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US Masters preview

With the azaleas in full bloom, the radiant sun bearing down over the Georgia pines and an air of anticipation unparalleled in the world of sport, you could only be in one place: Augusta National in the spring time, and the site of the 2013 U.S Masters.

Many players arrived at Augusta as early as last week, to sharpen their skills ahead of the opening round on Thursday (Friday morning, Australian time). Some have even been visiting the hallowed grounds of Augusta National in the months leading up to the years’ first major.

On the eve of one of the most anticipated events on the sporting calendar, The Sporting Journal’s Peppe Cavalieri takes a peek into the field for the week, the contenders, a few dark horses, and analyses the layout on which the tournament will be played.

A sample of what awaits golfers at Augusta National. Credit: Brian Brake/Flickr

A sample of what awaits golfers at Augusta National. Credit: Brian Brake/Flickr

THE COURSE:

Augusta National is a gem. Carved out of the overwhelmingly undulating landscape of Augusta, Georgia, it has become one of the most sacred places in golf – alongside St Andrews in Scotland. The Dr Alistair McKenzie design has been lengthened over the years to combat the advances of equipment, and today is a lengthy 7,445 yards (6,807m) par 72, but probably plays longer given the manner in which the course is setup.

The fairways are mown from green to tee at Augusta, which is different to most courses, meaning that players get less forward run from their tee shots. Because of this, hitting shots into the grain of the turf makes it difficult to create solid contact with the ball. This is so important around here, especially around the greens. A course where a deft touch and feel is mandatory, any mistakes on or around the putting surfaces are significantly magnified by the speed and slope of the greens. Players need to be able to hit their greenside shots pure, but with the grain of the grass lying into the player, this task of getting up-and-down is made all the more challenges.

All players love the course, but not all players will do well here. Experience is an advantage, and good shots will be rewarded, while poor shots will be punished. In saying that however, you don’t have to miss by much to have an impossible up-and-down. At Augusta National, it’s not so much knowing where to hit it, but knowing where to miss it, and it should provide for an intriguing week at the Masters.

CONTENDERS:

Tiger Woods

Tiger is the undisputable favourite heading into the year’s first major. He’s in red-hot form, having won three times already in 2013, from only five starts. He seems to have consolidated the swing changes he’s made with coach Sean Foley, but one of the main reasons he’s been so successful early this year has been his putting. He’s been white hot with the putter in 2013 thus far, and is ranked #1 in “strokes gained putting” and “total putting”. The greens is where all players will want to bring their A-game. Woods is also ranked #1 in “par five birdie or better”, which is paramount to posting good scores around Augusta. If Tiger can find form close to the form he’s found so far in 2013, he’ll be very tough to beat this week. It’s his best chance to win his 15th major, and first since 2008, and if he does, people will certainly be convinced that “he’s back”.

Rory McIlroy       

Having been relegated to number two in The Official World Golf Rankings by Woods, Rory McIlroy may well be able to fly under the radar this week. It could be his chance to finally gain redemption for his final round capitulation in 2011. It would also spell his third major victory in as many years. Rory’s year so far has not yet met the lofty standards of 2012, which saw him claim four wins, including the PGA Championship. At the beginning of the 2013 season, McIlroy ended his partnership with Titleist and inked a lucrative deal with Nike Golf. It has taken him some time to get used to his new equipment, but a second place finish last week in San Antonio has given him confidence. He ranks #1 in “driving distance”, “back 9 scoring average” and “green in regulation from 175-200 yards”. He also ranks fourth in “green in regulation from 200+ yards”. Being so efficient with his longer clubs should hold him in good stead at Augusta, especially on the par-fives, and considering he has stated he will be more conservative off the tee this week, he shouldn’t have any problems. McIlroy has said that anything less than a win would be a disappointment, so expect a strong showing.

Phil Mickelson

Mickelson’s form thus far in 2013 has been up and down. He’s had two top 10’s and two top 25’s, as well as a win, but has had some high finishes also. He’s ranked fourth in the FedEx Cup standards, and comes to Augusta off the back of a T16 finish two weeks ago at the Shell Houston Open, where the Tournament Course at Redstone Golf Club each year tries to emulate the conditions at the Masters. You can never write Phil off in this event. He loves it here, and has won three times before. He finished T3 at Augusta last year, was just outside the top 25 in 2011, won in 2010, finished 5th in 2009, was T5 in 2008, was top 25 in 2007, and won again in 2006. His record certainly speaks for itself.

Justin Rose

Justin Rose has been one of the most consistent players on Tour this year. Although he’s only played four events, he’s recorded three top 10s and a runner-up finish. Expect Justin to perform quite well, and if he’s there or thereabouts when it’s all to be won – the back nine on Sunday – look for him to be well in the mix. His solid form over the past few years has taken him to third in the Official World Golf Rankings – his highest ever ranking, and his game should serve him well this week.

Brandt Snedeker

Brandt is ranked fifth in the Official World Golf Rankings and is sitting second behind Tiger Woods in the FedEx Cup standings for 2013. Snedeker got off to a brilliant start to the PGA Tour season, with three top three finishes in his opening four events, before breaking through at Pebble Beach. But he missed the cut in his last two starts, before taking last week off to prepare for the Masters this week. Brandt’s stats bode well for him this week. He’s ranked number one in “all round ranking”, so he’s pretty much good at everything. Hard to argue with that. The only concern for Snedeker is whether he’s fully recovered from a rib injury he sustained earlier in the year. He says he’s ready to go, but we’ll just have to wait and see. If he’s right, then we should expect a high finish from him.

Matt Kuchar:

Matt Kuchar currently sits third in the FedEx Cup standings, and has carried some very good form heading into this week at Augusta. He’s recorded three top 10s and six top 25s so far in 2013, including winning the WGC – Accenture Match-Play Championship. He finished T3 here last year, and was at one stage tied for the lead midway through the back nine before being overrun by Bubba Watson and Louis Oosthuizen. He was also awarded low amateur honours in 1998, and is a good chance to clinch his maiden major championship title this week.

DARK HORSES:

K.J Choi:

K.J Choi of Korea has had a decent start to 2013, with two top 10 finishes and three top 25 finishes from nine starts on the PGA Tour. Known as “The Tank”, Choi is renowned for his ability to continue to churn out quality golf shots. He is very solid, makes few mistakes, and adores putting on fast greens – a trademark of Augusta National. Over the past few years, he’s looked very good coming down the stretch but has come up short. Perhaps this is his year.

Hunter Mahan:

Mahan is one of the most accomplished ball strikers on Tour, and has been solid in backing up a fruitful 2012, which produced two wins. He has often been criticized for his weak short game, but he’s worked hard over the off-season, and has improved dramatically in this area which – coupled with his solid ball striking – should hold him in good stead this week. A little polish added to his game over the past year could well be the difference.

Luke Donald:

Former world number one Luke Donald ascended to stardom in 2011, winning both money lists on both the US PGA Tour and the European Tour. His results have been average so far this season, with only one top 10 finish to his name. But you can never count the Englishman out. His best is as good as anyone.

Adam Scott:

Adam Scott will once again headline an Aussie contingent hungry to provide Australia with its first ever winner at the Masters. He’s come close the last couple of years, finishing T8 last year and T2 in 2011. He’ll look to better those efforts this weekend, and try and redeem himself for his unfortunate near miss at the Open Championship last year, where he bogeyed his final four holes to hand the title to Ernie Els. Scott is ranked second in “scoring average” so far in 2013, and he’ll need to maintain the same level of consistency if he’s to slip on the green jacket come Sunday.

Bubba Watson:

Bubba Watson hasn’t exactly made any headlines with his golf so far in 2013, but the defending champion is glad to be back at Augusta. He finished T4 in the opening tournament of the season, but since then, hasn’t really been in the mix, but he should never been counted out here. With such great power and creativity at his disposal – two handy attributes to bring to Augusta – Bubba is always a chance to go back-to-back, even if he does only hit the fairway just over 50 percent of the time. As we saw last year though, missing the fairway doesn’t seem to be a problem for the freewheeling Watson. Perhaps he’ll have a couple more tricks up his sleeve this week.

Twitter: @PepCavalieri

Cover image credit: Chase McAlpine

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