Wednesday, April 9

Five who could steal Tiger's jacket
By Ivan Maisel



AUGUSTA, Ga. -- Tiger Woods is the heavy favorite to threepeat at The Masters this week, but if someone's going to stop him, these are the five guys most likely to do it:

PLAYER ANALYSIS

Ernie Els
The hottest golfer on the planet for the first two months of the year, Els returns to competition after taking off two weeks to rest the wrist he sprained hitting a punching bag in his London home. Els is bombing it -- his average drive of 310.6 yards would lead the PGA Tour if he had played the necessary rounds to qualify. His putter has been steamy, and his confidence is as strong as it has ever been. He is fourth on the tour money list, with nearly $1.9 million, even though he has played only four events. Els needs to win The Masters and the PGA to complete the career Grand Slam he wants so much. He has finished fifth, sixth and second in the last three years. His challenge to Woods ended last year at the 13th hole, where he made a triple bogey. He has resolved not to chase Woods any longer. Instead, he will focus on beating the course.


Davis
Love III
Like Els, Love is playing the best golf of his career thanks to good health, renewed confidence and a deadly putter. Love's final-round 64 at the Players Championship two weeks ago is a round for the family Bible. In a six-year stretch beginning in 1995, Love finished in the top 10 at The Masters five times, including two runner-up finishes. His 275 in 1995 set a record, since broken, for lowest non-winning score. Love turns 39 on Sunday. He has been coming to this tournament since he was a child, and if he gets in contention to win the second major of his career in the final round, the gallery will get behind him.


Jim Furyk
Furyk's phone-booth swing and cross-handed putting stroke are more dependable than FedEx, and once he appears on a Sunday leaderboard, he stays all afternoon. Furyk has finished in the top five in each of his last three starts, including the Monday-morning playoff loss to Scott Hoch at Doral. Furyk has two top-10s in the last five years at Augusta. He drives it long enough to give himself a chance, and his accuracy and short game, critical here, are among the best on tour. Watch his score Thursday. His first-round average in seven Masters is only 73.1. His final-round average, however, is 70.6.


Retief Goosen
Conditions demand drives that are long and straight. Who better to tame them than a U.S. Open champion? Goosen, like Phil Mickelson, has been on paternity leave. The 2001 Open winner returned in time to miss the cut at the Players, but rebounded to finish tied for third last week in Atlanta. Goosen proved last year that he can play well at Augusta National -- for three rounds, anyway. He somehow managed to share the 54-hole lead with Woods and yet was barely a factor in the final round. You have to think Goosen will play better in a similar situation this year.


Phil Mickelson
Mickelson had four top-10s before the birth of his son Evan. He didn't play for a month, then came out last week and badly missed the cut at Atlanta. Still, there's something about Augusta that agrees with him. It might be the combination of length and short-game magic needed here. Those skills have propelled Mickelson to 21 PGA Tour victories. He has back-to-back third-place finishes here, and has finished in the top seven in six of the last eight Masters. He would be a popular winner, and his victory would transfer the title of best player without a major to -- Furyk? Colin Montgomerie? Darren Clarke? In a week when the weather has diminished the number of possible winners, Mickelson would do well to find his game.



Ivan Maisel is a senior writer at ESPN.com. He can be reached at ivan.maisel@espn3.com.






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