— Matt Kuchar
For years, he has strode around languidly with rosy cheeks and a perma-grin. Turns out the joke was on us. No one on the PGA Tour has been more dominant and consistent over the last 18 months than Kuchar. While he has just two wins during that span, he has posted 18 top 10s, including five this year. In 2010, he finished first in earnings, the all-around, and adjusted and actual scoring averages. He was also one of just eight to record multiple top 10s in majors. His T24 at the Masters was his first appearance in eight years.
If Graeme McDowell was the poster boy of the 2010 Ryder Cup, then Mahan was the red-headed stepchild. It was the American's chunky chip at the 17th hole at Celtic Manor in his singles match against the Ulsterman that ultimately decided the European's victory at the biennial event. All Mahan has done since is paste four top 10s on the board this year, and his scrambling and putting splits have never been better. He has finished in the top 10 in the last two Masters. Oh, and he's a newlywed to a former Dallas Cowboys cheerleader. The moral of the story is that he's not taking pity, nor does he need it.
If there's anything we learned about last year's champion, it was that his form upon arrival at Augusta National is wholly insignificant. He fell off the radar entering last year's edition thanks to zero top 10s in his previous four starts. Well, he showed up for his Masters' tune-up at Redstone for the Shell Houston Open with, you guessed it, zero top 10s in his previous four starts. But he deserves more than that cursory glance on paper. His consecutive eagles (that was 'this close' to three straight) on Saturday. His arguably unwarranted 6-iron from the pine straw at the 13th hole on Sunday (even though he yanked the eagle putt). His emotion in performing with the weight of his wife's and mom's breast cancer on his shoulders and mind. Playing alongside eventual runner-up, Lee Westwood. Mickelson's experience on golf's grandest stage. Three green jackets; 10 other top 10s.
His game may be more suited for a U.S. Open where his total driving and putting led to a T10 at Bethpage in 2009, but his vibe and his look is all things Bobby Jones; well, everything but the swing that still whiffs of his adjustment to a fracture in his wrist in 2006. With the tie and other retro gear, Moore looks like he has walked out of old celluloid snapshots, but his moxie is modern-day. He doesn't do anything poorly. His best work is often found on classic tracks, especially Donald Ross specials. And in his three trips to venerable Augusta National, he has posted two top 15s.
The next time you see the winner of the WGC-Cadillac Championship, you may not recognize him. No, it's not because you're still confusing the soon-to-be 30-year-old with Bill Haas, it's because Watney might have finally gotten a haircut. It was the end-result of a silly pact with his caddie, Chad Reynolds -- no haircuts until the duo finished outside the top 10. That agreement was forged in January. Watney's win at Doral (on March 13) was his fifth top 10 in as many starts. The streak finally ended with a T13 at the Transitions Championship the following week. An assortment of the most knowledgeable figureheads in the business have circled Watney for an eventual victory at Augusta National. With three top 20s here, including a solo seventh last year, combined with his current form, there isn't a sexier pick on the board.
Until he wins his first major, he's going to be best known for grounding his club in the "bunker" on the 72nd hole of last year's PGA Championship at Whistling Straits. He did his best to thwart that unfortunate attention with another accidental faux pas, withdrawing from this year's Sony Open for a personal matter at home that many believed involved a romance. Instead, it was later reported by The Sun-News that he was taking care of some issues related to completing his degree in sports management from Coastal Carolina University. That begs the question of why he didn't share that information in the first place, but golfers are not required to publicize explanation for withdrawals before tournaments begin or after completing a round. Whatever. The lesson is that he is more raw talent than he is substance inside the ropes. He still has future Hall of Famers written all over his sinewy, 6-foot-4 frame, but DJ needs to log a few more reps at Augusta National to deserve a spot on the short list of contenders.
The world's top-ranked golfer and reigning PGA champion admitted at Doral that he has spent two years trying to develop a reliable draw off the tee. This is important on a half-dozen holes at Augusta National -- Nos. 2, 5, 9, 10, 13 and 14 -- two of which are par 5s (2 and 13). "Well, I can draw the ball," Kaymer said on March 8. "You know, with the irons it's no problem. I just struggle with the woods a little bit. Obviously that's important in Augusta. But I'll get there. At one stage I will hit draws. Once in a while I try it, if I have a wide fairway, then I try it." With an 0-for-3 record at the venue, he has nothing to lose.
When you lead the PGA Tour in distance off the tee and greens in regulation from lies off the fairways, rank second in GIR, shape shots that make Wiffle Ball pros proud, and carry yourself with an equal amount of swagger and humility, you're going to earn yourself two victories, an allegiance of fans, and the rare distinction of immediate recognition by your first name only. He has cashed in both previous appearances at Augusta National and will play the course like the video game that it is.
It has been a while since there was a guy walking around with the unanimous label of best never to have won a major. It's a dubious, double-edged sword, both complimenting and calling a guy out for his inability to close the door. Since the 2008 U.S. Open, the Englishman has finished inside the top three in half of his major starts; this includes riding shotgun beside Phil Mickelson as the lefty drove to his third Masters' triumph last year. Then, earning another compliment with a string attached, months after finishing a distant second to Louis Oosthuizen at the British Open, Westwood scaled to the top of the Official World Golf Rankings, the first to have ever reached that summit without a major title in the bank. His reign lasted all of 17 weeks before reigning PGA champion Martin Kaymer usurped him. Westwood has failed to post a top 10 in his last six starts worldwide as he warms up in Houston, but no one has lived with more reminders of his glass ceiling.
Perhaps his greatest benefit at Augusta National is the insular environment. We witnessed this last year when he returned to competition following his scandal, went through the motions and finished in a tie for fourth place. He hadn't placed outside the top six since 2004. So the course is one of his few comfort zones hidden in broad daylight. The concerning element is his game off the tee. While Woods will never wear out fairways, his inconsistency with his ball-striking on first shots has had to chip away at some confidence, even for a guy with nothing but chips on his shoulders. He remains four major titles short of Jack Nicklaus' 18, and Augusta National would be the pick if you only had one site on which to lean for his next, but he'll need to keep his rock in play. And that's no sure bet.
Save his stunning 79 in the second round of the Northern Trust Open, the 33-year-old Brit has been money ever since, well, last year's edition of the NTO. He led the world in global earnings in 2010 and currently sits third in the world ranking. He broke through for his third PGA Tour victory (and first World Golf Championship crown) at the Match Play in February, and would silence a room full of skeptics if they were asked to name a guy with a better game around the greens. His distance off the tee, or lack thereof, probably translates into one additional stroke per round at Augusta National, which is why he's a long shot. If Donald is going to be wearing the green jacket on Sunday, he just might need to lay up on all of the par 5s a la Zach Johnson in 2007.
The Big Easy has struggled in recent years at the Masters, with just one top 25 since getting clipped by Phil Mickelson in 2004 by one stroke. Certainly, Els is done with stockpiling course knowledge and experience, but it simply has not translated positively of late. Moreover, he's averaging nearly 31 putts per round; it's the first time that he has been over 30 per in his PGA Tour career. Augusta National is, indeed, a magical setting, and it's a good thing since he'll need to pull a rabbit from his cap to contend.
The 2010 PGA Tour Rookie of the Year elected to adjust his schedule this year to focus on the big events because he's eligible for all of them. He's a rookie at the Masters, but if anyone is going to complete a foursome of first-timer winners with Horton Smith (1934), Gene Sarazen (1935) and Fuzzy Zoeller (1979), look no further than the 22-year-old with the oversized lid. Fowler can move it off the tee and putt with fearlessness, but his experience is obviously limited. Look for him to make some notes, take some lumps, smile and say "thank you" when it's over.
History has a funny way of determining what's most relevant. The South African nicknamed Shrek bullied the competition at St. Andrews last summer, coasting to a seven-stroke victory at the British Open. It was his first major title and first PGA Tour win. He missed just one fairway all week and no one had more birdies (20). However, some will diminish Oosthuizen's accomplishment because of his late-early draw before winds freshened on Friday, skyrocketing scoring averages long after he had established the clubhouse lead. If that makes you think of Lucas Glover at Bethpage Black in 2009, then you get the point. Oosthuizen is also recovering from a virus that spread from his eye to his mouth, forcing him to withdraw from his title defense at the Andalucia Open in March.
He was the emotional favorite at Whistling Straits in his native Wisconsin last August, but finished a disappointing T18. In fact, it wasn't as substandard as it seemed given that he's not a mainstay on leaderboards in majors. Sure, Stricker has posted multiple top 10s in all four, but he's generally considered solid fodder for rank-and-file events. It's an interesting dynamic since his splits are impressive and he leads the PGA Tour with 28 consecutive paydays, but his days as America's best golfer never to have won a major are numbered.