2009 Masters Preview — Who contends…who wins?

April 08, 2009 | Drew Forrester

Tomorrow in Augusta, Georgia, the greatest golf tournament takes place on the greatest golf course in America.  

It’s spring in the United States if they’re teeing off at Augusta National GC.

I’m trying to get over the fact that the Orioles had enough nerve to schedule a baseball game (1:05pm) to essentially coincide with Tiger Woods’ first round play tomorrow (1:52 pm, 1st tee) — and I’m working hard NOT to lash out at the person who scheduled Easter on Master’s Sunday.  

As long as there’s back nine drama on the fourth and final day, I’ll be able to forget those two oversights, I suppose.

Will there be back-nine theater on Sunday?  We’ll get back to that in a few minutes.  

Let’s look at the players and sift through the names of who might just hang around in search of the coveted green jacket.

Keep in mind, these are MY picks — so react accordingly if you’re thinking about a wager or two.  

Here are three players I suspect will be “sniffing around” on Saturday:  Sean O’Hair, Ian Poulter and Briny Baird.  O’Hair is the young player who lost the back nine lead to Tiger two weeks ago at Bay Hill, but don’t let that fool you.  He’s big and strong and hits it a mile.  He has the even-temperament necessary to contend at Augusta.  Poulter is the European Ryder-Cup rock star who nearly won the British Open last summer and he’s maybe the most underrated player in the world.  The guy can stripe it and he has no fear, which might come in handy on those tricky Augusta greens.  I have nothing to add on Baird other than some guy with no business hanging around always seems to hang around just long enough to shoot himself out of contention on Saturday afternoon.  A no-name will be there on Saturday afternoon — and be gone by Saturday night.  Baird is my wild guess to fit that role this year. 

Tiger Woods will be there, unless something bizarre happens between now and Saturday.  His game appears rock-solid, he has four career green jackets and he makes every putt that matters.  The Sunday back-nine no longer provides players with the chance to come from behind if they’re 4 or 5 shots down, so Woods will need to get off to a decent start and position himself well for the weekend.  Every year, I say, “Woods won’t win this year” and for the last three Masters, I’ve been right.  I’m saying it again this year:  I don’t think Tiger is going to win.  But I do think he’ll play well, a la 2007 when he battled Zach Johnson for most of Sunday before failing to make any putts down the stretch.

I think Mickelson will be a factor too.  I know he played poorly in Houston last week, but that means nothing this week in Augusta.  Phil’s a 2-time winner there and he’s a GREAT player, even if he can’t beat Woods head-to-head when it matters. Then again, no one in the world can beat Tiger head-to-head when it matters, so Phil shouldn’t be slighted because of that note. 

All the talk about the “Paddy Slam” won’t be topical by Friday night.  Harrington won’t be making any weekend leaderboard appearances.  

I always like the chances of former champions at Augusta.  A bunch of grinder-type players have won twice, including Crenshaw, Langer and Olazabal.  With that in mind, it wouldn’t surprise me to see Mike Weir or Zach Johnson hang around and battle for their 2nd Masters title.  

My pick to win:  Tim Clark.  The diminutive South African has played well at Augusta and is straight off the tee and precise with his iron shots.  He does use a long putter, which immediately makes everyone say, “if he has to use that thing, he won’t be able to handle the Augusta greens”, but his failures in previous years have been tied more to his lack of birdies on the par 5’s, not putting woes.  He’s been on the weekend leaderboard in a bunch of major championships in his career and I think it’s time for him to break through this weekend.

Like his fellow countryman and ’08 winner, Trevor Immelman, Clark is a plodder.  He’s a guy who hits it in the middle, plops it on the green and tries to make a putt.  He’s not going to wow anyone with his length off the tee, which could be a detriment if the course plays soft due to rain, but he can play very steady when called upon and Augusta’s back nine has become more about not making a mistake than making a heroic charge and that fits Clark’s style very well. 

UPDATE:  I wrote this blog during the Wednesday par-3 contest.  Tim Clark won the par-3 contest with a -5 score.  That’s NOT good news for people *ahem* who think Clark might win.  No one who has ever won the par-3 contest has won The Masters in the same year.   That’s right, they’ve had 49 par-3 contests prior to the tournament and no one has ever “double dipped”.  If I recall (and I’m not checking this…it’s off the top of my head), Ray Floyd won the par-3 contest in 1990 and then lost the tournament in a playoff to Nick Faldo.  That’s as close as anyone has come.  Anyway, that win in this year’s par-3 contest might have sealed Tim Clark’s fate.  But I’m not changing my pick.  I’m sticking with Clark to “double dip”. 

Years ago, when the par 5’s on the back nine were reachable with irons for even the semi-short hitters, anyone who could pile up four or five birdies on the homeward holes was always in contention.  With the change to #13 — longer by 25 yards and a steeper sidehill grade from the approach area which makes it almost impossible to fade the ball into the green — more and more players are laying up and throwing it in from 80-100 yards.  #14 used to be a driver-wedge hole, as did #17, but both have been lengthened and are now holes that require as much as a 175 yard shot into difficult green complexes.  

Some say the “Tiger Proofing” of Augusta has worked.  Others don’t like the fact that late Sunday charges are more and more difficult to produce. 

I still say it’s the greatest golf tournament in the world, even if I tend to be in the camp that believes adding length and difficulty to the course has diminished the thrill of a late Sunday showdown between the game’s greatest players. 

Honestly, I’m pulling for Woods to win, but I sure wouldn’t mind seeing Tim Clark at the green jacket ceremony around 7pm on Sunday.  

Feel free to throw your own thoughts on contenders and winners in the comments section and I’ll leave them up for everyone to see over the weekend.