AUGUSTA, Ga. – Before getting to this year's ranking of the entire Masters field, let me first give you 18 other predictions, because if you don’t think 18 is a round number, well, to steal a line from a man called The Dude, obviously you’re not a golfer ...
1. You'll hear frequently this week that the tournament is "wide open" with Tiger sidelined after back surgery. Want to sound smart? Use math instead of cliches. Without Woods, the field size lessened from 98 competitors to 97. That means every player's chance of winning skyrocketed from 1.02 percent to a whopping 1.03 percent. That's not as sexy as blindly maintaining this one more "wide open," but it is the truth.
2. Some feel-good story will take the opening-round lead. Popular options are old champions like Fred Couples or Tom Watson. But I'll take another guy from the 50-and-over set: Miguel Angel Jimenez. The World’s Most Interesting Golfer shoots 67 to lead Thursday - and live streaming cameras are set up on the range Friday morning to detail his stretching routine.
3. There will be a rules controversy. It will be something simple and stupid – a player accidentally steps on his ball in the rough or is guilty of grounding his club in a hazard. And yet, based on the maelstrom last year around Guan Tianlang's slow-play penalty and Tiger's drop, you'll see a few dozen very important-looking people pointing to a very small piece of ground and whispering to each other for a while.
4. Fuzzy Zoeller won't be able to pop the champagne until late Sunday afternoon. OK, so Fuzzy never pulls a '72 Dolphins anyway. He doesn't even consider himself the only first-timer to win, even though Horton Smith and Gene Sarazen won the first two Masters, so it's not like they even had much of a choice. There are 23 tournament rookies in this year's field – and a lot of 'em are really good. You'll see at least one or two still in contention on Sunday's back nine.
5. The Golf Gods will pay us back. They are usually only spoken of in negative tones, but the game's karma collectors can also be benevolent. And they understand that they've robbed us from watching a healthy Woods and have already given us an eclectic mix of winners this year. Through my rose-colored glasses, I see a bunch of big-time talents vying for the title on Sunday. Augusta is usually a No Fluke Zone anyway, but even more so this time.
6. Some players will be either psyched up or psyched out before they even hit a shot. Here's short-hitting Jim Furyk from a few weeks back: “I want to get there and see the wind in my face on (No.) 1, if there's going to be any breeze. I want 1 to play hard. The rest of the golf course then turns in my favor. … If 1 is downwind and it just rained for the last two days, I know it's going to be a long day for me.” What a mindbender. I'd never heard that before. But in such a mental pursuit, it's interesting to note that certain players will toss some grass into the air on the first tee and sort of already know their fate.
7. One renegade player will buck the system. No, I'm not suggesting anyone will break any long-standing traditions at Augusta. I'm saying they'll go against their pre-tournament scripting. Someone will wake up one morning and think, "I don't feel like wearing periwinkle pants" or "This flat-billed fuchsia hat looks stupid." It will be noticed by exactly one very worrisome PR consultant in a Park Ave. corner office – and absolutely nobody else.
8. Arnie, Jack and Gary will each hit the fairway with their ceremonial tee shots. Because they're Arnie, Jack and Gary, that's why. 'Nuff said.
9. One unlucky patron will get the tour of his life. This almost never happens at Augusta, but some uncouth "fan" will have a few too many of those extra-cheap beers and yell, "You da man!" or some other ridiculousness. The words won't matter, it's what they stand for that will rankle officials. Very discreetly, this patron will not only be separated from his badge, but shown an underground flogging process befitting a crime of such proportions.
10. I will personally eat approximately 47 egg salad sandwiches during the week. And no pimento cheese. Sorry, 'Merica. I love the Masters, but not THAT much.
11. Phil Mickelson will hit a shot that makes the viewership collectively stand up and yell, "What the ...?!" And it will only be his seventh-most ridiculous shot ever at Augusta. He thrives off that stuff.
12. One of your friends will text you the following message: "I'm going with a total dark horse to win – Jason Day!" You will respond by reminding your friend that he is ranked fourth in the world, owns two top-three finishes here in the last three years and is actually amongst the favorites. Want a dark horse? Go pick Derek Ernst.
13. Some contender will hit a tee shot down the left side on 17 – and make birdie. If he does that and wins the tourney, he'll have to pin a button to his green jacket that says, "I LIKE IKE." The old folks will chuckle at that one.
14. At some point, Angel Cabrera will be on the leaderboard. And at that point, you, me and everyone on Twitter will make the exact same lame half-joke/half-truth about El Pato only playing golf four times per year. (Even better: Half of these tweets will be autocorrected to El Patio, which is actually a much better nickname for him – he seems like a cerveza-and-cigarette-on-the-patio kind of guy.) For the record, he’s already played a whopping six times this year. And made, uh, exactly two cuts.
15. The Stadler father-son dynamic will be called the feel-good story of the week. On the surface, it sounds like a movie: Dad is a past Masters champ, but struggling with his game. Keeps playing the tournament in hopes his son will soon join him. Finally, the son wins and they get to compete in the same field. Wrap it up in a neat little bow. The end. The only problem? The two have grown apart since Craig divorced from Kevin’s mother a few years ago. When Kevin won in Phoenix earlier this year, he said of their relationship: “I get along with him fine. I'm just not as close with him now as I used to be, but he's still my dad. I love him.” Father and son seemed to be getting along great in their joint news conference this week, but careful pouring too much saccharine all over this one.
16. You will be reminded, on more than one occasion, that this is the 25-year anniversary of Scott Hoch’s miss. He had 2 feet left to win a green jacket and the ball never even hit the hole. Hoch later lost in a playoff to Nick Faldo. One Internet site called it “The Most Humiliating Missed Putt in Golf History.” The worst part? His name rhymes with “choke,” making for an easy joke. (That one rhymes, too.) The lesson here: If you hear his name, avert your eyes. You’ve been warned.
17. The first time you see Patrick Reed, you will make the obligatory “top-five” joke. You’ll probably do it the second time, too. And maybe the third. But after watching enough of him, you’ll stop making the joke, because he actually sorta does look like a top-five player. The truth: Even with a win this week, he can only move to as high as eighth in the world ranking. Not totally out of the realm of possibility, either.
18. There will be no asterisk attached to the winner. Remember those inane debates we had back when Padraig Harrington was winning the last two majors of 2008? The insinuation was, if Tiger isn’t playing then the titles somehow shouldn’t count for as much. Like they should have sawed his Claret Jug and Wanamaker Trophy in half for having the audacity to win against a field that didn’t include Woods. Well, that won’t even be a discussion this week. You win, you get the entire green jacket – sleeves and all.
As for how it’s going to wind up, here’s how I see it. And come Sunday evening, I’ll gladly take all of the credit – and none of the blame.
1. Rory McIlroy: Fresh off a final-round 65 in Houston, on a course tailor-made for his game, McIlroy might be the rare favorite to win the green jacket. If he does, consider the consequences: He will be three-quarters of the way to a career Grand Slam … at age 24.
2. Sergio Garcia: Talk about trending in the right direction: In the last four years, he’s gone from 45th to 35th to 12th to eighth at this event. Oh, and those famous putting struggles? He ranks 32nd on Tour – and was eighth last year and 26th the year before that. He’s due.
3. Keegan Bradley: He’s been close without seriously contending, playing well without playing great. But hey, isn’t the whole idea to peak during the major championships instead of before them? Bradley seems primed to improve on last year’s disappointing finish.
4. Matt Kuchar: Failing to close out victories on each of the last two Sunday afternoons might not bode as a good omen for Kuchar, but he’s clearly trending in the right direction. He already has five top-10s in eight starts this year. Hard to imagine another isn’t coming this week.
5. Phil Mickelson: What happens when you win a green jacket? It makes the next one easier. And the one after that even easier. For a guy who normally plays with a nothing-to-lose attitude anyway, this has only increased at Augusta. Oh, and all of his wins? They’ve come in even-numbered years.
6. Jason Day: Here’s a good rule of, uh, thumb before the Masters: Don’t injure your thumb ahead of time. Not because it will hamper your performance, but because you’ll be asked endless questions about it. As for the answer? He’s fine – and he absolutely loves this course.
7. Harris English: Ask around PGA Tour circles and you’ll find that while Patrick Reed is the guy who says he’s a top-five player, English is the one who everyone else says is a (potential) top-five player. He owns the proper patience and mental makeup to play very well this week.
8. Adam Scott: The defending champion isn’t just confident this week, he truly believes he’ll be taking his green jacket back down Magnolia Lane again Sunday night. He would have some lofty company. Only Nicklaus, Faldo and Woods have won back-to-back Masters titles.
9. Henrik Stenson: Six months ago, the question wasn’t whether he’d win a major this year, but how many. Last year’s FedEx Cup champion has cooled off a bit, but that doesn’t mean he can’t make a good run this week. He’s considered among the game’s best ball-strikers – and this is considered a second-shot golf course.
10. Patrick Reed: Say what you will about his confidence, but it sure won’t hurt him having loads of it this week. Also helping is the fact that he owns a high draw ball flight. “Go out and play your game, stick to your game plan, and that seems to be working for me,” he said. “I'm going to try to do that this week.”
11. Gary Woodland: Oh, is length an advantage at Augusta? This guy’s got plenty of it.
12. Dustin Johnson: His official reason for WD last week? Precautionary measures with an aching back.
13. Brandt Snedeker: Once cried when he lost here. Just imagine the waterworks when he wins.
14. Jordan Spieth: Currently seven months younger than Woods was when he won in 1997.
15. Ryan Moore: One of the best players around that nobody ever talks about.
16. Bill Haas: Another one of the best players around that nobody ever talks about.
17. Hideki Matsuyama: Hampered by injuries this year, the 22-year-old always saves his best stuff for Augusta.
18. Chris Kirk: There aren’t many multiple PGA Tour winners as unheralded as Kirk.
19. Lee Westwood: Last four Masters starts: 8-3-11-2. Knows how to stay out of trouble around this course.
20. Jason Dufner: Trying to become first back-to-back major winner since Harrington in 2008.
21. Graeme McDowell: Dating back to last year, he’s finished 17th or better in eight of his last nine starts.
22. Ernie Els: Still searching for The One That Got Away in his career accomplishments.
23. Zach Johnson: As one player told me recently: “Nobody else understands their game better than Zach.”
24. Webb Simpson: His win at the 2012 U.S. Open remains his lone top-10 at a major in 10 starts.
25. Miguel Angel Jimenez: He’s 50, but he might be timeless. The Mechanic will find the leaderboard at some point.
26. Justin Rose: Should actually be well rested after sitting out during an offseason shoulder injury.
27. Bubba Watson: In his last start, WD’d after an 83 at Bay Hill, then offered an apology on Twitter.
28. Angel Cabrera: Like Punxsutawney Phil emerging every Feb. 2, El Pato rises for Masters week.
29. Graham DeLaet: Rookie will build on this experience and be a contender in coming years.
30. Louis Oosthuizen: When he’s on, people say he owns the world’s best swing; when he’s not, people forget about him.
31. Matt Every: Good iron player, really good putter. Keep an eye on the Bay Hill champ.
32. Fred Couples: Don’t look now, but Freddie’s been very good on the senior circuit this year.
33. Luke Donald: Owns more top-10s here (three) than any of the three other major championships.
34. Victor Dubuisson: Looked magical in the Match Play desert. Are there any cacti at Augusta National?
35. Hunter Mahan: All or nothing: In six Masters starts as a pro, has three finishes of 12th or better and three MCs.
36. Rickie Fowler: Fresh off a sixth-place finish in Houston, he’s ready to bust through for a second career win soon.
37. Charl Schwartzel: The 2011 champion has never missed a cut in four Masters starts.
38. Francesco Molinari: Finishes top-30 every even-numbered year – OK, the last two of ‘em, at least.
39. Billy Horschel: Need a jolt of excitement through the Augusta pines? Just wait for a few Billy birdies.
40. Jimmy Walker: Joins Reed as the first players in 44 years to win three PGA Tour events before first Masters start.
41. Peter Hanson: Sole leader after 54 holes two years ago, but final-round 73 left him tied for third.
42. Mike Weir: Bold prediction: The 2003 champion, who’s only made one cut this year, makes his second this week.
43. Jonas Blixt: Scramblers can prosper at Augusta – and this guy can scramble better than most.
44. K.J. Choi: Climbed back inside the world’s top-100 with some recent strong play.
45. Jamie Donaldson: Plays very well on tough golf courses, as evidenced by his performance at Doral.
46. Jim Furyk: Nobody is hoping the course firms up more than this guy.
47. Ian Poulter: Continues to maintain that he’s close to seeing the results he wants.
48. Russell Henley: One player told me, “This kid’s best is really, really good.” When he’s on, he contends.
49. Kevin Streelman: Plays well on tough setups. Like him this week, like him more at Pinehurst.
51. Steven Bowditch: When he’s hot, he can be very good, as evidenced by his win two weeks ago.
52. Marc Leishman: Really impressive job hanging in there during last year’s final round alongside the eventual champ.
53. Matteo Manassero: He’s still just 20 years old – and playing his third Masters this week.
54. Steve Stricker: Beware: If he wins a major soon, every other player might take up a copycat eight-tournament schedule.
55. Trevor Immelman: How much does he love this place? Hasn’t missed a cut since his 2008 victory.
56. a-Matthew Fitzpatrick: He’s 19 and looks 12, but owns a mature short game well beyond his years.
57. David Lynn: One of golf’s best tweeters, he’s made the cut in four of five career major starts.
58. Stewart Cink: Playing the last year of his exemption as a major champ, he has a 25th, 50th and two MCs during that time.
59. Matt Jones: Prior to winning in Houston, he was scheduled to have his balky back checked out this week.
60. Sang-Moon Bae: Finished T-37 in his only previous Masters appearance two years ago.
61. Roberto Castro: Bobby Jones would be keeping an eye on this guy, one of three Georgia Tech products in the field.
62. John Senden: Ball-striker extraordinaire proved in Tampa that he can roll in putts when it matters, too.
64. Tim Clark: Hard to believe it’s been eight years since his runner-up finish to Mickelson.
65. Thorbjørn Olesen: After two top-fives in the Middle East, his U.S. results show three MCs and a first-round Match Play exit.
66. Branden Grace: Played nicely in his Masters debut last year, finishing T-18.
67. Nick Watney: Will be playing first event since WDing with back injury at Doral – and his first event as a father.
68. Martin Kaymer: Once famously (or infamously) changed his entire swing to play better here. Didn’t work.
69. Thomas Bjørn: Five career top-10s at the Open Championship; only two in the other three majors combined.
70. Gonzalo Fernandez-Castano: Playing full-time in the U.S. so far this year, he has yet to post a top-20 result.
71. Stephen Gallacher: Have game, will travel. He won against a strong field in Dubai; finished T-6 at Doral.
72. Bernhard Langer: Hadn’t made a cut since 2005, then went out and finished T-25 last year.
73. Lucas Glover: Playing the last year on his exemption from 2009 major win, has 36th, 49th and two MCs in that time.
74. Jose Maria Olazabal: Playing a limited schedule at age 48, he’s made the cut in just two of five starts this year.
75. Vijay Singh: Fun fact: No player with a pending lawsuit against the PGA Tour has ever won a major.
76. Boo Weekley: Rough year so far for everyone’s fan fave. No top-20 results in eight starts.
77. Darren Clarke: Slimmer isn’t necessarily better: No top-20 results in his last nine starts.
78. Kevin Stadler: Sort of get the feeling he’d rather just play golf than spend all week talking about being here with his dad.
79. Scott Stallings: His last 22 starts include just a single top-20 result – but that was a win at Torrey Pines this year.
80. a-Jordan Niebrugge: One of the last of the PubLinks champions, this Oklahoma State student looks like the real deal someday.
81. Y.E. Yang: Another guy playing last year of five-year major exemption; has finished progressively worse each year.
82. Ken Duke: Finished T-35 in his only previous Masters starts five years ago.
83. a-Oliver Goss: Youngster won a pro event in his native Australia last year.
84. John Huh: Only three made cuts in eight starts this year, with no finish better than 35th.
85. Thongchai Jaidee: Only Thai player to compete in all four majors – and this is the only one where he hasn’t made the cut.
86. Mark O'Meara: The 1998 champion hasn’t made the cut here since 2005.
87. D.A. Points: Only finish inside top-50 this year was a T-28 at Hyundai TOC – where there were only 30 players.
88. Tom Watson: Ryder Cup captain has only one made cut here since 2003.
90. Derek Ernst: Since last year’s win at Quail Hollow, he’s made 27 starts without a finish better than 30th.
91. a-Garrick Porteous: Reigning British Amateur champion has made the cut in one of five career starts in pro events.
92. Larry Mize: Augusta native has missed the cut in each of the last four years.
93. a-Chang-woo Lee: Asia-Pacific Amateur champion had a win and a runner-up in Korea last year.
94. Craig Stadler: As he said Monday: “I'm just going to be out there slashing around, trying to make the cut.”
95. Ian Woosnam: Only one made cut at this tournament since 2001.
96. a-Michael McCoy: At age 50, became the second-oldest Mid-Am champion last year.
97. Sandy Lyle: Last year, I listed the 1988 champion last on this list. When he made the cut, Jason Dufner chided me on Twitter for having the gall to undervalue his talents. So I’m placing Lyle in the same spot once again this year. Not to undervalue him, but to provide motivation – and fodder for his peers when he proves me wrong again.