2007 Masters contenders and pretenders

4/4/2007 - Golf

No tournament defines greatness better than the Masters, where the demand for power and finesse (some would say too much power) has produced golf's most diverse and deserved list of champions. Despite all the hand-wringing over changes made to Augusta National in recent years, the year's first major rarely fails to provide a compelling blend of brilliance and drama. Throw in a few hundred azaleas and you've got the game's purest form of theater.

What follows is a comprehensive look at the top 10 players in the World Ranking, their odds of winning as determined by a compilation of Internet wagering services and some thoughts on the validity of those odds with respect to each player's performance history. A little insight can go a long way, be it in an office pool or while tracking the action throughout the week.

Tiger Woods
The bookies aren't about to take a bath if Woods wins this tournament for a fifth time. Most oddsmakers have made Tiger a prohibitive favorite in the 5-to-4 range, which is far too chintzy a payoff if you're asking me. The swing issues that plagued him at the WGC-Match Play and Bay Hill obviously were resolved in the victory at Doral, but Woods struggled with his putting all week. His speed on the greens was dangerously off on Sunday -- you rarely see him run so many putts past the hole when protecting a lead.

One can safely assume Tiger has spent a billion hours working on his pace since leaving Miami, but a cold putter killed his chances at Augusta National last year, and I haven't seen the same level of invincibility in '07 that was so evident last summer. He's still my favorite, the smartest and toughest player in the field, but honestly, I wouldn't touch TW at anything lower than 4-1.

Jim Furyk
A lot of people see a short-but-straight grinder who has risen to No. 2 in the world by avoiding mistakes. I see a guy whose victories have come on quality courses (against premium fields) since claiming the 2002 Memorial. Furyk has yet to hit his stride in '07, but he has never been a terrific early-season player. He leads the PGA Tour in driving accuracy but ranks 180th in distance. Not a great stat combo for Augusta National, but if the early-week weather forecasts prove accurate -- no more than a 10 percent chance of rain all four days -- Furyk is likely to be in the mix. Firm and fast gives the shorter hitters a much better chance.

At odds ranging from 25-1 to 40-1, Furyk falls onto the same wagering tier as Sergio Garcia, Adam Scott and Henrik Stenson. I like him a lot better than Garcia and Scott, and if there is no precipitation -- wouldn't that be nice? -- Furyk is no worse than 15-1 in my book.

Adam Scott
He's up to No. 3 in the World Ranking after winning in Houston, although I think you'd be challenged to find anyone who thinks the 26-year-old Aussie is the planet's third-best golfer. Scott is a decent bet to become the first player from Down Under to win a green jacket, but I don't see it happening this week. As impressive as he is at times, I still wonder about his short game. His chipping is inconsistent, his putting stroke tentative. And that 72nd-hole tee shot into the water last Sunday leaves me wondering about his decision-making process, especially with a caddie as smart and conservative as Tony Navarro on the payroll.

All that said, Scott's upside is very attractive. He kills par 5s, ranking fourth on the tour, which is pretty impressive for a guy who also ranks 186th in approach shots from more than 200 yards. He has made a ton of birdies in '07, but his best Masters finish is a T-9 way back in 2002, and he still hasn't been in serious contention at a major. At about 30-1, give or take a dollar, I don't think the bookies have it wrong.

Phil Mickelson
I feel like I know his game as well as anyone, but I'm having a hard time getting a read on Lefty this year. The win at Pebble Beach and playoff loss at Riviera are his only top- 10s. He has never been comfortable on Bermuda grass, which explains a pair of so-so finishes in Florida, but his stats across the board are exceptional -- much better than his overall performance. Mickelson's odds this week are a solid 8-1, better than anyone but You Know Who. Having won two of the last three Masters, that's quite understandable.

Still, I'm not sold. There are two players on earth who can win this tournament without their best stuff, and Mickelson is one of them. He ran away from the field at Pebble, but when his short game turned sloppy in extra holes in L.A., it was hard not to wonder about the lingering effects of the collapse at Winged Foot. Maybe that's just me. Maybe it isn't. I do know that Augusta National is a tough place to beat Woods and your own demons, which is why Lefty rates no higher than fourth or fifth on my list this week.

Ernie Els
I spoke at length with the Big Easy last November at the Tour Championship, where he referred to 2006 as a "transitional year" and couldn't wait for '07. After knee surgery in the summer of '05, the leg was finally close to 100 percent. He had yet another new agent (Chubby Chandler) and had streamlined his off-course business interests, meaning fewer distractions and better golf. It all sounded great until he ditched Titleist and abruptly signed with Callaway in February, basically changing everything in his bag. Maybe things weren't so settled after all.

I don't think equipment is an issue. I'm still waiting for Els to prove he has recovered from the devastating Masters loss to Mickelson in 2004. He hasn't won a tournament in the United States in almost three years and, of late, seems to have lost the ultraresourceful nature that made him so difficult to beat on tough courses. Is this the week? The bookies have Els safely protected at odds in the 12-1 neighborhood. By no means is it wasted money, but it's no bargain, either.

Henrik Stenson
They don't come any hotter than the surging Swede, who has undeniably become Europe's best player with four quality victories in the last 14 months. There's a lot to like about Stenson, whose power off the tee and precise putting stroke make him a candidate to win anywhere. He missed the cut in his first Masters last April, which doesn't mean a whole lot because a whole lot has happened since. I like this guy's unaffected demeanor. One big week doesn't make the man, but I was extremely impressed with how Stenson dealt with the few bits of crisis he encountered en route to winning the WGC-Match Play.

In Fanny Sunesson, Stenson has another valuable asset: an experienced caddie who was on the bag for all three of Nick Faldo's Masters triumphs. If her man can get off to a good start this week, shed the shackles of inexperience and take a wealth of confidence into the weekend, the Lead Swede could very well become a handful. At 35-1, he's an absolute steal, but an opening 76 turns him into dog meat.

Vijay Singh
Dare I declare the Big Fijian as my choice to win the 71st edition of this tournament? After one victory in 2006 and whispers of a career in decline, Singh has returned to a level last seen from him in 2004, when he briefly unseated Woods atop the World Ranking. He's ranked seventh now, but with two wins and seven top-20s in 10 starts in '07, he has been more consistent than Woods and beaten more top-tier players than Stenson. When it comes to guys who are maximizing their ability at the right time, this is your man.

The difference, as is so often the case, is putting. Beyond ranking 15th on the tour in strokes per GIR, Singh is rolling the ball better than ever and converting more opportunities in the 10- to 20-foot range -- I'm impressed when a player ranks 12th in greens and third in scrambling. He's not even close to being the longest or straightest driver in the field, but Singh hits his driver a lot and isn't afraid to take chances. Most of all, I like the way he galloped to the homestretch in tough conditions on Sunday at Bay Hill. At 16-1 almost everywhere, he's the sexiest pick of the bunch.

Geoff Ogilvy
To call the reigning U.S. Open champion a "sleeper pick" might be overstating it, particularly when referring to a player with such an abundance of talent. Ogilvy's only weakness is a lack of accuracy off the tee, which hardly will cripple him at Augusta National. His short game is superb, his putting excellent, and if one couldn't have envisioned him winning a U.S. Open, the Masters is played on his kind of ballpark. I don't see Ogilvy winning 25 or 30 times over the duration of his career, but I do think he's capable of winning three or four majors, at least one of which will leave him wearing a green jacket.

His odds this week fluctuate more than most, ranging from 25-1 to 40-1, mainly because guys who work for betting services don't know how good Ogilvy is. A T-16 in his first Masters last spring only makes him more appealing. I love the high ball flight and his array of shots around the greens, his ability to feel putts instead of read them and his oversized desire. If Ogilvy can keep his cool through the rough patches, he'll be there on Sunday.

Retief Goosen
Short of saying he has no chance, Goosen might not make my pre-tournament top 20 if I were so inclined to compile such a list. He finished T-3 here last year, but a T-4 at the Tour Championship is his only other top 10 since. In four starts in '07, he's 185th in greens in regulation, 177th in sand saves, 138th in total driving. Something happened to this guy -- other than his putting, which has remained solid, Goosen bears little resemblance to the man who won the 2004 U.S. Open in such clutch fashion.

The bookies clearly haven't been paying attention, which explains why the Goose is listed in the 25-1 neighborhood. He's not worth a sniff at 50-1, as his chances of suddenly coming to life and sustaining a high level for four days are farther from slim than nonexistent. In case you're still wondering, I don't like Goosen this week. If you spend five minutes looking at his last 12 months, you won't, either.

Padraig Harrington
It wasn't so long ago that the smiling Irishman represented Europe's best major hope -- certainly its best chance of winning a U.S. Open. Despite a career-best major finish last year at Winged Foot (solo fifth) and a late charge to win the '06 European Tour money title, it seems like Harrington has fallen from golf's top tier. Not only is he majorless at age 35, he's also without a serious foray into Sunday contention. Three or four years ago, that seemed rather unlikely.

Since a T-5 in 2002, Harrington has managed no better than a T-13 at Augusta National. He has posted just one round in the 60s in those four starts. He's longer off the tee than you might think, if not all that accurate, and despite becoming one of the game's more dependable putters, his grinding, par-saving sensibilities haven't translated well at the Masters. He's a nice player, but at 40-1, you can find a lot more for your money. Then again, if Mike Weir can win this tournament, so can Paddy Harrington.

John Hawkins is a senior writer for Golf World magazine.