The favourites, dark horses and old heads out to gain Masters glory

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Rory McIlroy (l) will be the man to beat this weekend.

With the first major of the year, the Masters, set to get underway on Thursday, Sport360 takes a look at some names to watch out for this week at Augusta National.

– Rory McIlroy threatens Tiger Woods as the face of golf
– Ian Poulter positive for chances of Master success
– Stenson plays down Augusta hopes following bout of flu

THE FAVOURITE: Rory McIlroy

The advertisements, the newspaper profiles, the video game endorsements… it has been Rory, Rory and more Rory in the build-up to the first major of the year. 

Understandably so, considering the man from Northern Ireland will complete the career grand slam if he is the one putting on the Green Jacket come Sunday evening.

In one way, it is surprising that the Masters is what the 25-year-old is left craving, considering it is perhaps the one major that seems most suited to his style of play. It looked like it would be the first major he would win back in 2011, until one of the more famous meltdowns in golfing history.

Since then he has never quite been in sync around the Augusta course, playing solidly without finding top gear.

“During my career, yes it’s unthinkable [not to win it once],” McIlroy said last week. “If I don’t win it this year, either it’s not the right time or it isn’t your time. If I was to look back as a 60-year-old on my career and not have won a green jacket I’d obviously be very, very disappointed.”

The best driver in the world of a golf ball when in full flow, that is McIlroy’s distinct advantage as he tees it up this week, but it is how aggressively he attacks the greens and how precise his putting is that will decide how well he fares.

Tiger Woods’ decision to play essentially halves the pressure and attention on his shoulders, but that was never likely to be a burden anyway. Like Woods, McIlroy seems to thrive on the expectation, and seems to revel in his status as the man with a target on his back.

That is a huge psychological advantage, and it would be little surprise if the man from Northern Ireland made it count this year.

Alternatively: Bubba Watson

Two Green Jackets in the last three years means Watson is up there with Woods, Nicklaus and Palmer as one of the most dominant players around Augusta the game has seen.

Like McIlroy, Watson is perfectly suited to the course but in a contrasting style. He’s left-handed, for a start, and can move the ball in any direction he wants off the tee and around the greens, which makes Watson the favourite for many.

In 2013 he was distracted by the responsibilities of being defending champion, but this time around it should not be a problem.

THE MAN IN FORM: Jordan Spieth

Not convinced by McIlroy or Watson? Then perhaps you are convinced by Jordan Spieth, who might just arrive this week in better form than both of the aforementioned favourites.

Having won the Valspar two weeks ago, and then lost in a play-off last week at the Houston Open (at a course he openly admitted he did not like much), Spieth arrives with the wind firmly in his sails for a tournament where 12 months ago he finished second on debut.

That sort of thing just does not happen at the Masters, and marked Spieth (still only 21) down as a future champion around the famous course. In the end, Bubba Watson’s power simply wore down Spieth last year but, returning older, wiser and stronger, Spieth now possesses the sort of mental fortitude that means most rivals will be fearing the young American if they got locked in battle coming down the back nine.

It seems clear that Spieth is a multiple-major champion in waiting and is the man most likely to be McIlroy’s long-term rival for golfing supremacy. He is adding length to his drives all the time, is comfortable working the ball in all directions and seems to hole important putts when it matters most. That is a truly fearsome combination, and one that should play as well at Augusta as it does anywhere else in the world.

Alternatively: Jimmy Walker

Outside of Spieth, his Ryder Cup team-mate Walker might be the form player in the field. Long off the tee, precise with his irons and surprisingly sure with his putter, Walker would appear to have all the tools required to contend around Augusta (he finished in the top 10 in his first appearance last year).

At 36, Walker is very much a late bloomer – winning at Augusta would cap a remarkable rise.

THE STAR SCRAMBLING FOR FORM: Tiger Woods

Is anyone truly surprised that the world No. 111 is playing this week? He might have kept us waiting but it always seemed certain Woods would tee it up at Augusta National – the man simply does not miss majors unless he absolutely has to.

Now he is here, the question is what he can realistically do over the course of the tournament. Having struggled so acutely with his chipping in his last few competitive appearances, it seems impossible to believe that Woods can suddenly turn it around at Augusta, a course that perhaps demands the greatest precision of any on the golfing calendar. Woods may know the layout better than anyone, but if he has any doubts about his game they will be exposed all the same.

What is intriguing is Woods’ bullish comments about his own chances. Such comments are not unusual in themselves – the American’s myopia, at least when it comes to his own game, is legendary – but the fact he appears so relaxed this week, so much more open than we have seen in the recent past, hints that he knows something we don’t.

“People would never understand how much work I put into it to come back and do this again, it was sun up to sun down,” Woods said on Tuesday. “Competing is still the same, I’m trying to beat everybody out there. That hasn’t changed and I want another green jacket. I’ve got four, I want five.”

Make no mistake, if Woods were to win this week it might just be the most incredible story in the history of golf – and there have been a few of them. That alone is reason to pull for it, even if the head says it cannot possibly happen.

If his chipping remains in any way an issue, then simply making the cut would be an impressive achievement from Woods. But even if it is not, you struggle to see how he can possibly beat McIlroy, Spieth et al if they are in any sort of form.

Alternatively: Phil Mickelson

His impressive performance at last week’s Shell Houston Open raised hopes that the five-time major champion could yet contend at the Masters, despite a hugely underwhelming start to the season so far.

As a three-time champion he knows the course, but in the last two years he’s missed the cut and finished t-54. Who knows what we will see this time.

THE HORSE FOR THE COURSE: Hideki Matsuyama

A Japanese player has never won The Masters – indeed, a Japanese player has never won any major – but Hideki Matsuyama could be the one to change that before too long. At 23 he perhaps needs another year or two under his belt, but he has always seemed to play with a maturity that belies his years.

The low amateur in his debut Masters back in 2011, Matsuyama also made the weekend in his second appearance – although he did miss the cut 12 months ago. Since then, however, he has won his first PGA Tour event (The Memorial), while he is 14th in this season’s FedEx Cup standings after recording five top ten finishes in his 11 starts to date.

Blessed with a languid swing that features a fairly pronounced pause at the top of the backswing, Matsuyama’s strength is his iron play. If he can keep his drives in play and gain the confidence to fire at some pins, he could well play himself into contention come Sunday.

Alternatively: Louis Oosthuizen

The man on the losing end of that Bubba Watson shot in the play-off in 2012, Oosthuizen is still to make the next step up after his dominant performance at the 2010 Open Championship.

Has been in encouraging form in recent weeks, earning the faith of some experienced and knowledgeable tipsters (i.e. not us).

THE OUTSIDE PUNT – Victor Dubuisson

Did any player enhance his reputation at last year’s Ryder Cup as much as Victor Dubuisson? Jordan Spieth and Patrick Reed both had their moments, as did Jamie Donaldson, but it was Dubuisson who muscled his way into the spotlight at Gleneagles, with his beautiful iron shots and nerveless putting endearing him not only to his playing partners (Graeme McDowell could not stop waxing lyrical about his talent) but also the watching galleries.

A famously enigmatic, unreadable character, Dubuisson’s quality is no longer in much doubt. What he needs to do now is contend in a major, something he is yet to truly do in his career despite finishing in the top ten of 2014’s final two majors.

He missed the cut on his Masters debut last year by a single shot, but his shot-making ability would suggest he has the weapons required to carve out a solid score around what can be a famously devilish course. Injury has stunted his 2015 campaign so far and that is a real cause for concern, but if he learned much from last season’s appearance he could well have a solid week.

Alternatively: Branden Grace

Since the turn of the millennium, South African players have fared remarkably well around Augusta.

Grace looks to be the next successful South African off the production line. He may not be that well known in the United States, but he has won twice already this term on the European Tour.

Like compatriot Charl Schwartzel, he could choose the biggest stage of all to announce himself to the rest of the world.

THE WISE OLD HEAD: Fred Couples

It’s a tradition unlike any other: Fred Couples rolling back the years to claim a 36 or 54-hole lead at Augusta, then fading horribly over the weekend to wash away the romantic, sentimental hopes of thousands of golf fans. “Boom Boom” can still swing the club with the smooth grace of his prime, but unfortunately he no longer has the stamina to maintain that rhythm for the full four days.

What if he could do so, though, just once more? The 55-year-old has finished inside the top 20 in each of his last five appearances at the event he won in 1992, and been in the final group at the weekend a couple of times to boot. 

It is fair to say that no player has Augusta mastered quite like Couples, a player who should surely have won more than a single major over the course of his career. Perhaps his time has passed, perhaps he will never be able to summon the energy required to last a full tournament playing his best golf. But if he can, just one more time, we have already seen enough over recent years to know that his game is still more than good enough to beat anyone around Augusta.

Alternatively: Angel Cabrera

Never write off perhaps the most inscrutable man in professional golf. He won the tournament in 2009, nearly won it again in 2013, but missed the cut last time around.

The Argentine is highly erratic, but he generally goes well at Augusta—even if he has only made four of nine cuts on the PGA Tour this season.

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