The 2011 Masters: 5 Front-Runners and 5 Dark Horses in This Year's Field

Matt HunterCorrespondent IApril 4, 2011

The 2011 Masters: 5 Front-Runners and 5 Dark Horses in This Year's Field

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    The Masters starts this week at Augusta National in Georgia, and the year's first major is only a few days away.

    Last year's champion Phil Mickelson will try to defend his green jacket and the year's first major, against a star-studded field of the world's best golfers.

    The Masters is easily the most-heralded golf event of every golf season, with its rich history and the notable men's names who have won.

    This year's tournament had really not produced any single golfer from pulling away as a pre-tournament favorite like we all are use to when hearing the name Tiger Woods in years past.

    Is it easy to pick a definite golfer right now who will win this year? Not a chance, but I believe there are five golfers who will play very well at Augusta National and make up the front runners in this year's field.

    I will also give you five golfers who you may not believe have the best chance of winning, but could make a surprising run this week and find themselves in the final pairings come the weekend. You may just see these five golfers on the leaderboard come Sunday.

    These five favorites as well as five dark horses that I am going to list are not in any order; they are just five players that I believe are who have the best chance as well as the best chance to surprise golf fans come this weekend at Augusta National.

Dustin Johnson- Favorite

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    Johnson is entering his third Masters tournament, where his best finish was a tied for 30th in 2009.

    Johnson has proven himself in previous majors like last year's U.S. Open and PGA Championship, where he dwindled in the final round of each.

    This year, Johnson has played in eight events and finished in three top-10s so far.

    His best finish so far this season was at the WGC Cadillac Championship at Doral, where he finished second.

    Johnson is a very long hitter off the tee and averages 310 yards, which gives him the number three rank for that statistic.

    His length off the tee also has its drawbacks, as his driving accuracy is only at 54.9 percent and a bleak 162 ranking in that statistic.

    Johnson has what it takes to win a major, and Augusta National could deliver this young golfer's first major if he can control his driving accuracy, keep his composure, and not make mistakes that can be avoided.

Lee Westwood-Favorite

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    Lee Westwood found himself ranked as the number one golfer in the world on October 31st of 2010 after having an amazing season.

    Westwood ended as the runner-up in both the 2010 Masters and British Open.

    Westwood has the played in 11 Masters so far in his career, and tends to play well at Augusta.

    With a runner-up in two majors last year, Westwood knows how to play under the extreme pressures of a major championship.

    Look for Westwood to play at a steady pace this week, and be in striking distance come the weekend.

Hunter Mahan- Dark Horse

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    Everyone remembers Hunter Mahan's 2010 Ryder Cup, and his tearful post-tournament interviews.

    Mahan, however, is an extremely talented golfer, who plays a very level and steady game of golf.

    Mahan does not bomb the ball down off the tee, but he is accurate, and that is exactly what golfers need at Augusta.

    Hunter Mahan is a very good iron player who hits just under 70 percent of greens, which ranks him in the top 25 on the PGA tour.

    Mahan had his best finish at the Masters in 2010, finishing tied for eighth.

    He was also one of only five players in the 2010 field at Augusta to post under-par scores in all four rounds.

    If Hunter Mahan can play at his steady tee to green style and hit upwards of 75 to 80 percent of the greens, players and fans will be seeing his name close to the top of leaderboard this week.

Rory McIlroy- Dark Horse

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    Rory McIlroy is one of the young up-and-coming players on the European and PGA tours.

    McIlroy, who is only 21-years of age, has accomplished a lot for a young player.

    In 2010, he won his first PGA tour ever at the Quail Hollow Championship in Charlotte, North Carolina.

    In 2010, he scored a tie for third at the British Open, where he posted a record-tying round of 63, which he also posted at the PGA Championship.

    McIlory's youth could play into his hands very well at Augusta, where young players take chances when older more veteran golfers may lay up and take par.

    If McIlory can gamble at the right times and in the right situations, he could steal a few strokes on the field and work his way up the leaderboard.

Luke Donald- Favorite

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    Luke Donald is having a very good start to the 2011 golf season, scoring a victory already at the Accenture Match Play tournament earlier in the year.

    Donald has played in four events so far, and other than his one victory, he has achieved three top-10 finishes.

    Donald's best finish at the Masters came in 2005, where he finished tied for third.

    Donald is a very good scrambler, and at Augusta where a missed approach shot could land you in a lot of trouble, this ability to get up and down with great percentages could save Donald a lot of strokes, and keep him in contention for the green jacket.

Martin Kaymer- Favorite

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    Martin Kaymer is the current number one golfer in the world, an honor he took away from Lee Westwood with his second place finish at the Accenture Match Play Tournament this year.

    Kaymer won his first major at the 2010 PGA Championship, where he defeated Bubba Watson in a playoff.

    That major victory was the first for a German since fellow countrymen Bernard Langer.

    Kaymer has proven that he can compete on American soil and win.

    This will be Kaymer's fourth appearance at Augusta, where he has yet to make the cut.

    I do not think that his previous showings at the Masters should be looked at too closely, however.

    With his major win as well as his spectacular play both on the PGA and European tour, the current number one player should not be taken lightly.

    He did not earn the number one ranking by missing cuts. He can compete with the best and I feel he should be favored in this year's Masters field, and will contend through all four rounds.

Bubba Waston- Dark Horse

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    The lefty, (no not Phil) had a very strong 2010 season, where he scored his first PGA victory at the Travelers Championship, beating both Corey Pavin and Scott Verplank in a playoff.

    With another victory this year already at the Farmers Insurance Open, Bubba Watson has started off the 2011 campaign on the right foot.

    Last year, Bubba almost brought home the PGA Championship victory, but lost in a playoff to the current number one ranked player in the world Martin Kaymer.

    Watson hits the ball far off the tee, giving him the number-two ranking in the category. He also hits a lot of greens as well coming in at the second spot with 73.3 percent of greens hit in regulation.

    If he can continue his distance off the tee and keep hitting the greens, Augusta National may play right into his hands.

Graeme McDowell- Dark Horse

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    Graeme McDowell is this year's defending U.S. Open champion, and became the first European player to capture the championship since Tony Jacklin won the major in 1970.

    McDowell was also the European Ryder Cup player who defeated Hunter Mahan to win the Ryder Cup for the Europeans in 2010.

    McDowell so far this year has competed in five events, making four cuts and finishing in the top-10 three times.

    His best finish at the Masters came in 2009, where he finished tied for 17th.

    McDowell has a chance to surprise a lot of people this week if he can keep up his impressive stats for all four rounds.

    McDowell has the ability to play under a lot of pressure, which was witnessed as he captured a major and beat Hunter Mahan to clinch the Ryder Cup.

    Watch out for McDowell this week. If he can have a strong first two days and start the weekend off quickly, we all could see the Irishman make a run at his second major in as many years.

Phil Mickelson- Favorite

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    Phil Mickelson is the defending Masters Champion, and is coming off a rollercoaster 2010 season.

    With his mind on his wife and mother both being stricken with cancer, and also having to deal with bouts of arthritis, Mickelson seemed to be headed down a path where fans would see missed cut after missed cut.

    Mickelson, however, has started the 2011 season strong winning last weeks Shell Houston Open and placing second at the Farmers Insurance Open.

    Phil is primed to defend the green jacket that he won last year.

    Phil has always been the player that people have come to know as a risk taker, and it has come to help him solidify championships as well as lose them.

    In an interview on ESPN, Phil was asked about his risk-taking shots, and Phil responded that there is a time in every tournament when you have to take a chance to pull away from the field, and if you pull the shot out then you are more than likely going to win. He also expressed that if you do not, then you are going to lose. Phil then said that he was fine with the attempts that he has failed at and would not change his shot selection.

    This is what has made Phil a four-time champion, and probably the top favorite for the Masters this year.

    He is not afraid to take risks, and is fine if those risks do not pan out.

    It seems that Phil is back. With his game seemingly at its peak, other players in the field should be worried.

Tiger Woods- Dark Horse

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    Did you actually think that Tiger was not going to make into this list?

    No matter what people say about Tiger, or how they feel about him as a person, no one can deny that he is an exceptional golfer with so much talent.

    Tiger has had a rough "comeback," and we have witnessed some terrible rounds of golf.

    However, we also seen signs of what he is capable of doing on the golf course.

    When a major comes around, Tiger is in the zone. Whether he was playing 10 years ago when he was dominating the tour, or today, he is just as focused and determined to win.

    In the same interview session as Phil Mickelson's, Tiger was also questioned about his play.

    He was asked who he believes is the best golfer in the world today. His response.

    "If I get my swing back." Then he shrugged his shoulders and turned his head as if the interviewer should have known it was him.

    Some people would call his response cocky or arrogant. There may be some fact to that.

    I believe this is the Tiger that people, and other golfers had come to fear. A cocky Woods who knows he is the best, and that if he is anywhere near the top of the leaderboard come Sunday, he has a chance to win.

    Tiger will come to Augusta this week and will be ready to compete at his highest level. If he can keep his driver in control and get his confidence back, then this field at Augusta may see Tiger start his return to the top.