Masters 2011: Tiger Woods Chasing Phil Mickelson and a Fab Four of Contenders
Anguish or Anticipation? The 2011 Masters is uncharted territory for Tiger Woods.
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The 2011 Masters projects to be one of the more wide-open contests in recent years; Tiger Woods’ continued progress through drastic swing changes has opened the door for the rest of the golf world to take aim, and connect, in the pursuit of taking down the past decade's elite player.
A host of young guns and improving veterans are proving more ready than ever to take the step onto the podium of golf’s best.
But let’s not forget that we’re talking about Augusta; Tiger Woods is a four-time winner and yearly contender, no matter the state of his game.
Beyond the overwhelming and often static debate of looking at golf through the Tiger lens, Augusta is the only course that hosts a major every year, one of the true masterpieces in golf.
Augusta is the golf course that chews inexperience and slipshod play to pieces, a place where a 25-foot uphill putt can often be desired over a downhill six-footer.
Above all, Augusta National is among the most radiant, historic and mystical courses on earth. I’ve personally spent one day on the grounds, a practice round in 2003, where I vividly remember standing behind the 14th green in downpour, 100 percent sure it was the most spiritual course I had ever stood on.
The personal storylines of Augusta National and the grounds’ relationship with its champions runs beneath the surface, the most unique club of winners in the sport. The echoes of Augusta National are among the most powerful of any arena in sports...somewhat ironic given golf's nature.
It’s no secret Augusta has that effect on everyone the first time around, players included; the average number of starts in the tournament for a first-time Masters Winner is six.
With Tiger’s game in flux, and fans often being reminded the game is much bigger than just him, the 2011 Masters provides a true opportunity to see which of the game's good are willing to step out of the woods, ready to challenge the bounds of becoming major champion.
In 2011, the course and its magic are primed to be in full effect. Not including a week of cool, rainy weather in late March, temperatures have been above normal with below-average rainfall for nearly a month.
Furthermore, the forecast calls for increasingly dry weather and above- to well-above-average temperatures into the weekend.
Length is an advantage at Augusta, but that advantage is not as significant when the course is playing firm and fast.
There is more of a premium on iron play, creativity and ball placement in the short game and speed on the greens.
Fast and firm brings more of the field into contention. Who is Tiger Woods chasing in pursuit of his fifth green jacket?
Justin Rose, Sixth Start
The hit or miss prediction of for the weekend.
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Rose is my dark-horse contender for the week, flying off most radars going into Augusta. I’d be surprised if this maturing veteran comes to Augusta looking for anything but a victory, especially focused on building on his best play of the 2011 season.
He had his most successful PGA season in 2010, two wins in a three-tourney stretch, a ninth-place finish sandwiched in the middle. However, the season was not free of his hallmark inconsistency; T43, Cut and T71 were the results of his three tourneys preceding his victorious stretch.
Rose continued to display that inconsistency into 2011, but he seems to be in the midst of a hot streak. After only one top 10 in his first five events, Rose has finished in the top five in his last two tournaments.
It is always a good sign for a streaky player to be riding the momentum of improved play and solid ball striking into a major: third in greens in regulation and in the top 50 on tour in approach proximity to the hole from 50-125 yards, 125-150, 150-175 and 175-200 prove that Rose can put the ball near the hole, a premium on Augusta’s monstrous, sectioned greens.
And to back it up, he is 35th in scrambling. Greens in regulation, aiming mostly below the hole, and up-and-downs are a recipe for success at Augusta.
But the deciding factor will be his putting; he averages nearly one more stroke per round in 2011 and has one of the worst putters on tour outside of 10 feet.
If Rose can put himself in the upper half of the field putting this week, 176th in average distance of putts made per round in 2011, he’ll be a contender on Sunday.
If his putting woes remain, he’ll likely fall off the horse and be in danger of missing the weekend.
Nick Watney, Fourth Start
The WGC could be a career changing title for Watney. Expectations have certainly risen.
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A pro on the PGA tour since 2005, Watney won the biggest tourney of his career less than a month ago at the WGC Doral. Watney‘s as ready as any young player on the tour to win a major.
His first win coming in ’07, Watney has consistently elevated his game to now a near-elite level, a sign that future success is just a matter of time.
One win in five starts and only one finish outside the top 10 in 2011, 13th in his last start, proves he is officially a weekly contender.
His consistency is no fluke; Watney is the 2011 PGA version of Albert Pujols: first in birdie average, scoring average, all around ranking, par breakers and total putting.
Throw in second in putting average, third in putts per round and final round scoring average, and fourth in scrambling. He’s 35th in hitting greens in regulation and 19th in proximity to the hole, not shabby at all.
His one major flaw: 128th in driving accuracy.
Powerful players that struggle to keep it in the fairway will find themselves in some tricky situations at Augusta; not because of thick rough, but because they will often convince themselves there are alleys through the trees that don’t actually exist—Phil Mickelson hasn’t gotten the message—only to find themselves going through the same process on the next shot.
One point to note: Watney put in more preparation with his wedge game, especially hitting from uneven lies, coming into this week. That's a smart move, considering a glaring weakness in his short game is his 50-75 yard wedge game.
Watney has never finished worse than 19th at Augusta, placing seventh last year after closing with a 65. He says the course fits his eye.
If he can keep it near the fairway out of those pesky Augusta fairway bunkers, and get up and down from inside 75 yards with consistency, more than just the course may fit on Sunday.
Matt Kuchar, Fifth Start
Has turned into such a steady, solid pro. But now is the time to make the jump to the next level.
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The 1997 U.S. Amateur title set the bar high for Kuchar, who won on tour in 2002 before struggling through most of the decade, officially bursting back on to the scene in 2010 as a consistent, productive competitor.
He finished in the top 25 in 20 of 26 tournaments in 2010 and has one finish outside the top 25 in eight tourneys in 2011. Kuchar has been the definition of consistent the past 14 months on tour.
His game has potentially developed to succeed at Augusta; second in all around ranking, third in scoring average, fourth in putting average, seventh in scrambling, ninth in birdie average and par breakers and 11th in putting.
He has developed one of the most consistent short games in golf. He keeps it on the fairway and hits greens at a clip above 70 percent.
But with the success, the first Major of the season should serve as a checkpoint for Kuchar. He is no longer a young gun. With his first win nearly a decade ago; Kuchar’s time is now if he is going to take the step into the group of the game’s elite and become a factor on the tour for the next decade.
Unfortunately, history is against Kuchar this week, T21 as an amateur in 1998 remains his best finish at Augusta. But I don’t think the Kuchar coming to Augusta in 2011 is the same player as in previous Masters Tournaments.
This is his best chance yet to establish himself as a factor on the PGA tour. He is more prepared than ever to fulfill the expectations that were set by that 1997 amateur victory, and he can definitely contend if he has one of his better weeks at Augusta.
Luke Donald, Seventh Start
Possibly the most primed European to win a Major.
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With a lot of the attention on Martin Kaymer and Lee Westwood, Luke Donald is somewhat flying under the radar as the potential next European to win a major.
Donald has three top 10s, including a win at the Match Play, coming into Augusta. As a player who struggles with both the driver and hitting greens in regulation, he is not an ideal candidate to collect his first major at Augusta.
However, Donald is one of the field’s largest beneficiaries of fast, firm conditions. He possesses a stellar short game and is an elite putter: second in scoring average, fifth in scrambling, seventh in total putting and eighth in final round scoring.
This proves he has a formula for scoring even when missing the fairway.
I believe Donald has one advantage up his sleeve; he is one of the best wedge and iron players on tour. When he’s on, Donald is a shot maker that can take advantage of tough conditions at Augusta.
Donald will need to put himself into position to play his game. Staying in the fairway could yield a major breakthrough for Donald.
Phil Mickelson, Three-Time Champion
Phil is feelin' it, there is NO denying that.
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The favorite is the man chasing his fourth Masters victory. The 2011 Masters did not have a clear-cut choice before last Sunday.
That was until Mickelson went 16 under on the weekend to win the Shell Houston Open. This was after his driver broke earlier in the week, 177th in driving accuracy with that club going into Houston.
Lefty brought his A game for the first time in a year, David Feherty told ESPN’s Jim Rome this was the best he thinks Phil has looked since the PGA at Baltusrol in 2005.
A little history: Phil won by 13 at TPC Sugarloaf, Atlanta in 2006 before winning the Masters. Though Phil only won by three last weekend, he was a tournament record 20-under, including 14-under on the par fives. On some level, Phil must feel similarly heading into Augusta as he did after his 13-stroke victory in 2006.
The Karma kicker to Phil's chances: He spent the weekend with Dr. Todd Buckhoiltz, the man who Phil said, “helped us through some of the toughest times we have known as a family” in an interview after the Houston victory.
He is the doctor who cured Phil’s wife and mother of breast cancer.
I’m thinking Phil is feelin’ the Mojo.
Phil’s family is scheduled to be in Augusta this week, the first time they’ve traveled to a PGA tour event in what must be a record for a family dedicated to Phil’s golf.
When luck, karma and Augusta are strung together into the same realm, especially in the corner of a three-time Masters champion, very little can get in the way.
It’s the only major where life continually intertwines, year after year. No changing courses, just course changes.
Phil was asked what he thought about the idea of the “Tiger Changes” in the early 2000’s and if he was bummed no one was talking about “Phil Changes;” the reporter also asked what those Phil changes could potentially be.
Phil made a joke, got a laugh and was generally as loose and confident as Phil Mickelson has ever been.
He also appears to be game planning as aggressively as ever, admitting to seeing a back specialist to make sure his back can hold up, also recently implementing a workout regimen to “safely apply the type of rotational force” he wants this week.
He believes extreme length can be a big advantage, displayed by the fact he’s carrying an extra, longer driver this week and no 3 iron or hybrid.
He knows the course. Seemingly, the only thing that can truly stop him is over-aggressiveness and reckless play; he is defending his title and at this point in his career has refined his style into one of the game's best.
On a personal level, there is the sheer enjoyment of Augusta National for those who can play there year after year; the truest of professionals can’t help but enjoy the place as a normal patron.
Phil admitted the feeling associated with Augusta is rejuvenating; the radiance of the place is the most special Augusta quality to Phil.
All Phil needed to rebound from a below average beginning to the year was a week with the doctor and a blistering win in Houston. Momentum, the echoes of Augusta and all, are on Mickelson’s side as the favorite to win the Masters in 2011.
Tiger Woods, 4 Time Champion
Tiger's magical 2008 moment, nearly three years ago. When most assumed Tiger would already have his 5th green jacket come 2011.
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Less than two years ago, Tiger Woods was the unquestioned No. 1 player in the world, in clear pursuit of Jack Nicklaus’ 18 majors and on his way to greatness.
It's 2011 and many are wondering if Tiger will ever win a major again. Shocker, right?
Honestly, I think the concerns over his recent struggles are overblown; he’s overhauling his swing after 14 majors, in pursuit of what he believes will be his best golf yet. Do I believe that? No, not yet.
I left off with my analysis of Tiger before the WGC at Doral, not thinking he would win at Doral, but believing he was priming himself for Bay Hill and ultimately Augusta, a stretch of tourneys he once dominated and was surely yearning to win once again.
The win he needed as an elite golfer going through transition, an awkward time of simply not winning.
Doral brought duck hooks, a Sunday 66 and top 10 finish, while Bay Hill trended another top 10 through 70 holes, a bogey-double finish dropping Tiger to 24th.
And now Tiger hits the final leg of his southeastern swing, Augusta the obvious focal point of his preparation over the past couple months. This is the tournament Tiger will build on going forward into 2011, for better or worse.
Luckily for Tiger, he is a different animal when he comes to Augusta: look no further than last year’s T4 finish in his comeback from personal deconstruction, and the fact his T22 in ’04 is the only time he has finished outside the top 20 since missing the cut as an amateur in 1996.
Simply put, he has a remarkable tendency to show up at Augusta with his C game and finish in the top 10, even top 5. It’s not a question of whether or not Tiger brings his will, but will he remember his game.
Tiger claims he is learning how to feel the fixes when trying to shape the ball. If he is going to translate his success on the range and new technique in his short game into results on the course, he needs to be less concerned with where the ball goes and focus on being present, executing the swing he knows he can.
Coming into the Masters, I’ve heard Tom Watson, David Feherty and Frank Nobilo all say Tiger will be back, he’ll win more majors; Feherty was so adamant in his belief Tiger will soon be better than ever, Jim Rome was stunned to relative silence for minutes. One thing all three pros separately agreed on; whatever you do, don’t count Tiger out at Augusta.
Tiger differed from Phil, as he said the Augusta feeling comes back when he gets to work on the range, presumably when he doesn’t have to think about what’s going on outside the ropes.
Let’s face it; Tiger's personal life has faced instability for the majority of his career, either through Earl's battle with prostate cancer or Tiger's affairs starting after Earl's death.
Unfortunately, whatever is happening outside the ropes has finally crept inside Tiger's head on the course, and its completely justified.
Tiger goes into Augusta as the chaser for the first time in over a decade. A win would be remarkable, but it would be foolish to truly discount the possibility given his track record.
He says he will be the best in the world when the swing changes are settled, and he may very well believe that and even be correct; he needs his putter back, too.
It’s hard to be both the best in the world and finishing in the middle of the pack. This week Tiger Woods chases his fifth green jacket, but under the unusual circumstances of being expected to shoot par for the course.