Zach Johnson. Trevor Immelman. Angel Cabrera. The last three Masters champions are as diverse a trio of players as one could imagine, and as a group, they reflect the impact of course changes made at Augusta National during the tenure of former Masters chairman Hootie Johnson (1998-2006). A layout originally designed to minimize the importance of driving accuracy and emphasize the value of the second shot, regardless of where it was struck, has taken on the characteristics of a traditional parkland venue.
Nowadays, it’s mostly about moving your ball from point A to point B, keeping it in your own fairway, then pondering the delicate balance of risk and reward when plotting the approach. Johnson lengthened numerous holes, and that altered things to a certain extent, but it was the addition of hundreds of trees that really affected the competitive element. Control players such as Zach Johnson now have a better chance of winning at a ballpark where the value of attacking the par 5s has been compromised, where creative shotmaking and playing the angles won’t yield the same level of success as it once did.
If Hootie began his tinkering back in 2002 with the intention of negating advances in equipment technology, he instead produced parity few people envisioned. The Masters is now an equal-opportunity tournament, the last three gatherings serving as evidence, but the world’s best players got to the top for a reason, and they’ll tee off Thursday on my short list of favorites.
Tiger Woods – If you don’t think he’ll come back better than ever, be it this week, next month or next year, you’ve either got a short memory or a long drive to reality. Woods’ return may begin with a certain amount of rust, but he’ll find his footing by the weekend, and from there, it comes down to how much trouble he finds off the tee and how sharp he is inside 15 feet. Since you can’t win this tournament from the treeline anymore, Tiger has been stuck on four Masters titles since 2005. Still, he’s the best golfer in town every time he tees it up. ODDS: 10-1.
Ernie Els – Winning doesn’t cure everything, but victories at Doral and Bay Hill have vaulted Easy to the top of the short list, which may or may not be a good thing. Els has missed three consecutive cuts at Augusta National, opening with rounds of 78, 74 and 75 in that stretch. He hasn’t shot lower than a 71 on any day since Phil Mickelson nipped him at the buzzer in the 2004 thriller, a loss that has come to define one of the finest players of his generation. It was easy to figure Els would win three or four green jackets before all was said and done. Now the challenge involves not trying too hard to win just one. ODDS: 15-1.
Phil Mickelson – As great as Lefty was playing at the end of 2009, nothing he has done this year indicates he’s ready to win a third green jacket. He’s hitting 47.8 percent of his fairways, a ridiculously low number even by his crooked standards, and is missing more greens than usual with both short irons and long ones. Medical issues involving his wife, Amy, may explain his recent play, but nobody gets hot faster – or more often – than Philly Mick. ODDS: 25-1.
Padraig Harrington – Another top-tier guy who has never factored at Augusta National on Sunday, but unlike Westwood, Paddy has turned previous opportunities at other majors into career-defining victories. His short game is ultra-reliable, his putting inside 10 feet superb. No one wastes fewer strokes over the long haul than Harrington, who is more likely to claim his first Masters if the winning score falls in the five- to 10-under range. Unlike most on this list, he benefits from the course changes. ODDS: 25-1.
Fred Couples – He’s tearing up the Champions Tour, and if you think that doesn’t help him this week, think again. When Couples is mentally engaged, which is always the case at the Masters, and driving the ball straight, which has been the case in 2010, he can still win anywhere, especially on courses he has won on before. Loosely translated, Freddie’s senior success sends him to Augusta with a boatload of confidence. Those three-footers can get a bit scary, but if Tom Watson can come so close at the British, Couples can win another Masters. ODDS: 28-1.
Lee Westwood – An emerging big-game player who has contended at three majors since the 2008 U.S. Open, Westwood’s weak history at Augusta National cannot be ignored. A T-6 in 1999 remains his best Masters finish, perhaps because of his short-game shortcomings, but a pair of recent top 10s (Honda, Houston) indicate he’s rounding into form. Gave himself chances to win last summer at the British Open and PGA. The more often you work your way into the hunt, the more likely you are to do it again. ODDS: 30-1.
Steve Stricker – His low ball flight does him no favors at this tournament, but Stricker’s steady rise to a place among the game’s elite has come about through dramatic improvements in his ballstriking and increased mental toughness, both of which can take you a long way at the year’s first major. He holes more long putts than anyone, a strength that is neutralized somewhat by Augusta National’s treacherous greens, but if he’s in position off the tee and hitting his irons accurately, he won’t be left with many long putts to make. His chances improve if the greens aren’t crazy-firm. ODDS: 30-1.
Paul Casey – Has all the tools, although his putting comes and goes, but Casey, at least on paper, represents England’s best hope at Augusta National. He hasn’t finished outside the top 10 in four starts this year, but Casey withdrew from his title defense in Houston last week had hasn’t competed since the WGC event at Doral more than a month ago. Has the type of monster length that can dominate the par 5s, but Casey’s penchant for missing time with nagging injuries has stunted his progress just as his career was beginning to take flight. ODDS: 40-1.