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Monday Scramble: Rise and ready to shine

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The Masters awaits, Ian Poulter claims the final spot in the field, the LPGA's first major is played in the dark and more in this week's edition of Monday Scramble:

The Masters is always the most-anticipated major – partly because of the timing in the schedule, but mostly because it’s the freakin’ Masters – and yet this year it feels even bigger.

Tiger Woods has a legitimate chance to win for the first time in five years. Phil Mickelson snapped his winless drought last month. Nearly all of the top 15 players in the world have either contended or taken a title this year.

All of the pieces are in place for an epic Masters and the continuation of what has already been an intriguing year in golf, with so many top players in form.

Below is a list of my top 10 favorites, and that list could have gone another 10 or 15 deep.

We’ve been waiting eight months for this event, and with the current state of the game, there’s almost no way it disappoints.

1. Here is one man’s list of the top 10 favorites for the Masters:

1. Justin Thomas: No round in the 60s in eight career rounds at Augusta, but never has he arrived at the year’s first major in such good form. Has all of the tools to make a run at the green jacket.

2. Justin Rose: Last year’s runner-up was his fifth top-10 at the Masters, and he’s finished in the top 10 in 13 of his past 16 starts worldwide.

3. Phil Mickelson: Looks great all throughout the bag, like it's 2004 all over again.

4. Rory McIlroy: Was his lights-out putting at Bay Hill the start of another run or just an aberration? Here’s hoping it’s the former, because his sublime ball-striking should put him in the mix to finally complete the career Grand Slam.

5. Dustin Johnson: The clear favorite a year ago, DJ isn’t nearly as sharp but he still should factor. As always. 

6. Bubba Watson: Arrives here with a pair of titles this season, but a word of caution: His two wins here (in 2012 and ’14) are the only times he’s played well at Augusta.

7. Jordan Spieth: His putting (especially inside 10 feet) is a serious concern, but no one has played this course better over the past few years than Spieth.

8. Jason Day: Cooled since February, but his driving-putting combo makes him a threat each spring.

9. Tiger Woods: Perhaps a more realistic view than those in Vegas. It’s easy to see him contending and in the mix come Sunday, but for him to actually win is another matter entirely.

10. Paul Casey: For those in Masters pools, the Englishman is a trendy (and deserving) pick given his course record and career-best form.   

2. All eyes, as usual, will be on Woods this week.

For those quick to dismiss Woods’ prospects this week, keep in mind that in his past 18 appearances here, he has finished worse than 22nd only once. He’s always in the mix – even after injury, layoff, scandal, swing change and chip yips.

How will he fare this year?

Well, his power has returned. His short game has been shored up. And the limited field works in his favor, since he realistically has to beat only about 30 guys.

It’d be a surprise if Woods was NOT in the last couple of groups on Sunday.

3. One player who undoubtedly benefits from Woods’ return to relevance is McIlroy.

Each year he seems overwhelmed by expectations to finally nab a green jacket. Though he’s had four consecutive top-10 finishes, he’s only had a legitimate chance in one of those starts, in 2016.

McIlroy’s relative struggles with injury and inconsistency has been well-documented over the past few years, but he might finally be on the upswing. Over the weekend at Bay Hill, he was flawless, bashing drives, stiffing iron shots and leading the field in putting. It looked familiar, of course – he’s blown away the field in half of his four majors – but we hadn’t seen that level of dominance in four years.

McIlroy has a history of riding a wave of confidence, and now he comes into the Masters like a tsunami.

4. Save for Woods, no one’s play this year has been as scrutinized as Spieth's. It’s a testament to his talent and record that his three top-10s this season actually rates as a disappointment.

The Houston Open offers plenty of reasons for optimism, though.

Over four days he led the field in strokes gained-tee to green, returning to the type of ball-striking excellence that defined his 2017 season. His putter? It’s still a work in progress, but he showed an ability, at times, to get hot, even if the stats weren't pretty. (Of the 75 players who played all four rounds, he was 69th on the greens.)

Augusta isn’t the place to find your stroke, not with its undulating, lightning-quick greens, but Spieth has showed up here in worse form and still managed to put himself in position to win. His position through 54 holes since 2014: T1-1-1-T4.

A quick start Thursday will help Spieth avoid waging a mental war with himself.

5. Don’t expect to see the same windy conditions that recently have added to the challenge at the Masters.

This week’s forecast calls for moderate temperatures in the mid-70s, with winds topping out at 10 mph. There is some rain in the forecast, on Wednesday and Saturday, but as of this writing it’s not expected to cause any problems.

The past two years, at least early, have seen cold temperatures and windy conditions. The 36-hole leader the past two years has been at 4 under.

6. In one of the most improbable stories of the year, Ian Poulter snagged the final Masters spot with a drought-busting victory in Houston.

After an opening 73, Poulter sat 123rd among the 144-man field. He literally began packing his bags in anticipation of a missed cut.

Then his putter – the same one he wielded during a star-making performance at the 2012 Ryder Cup – caught fire and he shot rounds of 64-65-67. It added up to his first stroke-play victory in the U.S., and his first win anywhere since 2012.

It was also the biggest four-round turnaround on Tour in 35 years.

“There’s life in the old dog yet,” he said.

7. Poulter has no shortage of detractors because of his brash attitude and antagonistic play, but even his harshest critics had to be impressed with his resolve over the past year.

After all, last spring he thought he’d lost his PGA Tour card. He was set to return to Europe and try to climb his way back up the world rankings, but he was bailed out by a mathematical error in the Tour offices. Given new life, he finished second at The Players.  

Then last week, he complained that he received misinformation from media members who mistakenly said that he was in the Masters after winning his match at the WGC-Match Play. Instead, he needed to win his afternoon match that day, too, and he got throttled. The top 50 players in the world earned an invitation, and he wound up 51st.

His only way into Augusta was to win Houston.

“It was hard work, and it takes a lot of mental strength to be able to do that,” he said. “Disappointment kicks in at some stage. But you know what? At times you have to dig deep. When you want something bad enough, then you have to go right down to the bottom and grab hold of what you can to come back up.”

8. Beau Hossler came up short in the Houston playoff, losing on the first extra hole, but he should take plenty of confidence from his career-best finish on Tour.

The 23-year-old has had an auspicious rookie year, putting himself in contention early and often but with little to show for it. After averaging under 70 for the first two rounds on Tour this season, he ranked 175th in final-round scoring average (72.82). He hadn’t yet learned how to finish strong on the game’s biggest stage.

That all changed Sunday in Houston, where he shot a bogey-free 67, ripped off four birdies in a row on the back nine and struck what he thought was the winning putt on the final hole of regulation, only for the ball to slide by the edge. He made a mess of the playoff hole to clear the way for Poulter.

“I said yesterday I wanted to beat these guys at their best,” Hossler said, “and I think I saw Ian’s best today.”

9. The LPGA got incredibly lucky Sunday that the three playoff participants didn’t blow their shot at a major with a fluke miss in the dark at the ANA Inspiration.

Inbee Park and Pernilla Lindberg battled through the night until officials mercifully deemed it too dark to continue. It was one of the most captivating (and absurd) moments in the tour's long history.

On the fourth extra hole, officials brought floodlights onto the 18th green that allowed the players to finish. Park somehow sank a 5-footer to extend.

Lindberg finally won, on the eighth playoff hole, with the sun shining Monday morning.

Anyone who has ever appeared on Golf Channel’s “Morning Drive” knows how grueling the early wakeup calls can be.

Now Steve Stricker understands, too.

Hoping to chat with him after a red-hot start to the PGA Tour Champions season, producers teased all show that Stricker would appear for a two-way live hit from the Golf Club of Houston range.

But the show came and went, with no Stricker appearance.

So what happened?

Don’t blame you there, Stricks.

This week's award winners ... 

Coming Soon to the PGA Tour: Sam Burns. The reigning NCAA Player of the Year has made some noise on the big tour this year, but he closed with three consecutive rounds of 65 to win his first Tour event and essentially wrap up his Tour card for next season. Now he can focus on earning special temporary status and playing the rest of the season in the big leagues.  

Welcome Back (However Briefly): Ty Tryon. The former teen star, who has disappeared from golf over the past decade, resurfaced last week after Monday qualifying for the Web event. He missed the cut with rounds of 74-73, but hey, this scribe would much rather see him tee it up than another athlete-turned-golfer.

College Stud, Part 1: Albane Valenzuela. The Stanford sophomore shined at the ANA, sitting in a tie for 12th entering the final round – the best 54-hole position by an amateur in tournament history. Alas, she slumped to a 79 in the final round and slid to 59th. 

College Stud, Part 2: Norman Xiong. The Oregon sophomore won two events in one week, including the stacked Goodwin by six shots, in which he beat top-ranked Justin Suh of USC by a whopping 21 strokes.  

Be Still My Heart: Drive, Chip and Putt Championship. All the feels for this photo:

Blown Fantasy Pick of the Week: Rafa Cabrera Bello. A popular one-and-done pick, considering his good form of late (T-3 in Mexico) and course history in Houston (fourth in 2016). Instead, he somehow shot a 77 in the second round and headed off early to Augusta. Sigh.