Ahhh........the first week of April.
In the midwest this time of year sparks a great sense of life and renewal as the weather begins to turn for the better, the birds are chirping again, and the grass is turning green.
It also is a signal that the greatest golf tournament, played on the greatest golf course in the world, is about to begin.
As a youngin' I often found myself watching The Masters in pure awe and admiration with the hopes that one day I would be playing there.
While the latter never materialized, my love and affection for this great tournament has never diminished. In the golf world, The Masters week is pure perfection.
While this year's tournament may be more remembered for the return of its greatest player, come Sunday afternoon somebody will be donning a green jacket and be named Masters Champion for 2010.
So who are the likely candidates?
In a Major golf tournament, I like to break them down into three categories. Especially at The Masters because the tournament is played on the same course every year, and as they say, there are horses for courses and Augusta National is no different.
My three categories are "Who is hot", "Who has played well this year", and "Who has played well here before".
Why the three categories?
In the "Who is hot" category, this is largely comprised of players that are currently running on a hot streak. While the top 15 to 20 players in the world often play at a very high level seemingly on a week in and week out basis, it is the vast majority of tour players that rely upon streaks of great play to earn their belonging on the tour. Often times we see 'no name' players sitting on Major Championship leaderboards after having had recent success.
The "Who has played well this year" category is largely comprised of solid players that have put together a good start to the season. These players are also likely to be ranked highly among World Golf Rankings and look to be ripe for solid play this weekend.
The "Who has played well here before" category is simply reserved for those guys that simply play well at Augusta on a nearly year in and year out basis. Regardless of how they are playing coming into this weekend, they will likely be a factor due to their comfort and knowledge of the course and the fact they have been in the pressure packed situation of a back nine at Augusta on a Sunday afternoon. That type of experience and play is irreplaceable on such a track as Augusta National.
WHO IS HOT:
Anthony Kim: Nobody hotter than Sunday's Shell Houston Open winner Anthony Kim. The scary part of his tournament victory is that he only hit 23 fairways during his four days at Redstone Golf Club. Thankfully for Kim, driving the ball supremely straight at Augusta isn't necessarily a must like it is for virtually every other major golf tournament. Not only is Kim a fast and rising star on the PGA Tour, he did finish tied for 20th last year in his first Masters appearance. Expect that to get better this weekend.
Vaughn Taylor: The runner-up last week to Kim scored a top 10 finish at the Masters in the 2008 tournament. While the 34-year-old veteran doesn't have a solid history in major tournaments, he may have caught this one just at the right time during an upswing in his game. (Major problem: Vaughn Taylor will not be playing in this years Masters. I take full acceptance in my error that he would be playing, and yet he is not. Obviously my bad.)
Charl Schwartzel: Be wary of this name in the future as he is one of the biggest stars on the rise in the world of golf. Currently, he sits atop the European Tour's Race to Dubai standings (formerly known as Order of Merit), due to his strongest year ever to date as a professional golfer. Not only is Schwartzel having his best year ever as a pro, he comes into this tournament off of a first and a third place finish in his last two tournaments.
Louis Oosthuizen: If you are truly looking for a long shot this weekend, look no further than Oosthuizen. Talk about a real longshot, this is likely a name not many Americans have even heard, much less respect. However, a quick peek at Oosthuizen's play shows a victory a couple of weeks ago on the European Tour as well as five Top 15 finishes just this year. Don't be surprised if this guy is somewhat in the mix come Sunday.
Who has Played Well This Year:
Ernie Els: This is an easy one to add to the list of likely favorites entering this weekend. The 2010 season has shown a rebirth in the elder South African who has taken a serious hiatus from major golf over the past three or four seasons. His presence atop the FedEx Cup standings on the American Tour and third place standing on the European Tour show his come uppance in the 2010 season.
While Ernie could fit well into each of the other two categories, I feel his overall strength of play this year truly earmarks him as one of the favorites coming into this weekend. You can also note his strong presence and wins in other Majors as reasons to back the big South African this weekend as well.
Ian Poulter : Back in February, Ian Poulter gained his biggest victory as a professional with his win at the World Golf Championships Match Play Championship. While the golf world has truly waited for this player to splurge onto the scene, his career has often been about being close but just not good enough, especially in Major Championships. The big win in the match play event could be the trigger his career needs to put him over the top.
We can also point to three straight top 25 finishes at the Masters over the past three years as proof that Ian can play good golf on this course.
Steve Stricker: If it weren't for Ernie's spectacular play on the PGA Tour this season, the talk of the tour would be Steve Stricker. Playing almost as well as anybody in the world over the past two seasons has vaulted Mr. Stricker to the No. 2 position in the Official World Golf Rankings. Strangely enough, even with such a lofty ranking, Steve doesn't quite get the recognition that he truly deserves.
Throw in a tie for sixth place finish in last year's Masters, and you have a very strong argument for making a wager on the 43-year-old American this weekend.
Camilo Villegas: While 2008 was Camilo's best year as a professional, he was not off to as strong a start as he has in 2010. With four top 25 finishes in five tries this year on the PGA Tour, consistency is starting to be talked about with Camilo's game for what is likely the very first time in his career.
We can also look back to last year as Camilo's first year as a professional in which he made the cut in all four major golf tournaments. A couple of other items of note are that Camilo is long off of the tee and is a much better putter than most give him credit for. Look for Camilo to be lurking around the leaderboard come Saturday and Sunday, and one should not be surprised if he earns his first ever major tournament victory this Sunday.
Who Has Played Well Here Before:
Tiger Woods: We all know the hoopla surrounding Tiger this weekend, and he enters this tournament not having a played a competitive round on the PGA Tour since early November of last year.
While all of the attention surrounding Tiger's off-the-course antics, if there is a player that can get it done on the course amid all this turmoil, he is likely the best candidate to succeed in such circumstances.
We also can't forget that even with his six month break from the tour, he has still maintained a stranglehold atop the Official World Golf Rankings. We also can't discount his four Masters wins and the fact he has never finished lower than tied for 22nd at this tournament in his professional career along with ten top 10 finishes in 13 tries.
In his 14 major tournament victories, we have seen Tiger win with what is obviously not what he calls his 'A' game. This weekend will likely be no different as he will have to dust off of some rust that will likely show in his game. With that said, is anyone truly considering Tiger as having no chance of actually pulling this one out? Even with all the negatives, Tiger Woods is still the odds on favorite to win this weekend.
Phil Mickelson: Talk about a horse for the course. The beginning to the 2010 season can easily be recognized as a one of Phil's worst starts to a season in his professional career. In his seven tournaments he has played in this year, he has only managed to finish in the Top 10 in one event, and really hasn't contended for a victory this year.
However, Phil has also shown in past years that he doesn't necessarily need to be on his game entering the Masters tournament. His track record at this tournament is likely only second to none other than the previous mentioned Woods.
Phil has finished in the top 10 at Augusta in 12 out of the last 15 tournaments. He also sports eight top five finishes and two wins at this venue. Again, only second among active players to the aforementioned Woods.
While Tiger has six months of rust to shake off, at least Phil has been playing in competitive tournaments and as we all know over the past decade, he has honed his game with a particular emphasis on playing well at the major tournaments. Although Phil has had a very lackluster start to his 2010 season, don't be surprised in the least to see him donning a green jacket come Sunday afternoon.
Retief Goosen: While Retief has never won the Masters, he has finished in the top three four times in his career at this venue. While Retief could be thrown into the "Who has Played Well This Year" category, I feel his strongest characteristic is that he has contended at this tournament before and has come up just eerily short more than a couple of times in the past. His strong start and horse for the course credentials should make him a strong betting interest for anybody coming into this weekend. Known as one of the best putters in all the world, Retief should be a large part of this things in this year's Masters tournament.
Chad Campbell: Another guy off to a pretty slow start to the year has been Chad Campbell. You think Phil is off to a bad start, Campbell sits in 82nd place on this year's FedEx Cup standings. That is 44 slots behind Phil Mickelson's 38th place ranking.
Thus, the only place to really put Campbell on this list is in the "Who has played well here before". In the past four years, Campbell has tied for second and tied for third at this tournament, and in each case was in extremely good position to win the tournament only to falter in the later stages on Sunday afternoon.
While some of these demons of past years at Augusta may be looming, they could also prove to be invaluable if Campbell finds himself in that position again on the back nine this time around. After all, many times it takes a few close defeats before a player breaks through to win his first major tournament. Campbell sits rather high on that list of best players never to have a won a major championship.
Angel Cabrera: Don't have to look much further than last year's champion in Angel Cabrera. Another player that is not off to a very good start to his 2010 campaign, Angel has proven to be quite ready to compete in golf's major golf tournaments over the past several seasons including two victories. The long hitting Argentinan's game sets up very well for this course, and if his game is one this weekend, he has proven that he has the nerves to finish a major tournament when needed. Don't count this guy out from repeating.
Steve Flesch: This one may come as a surprise due to Steve's reputation as a short driver of the golf ball on the PGA Tour. However, it is his strong wedge play and putting that have made him more than competitive at this venue over the past two tournaments.
Coming in off of back to back top six finishes in 2008 and 2009, Flesch should be considered a reasonable contender based upon his recent success at Augusta. While it is improbable that he will come away with a win this weekend, it isn't improbable that he will be lurking around the leaderboard on Sunday.
Paul Casey: While his actual finishes at the Masters aren't all that impressive (6th, T10, T11, T20), Casey has been in serious contention coming into Sunday on a couple of occasions only to falter badly on Sunday. This experience could prove to be invaluable for the Englishman, as he sits firmly on the list of best players never to have won a major championship.
We should also notice that he is off to a pretty strong start to his year in 2010, and currently sits at No. 4 on the European Tour's Race to Dubai standings. With one of the prettiest swings in all of golf, Casey is expected to at least win one major in his career. Will it be this weekend?
Those are the 15 guys that I think have a serious shot at winning this weekend. While I've likely missed on quite a few contenders, these are the ones with compelling arguments coming into this weekend, along with some long shots that may not be garnering much attention as being serious contenders.
As always, it should be another great Masters.