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MASTERS | PLAYERS

The

Contenders AFP

Paul Prendergast picks his favourites for Masters glory this year.

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AFP

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Tiger Woods, seen here with his caddie Joe LaCava (above), enters the Masters having won three of his last four events; defending champion Bubba Watson (right) hasn’t enjoyed the best of seasons to date, but his shot-making ability makes him one of the favourites at Augusta 36

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he most exciting and anticipated tournament in the world of golf, The Masters provides an annual reminder of what is great in our game. The pageantr y, tradition, drama and colour are unrivalled and the final round always provides us with a tension-packed feast of birdies and eagles at every turn as the tournament explodes to a crescendo on the back nine. It seems by Sunday that everyone is shooting lights out, yet history has shown that experience is the key to unlocking the secrets of Augusta National and to be best positioned to contend for the storied Green Jacket and the lifetime invitation that comes with it to return as a past champion. The contenders in 2013 are once again many and varied as a mixture of youth and experience has prevailed on the PGA Tour so far this season. Here is our look at the leading candidates.

Tiger Woods The History Maker You get the real sense that 2013 could be the year of the Tiger. A simple examination of the host venues for this season’s majors would have had Woods licking his lips at the challenge ahead, with historic Merion hosting the US Open again and the Open Championship returning to the wonderful links at Muirfield. But it’s Augusta where the world number two knows best. With his early season form, Woods has reignited debate about his ultimate place in history and the pursuit of Jack Nicklaus’ record of 18 majors. Two dominant victories at Torrey Pines and Doral augers well for Woods as he eyeballs a fifth Masters title and 15th major. There is no doubting that he is ‘back’; Woods has now won five times in his last 23 PGA Tour events and has the look of old, a look that sent chills down the spines of his fellow competitors. Having said that, getting the job done in a HKGOLFER.COM

regular tour event is one thing for a man who has won 76 times on the PGA Tour and for whom Sam Snead’s all-time PGA Tour record of 82 wins seems but a mere formality. Doing it again in the majors – the tournaments that define careers – is another matter entirely. Eighteen majors have been contested since Woods won his last – at the 2008 US Open – and it’s been eight years since he won the last of his four Green Jackets. Stepping up to the plate and doing it under the pressure of expectation is the next challenge that Woods faces in his return to the top and a tilt at history.

Bubba Watson The Defender Bubba Watson’s heroics in 2012 provided us with a comparable Masters in terms of drama and theatre to that of Charl Schwartzel’s epic of 2011. We should expect no less in 2013 – of the spectacle and of Watson, no matter his form leading in. Bubba went slightly off the boil on the course after Augusta last year, as did Schwartzel after his win. Watson checked himself out from the game for all the right reasons after donning HKGOLFER.COM

the Green Jacket, playing only one tournament before June to spend valuable time with his wife and their newly adopted son. In truth, he probably needed the time out to recover from the emotional aftermath of The Masters win. Have more tears by a champion ever been shed in the period from the final putt through to the Green Jacket presentation? Augusta National is almost as well suited to Watson as it was to the late Seve Ballesteros in his heyday, rewarding his length from the tee while excusing a somewhat less than surgically accurate path from tee to green. Watson, like Ballesteros and Phil Mickelson, also possesses a wonderful, creative imagination and the fearless ability to see and hit shots that others aren’t capable of. His play-off win over Louis Oosthuizen was the clearest demonstration of that – with a 40-yard hooked wedge from the trees on the 10th to within 15 feet – to seal the result. Watson has been solid but not spectacular in limited starts this year but was deeply moved by his achievement in winning in 2012 and will not need any motivation when he drives down Magnolia Lane as the defending champion. You’d expect no less than a very strong defence. HK Golfer・APR 2013

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Ian Poulter The Aggressor

Rory McIlroy Numero Uno

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Rory McIlroy (above) has plenty of unsettled business to settle at The Masters; while Ian Poulter (above right) and Adam Scott (below right) are still searching for that elusive first major championship title 38

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For two years running, the Northern Irishman has been favoured to win his first Green Jacket but despite some stellar individual rounds, he has so far flattered to deceive. McIlroy’s calamitous back nine on Sunday in 2011 en route to a final round 80 surely won’t happen again if he makes the turn in the lead this year. Or could it? Nobody doubts McIlroy’s talent and desire but so far in 2013, we’ve had serious cause to doubt his form as he’s lurched from missed cuts, first round defeats and dentally-inspired walk offs in the first two months of the year. Much has been said of his off season equipment switch and the time it’s taken for him to be fully comfortable again with every club in the bag. At his supreme best, he’s untouchable from tee to green, and freakishly good on them, but we’ve seen precious little of that so far this year. Against t he preparation of a Woods, Phil Mickelson, Dustin Johnson and Brandt Snedeker who have all won at least once this year, many have questioned McIlroy’s schedule.

A missed cut in Abu Dhabi in his first start in early January was followed by a month off. A final round 65 in difficult conditions at the Honda Classic instilled some confidence and some much needed momentum, but then his step on the path to Augusta? The Medallist Club’s member-guest event, instead of further tournaments on the PGA Tour. Go figure. However, McIlroy is notoriously streaky. Even in 2012, which featured multiple victories and an eight-shot triumph at the US PGA Championship at Kiawah Island, he also had five missed cuts (including one at the UBS Hong Kong Open) . His two worst finishes when making the weekend action came at The Masters and the Open Championship. McIlroy has showed then that he’s more than capable of bouncing back in sublime fashion from patchy periods of form, which makes him impossible to count out of Masters reckoning this month.

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Ian Poulter’s tension packed performance at the 2012 Ryder Cup, followed by his WGCHSBC Champions win at Mission Hills and a robust defence of his Australian Masters title around a firm and fast Kingston Heath on the Melbourne Sandbelt affirmed his place in the upper echelond of world golf. That was last year. In 2013, Poulter has chosen his tournaments and time away carefully and has stepped up to the level true champions have displayed for generation: he performs well when it matters most or when he’s hungry to prove a point. In three appearances in the US through the WGC-Cadillac Championship, Poulter had two top-10 finishes, including a fourth place at the WGC-Accenture Match Play but for all his Ryder Cup and match play exploits, Poulter is major-less and winless in a 72-hole stroke play event on American soil. Being the competitor that he is, deep down, that must irk and fuel a desire to prove that he is as good as he shows year in, year out in team events. The energised atmosphere on a Sunday among the Georgia pines is right up Poulter’s ally, he just needs to get into position to in the mix on Sunday and the juices will surely flow. He will come into The Masters as an underdog behind the usual suspects, and while there are certainly more impressive ball strikers there is no better clutch putter (anchored or otherwise) and no better exponent of the short game. At the age 37 and in the peak of his career, what better time and place could there be for Poulter to break his duck than at Augusta National?

Adam Scott The Feel-Good Story Adam Scott has been close before at Augusta, leading the 2011 Masters on the penultimate hole until being run over by an avalanche of birdies that was unprecedented in Masters history. With that, what looked like being Scott’s Green Jacket was draped instead over the shoulders of South African Charl Schwartzel. Scott, as always, took the disappointment of missing out on his first major with the grace and poise that we have come to expect of the Australian in over a dozen years as a professional. However, Scott suffered a vastly more agonising loss to another South African, the veteran Ernie Els in the 2012 Open HKGOLFER.COM

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Championship at Royal Lytham. Scott was again leading on the second to last hole of the tournament only to succumb with late bogies to allow Els to secure his second Claret Jug. From a ball striking perspective, there are few who can match the Australian and he has taken his game to another level in recent years after switching to a long putter. He has wielded this most controversial of clubs in fine fashion since his slump-ending performance at the Australian Open in 2009. If the putts drop at Augusta National as they were in 2011, I’m sure there won’t be anyone who would begrudge him victory after these heartbreakingly close shaves, long putter or not.

Who Else?

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After a top-5 placing at The Masters last year and a World Golf Championship win this, the always smiling Matt Kuchar (above) is surely in the reckoning for a Green Jacket this time around 40

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Local knowledge and experience at Augusta National is more important than at any other venue and with that in mind, it’s impossible to exclude Phil Mickelson from the list of contenders once again. The three-time Masters champion fits into the Bubba Watson mould in terms of imagination and with his superb short game and aggressive approach, cannot be discounted around a course he knows and loves so much. A glance at the Official World Golf Rankings and recent form around the globe suggests a

whole host of potential first-time Masters winners are assembling for a run at the title this year. Brandt Snedeker was being hailed as the hottest golfer in the world with a third, two seconds and victory at Pebble Beach in his opening five events on Tour, but the world number four has been inactive ever since, resting after a rib injury which is hardly the kind of Masters preparation he had in mind. Former top dog Luke Donald craves a first Major and has run into some form at the right time with a fourth place finish at the Tampa Bay Championship. Likewise Matt Kuchar, the WGC Accenture Match Play champion, is enjoying a stellar season as is Graeme McDowell, who has notched three top-10s in his opening four events. The pick of the bunch in this category may well be the still vastly underrated Justin Rose. The Englishman, the world number five, possesses all the skills and experience to thrive at the Augusta National and like his close mate Poulter, is desperate to break his major championship duck. And what of Sergio Garcia? Like Scott, the Spaniard is a brilliant ball striker, one who surely deserves to end his career with at least one major title under his belt. His seemingly successful adoption of the claw grip could see him thrive on Augusta’s traditionally lightning-fast greens. HKGOLFER.COM

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