Masters Preview: Top 10 Players to Watch

Tiger Woods, again on top of the golf world and chasing Jack Nicklaus's record of 18 majors instead of his demons, will try to win his fifth Masters and 15th major at Augusta.

Two talented lefties--defending champion Bubba Watson and three-time Masters winner Phil Mickelson--will challenge Woods along with young golfers like Rory McIlory, Keegan Bradley, and Michael Thompson. A 14-year-old from China has already stolen some of the headlines, and the other golfers probably do not mind in the least. If Woods wins, the floodgates may again open up as he dominates the golf world like he did last decade. The Masters is shaping up to be Woods versus the field, and the rest of the golf world may need someone other than Woods to win to prevent Woods from again starting to win tournaments before they even start, like he did many times last decade. 

Here are 10 golfers to keep an eye on this week at Augusta. 

1. Tiger Woods — He's won three tournaments this year and is reading the greens unlike in past years, when he has struggled mightily. He has not won a major since he won the 2008 U.S. Open on a broken leg and has not won the Masters since he won his fourth Green Jacket in 2005. Since 2008, Woods has had a devilish time reading the speeds of the greens at Augusta, especially when he has had an early morning round followed by a late afternoon round, or when the speeds of the greens have been altered by rain. This year, he may have gotten a lucky draw. Should Woods get off to a hot start, his late Friday tee time (1:41 p.m. ET) may help him for the weekend--if he is in one of the final pairings--because he could potentially have three consecutive days in which he plays at around the same time, which means the greens will be at nearly the same speed for him for the last three rounds of the tournament. For Woods to win, he needs to be tapping in for birdie on Augusta's par-5s and making those crucial putts for pars inside 10 feet that every Masters champion inevitably faces, which Woods used to drain with ease. 

2. Phil Mickelson — Mickelson almost shot a 58 this year in Arizona. He has every shot in the bag, and has won the Masters three times. Like a pitcher who has mastered eight pitches when he only needs three, though, Mickelson sometimes is the victim of his own masterful shotmaking, for he thinks there is not a shot that he cannot make, no matter the circumstances. Mickelson, who can pull off and invent any shot needed, will be faced with a situation at some point in the tournament when he has to choose between playing it safe and going for broke--and how he fares in the tournament may be determined by what approach he decides to take. Look out for the 16th hole, the site of so many of the tournaments most memorable moments that Verne Lundquist has called, as the hole has the potential to trip up left-handed golfers like Mickelson. 

3. Rory McIlroy  — He is not burdened by being the world's top-ranked player since Woods reclaimed his no. 1 ranking. He may feel more comfortable with his new Nike clubs. McIlroy does not feel comfortable under the klieg lights, but they are not on him this week, and his girlfriend, superstar tennis player Caroline Wozniaki, is with him. She was on his bag at the par-3 tournament may give him a sense of calm for McIlroy to be in contention now that the golf world seems to be not paying attention to him as intensely as it had when he was the top-ranked golfer who signed the most lucrative endorsement deal in the sport's history. 

4. Bubba Watson — The defending champion who never took formal lessons and swings a pink driver has been inconsistent since his emotional Masters victory, but the course sets up nicely for the carefree lefty. 

5. Ian Poulter — He has two top-10 finishes in the last three Masters at Augusta. As he has shown during Ryder Cups, he is intense and clutch should he be in contention down the stretch. 

6. Angel Cabrera — The Argentinian grips and rips it. He seems to always find his game at Augusta. The course's lengthy layout favors a player like Cabrera--look for him to stubbornly be in contention  

7. Lee Westwood and K.J.Choi -- In many ways they are similar players. The Englishman (Westwood) and the South Korean (Choi) are steady, good ball-strikers, and always in contention at majors. Both, though, have yet to breakthrough in a major tournament, but look for both to hang around the top ten, as they always seem to do at the majors. 

8. Fred Couples -- The 1992 Masters champion seems to find the fountain of youth at the Masters, regardless of his footwear. The former college roommate of CBS golf announcer Jim Nantz will be a player to keep an eye on, especially if golfers have a tough time making pars and the leaders are hovering around even par. 

9.  Steve Stricker -- His putting and uncanny ability to read the speeds of greens make him a contender in any tournament. He has been Tiger Woods's longtime Ryder Cup partner, and Woods has credited Stricker with giving him putting tips that have been responsible for some of Woods's success on the greens this year.

10. Tianliang Guan (amateur) -- I have never seen him play. He may not have the distance off the tee to compete now, but those who have played practice rounds with him--like Woods and two-time Masters champ Ben Crenshaw--have commended his poise and game. Crenshaw even said he would not be surprised if the 14-year old made the cut. I have no clue how he'll do and cannot assess his game, but a 14-year-old playing on golf's grandest stage will definitely be worth watching. 


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