2011 Augusta Masters: The European Charge on America's Crown Jewel
There is undoubtedly a number of American golfers for whom a Masters win would not be a surprise: Tiger Woods, Phil Mickelson and Matt Kuchar to name but three. However, it would be foolish to write off Europe's finest after last year.
Back in January 2010, just one of the top five golfers in the world hailed from Europe. However, fast forward to April 2011 and four of these spots are occupied by Europeans. This, coupled with an impressive Ryder Cup win in October, completed a truly remarkable year for the Brits and the Continentals.
So, will the Green Jacket find itself on a transatlantic flight come Monday the 11th?
The perennial "nearly-man" of golf, Lee Westwood has twice been a runner-up and twice placed third in major competition. Will the former world No. 1 break his duck at Augusta?
Westwood was desperately unlucky last time due to an inspired performance from Phil Mickelson—the only thing denying Westwood a Green Jacket of his own. Mickelson's second shot on the Par-5 13th must be the stuff of recurring nightmares for the Englishman.
However, what doesn't kill you only makes you stronger, with Westwood himself saying, "After last year's experience, I would rank my chances a bit higher." His 2010 score of 13-under was certainly impressive. If he could replicate that this this time around, then he may stand a very real chance of a first major championship.
Martin Kaymer is a real dark horse, somewhat paradoxically with him being world No 1. This is due largely to his game not exactly complimenting the setup of Augusta National.
Kaymer's fade is not well suited to Augusta's dogleg left holes. Public statements that he has been working on his draw are all well and good, but it remains to be seen whether or not he has improved enough to mount a serious challenge.
Kaymer has failed to make the cut in three attempts, and he may well have to settle for playing the weekend and no more. He certainly has a bright future and could easily have a few Green Jackets in his wardrobe upon retirement. However, in all likelihood, this is a few years too soon for the talented German.
Rory McIlroy is a star in the making, and in my opinion, unlucky to lose the PGA Rookie of the Year to Rickie Fowler. His charge on Sunday for his record-breaking victory at Quail Hollow was nothing short of stunning. However, it remains to be seen whether or not he has the temperament for a major victory.
His collapse at the Dubai Desert Classic illustrates this, he is a player that struggles to close out the big tournaments. This is less than ideal for a Masters challenge, perhaps the most prestigious and pressure-packed tournament in the world.
He is, however, a player capable of the sublime. If he finds himself in good shape on Sunday morning, he may just charge up the leaderboard.
Paul Casey seems to have finally overcome the troublesome rib injury that has limited his playtime of late. This can only be good for golf. A talented putter and driver, Paul Casey stands a strong chance of delivering come next weekend.
Back with a bang with a win in the inaugural Volvo Golf Champions tournament in Bahrain, Casey carded a 20-under score that displayed fine form. Inconsistent in the past, he'll need to keep this up to stand a chance in the Masters.
My personal tip: If he doesn't win, he stands a great chance of being the leading European.
Graeme McDowell epitomized the upturn in European fortunes last year. As if securing the US Open title at Pebble Beach wasn't enough, "GMac" was an integral part of the victorious European Ryder Cup team. Climbing to a career high of fourth in the Official World Golf Rankings, 2010 will live long in the memory of the Ulsterman.
2011 saw a change to Srixon irons and Cleveland wedges. While this had no tangible effect on his form, he has struggled with his long game of late.
There's plenty of work to be done if McDowell is to win the Masters; nevertheless, it would be foolish to write him off.
My wild card pick for the Masters is a particularly wild one: Sergio Garcia. The golfer, revitalised by the European Ryder Cup victory, has returned to the course with impressive results. Finishing in the top 10 at the Arnold Palmer Invitational was particularly notable, proving his credentials from the tee and the fairway.
Putting has always been Sergio's folly, and until he sorts this out, he will never hit the highs his abilities warrant. If he plays to his strengths, then, perhaps with a bit of luck, he could have a decent tournament and restore his place as a great golfer.
Martin Laird has presided over an impressive start to the 2011 season, often finding himself in contention on top of his unexpected victory at the Arnold Palmer Invitational. The new world No. 21 could prove to play a Graeme McDowell-esque role this season if he keeps his composure.
Unlikely to make much progress at Augusta (if truth be told), but he certainly is one to watch out for.