Expect a big crowd at Augusta

Leaderboard won't be lonely with new wave of favorites

April 07, 2011|By Jeff Shain, Tribune Newspapers

AUGUSTA, Ga. — Nick Watney won a World Golf Championships event last month. He has taken a lead into the final round of a major and worked his way around Augusta National a few times over the years.

This week, that qualifies the California native as someone worth watching. And to Watney's lament, not much else.

"I wish," he quipped, "that if they mention your name before the tournament, you could start 2-under par or something."

Even that might leave the top of the Masters leaderboard top-heavy as its 75th edition tees off Thursday.

Tiger Woods is laboring without a victory in the last 17 months as he overhauls everything about his swing. A similar funk befell Phil Mickelson — until last weekend's victory in Houston put him in the favorite's seat.

Combined, they account for six of the last 10 green jackets handed out at Bobby Jones' hallowed retreat. But one needs only glance at the world rankings to see a changing of the guard.

Mickelson is the only American among the top six on the list. And Watney is part of a new crop of U.S. talent now winning trophies and contending in majors.

None other than Jack Nicklaus had a difficult time settling on a name to watch from among the next wave.

"Dustin Johnson, what a talent," Nicklaus said as he sat down with reporters at Augusta National. "You have (Lee) Westwood, great talent. Martin Kaymer, what a talent. You can go right down through the bag."

The Rules of Golf allow 14 clubs in the bag, and you can find at least as many trendy options for contenders these days: U.S. Open champion Graeme McDowell, Luke Donald, Ian Poulter, Paul Casey, Justin Rose, Bubba Watson, Matt Kuchar, Hunter Mahan, Anthony Kim. Not to mention Mickelson, Woods, Watney, Westwood and Kaymer.

"The field is so wide open, so evenly matched this year," said ESPN analyst Curtis Strange, a two-time U.S. Open champion. "It would be hard to pick anybody in the top 50 who didn't have a chance."

Mike Tirico, set to anchor ESPN's coverage Thursday and Friday, notes nine different golfers have won the last nine majors — and of that group only Kaymer has recorded multiple victories since winning one.

"For some guys, that's two years," Tirico said. "What it tells you is handicapping who is going to win majors these days is as difficult as ever."

Westwood dethroned Woods atop the rankings last fall, then gave way to Kaymer. Watney and Johnson blew 54-hole leads at majors but used the experience to win significant events later. Watson lost a PGA Championship playoff to Kaymer.

All have enough Masters starts by now — at least three — to understand the danger zones. The question is how well each has digested the knowledge.

"It is a golf course you have to be very strategic on and play patiently," Westwood said.

And how long does it take to learn?

"You learn it fairly quickly," Westwood said, "but if you're stupid like me, sometimes it takes a while to sink in. Sometimes you just can't help it — I seem not to be able to help myself and go at flags."

Said Watney: "If you're more aggressive, that's a double-edged sword. If you can pull the shots off, great. But this golf course and the pins and the greens — if you're a little bit off, you can go the other way in a hurry."

And in this crop, there's another rising standout just as eager to be fitted for a green jacket.

jshain@tribune.com

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