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Sunday, April 1, 2012

Countdown to Agusta

Between a rejuvenated Tiger Woods, his old nemesis Phil Mickelson and the emerging young star that is Rory McIlroy, Augusta, Georgia is the place to be next weekend as the 76th Masters has epic potential.

I'll never forget watching Tiger and Phil, paired together for the final round of the Masters back in 2009. As a small-town sports reporter and anchor, it was my job to write, edit, produce and deliver the sports segment in Sunday's newscasts. There I was, editing the Masters highlights off of live television, recording the game using an old-school VCR tape deck and importing the raw footage into the computer for editing. With every shot Tiger or Phil took, especially with Mickelson's six birdies on the front nine, I was re-editing the highlight, dropping and adding clips with both a sense of frustration with the workload and excitement with the electricity I could feel from the greens of Augusta zapping directly into my office all the way in southeastern Idaho. Remember that shot Tiger took in the middle of the freakin forrest, through the trees, shown over and over again in crisp, slow-motion replays?

While the Tiger vs. Phil soap opera lost steam down the stretch, there was little time for disappointment as the game went to a three-way sudden death playoff with Angel Cabrera finally putting on the Green Jacket as the sun began to set.

I have 2009-ish hopes for this year's Masters because of the strength of the field. Tiger. 4-time Masters champion. Mickelson. Jacket-winner three times in the past eight years. McIlroy. The Irishman who managed to maintain enough confidence to win the 2011 U.S. Open (by a whopping eight shots) despite coming off the Masters in which he played the worst round in tournament history when leading after 54 holes, shooting an 80 on the final day and surrendering any hope of victory. Day and Scott. Last year's runners-up. Westwood. Rose. Furyk. The list of potential leaderboard-toppers is vast.

Tiger may have momentum coming into the Masters now that his PGA Tour victory Mojo is back, but I wouldn't take Tiger over the field in this one. Not yet. There are too many other talented golfers who have a real shot at the Green Jacket.

What about Augusta's defending champ, Charl Schwartzel? He comes in ranked seventh in the world, but he hasn't won since last year's Masters. If he repeated at Augusta, he would join one of the most exclusive clubs in all of golf as only Jack Nicklaus, Nick Faldo and Tiger Woods have won back-to-back Masters.

Someone to watch out for is Luke Donald, the Englishman who currently owns the No. 1 ranking in the world (McIlroy is No. 2 in case you were wondering). The 34-year-old has yet to win a major, but with 10 wins on Tour and a superb putting game, Augusta might just be the place for Donald to get over the hump and win his first major.

That leads us to our next question… when was the last time the No. 1 player in the world won the Masters? How much does one's world ranking even matter at Augusta? Here's a look at the winners and their world rank heading into the tournament over the last 11 years:

2011 - Charles Schwartzel (No. 29)
2010 - Pil Mickelson (No. 3)
2009 - Angel Cabrera (No. 69)
2008 - Trevor Immemlan (No. 29)
2007 - Zach Johnson (No. 56)
2006 - Phil Mickelson (No. 4)
2005 - Tiger Woods (No. 2)
2004 - Phil Mickelson (No. 8)
2003 - Mike Weir (No. 10)
2002 - Tiger Woods (No. 1)
2001 - Tiger Woods (No. 1)
2000 - Vijay Singh (No. 8)

Tiger was the last top-ranked golfer to win the Masters, a feat he cannot accomplish this year with the No. 6 ranking. I still don't understand how he was ranked that high after a 30-month winning drought, but that is neither here nor there.

Mickelson comes in ranked 15th but he's played well this season with a victory at Pebble Beach and a near-win the next week at the Northern Trust Open where he lost a three-way playoff.

I would put my money on Mickelson or McIlroy to take the Masters this year, but with a field filled with both veterans and youth, it's going to be one heck of a fight for anyone in contention.

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