Spring has arrived and with it the first major of the 2012 golf season: The Masters. The tradition unlike any other didn’t disappoint in 2011 with an all too memorable final round on Sunday highlighted by Rory McIlroy’s implosion on the back nine, Tiger Woods mystically lurking on the Leaderboard, and a virtually unknown South African by the name of Charl Schwartzel birding his final four holes to win the Green Jacket.
This year’s Masters should be a power packed tournament with some of the best golfers in the world playing some of their best golf heading into the week. But any storyline about the game’s top golfers pales in comparison to the sense that Tiger Woods is once again a legitimate contender and on the prowl for his 15th Major victory.
Here’s a closer look at some Players to Watch in this year’s tournament and Notable First/Second Round Pairings:
Players to Watch
Bubba Watson- Arguably the most promising/engaging American golfer on Tour right now, Watson does it his way and “Bubba Ball” has equated to two wins over the pass 12 months. Unfortunately “Bubba Ball” hasn’t historically equated to success at Augusta as Watson has never had a Top 10 finish in the three Masters he’s played in (though Bubba has also never missed a cut). So far this season Bubba has made the cut and finished in the Top 25 in all 7 events he has played in, with 3 Top 10′s and one 2nd place finish. The key for Watson will be his putting and scrambling ability. If he is at the top of these statistics at Augusta, then don’t be surprised to see Watson in contention on Sunday.
Nick Watney- After gradual success no the tour, Watney has become a perennial “up and coming” star who is on the verge of breaking out and winning his first major. It seemed that Watney’s time had come at the 2010 PGA Championship when he took a lead into Sunday. Instead Watney succumb to the pressure of the final round of a major and played himself out of content. That said, Watney has finished in the Top 10 at the Masters twice (2008, 2010), meaning once again that Augusta could be the golfer’s break out tournament. So far this season Watney has made the cut in all 8 events that he has played, but only finished once in the Top 10.
Tiger Woods- Coming off his impressive win at Bay Hill, Tiger’s first victory on the PGA in nearly 30 months, Woods is the odds on favorite to win his fifth green jacket. And why not? Tiger knows this course perhaps better than any another player competing in the tournament, so much so that the only time the former #1 golfer in the world showed the appearance of greatness over the past two seasons was at Augusta. The crowds will be with Woods, but the that question still remains is whether or not Tiger is mentally tough enough to out perform every other competitor on the Sunday of a major…when it matters the most.
Luke Donald- The top ranked golfer in the world is without a major title on his resume. That said, Donald has been playing at an extremely high level of golf over his past 34 tournaments with 5 wins and 21 Top 10 finishes. Additionally, Donald has three Top 10′s at Augusta, meaning that he can score at Augusta. Whether or not the Brit can put together four mistake free rounds remains to be seen.
Rory McIlroy- The focus this week will be on McIlroy’s implosion on the back nine of last year’s Masters on Sunday and whether or not the young man from Northern Ireland can overcome memories of the past. So far this year, McIlroy has been on fire in the five events his played, finishing in the Top 5 in each, including a win at the Honda Classic. That said, Rory enters the 2012 Masters with a 72.1 scoring average at Augusta. The young man has the talent, but does he have the mental toughness overcome his past and/or to stand up to a Tiger energized crowd on Sunday…assuming Woods is challenging for the title.
KJ Choi- The sleeper of this year’s Masters might just be Choi, who is one golfer that consistently goes about his business on the course and gets results. The South Korean has made the cut in the seven events he has played this season, with two Top 25 and one Top 10 finish. The main reason Choi should be taken seriously though, is the fact that he has three Top 10 finishes at Augusta, two of them coming in the last two Masters…meaning the golfer may be extremely comfortable when confronted with the challenges of the course. Choi’s scoring average of 72.5 does give one pause when considering his chances, but he’s only missed two cuts and has an average finishing position of 18. Choi should be lurking on the weekend.
Jason Day- Day might be the wild card this year at Augusta. The young Australian finished a quiet second in last year’s Masters and US Open. Though inexperienced, Day has fifteen Top 25′s and ten Top 10 finishes in his last 22 tournaments, making him the 11th ranked player in the world. Don’t be surprised to find him in the hunt on Sunday and to see Day becoming the first Australian to win a Green Jacket.
Hunter Mahan- Mahan is another American golfer who seems to be on the cusp of winning a major. He has the game and with two Top 10 finishes at Augusta in the last three Masters, Mahan could be considered a serious contender to win this year’s Green Jacket. Unfortunately for Hunter, his victory this past week at the Shell Houston Open has set the odds of winning against him. Only three times in the Masters’ 75 year history has a golfer won at Augusta after winning the week prior. Sorry Hunter.
Phil Mickelson- As a three time winner of the Green Jacket, Mickelson receives somewhat of an obligatory mention here. The primary knock currently against Phil is that the veteran requires proper motivation to reach the highest levels of play. His dramatic final round performance/win at Pebble Beach this year when paired with Tiger Woods in comparison to his recent lackluster play speaks to this point. When not motivated, Mickelson can be disinterested and seen simply going through the motions of enjoying a leisurely stroll on the course. It will be interesting to see which Phil shows up this week: the championship winner or pay check collector.
Notable First/Second Round Pairings
- Group 7 (Steve Stricker, Paddy Harrington, Stewart Cink)- A talented veteran group of which any three could emerge as contenders on the weekend. Thursday Tee Time of 8:56 Am EDT
- Group 9 (Trevor Immelman, Ricky Fowler, Justin Rose)- A former Masters’ winner, combined with the youth of yesterday and today. Each could be contenders or pretenders. Thursday Tee Time of 9:29 AM EDT
- Group 15 (Tiger Woods, Miguel Jimenez, Sang-Moon Bae)- Woods is paired with Jimenez, one of “The Most Interesting Men in the World”, and the young South Korean Bae, who has been making noise this season after squeaking through qualifying school. Thursday Tee Time of 10:35 AM EDT
- Group 16 (Luke Donald, Francesco Molinari, Nick Watney)- No one from this group should be discounted from contending for a Green Jacket. Thursday Tee Time of 10:46 AM EDT
- Group 27 (Vijay Singh, Lee Westwood, Jim Furyk)- Not the flashiest pairing of seasoned veterans, however, each golfer has demonstrated the ability to score well at Augusta. Thursday Tee Time of 12:58 PM EDT
- Group 31 (Angel Cabrera, Rory McIlroy, Bubba Watson)- The combination of one Masters Champion (Cabrera), the suspense surrounding McIlroy, and the thrills of “Bubba Ball” make this the marquee group of Day 1. Thursday Tee Time of 1:42 PM EDT
- Group 32 (Phil Mickelson, Hunter Mahan, Peter Hanson)- The final pairing of Day 1 showcases a collection of swimmers or sinkers. Thursday Tee Time of 1:53 PM EDT
Click here to see all the Day 1 pairings and tee times.
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