Commentary | Tiger's the favorite, but watch out for the no-names

jdill@bradenton.comApril 11, 2013 

It's that magical time of the year when the sports world is churning out top events left and right.

We've had opening day in Major League Baseball and March Madness in college basketball.

Now golf is center stage with The Masters emanating from the holy grail of golf courses, Augusta National, this week.

Last year's tournament saw Bubba Watson break through to claim his first major championship, doing so with the ridiculous hard-hook wedge shot to escape danger and secure himself a green jacket.

This year's tournament boasts another star-studded field.

So who is likely to don the green jacket Sunday?

Well it could be several candidates, but let's start with the most obvious choice.

Tiger Woods

The best player of his generation is peaking at the right time, or so it seems. Woods captured a victory at the Arnold Palmer Invitational this season in his final event before the Masters. But he did the same in 2012, and Woods didn't return to the center stage at Augusta National.

His par-5 scoring at Bay Hill was tops against the field both years and was reminiscent of how Tiger played during his prime.

He also putted masterfully, gaining 1.48 strokes per round on the field, which rates better than his previous best of 0.84 heading into the Masters.

Rory McIlroy

It wasn't too long ago that the golf world anointed the Northern Ireland native the successor to Tiger's throne.

How the mighty have fallen.

McIlroy's start to the 2013 PGA Tour season was a rocky road to say the least.

His season hit bottom when he withdrew from the Honda Classic, citing pain from having his wisdom teeth removed and a shattered confidence.

Nobody would choose the former No. 1 player in the world to regroup in time for the first major of the year, until last week's performance.

McIlroy wasn't supposed to play the Valero Texas Open, but he was so displeased with his game that he felt a tune-up was needed.

And even though McIlroy didn't walk away with his first victory of the season, he did snag second place by shooting a 66 in the final round.

A harbinger for this week's Masters? Maybe, maybe not.

Bubba Watson

This space is usually reserved for the more popular left-hander in the game, Phil Mickelson, but Watson is the defending champion.

And he smashes the ball a long, long way.

Last season, Watson surprised everyone with his Masters-winning performance and entered the 2012 edition on the heels of two top-five finishes.

This year, he has logged two top-20 finishes in those same events, the WGC-Cadillac Championship and Arnold Palmer Invitational.

When you consider that back-to-back championships have occurred only three times (Woods, Nick Faldo and Jack Nicklaus) since the tournament started in 1934, the odds are clearly against Watson this year.

Verdict

With all eyes fixed on Woods resuming his chase of the Golden Bear's immortal major-title mark, it would make sense to look for someone else to become champion this week.

That's not to say Woods isn't a heavy favorite, or shouldn't be. In a previous column, I predicted Woods would take a major title this season and the most likely place would be at Augusta.

However, the tournament has become a delight for players securing their first major in recent years. The likes of Watson, Charl Schwartzel and Trevor Immelman have completed the feat dating back to 2008, so it shouldn't be a surprise if it happens again this year.

Jason Dill, Herald sports writer, can be reached at 941-745-7017. Follow him on Twitter @Jason_Dill.

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