Commentary | New contenders emerge with Tiger Woods' absence at Masters

jdill@bradenton.comApril 10, 2014 

Welcome to Masters Week, where the golf season really begins.

It's the first major championship of the year, which was supposed to be the first chance in 2014 for Tiger Woods to inch closer to Jack Nicklaus' hallowed career major title mark.

But Woods is missing the tournament at Augusta National because of back surgery. It also means he's slipping behind the pace that Nicklaus set during his career. The Golden Bear earned his 15th career major title at the age of 38, while Tiger has been stuck on No. 14 since 2008. If the back surgery wipes him out for the entire season, then Woods will enter 2015 at the age of 38 -- his birthday is in December -- one behind Nicklaus.

But no matter. The Masters will move ahead as it always has. Here's a look at who should capitalize with Tiger removed from the field.

Contenders

• Bubba Watson: The former Masters champ leads the PGA Tour in driving distance and is ranked No. 4 on the money list. He's playing well - six top ten finishes in nine PGA Tour starts - and he's already proven he can win at Augusta National. To win the green jacket, players must bend the ball from right-to-left. And Watson's powerful game doesn't take a huge hit when he has to hit cut shots, which makes this lefty an attractive pick to take home major No. 2 this week.

• Phil Mickelson: The original "Lefty" is always a threat at the majors. So don't look at his woeful 2014 statistics, where he doesn't rank in the top 30 in any of the top categories, because Mickelson seems to shine when it matters most. Nobody thought he'd win the British Open, because the event doesn't suit his style at all. Yet, he accomplished that feat last year. Bank on Lefty putting it together for a run this week.

• Sergio Garcia: OK, the Spaniard has never won a major championship. And, yes, he doesn't possess the best track record when closing out big-time tournaments. But this might just be the year it all clicks. Why? Because Garcia leads the PGA Tour in scoring average at 69.285, and that's good enough to contend this week.

Dark horses

• Jordan Spieth: Just three rookies have tamed the Masters tournament, but none since Fuzzy Zoeller's victory in 1979. Horton Smith won the inaugural tournament, while Gene "The Squire" Sarazen claimed the championship the following season. First-timers don't fare well because of the beast that is Augusta. It takes years to learn the difficult nuances in the greens and the layout. But Spieth became the first teenager in 82 years to win on the PGA Tour when he earned a victory last season at the John Deere Classic, and he has climbed to No. 13 in the world this year.

• Patrick Reed: Another Masters rookie with an immense game, Reed's biggest win came this season at the World Golf Championship event at Doral, which was his third since last August. Oh and Reed won an NCAA title when he went to Augusta State. Yep, he won't be intimidated by Augusta National, and that might help in his quest.

• Graeme McDowell: The former U.S. Open champion is second on the PGA Tour in scoring average and is one of the best putters this season. That's a prime pedigree for taking down the green jacket on the undulating greens of Augusta National. However, he's a dark horse because he's only made the cut twice since 2009 at the Masters.

Long shot

• Ryan Moore: No Masters champion has ever won the event the same year after earning the Par-3 title. So good luck to Moore. But who knows? Maybe a new trend will start this year.

Jason Dill, sports reporter, can be reached at 745-7017. Follow him on Twitter @Jason__Dill.

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