SOMETIMES, probably more than anyone would care to admit, the
key to winning the Masters is as random as an 11th-hour tip on
the practice tee. Last year a struggling Ben Crenshaw heeded
caddie Carl Jackson's gentle suggestion to move the ball back in
his stance. Four swings later, Crenshaw was transformed. Six
days later, he was putting on the green jacket.
Nevertheless, the Masters invites prognostication because of its
predictable patterns. Its roll call of winners features the
game's greatest names, and its leader boards have more star
quality than those of the other majors. Cinderella stories are
rare at Augusta, where even the long-shot victors--like Crenshaw
last year and Jack Nicklaus in 1986--are famous. The marquee
quality is so powerful, it makes a limited-field invitational
with no rough the most anxiously awaited major of the year. At
last week's Players Championship, the anticipation alarm
officially went off.
Beyond the immediate challenges presented by the Stadium Course
at Sawgrass and the best field so far this year, Augusta was the
subject most deeply embedded in the minds of the top players.
Even defending champion Lee Janzen wasn't immune to using the
richest Tour event as a dress rehearsal. "He'd hit a draw off
the tee and say, 'That's perfect for 13 at Augusta,' or carve a
nice cut and say, 'I should save that one for the 18th,'" said
Janzen's caddie, Dave Musgrove. "He's been thinking about the
Masters for weeks."
Now, with all due respect to the BellSouth Classic, everyone is.
This Masters is already distinctive in that the usual European
juggernaut has been reduced to so many walking wounded. Nick
Faldo, Bernhard Langer, Ian Woosnam and Jose Maria Olazabal, all
of whom have won the tournament in the '90s, are either injured
or nursing ailing games, while '80s winners Sandy Lyle and Seve
Ballesteros are desperately searching for some remnant of their
old selves. Another distinction is that first-time Masters
participants Jim Furyk, David Duval, Woody Austin, Tim Herron
and Michael Campbell are all candidates to become the first
Augusta rookie to win since Fuzzy Zoeller in 1979.
But the heart of the fascination with the Masters lies in the
promise it holds for its favorite sons, and this year's run-up
got a jolt of adrenaline when Fred Couples blasted his way back
to the top with his closing 64 at Sawgrass. Couples's biggest
victory since the 1992 Masters makes him a logical favorite at
Augusta. He is hugely long, hits some of the softest-landing
approaches in the game and seems to thrive on the creativity
that Augusta demands. But while Couples is a favorite, we do not
consider him the favorite. First of all, no one has ever won the
Players and the Masters in the same year. Although he is pleased
with his physical therapist, Couples may still have problems
with his back. Finally, the bombs he made on Sunday aside,
Couples is a fragile short putter. Even during his 64 he missed
a two-footer on the 11th. "It's unfortunate, but I win
tournaments because I putt well, and I lose them because I
don't," Couples says. "I wish I could putt like when I was 24,
but that isn't going to happen."
Couples has played steadily through most of the early season, a
pattern that Masters winners generally follow. This year, no
player has adhered to that model more closely than Tom Lehman,
whose tie for eighth at the Players marked his sixth consecutive
finish in the top 10. Lehman has a penchant for playing some of
his best golf on the most demanding courses when the pressure is
greatest. He tied for third at Augusta in 1993 and finished
second to Olazabal in 1994. Last year he was third in the U.S.
Open. Those experiences and the current state of his game lead
him to believe he can peak during the Masters. "My game is right
where it needs to be, and I know how to play Augusta," Lehman
says. "The patient player usually gets rewarded at Augusta, and
if the Lord blessed me with anything, it's patience and
Those qualities also make contenders out of two long-suffering
campaigners, former Masters champions Tom Watson and Zoeller.
The 46-year-old Watson has found a groove in the last few years
that allows him to play powerfully and consistently from tee to
green. He also retains some of the best short-game skills ever
seen. But Watson is the most notoriously poor short putter in
the game, particularly when he's in contention. It's a failing
that would seem to give him no hope on the lightning-fast greens
of Augusta, but Watson has a feel for the course, much as
Nicklaus does, who was 46 when he won his sixth green jacket.
Zoeller strikes the ball nearly as well as Watson, but also
struggles on the greens and hasn't won a Tour event since 1986.
He finished tied for fourth at the Players, has three top-20
finishes at Augusta in the '90s and is experiencing no back pain.
Another veteran with a strong record of contending at the
Masters is Jay Haas, who has five finishes of seventh or better
in his last eight appearances at Augusta, including a tie for
third last year. Of average length off the tee but solid in
every phase of the game, Haas represents the same steady,
unspectacular play as such recent Masters winners as Crenshaw,
Faldo, Langer, Olazabal and Larry Mize. "Since Augusta changed
the greens from Bermuda to bent grass [in 1981], I think it has
become more of a par shooter's course than a birdie maker's,"
says Haas, who tied Lehman and three others for eighth at the
Another solid, all-around player, but without a history of
success at Augusta, is Colin Montgomerie. The 31-year-old Scot
is the No. 2 player in the world according to the Sony Ranking
and is hungrily stalking his first major after losing the 1994
U.S. Open and the 1995 PGA in playoffs. "My caddie told me just
because you are Number 2 doesn't mean you have to finish second
all the time," says Montgomerie, who tied for second at the
Players after opening his season with a victory at Dubai. "I
expect to contend at Augusta."
Two players whose length and ability fit the orthodox view that
the Masters favors a power player are Davis Love III and Ernie
Els. Both are expecting recent history to work to their
advantage. When Love finally broke into the top 10 in a major
with his second at last year's Masters, he learned a lot about
how to get out of his own way. His closing 66, he said, showed
him what it feels like to win a major "except for getting the
trophy." Els, one of the others who tied for eighth at the
Players, will be playing in his first major since coughing up
the PGA Championship, in which he held a three-stroke lead after
three rounds. The ultimate big hitter, John Daly, has at least a
slugger's chance at Augusta, where he has always made the cut
and finished tied for third in 1993. After spending the first
three months of the year globe-trotting and playing poorly, Daly
finished 19th at the Players, his best performance of 1996.
"John is fresh for a change," says Zoeller.
The most dangerous player at the Masters is often the one who
has played the best over a sustained period. Until recently,
that was Greg Norman. But Norman missed the cut at the Players,
just as he had the week before at Bay Hill. It marked the first
time in his Tour career that he hadn't made it to the weekend on
consecutive weeks. Because he is skipping Atlanta, Norman will
arrive at Augusta with little, if any, of the momentum he built
up with four U.S. victories and a remarkable record of
consistency over the last year.
Our favorite for the Masters admits that he has not yet figured
out how to reach his peak during golf's most important events.
He has not won a major, and although he cracked the top 10 at
Augusta last year with a tie for seventh, he was disappointed
because he had started the final round only one off the lead.
But because he has won two tournaments this year, and a total of
seven at the age of 25, we think Phil Mickelson is ready to win
his first major. He admits that he is getting closer. "I feel
like I was more patient in the majors last year," he says, "but
I still haven't won under those types of conditions, so I don't
think I should be considered a favorite until I have."
We disagree. Augusta plays to all of Mickelson's
strengths--length off the tee (he has a new titanium driver,
which he says has given him 15 extra yards), an ability to stop
his long approaches quickly, an all-world short game and a
competitive drive as strong as any on Tour. Mickelson is not
without weaknesses. He can be an erratic ball striker, an overly
bold course manager, and he suffers shockingly bad patches of
short putting. But his warrior's instinct, the one that brought
him back into contention at the Players with a third-round 64
after he barely survived the cut, is his greatest asset.
Although he flamed out on Sunday to finish 33rd, Mickelson was
rightly proud that he had fought back into contention. "There is
nothing more fun than that," he said.
If Mickelson can say the same thing on Masters Sunday as he
maneuvers around Amen Corner and heads for home on the course
that is the most demanding test of nerves and judgment in golf,
it will take one hellacious 11th-hour tip to beat him.