The biggest non-tournament related news to come out of Augusta National this week is that the Masters will offer a small number of tournament badges to the public starting in 2012. The Masters has offered practice round badges in a lottery system through the years, but there has been a waiting list for the actual tournament dates since 1971. You can enter the lottery for both practice and tournament badges at the Masters website. You should probably be spending some time at that website anyway, it’s more spectacular each year, and while you are there, enter that lottery. Even if you have no intention of going to the 2012 Masters, there might not be a safer investment in today’s economy. Guarantee you can turn those around for a piece of change. In actual tournament news, the Pairings have been released. With a limited field, there are always a select group of top-pairings. Let’s look at some of the better ones…
8:40 AM: Dustin Johnson, Nick Watney and Adam Scott.
About five or six years ago, people were ready to gift-wrap a couple of green jackets for Adam Scott. He’s never taken to Augusta, though. His putting, always a concern, has gotten to the point where he’s now using a long putter. It has breathed a little life into his game, this might be his best chance ever, but I still doubt he contends. His status as can’t miss major champion has been usurped by guys like Johnson and Watney. Dustin’s given away 2 of the last 3 Majors, how will he hold up this week?
9:24 AM: Rory McIlroy, Rickie Fowler, and Jason Day.
The Masters always has at least one young gun pairing, and this certainly qualifies. McIlory is the experienced one in this threesome with Day and Fowler making their Augusta debuts. No first timer has won since Fuzzy Zoeller in 1979, and I don’t expect that to change this week. At Fowler’s press conference, a Masters official told him to turn his hat around so that the brim faced forward. Classic stuff. McIlroy has more memorable quotes than wins. Eventually these three will have to back up the hype, but they’re still operating in somewhat of a grace period.
10:19 AM: Martin Kaymer, Lee Westwood and Matt Kuchar.
It was Kuchar’s performance here as an amateur way back in the 90s that put such high expectations on a player that is just now living up to them. His latest task will be representing the U.S. in this high-powered European pairing. Kaymer is the World’s #1 (though 6 players could leave Augusta with that ranking), and won the PGA Championship last August. Many assume he’ll contend despite not much of a track-record in this event. Westwood was in the final group last year and has had multiple chances to win majors, but hasn’t converted.
10:41 AM: Tiger Woods, Grame McDowell and Robert Allenby.
Tiger’s fans are pointing to his 4th place finish last year with all that rust as a positive sign for 2011 regardless of his form, but many think his swing may have regressed since that point. McDowell needs to back up his U.S. Open win with another good year in the majors, and if he were to win another one, it would solidify his place amongst the world’s elite. No one made more clutch putts than McDowell last season, a trait that would serve him well this week. Allenby is a great ball-striker, but doesn’t seem to have the complimentary short game or the head to win a major.
12:53 PM: Fred Couples, Luke Donald and Steve Stricker.
If you can come up with a favorite who isn’t a long hitter it would likely be Donald or Stricker. Stricker’s game is rounding back into form, and he’s a deadly putter. If Donald can get himself in position off the tee, there may not be a better player in the world from the fairways to the cup. The way he dismantled the field at the Match Play suggested to me he does have the game to win a Major and considering his wayward driving game, Augusta’s relatively generous areas off the tee might suit him best. Fred plays Augusta about as well as anyone, but his ever cranky back is in worse shape than ever this year. If he can go, he’ll be blowing it 30 yards by these two and from there, as always, who knows?
1:15 PM: Bubba Watson, Paul Casey, and Eduardo Molinari.
Casey will be a lot of people’s sleeper, if someone inside the top-10 in the World can be considered such. He’s got plenty of power, but still hasn’t shown me he’s ready to hold up on a Masters Sunday afternoon. Bubba Watson is a guy who intrigues me at Augusta. He’s plenty long, and has all the shots. His playoff loss at the PGA suggests he can get in contention in big events. His career is at a bit of a turning point. He can either go be a top-15 player in the World, or just have a nice career picking up checks. His next couple of years in the big events will probably tell the tale. I don’t know anything about the Molinaris, except they’d probably win if they could play better-ball.
1:48 PM: Phil Mickelson, Geoff Ogilvy, and Peter Uihlein.
Always a late time for the defending champion, but Phil should have no trouble. His destruction of the Redstone course in Houston last weekend established him as the clear favorite for this week. There aren’t many guys who you’d think could win back-to-back, but Phil is the ultimate streak player and pulled off the double in 2006. Watch out this week. If he’s not at least around the top of the leaderboard, I’d be shocked. Peter Uihlein is the next Rickie Fowler. U.S. Amateur champion, college star, made the cut in Tampa, and it wouldn’t be a surprise to see him on the weekend here. I think the mysterious lack of success for Geoff Ogilvy at the Masters will continue.
1:59 PM: Alvaro Quiros, Jhonatton Vegas and Gary Woodland.
Last group out, you hang ’em, we bang ’em. Don’t see any contenders here, just a few guys that’ll be bunting some short irons into the back nine par fives. Quiros speaks openly about how Augusta intimidates him, Woodland is a year away from contending here I think, and Vegas is still a little too much hype for me. He won a birdie fest at the Hope. It’s about as far from a Major as you can get.