On paper, The Masters appears to be top-heavy this year, with the top players in the world coming into form at just the right time as the year's first major approaches. With Tiger Woods finally breaking his winless streak, Phil Mickelson picking up a victory at Pebble Beach and Rory McIlroy being, well, Rory McIlroy, The Masters is shaping up to feature some of golf's biggest stars and biggest draws.
Of course, things don't always go according to plan, and on Thursday we can rip up the paper and throw it out as the field takes the course at Augusta National Golf Club. While all eyes will be trained on Woods, McIlroy and Mickelson, there always seems to be someone who sneaks up out of nowhere, quietly climbing The Masters leaderboard, either early in the week or with a Sunday charge.
Here are a few players to watch, beginning with the heavy favorites.
Tiger Woods: Even as Tiger struggled personally and professionally, he continued to hang around at Augusta National. In 2010 and 2011, Woods finished tied for fourth, quietly keeping his place near the top of the leaderboard. Last year, Woods showed a flash of brilliance on Sunday, but didn't quite have enough to overtake Charl Schwartzel atop the leaderboard.
Now, after winning the Arnold Palmer Invitational, all eyes are on Tiger once again. The hype has reached deafening levels, and Woods is the odds-on favorite to win The Masters. We've seen this story before, though, and it's tough to tell which Tiger will show up at Augusta National -- the one who dominated the field in year's past, or the suddenly human one who's struggled over the past two years.
Phil Mickelson: It's impossible to count Mickelson out, despite the up-and-down nature of his game. In February, Mickelson surged to the top of the leaderboard on Sunday at Pebble Beach, carding a final round 64 to take the win while playing alongside Tiger Woods. Since then, all has been quiet with Mickelson for the most part, but he has a habit of showing up and working his way into contention at The Masters.
The three-time Masters winner is absolutely a threat to make it four wins this week, and is lumped in along with the favorites. Mickelson always seems to find himself near the top of the leaderboard on Sunday at Augusta, though last year's T-27 was somewhat surprising considering he came into the event as the reigning champion.
Rory McIlroy: We all know McIlroy's story by now. In prime position to win a green jacket heading into the final round at Augusta last year, McIlroy collapsed in spectacular fashion. His lead slipped away on the front nine, and as he made the turn his game went completely off the rails. McIlroy has some demons to exercise, specifically on the 10th hole, where he met the neighbors and visited a cabin nobody knew existed on his way to a triple-bogey.
But, as we saw last year, the youngster has a way of bouncing back: He followed his Masters collapse with a convincing victory at the US Open, becoming a household name in the process. Look for McIlroy to hang around in contention.
Luke Donald: Donald has quietly moved up to No. 1 in the Official World Golf Rankings, a spot Tiger Woods occupied for what seemed like forever. Donald is steady and consistent, though not so spectacular, and can't be counted out at Augusta. Last year, he finished in a tie for fourth along with Woods, his second-best result in a Masters.
Hunter Mahan: The only player to win twice this season, Mahan comes into the Masters hot. If the hot-hand is your thing, Mahan is your guy -- he took home the Shell Houston Open title last week and won the WGC-Accenture Match Play Championship earlier in the year.
The downside? Only two players have won The Masters after winning an event the week before it.
Lee Westwood: He's due -- he has to be due. It's a mantra repeated over and over, but at some point Westwood simply has to break through. Despite all his accolades and accomplishments, Westwood is still in the "best player to never win a major" category. He still has to be considered among the favorites, and he's had some solid results at Augusta -- second to Phil in 2010 -- but still can't seem to put it all together.
Fred Couples: A sentimental pick, Couples always seems to hang around at Augusta -- a course that seems to favor his style. With wind in the forecast perhaps placing an emphasis on long, accurate drives, Couples could be a factor, at least early in the tournament.
Couples's problem is still his back -- an injury that won't go away. As the week wears on, odds are Couples will wear down, though it's possible he finds himself in contention heading into the weekend.
Dustin Johnson: Not a favorite and not even a contender, but needs to be thrown in just for fun. Johnson won't be playing at Augusta National this week after injuring his back. Did he come down with an injury because of the powerful swing he boasts, you might ask? No. He aggravated a previous back injury -- wait for it -- lifting a jet ski.
The Field: This is a cop-out, but since it's always lumped together anyway, The Field might as well be the last "contender." Sure, it's easy to pick out favorites this year, but someone always emerges from the pack and surges into contention over the course of the weekend. Who might it be this year?
- Keegan Bradley: a first-timer who has plenty of potential.
- Justin Rose: who's put together a solid season thus far.
- Charl Schwartzel: the defending champion who can't be counted out.
- Bubba Watson: long hitter who stands the best chance of dealing with less-than-ideal conditions.
- Graeme McDowell: solid competitor who always seems to quietly hang around.
- Segio Garcia: maybe -- just maybe -- it'll be his time.
- Jason Day: like Bradley, Day finished the season strong. A second-place finish in last year's Masters helps, too.
The Masters gets underway on Thursday morning, live on ESPN, ESPN3 and Masters.com.