2014 Masters picks and predictions: Who steps up with Tiger Woods absent at Augusta?

David Cannon

We keep hearing how the Masters is "wide open" this year with Tiger gone and other injuries bothering some of the top players in the world. And the variety of picks and predictions from SB Nation's golf staff reinforce that theme at the top of the tournament.

It's [becoming] a tradition unlike any other. If there's a major in golf, the SB Nation golf staff gets together to smack around some predictions and discuss the big topics of the week. Here we have Mark Sandritter, Mike Jones, and Brendan Porath chiming in on the 2014 Masters.

Who is your darkhorse pick? (ideally odds 50/1 or higher)

Brendan: I'm going with Welshman Jamie Donaldson, who is currently 125/1 and a longshot. Most in the States have no idea who Donaldson is, but he's the 28th ranked player in the world and has been lighting up the Euro Tour for a few years now. I'm probably putting too much stock in that performance at Doral, where he finished third in the most loaded field of the year so far. But for a darkhorse down the board, I like Donaldson.

Mark: He hasn't played a ton of golf this year, but quietly Graeme McDowell has been in very good form. He's second on the Tour in scoring average, first in strokes gained from putting and 16th in driving accuracy. He has five top 10 finishes in his last six tournaments and at 60/1 appears to be a good value pick. The only issue is he hasn't had much success at Augusta, missing the cut in three of the last four Masters.

Mike: Rickie Fowler has a lot of growing up to do before he dons his first green jacket. But the Southern California native could be ready to break through in a big way in 2014.

Rickie Fowler, because orange and green look ridiculous together and it would be gloriously un-ironic.

Which big name, or names, are you worried about flaming out and missing the weekend?

Mike: Bubba Watson! The next worse thing to seeing a Masters without Tiger is one that doesn't feature Bubba's 35-yard just-because-I-can cut shots over the weekend. Watching him hit a golf ball is silly fun, and every casual fan who will be watching deserves to marvel at his game for four straight days and wonder why his driver shaft is pink. Him missing the cut probably won't happen, but it would be a disaster if it did.

Mark: Jason Day is one of the betting favorites at 14/1, but it wouldn't surprise me if he's not around for the weekend. He hasn't played competitively since winning the WGC-Accenture at the end of February. The even bigger issue is the thumb injury that kept him off the course. He's been forced to tape the thumb and has received cortisone shots to deal with the pain. While he said he's playing pain free, he said the injury previously caused him to flinch at impact. That's a lot to overcome when playing against the best in the world.

Brendan: He's playing well right now, but I worry about Jason Dufner on the slippery Augusta greens. He's a self-admitted nervy-wreck with the putter, and his best finish here is a T20 last year. In terms a big names, he's one I might be worried about even with the recent form. You never know with Bubba, who I predicted would flame out last year, but I think he's back again in the mix in 2014.

Who will be the low amateur? Will they make the cut?

Mark: Matthew Fitzpatrick certainly has an impressive résumé for a 19-year-old and has major championship experience having made the cut at the British Open last year. I'll pick him to notch another major low amateur and say he just makes the cut, heading into the weekend at 4-over.

Matthew_fitzpatrick_medium

Matthew Fitzpatrick/Photo credit: David Cannon

Mike: Matthew Fitzpatrick left Northwestern after one semester because he knew he was destined for something special. Just a months later, he's in the field at The Masters after winning the U.S. Amateur.

Also, he's got the attention of another young European player who knows a thing or two about the pedigree it takes to win a major (via Chicago Tribune)

McIlroy's first impression Tuesday was that Fitzpatrick seemed "very steady" with "a very tidy short game."

"He doesn't seem to be in awe of the week or the venue," McIlroy said. "He seems very level-headed. I just told him to enjoy it."

Fitzpatrick already has one Low Amateur honor with his T44 finish at The 2013 British Open, the only other major he's played. He'll build upon that with similar finish at Augusta where he plays into the weekend.

Which rookie will have the best showing (rundown of the loaded rookie class here)?

Mark: I imagine Jordan Spieth is the popular pick, but I'm going with the current FedEx Points leader, Jimmy Walker. He's already won three times this year and continues to play well with top 25 finishes in each of his last six events. He's a great putter, which should help his cause at Augusta.

Mike: Jimmy Walker without question. He is on a tear in 2014, and fans should expect him to be in contention through 54 holes.

Brendan: Earlier this week, I ranked all the rookies in the field this year (24 of the 97 players). At No. 1, I put Georgian Harris English, so I'll stick with him as the super talented long-hitting rookie to make a push through the weekend.

What will be the winning score?

Mark: 11-under.

Mike: There's no rain in the forecast in Augusta this week. Coupled with the fact that players have been reporting firm and fast conditions during practice rounds, the scores ought to rise. In addition, Old Man Par has taken a beating over the last several years. Not since 2007 has an aggregate score higher than 288 won the event. Phil Mickelson nearly made history with his three-shot win in 2010 with an 16-under-par finish.

But that trend will come back down to Earth slightly based on the conditions. The greens will be fast and that means scores should trend toward par, if only slightly based on players shortening courses with their ever-increasing distance off the tee. Look for the winner to come in at 5-under.

Brendan: Adam Scott and Angel Cabrera finished at 9-under last year, and I'll lean more toward Mike's number above. I think it's going to be dry and fast all weekend, and shooting par will be a great score. The Masters is the one major that where you can shoot in the mid-60s and make a couple eagles, but it sounds like conditions will prevent a lot of that this year. Phil Mickelson said he thought the greens were going to be faster than in recent years, and I think the winner will get to 7-under.

Expectations and finishing predictions for:

Rory McIlroy

Mark: The final round 65 at the Shell Houston Open was a good sign, but it did little to erase the final round collapse at the Honda Classic. I expect McIlroy to be near the top of the leaderboard at some point during the first two rounds before fading into a top 30 finish.

Photo credit: David Cannon

Mike: Top-10. In his tune-up for Augusta at the Shell Houston Open, Rors managed a T7 finish but struggled with his putter. Given the speed of the greens, he'll need to find the touch quickly. He's one of the most talented players in the world, so he'll find some consistency with the flat stick, just not enough to prevail as the winner.

Brendan: Rory is back! Well, at least he's back to one of the top four or five players in the world, and has contended in almost every event he's played in this year. McIlroy's game is suited for Augusta, except for the putter. He can easily hit a draw and shape the ball right to left, and sends most of his shots super high in the air to take some of speed out of Augusta's greens. I think Rory finishes back inside the top ten, but the putter prevents a win.

Phil Mickelson

Mark: I wonder how big of an issue the strained muscle is. He played through it last week and played well at times, but it is still less than ideal. I don't think this is the year he adds a fourth green jacket.

Mike: Phil makes the cut. He'll flirt with the cut line and sneak into the weekend, have strong Saturday but make a huge number right around hole No. 53 to take himself out of the running for his fourth green jacket.

Brendan: Phil's record the year is somewhere between mediocre and n/a, but he won the 2010 Masters without showing much in the first quarter of the year. Mickelson seems healthy after a recent oblique scare, and I think he knows the course too well to fizzle out for the second straight year. I figure Mickelson will play in one of the final five groups on Sunday, but not get the win and finish inside the top 15.

Phil_mickelson_medium

Photo credit: Harry How

Bubba Watson

Brendan: The most unpredictable player — one week he's overwhelming Riviera, and the next he's rocketed three balls in the water on one hole and withdrawing from Bay Hill. In my opinion, it took Bubba over a year to get back to golf following the 2012 Masters win — and that's not a bad thing, he just decided to exhale for a little. That Bay Hill mess aside, Bubba is playing well and contending again, and I think he's right there on Sunday, finishing a shot short in second.

Mark: Watson was playing very well before shooting a first-round 83 at the Arnold Palmer and pulling out. Despite winning in 2012, Watson hasn't had a ton of success at Augusta. I don't think he's a factor this week.

Mike: Top-5: Watson is a magician in the long game, and he'll hang around all weekend to come close to winning a second major on golf's sacred ground.

Adam Scott

Mark: It wouldn't surprise me if Scott made it two in a row. Through two rounds at the Arnold Palmer, he looked like far and away the best player in the world. He didn't close the tournament, yet is still coming off three straight top 10 finishes at the Masters. I think he makes it four in a row this year and is in the mix on Sunday.

Photo credit: David Cannon

Mike: Top-10: The defending champ struggled in his last round, firing a 76 at The Arnold Palmer Invitational to fall to a third place finish. He'll come close to defending his title with the "best to never win a major" monkey off his back, but he won't be the final man standing for the second straight year.

Brendan: The co-favorite and defending champion is playing well right now so it's hard to say he won't be a factor again. But only Nicklaus, Faldo, and Woods have gone back-to-back, and I'm not ready to put the talented Aussie in that group yet.

Sergio Garcia

Mark: Garcia was in the mix last year. I don't think he's driving the ball well enough to contend this season, so unless that changes this week, I don't see him winning.

Brendan: Sergiooooooo. He's emerged as a trendy favorite to get his first major this week, and there would be some symmetry to that finally happening in the first Masters without Tiger. He'll be in the mix to challenge in the final round, but I don't trust his putter on Sunday at Augusta.

Jason Day

Brendan: He was probably the favorite in February, but then the thumb injury threw the progression completely off track. The last two times he's played here, he's finished no worse than third. But he hasn't played competitively since the first week of February and just had a cortisone shot in his thumb last week. Typically a great bet to be there late on Sunday, but not this year.

Mark: The injury and time off is just too much to overcome. If he were 100 percent healthy, he'd be my pick to win. If his game is right, he certainly could be a contender, it's just hard to imagine he's at the top of his game considering the time off and the thumb injury.

Mike: Top-5: The world No. 4 has already won once this year and knows what it's like to contend on Sunday. He narrowly missed making a playoff between Angel Cabrera and Adam Scott and finished third in The 2013 Masters. The Aussie has three runner-up finishes in majors over the last four years, and two of those have come at Augusta. There's little doubt he'll be among the final groups on Sunday.

Jordan Spieth

Mike: Top-10: Spieth is on his way to being a star on the PGA TOUR and will compete for majors for years to come. He'll be firmly in the hunt for the 2014 Masters, but troubling short putting — he ranks 158th in putts from three to five feet — could spell trouble on a course where those knee-knockers will be placed at a premium.

He's doing just about everything else well, including total putting where he ranks 47th.

But in this event on this stage, short putting makes a world of difference. Expect him to remain among the top-10 finishers but succumb to the flat stick at some point.

Spieth_medium

Jordan Spieth at the Shell Houston Open/Photo: Scott Halleran

Mark: Although he's on the fast track to becoming one of the best in the world, Spieth was a bit of a disappointment in the majors last year. He missed the cut at the U.S. Open and the PGA Championship while finishing in a tie for 44th at the The Open. He hasn't hit the ball off the tee very well, or hit a lot of greens this season. That's not a great combo for Augusta. I think he's a non-factor.

Who will win the green jacket? And by how many shots?

Brendan: It's finally time for Matt Kuchar, who stacks cash every single season but has yet to win a major. The Georgia Tech product has history here, dating back to his low amateur honors in 1997 and then back-to-back top 10s the last two years. I'll forget I saw him pull one into the water on the 18th hole last week to give away the Shell Houston Open, and focus more on his perch in the final Sunday pairing the last two weeks. He's playing well, has the history, and has to win a major at some point. And I think it happens this week.

Mark: The numbers don't support it, his history at Augusta doesn't support it, but I'm gong to go on a limb and pick Keegan Bradley. At the top of his game, he certainly has the skill to win a green jacket. He's made some slight swing changes, which he said he thinks will help him at Augusta. He's a long hitter and solid putter. If he can hit enough greens, I think he wins by a stroke over a crowded leaderboard.

Mike: I wrote that Sergio Garcia winning would be a compelling story for this year's invitational, but more than that, the Spaniard's got some substance to his game this season.

That's why he will break through and win his first major by three shots. He'll put it all together on a magical Masters Sunday that says to the world, "Hey, guess what Tiger? I don't need you to be amazing!"

Also, if there's any credence to the idea that Woods gets inside of Sergio's head when both are contending in the same field, that barrier has already been removed. More importantly, he's playing well and can always strike the ball among the best. The major question as it always is will be his putter, which has been as good as ever in 2014.

He ranks 27th in total putting and is first in putts from 10-15 feet. If he can pour in several putts of that length, he'll take a lot of pressure off his short putting, which has been a troubling area for him over the course of his career.

His ball striking remains pure-he ranks 20th in that metric via the PGA TOUR. Before you can sink those critical puts, you've got to hit fairways and greens, and Garcia is doing that as well as ever this season.

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