This week the PGA Tour heads down Magnolia Lane, as a field of 93 players will vie for the season's first major at the Masters. Each week, a panel of experts will offer up their picks from four groups of players based on Golf Channel's new fantasy game, Fantasy Challenge. We will also keep track of their scores and standings. The panel includes: senior writers Rex Hoggard, Randall Mell and Jason Sobel; contributors John Hawkins and Win McMurry; editorial director Jay Coffin; 'Morning Drive' host Gary Williams and staff writer Ryan Lavner. They will also be joined by former 'Saturday Night Live' star Norm Macdonald, who will serve as a celebrity guest throughout the fantasy season.
Group 1: Tiger Woods: Lost amid the hoopla surrounding Woods' three-win start to the season is this telling stat: on the three previous occasions that he won three times prior to the Masters, he never followed by also winning at Augusta. Cliched translation? Don't count your green jackets before they've hatched. That said, even though I'm not as bullish about Tiger's chances as most people, I also can't find anyone in this field that I'd rank higher. A fifth Masters title, and subsequent pandemonium throughout the golf world, may be just days from taking place.
Group 2: Keegan Bradley: I was recently talking Masters contenders with a PGA Tour pro who knows Bradley's game well, and picked him to win. When I inquired as to whether the former PGA champion has the right ball flight for Augusta, he looked at me funny. 'Well, he hits it long and straight and high,' the player said. 'That's the right ball flight for every course.' Duly noted. Also noted is that Bradley hasbeen knocking on the door all year wihtout breaking through it yet.
Group 3: Bill Haas: Bubba Watson won the Masters in his fourth appearance; likewise, Trevor Immelman won in his fourth as a pro. Wanna take a guess as to what number this will be for Haas? After results between 26th and 42nd in his first three starts, he seems primed to contend this week. Bigger question is whether he can win. Despite four victories in the last three seasons, he's gotten into the final group on a Sunday twice already this year, but has underwhelmed each time.
Group 4: K.J. Choi: Showing signs of trending in the right direction, and he's contended at Augusta in the past.
Group 1: Tiger Woods: The difference between green jacket No. 5 and another also-ran the last seven years has been Woods' putting (he's ranked inside the top 10 in putting for the week just once since 2006). Thanks to pro bono putting guru Steve Stricker's handiwork at Doral, that doesn't seem to be an issue this week.
Group 2: Steve Stricker: The veteran's pedestrian record at Augusta National (he has two top-10 finishes in a dozen starts) is one of the game's great enigmas, but his limited schedule and refreshed attitude suggests his fortunes are poised to change.
Group 3: Nick Watney: It has been a strangely inconsistent year for Watney (one top 10 in nine starts), but when he is on, he has the power and touch to become the next surprise champion.
Group 4: Hiroyuki Fujita: Although he has been limited to just one start this season, Fujita is a machine in Japan, having won four times in 2012, and he has a putting stroke that is perfect for Augusta National.
Group 1: Tiger Woods: Three wins this season. A scalding-hot putter. A proven track record at this venue. Yes, all signs point to Tiger resuming his climb up Mount Nicklaus this week.
Group 2: Keegan Bradley: The high-ball hitter finished inside the top 10 in his last four starts, and for the past few months he's had Phil Mickelson, a three-time Masters winner, in his ear on how best to play Augusta. This big-time talent could bag major No. 2 this week.
Group 3: Rickie Fowler: Coming off his best finish of the season (T-3 at Bay Hill), and he's made the cut in each of his first two Masters appearances. No reason to suggest he takes a step back this year.
Group 4: Angel Cabrera: Regardless of his form coming in, El Pato has rung up seven consecutive top-40 finishes at Augusta, including the 2009 win. Good news, then: he posted his best result (T-16) of the season in Houston.
Group 1: Tiger Woods: Duh!
Group 2: Ian Poulter: A guy who can putt like he does in the clutch at the Ryder Cup can win the Masters.
Group 3: Bill Haas: His game is pointed toward something big.
Group 4: K.J. Choi: K.J. has shown he knows how to make those towering pines shiver at Augusta National.