Handicapping the Masters Field

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    NEWSLETTERS

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    Say what you want about the decisions Tiger Woods has made outside the ropes, scheduling his return to competition at Augusta National is simply brilliant.

    A breakdown of players to watch in this year's Masters field at Augusta National:

    TOP CONTENDERS

    Ernie Els
    The Big Easy is back. And reborn. With victories over quality fields at Doral and Bay Hill in March, Els has reminded everyone that 40 is as much a second wind as the early 30s represent a career prime. And he's not exactly sneaking the hardware through the back door either, with winning margins of four and two strokes. He has missed the cut in his last three starts here, but that drought is in serious danger to end.

    Retief Goosen
    Aside from a pair of spaced-out hiccups this year, he has been one of the most reliable non-winners, posting five top 10s in seven starts. Augusta National strives to identify the one golfer that has it all. Some guys come in playing well and others look great on paper. Goosen is both and he's utterly unflappable. In his last eight starts here, he has finished inside the top 3 four times and has three other top 20s.

    Phil Mickelson
    With victories at THE TOUR Championship and WGC-HSBC Champions last fall, perhaps no one entered 2010 with higher expectations than Lefty. Considering his résumé, that is mind-boggling, yet ultimately unrealistic. Aside from a throw-away T8 at Pebble Beach and being in the middle of the now-resolved grooves debate, the only relatively eye-popping news he has made was the 58 he carded in Palm Springs on a Fred Couples-designed par 72 in late March. Regardless, as long as he's healthy, the two-time Masters' champ remains a threat everywhere he tees it up.

    Steve Stricker
    He would have preferred to cap off his Masters' prep at Bay Hill with something better than 79-74 to finish T52, but that won't faze him once he drives down Magnolia Lane. Stricker climbed to No. 2 in the world ranking after winning at Riviera in early February, and he's second in PGA Tour earnings and FedEx Cup Points. En route to a T6 here last year, he played just four holes over par.

    Tiger Woods
    Say what you want about the decisions he has made outside the ropes, scheduling his return to competition at Augusta National is simply brilliant. It is, indeed, the most controlled environment of any event he plays regularly. And no one compartmentalizes better than the world's top golfer. However, what remains unknown is how the perception of his renewed lifestyle via therapy and sudden humility will affect his inner confidence as a professional athlete exposed to the masses. Apart from that elephant in the room, we've seen what he has done after layoffs in the past.

    IN THE RUNNING

    Angel Cabrera
    For a time last year, the 2009 Masters wasn't so much known as his second career victory in a major as it was Kenny Perry's failed attempt to replace Julius Boros as the oldest winner in major championship history. Unfettered, the cavalier Argentine set the goal to win five majors. And consider that he failed to break par in his previous four rounds (leading to two missed cuts) entering Augusta last year. Then, he went out and broke par every day en route to victory. Super fun to watch.

    Paul Casey
    First, if there was ever a guy whose seemingly misguided comments really were taken out of context at any time (circa 2004), Casey would be on the short list. He rivals Steve Stricker as one of the kindest and sincerest gentlemen in the field, and it's likely that few casual golf fans in America are aware of it. What's more is that he has elevated his game to a level of consistency worthy of his No. 6 world ranking. Casey has four top 20s in five starts at the Masters and six top 11s in seven events in 2010, including a runner-up at the WGC-Match Play, proving that he has adjusted his swing quite well in the wake of the torn rib muscle suffered in August.

    Fred Couples
    That's right. Although his streak of 23 consecutive cuts ended in 2008, and despite falling short of a paycheck here again last year, the 50-year-old former Masters champion has earned this attention. As any touring pro that has been to the top of the mountain and taken in the view will tell you, confidence is the defining factor in eventually returning for a second look. And just as a salesperson wants to lure you into a series of yes's before the close, Couples must be sailing on a crest of self-assurance after three straight victories over his cronies. The only question, and it's a biggie, is if he can stretch out to 72 holes like the old days.

    Padraig Harrington
    His patented plan of ramping into the majors -- as he executed so adroitly to victories at the Tiger Woods-less British Open and PGA Championship in 2008 (and, ultimately, Player of the Year honors) -- gave way to an unnecessary tinkering of his swing last year. Alas, he didn't post his first top 10 of 2009 until August, but still wound up with six of them after a recommitment, and the renewed focus has carried over. Despite final-round 72s at each, he finished T3 at Doral and T8 at Copperhead in March.

    Lee Westwood
    The reigning (i.e. only) Race to Dubai champion hasn't finished inside the top 10 at the Masters in his last seven appearances. Despite that, he is one of the favorites from Europe to contend. And it's not like he hasn't been knocking on the door. Remember that he left his birdie putt short on the 72nd hole at Torrey Pines to join the playoff at the 2008 U.S. Open. Last year, he three-jacked the final green at Turnberry, falling one short of the playoff at the British. Still only 36 years young and ranked fourth in the world.

    LONG SHOTS

    Robert Allenby
    To dust off an old nugget, the next Australian to win the Masters will be the first. If you were forced to select one Aussie to win this major in this era, Geoff Ogilvy probably wins the popular vote. Indeed, Allenby's record at Augusta National is forgettable -- so is Ogilvy's for that matter -- but he may be more equipped than ever to put his continent into the winner's column. An indescribable improvement with the putter has transformed Allenby into a consistent menace. He hasn't won in the U.S. since 2001, and has yet to conquer the demons on a back nine on Sunday, but his current form is a super fit for the first major.

    Jim Furyk
    In a word, length. Rather, lack of it. Although he recently won the Transitions, Augusta National can overwhelm him. He'd need to consider a game plan similar to what Zach Johnson employed when he won in 2007 -- laying up on all of the par 5s. But Furyk's iron game isn't as crisp as ZJ's, which would plant considerable pressure on his putter, and that's no way to navigate the azaleas and dogwoods. Furyk has missed just one cut in 13 appearances here, but has just one top 10 in his last five.

    Matt Kuchar
    The only reason he doesn't receive more love here is because he hasn't competed in the Masters since 2002, and he missed that cut. Nevertheless, with three top 3s in 2010, including at Doral in March, he has never been more dominant. He leads the PGA Tour in aggregate scoring on par 4s, birdie average and final-round scoring average -- rankings supported by precision iron play and a wicked-hot putter, particularly in the clutch.

    Ian Poulter
    Started his season with a breakthrough victory at the WGC-Match Play Championship, has has all but disappeared since. At first blush, his game would seem to be better suited for a British Open; however, he has been surprisingly efficient at the Masters, cashing in all five appearances, including top 25s the last three years. Hardly short on confidence (and wit), it's only a matter of hitting the greens in the right spots and riding a hot putter for something special to occur. Augusta National rewards experience. Poulter is gaining on it.

    Y.E. Yang
    Gunning to become the first since Phil Mickelson in 2006 to win the PGA Championship and Masters consecutively. It would be quite an achievement for anyone, even the Tiger-slayer. If Yang has a weakness, it's inexperience. This will be just his third Masters. It's not that it can't be done -- Zach Johnson won in his third career start here in 2007 -- but the odds are stacked against the Korean. Then again, he broke the mold at Hazeltine, becoming the first Asian-born golfer to win a major.