. Let's look at guys who will be in the field.
Bubba Watson is number two on the list with a Ball Striking value of 13. We also see Adam Scott, Bill Haas, and Paul Casey in the top ten. U.S. Open champion Graeme McDowell is 17th. Nick Watney is tied 22nd and has won on Tour this year.
Francesco Molinari is leading the European Tour in fairways hit, and he is the only one on in the top 20 on that list who has qualified.
Again, in greens in regulation on the Euro Tour, we find Molinari and McIlroy.
Because Augusta does not have rough like we see on other courses, and it has been lengthened dramatically over the last decade and a half, it has become a place where the guy who can hit it long has an decided advantage.
Naturally, you can't spray it all over the course and expect to make pars and birdies from the pines, but if you can get it out there more than 300 yards and in the fairway consistently, it will leave you shorter clubs into the tricky greens on the par-4 holes, and the chance to make eagles on the par-5s.
A check of the PGA Tour driving distance leaders gives us a couple of long, long hitters. Dustin Johnson is the leader on Tour in driving distance on all drives. Behind him are Bubba Watson, Angel Cabrera, and Martin Laird. Phil Mickelson is on that list in ninth place.
Johnson is starting to make his mark on Tour. He hasn't won this year yet, but has three top-10 finishes in eight events played, including a runner-up finish at the WGC Cadillac Championship. He felt the heat of major competition last year when he was eliminated on the first playoff hole in the PGA Championship at Whistling Straights.
Watson is playing some good golf this year and has wins in each of the last two years. He was also in the playoff at the PGA last year.
Cabrera won the Masters in 2009, and Laird is coming off a come from behind victory two weeks ago at the Arnold Palmer Invitational.
Of the men who have qualified from the European Tour, Robert Karlsson is at the top of this category. If he played the U.S. PGA Tour, he would be fourth on the driving distance list. Not bad.
A quick look at all four of the modern majors reveals that the Masters is the hardest to win as your first major. Of the men who have won more than one major, only eight of them have won the Masters as their first. 13 men have won the U.S. Open as their first major, while nine men have won the Open Championship, and nine have won the PGA.
Of the men who have won a single major, the Masters is the one that is least often represented. 13 players have won the Masters as their only major victory. 18 men have won the U.S. Open as well as the Open Championship as their only major. The PGA, however, has had a whopping 28 men who have won it as their only major win. (Note: all of these numbers are in the last 50 years)
That having been said, this trend might be reversing itself in recent years. Going back to Tiger's historic win in 1997, five men have won the Masters as their first (or only) major. Three of those five have been since Mickelson's win in 2004. It would seem the law of averages is catching up with the Masters.
16 men have won the Masters more than once. Of the 74 playings of the event, those 16 men won 45 times. That's 60.8 percent of the tournaments won by those 16 men. In the same time frame (since 1934), the U.S. Open has had 15 men win 36 of 73 playings (49.3), the Open Championship has had 13 men win 40 of 71 playings (56.3), and the PGA has had 14 win 34 of 76 (44.7).
So, what does all this mean? It means, if you win the Masters, you are more likely to win more than one major, and if you win any major you are more likely to win the Masters as well.
This gives us players like Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson, each of whom have won the Masters multiple times.
It gives us Angel Cabrera, Zach Johnson, and Trevor Immelman, each of whom have won the Masters in the last four years.
But it also gives us guys like recent major winners Graeme McDowell, Lucas Glover and Stewart Cink.
It is exceedingly difficult to win the Masters if you are not from the USA.
Of the 74 playings of the event, 56 (75.7 percent) have been won by American players. The U.S. Open has been won by Americans 72.7 percent of the time, and the Open Championship 30.2 percent. Only the PGA has been won by Americans more often. Americans have won the PGA 85.7 percent of the time.
Spain and South Africa are the next best represented nations with four wins each.
Nick Faldo's three are total for England.
Bernhard Langer has won it twice for Germany, and five other nations have one win each.
The last time a player from Europe won was 1999 when Jose Maria Olazabal won his second Masters.
In short, Americans historically have a 3-1 advantage entering the Masters than players from other countries.
Of course, with the sudden resurgence of European players, and the depth of talent from around the world, this stat could be going by the wayside. 11 of the past 20 major champions have been from somewhere other than USA, including the winners of the last three majors.
So, who are we looking for to win the Masters this year?
Well, we are looking for someone who has won another major before, preferably the Masters.
We are looking for a player who can hit it long, but straight; who can find the greens and get close to the hole.
Naturally, we are looking for a guy who can putt.
And it would be very helpful if the guy was an American.
Let's see who we can come up with.
You can call this a dark-horse pick if you like, but Martin Laird, who won the Arnold Palmer Invitational two weeks ago, is playing some tidy golf right now.
The numbers say he going to be in contention at the Masters despite having never won a major and the misfortune of not being born in the USA.
Of the major statistical categories, Laird is in the top 20 in all but greens in regulation, where he ranks 51st on tour this year. He is still hitting greens two-thirds of the time, which is not bad. And as long as he misses the greens at Augusta in the right places (i.e., not in Rae's Creek) he could find himself near the top of the leaderboard.
In eight events played this year on Tour, Laird has finished in the top 25 six times, including his come-from-behind win at the King's tournament two weeks ago. That win was the second of his PGA Tour career.
I like the defending U.S. Open Champion to make a good run at his second major in the last year.
He has three top-10 finishes on Tour this year. He has good length off the tee (286.8 yards) and really good accuracy (17th on Tour in driving accuracy).
He could hit a few more greens in regulation, averaging a shade over 66 percent, but still gets it up and down from off the green more than 60 percent of the time. He is seventh on Tour in sand saves, so if he does find the beach, he knows what to do.
He doesn't putt as well as some others on this countdown, but he plays better tee-to-green than others.
One of the big things he has going for him is that he has won a major. Once you win your first, as many players have attested, it is easier to win the second. I'm not saying the rest of the field is going to hand the tournament to him on a silver platter while kow-towing and chanting, "We're not worthy." I'm just saying winning one makes it easier to win another.
Playing well going in and experience go a long way at the Masters.
I have been critical of Woods in my recent articles, suggesting that the end of Woods' dominance is near.
I will not back down from that opinion, but it is hard not to like a guy who has won the tournament four times and holds all of the major records for this tournament.
Woods' game is a hot mess right now and I doubt the week off between his less than spectacular finish at Arnold's tournament and this week will have made a difference.
There are a few things in his favor, though:
One, Tiger loves this course and knows how to play it.
Two, Tiger lives for the majors and because he has won so many, he knows that two-thirds of the field will eliminate themselves just because it is a major.
Three, he would love nothing more than to end his winless drought with a fifth Green Jacket. To have that Jacket placed on his shoulders by Phil Mickelson would be the icing on that cake. It is well known that the two men are not the best of friends.
In all honesty, I don't think he will win, but it is hard to not put him on this list.
After all, he is still the most dominant player of this generation, and there is no arguing that.
Like Laird, Nick Watney has not won a major, and as I have already shown, the Masters is usually not the place to try to win your first.
As I have also already noted, however, this trend seems to be reversing itself.
Watney has the length for Augusta, hitting the ball an average of 296 yards off the tee (16th on Tour), but he does tend to spray it around a little. He is 128th on Tour in Driving Accuracy. The good thing is you can still play August from the "rough." As long as he keeps the ball on grass and not on pine straw or sand (or in water), he will be able to get his ball around the course.
He hits a little more than 69 percent of greens in regulation and is 21st on Tour in Proximity to the Hole, a stat that measures how close to the hole the player hits his ball on greens in regulation.
Where Watney really shines is with the putter in his hands. He is second on Tour in Putting Average, and leads the Tour in both Birdie Average and Scoring Average.
In short, this guy can roll his rock, and that is always a good thing at Augusta.
Additionally, he is the leader on Tour in their stat called All-Around Ranking. All-Around measures the sum of all your rankings in the other major statistical categories on Tour. If you are leading in All-Around, you are playing golf better than anyone else, at least right now.
I look for Watney to make a serious run at slipping on the Green Jacket for the first time.
How do you not put the defending champion on this list?
Phil has the game for this course, as his has proven in three of the last seven playings of the Masters. In fact, if you go back to 2000, Phil has finished out of the top-10 at the Masters once. That is very, very strong.
Phil has some negatives right now. He is 40-years old. He is suffering from arthritis. And the Masters will be his third tournament in a row.
I'm not saying playing golf is as physically demanding as the Tour de France, but Augusta is a very hilly course. I'm just thinking that fatigue could be a factor for Phil.
On top of all that, it is notoriously hard to defend a major championship title, especially the Masters. Only three men have ever successfully defended their Masters crown. The last was Woods in 2002.
On the positive side, Phil always well here, as noted above. He won the tournament last year despite not playing his best golf going into the tournament. He can play any shot from anywhere, and is not afraid to do so. And if his putter gets hot, there is absolutely no one on earth who can make birdies at the rate that he can.
Coming off a great win in Houston, where he shot a course-record 63 in the third round, he has to be a favorite to win this week?