1 TIGER WOODS
Tiger is back! Some of the shots he's hit this year--like that 300-yard three-wood that set up an eagle at Doral--belong on the highlight reel that was Tiger's 2000 season.... If he had any doubts about the swing changes he made with help from Hank Haney, his wins at Torrey Pines and Doral erased them.... The added length Tiger is getting with his new ball and driver makes him the Man again.... Tiger is also one of the straightest of the bombers, which will help at Augusta.
Final Fore: If you don't think Tiger is the guy to beat, wake up! If he rolls his rock, it won't be close.
2 PHIL MICKELSON
Phil has gone back to his old power game, and while he's hitting it a mile, he's starting to spray it again too. Phil is on a roll and hasn't had to have the driver totally under control, and he probably won't have to at Augusta, either. (We'll see how he does at Pinehurst and Baltusrol.) ... Phil's short game is second to none, even Tiger's.... Phil puts up this pleasant facade, but I'd like to know what's really behind it.
Final Fore: Mickelson could repeat, and if he doesn't--not to label him--I bet he finishes second.
3 JIM FURYK
Take your pick of clichés about tough guys. Jim is that and more.... I've played with him enough this year to report that he's all the way back from the left wrist surgery he had in March 2004.... Jim is a lot longer than people think. He's a terrific iron player and a great chipper and putter.... Jim showed signs of his old self at the Ryder Cup, is peaking right on schedule and feels, I think, that he has something to prove. Augusta could be his comeback story.
Final Fore: Jim is my sleeper pick because no one is paying attention to him. He could be this year's Mike Weir.
4 ERNIE ELS
He definitely is going to win a major this year.... Els is building a Greg Norman--like résumé of disappointments at Augusta, but if anyone can turn that around, it's easygoing Ernie. I loved his quote after he lost to Mickelson last year. He said he felt "a lot better after the seventh beer." That's my kind of guy.... Ernie's short game is phenomenal. I'd love to see him chip for money against Woods, Mickelson and Goosen.
Final Fore: It's only a matter of time before Ernie wears a green jacket.
5 RETIEF GOOSEN
Retief is the only guy I know who could tell a story about getting hit by lightning without raising his voice.... He's the Larry Nelson of our generation, only better. Retief had to win a couple of U.S. Opens to get anyone to notice him.... He is sneaky long. His smooth tempo disguises his distance off the tee. He's a lot like his best buddy, Els--he does everything well and has no weaknesses.... If you watched the final round at Shinnecock last year, you know Retief's short game is awesome.
Final Fore: It's not easy to be the fifth-ranked player in the world and still be under the radar.
6 DAVID TOMS
I'm a huge fan. Even though David isn't a bomber, he has the game to win any of the majors. He's one of the most accurate drivers out here--and this year he's keeping it in the air longer--plus he's an awesome iron player, which he showed while winning the Match Play. Combine that with how well he putts, and man, he has the whole package.... I'd like to know how many times he has been in the lead on Sunday and failed to win. Trust me, that hasn't happened very often.
Final Fore: He's not flashy and will never be a premajor favorite, but if he's in the mix on the final nine, watch out.
7 MIGUEL ANGEL JIMENEZ
Other than Vijay Singh, has anyone in the world played better lately? Miguel has seven wins in little more than two years. He is long enough off the tee, is a superb iron player and has lots of imagination around the greens.... There's a reason why he has been so tough in the Ryder Cup: He never beats himself by making an unforced error. (I saw that firsthand while losing to him in a match-play event.) ... He seldom speaks to others in his group.
Final Fore: Wouldn't his red ponytail look sweet hanging down the back of a green jacket? Clifford Roberts would rise from the grave with a pair of clippers!
8 DARREN CLARKE
Darren's game is well-suited to Augusta. He is so strong and hits it so hard, he can turn around the wind. He may get a little wild with the driver, but wherever his ball winds up, it's way out there, which is perfect for Augusta.... Darren is a great guy, one of the most popular players on any tour.... He hits his irons high and his short game is O.K. The only question mark is his putting, although I know he's been working hard on it for the last two years.
Final Fore: I wouldn't want to miss his victory party.
9 STEWART CINK
Stewart is a different player from the one who botched the 2001 U.S. Open. That turned out to be the wake-up call he needed. Butch Harmon helped Stewart with his swing, and now he seems to be on the leader board almost every week.... Anyone who's among the top 15 in greens hit and putting, like Stewart, is formidable.... He always used to be a little soft, but he was plenty tough at last year's NEC Invitational and at the Ryder Cup, where he played well under pressure.
Final Fore: The belly putter gives me pause, even though Cink was No. 1 on Tour in putting last year.
10 PAUL CASEY
Paul got off to a horrible start this year. Supposedly he had a sore back, but I suspect he had more of a hearing problem. I think he's had a hard time dealing with the backlash over his anti-American comments. Paul is a sweet guy, and his feelings have been hurt. Playing well at Augusta would be a nice way to put the controversy behind him.... Paul fits the profile of a Masters contender--long, with a high, right-to-left ball flight.
Final Fore: If you don't include him on your short list of contenders, you really are a stupid American.
PHOTOGRAPH BY FRED VUICH / GOLF MAGAZINE
Dawn breaks over a dewy 1st hole at Augusta National, which awaits next week's 69th playing of the Masters. Elsewhere in town Betty Eunice Wilson (inset), the crossing guard at Episcopal Day School since 1955, is one of the thousands of Augustans who are gearing up for the tournament (page 34).
¬† [see caption above]
DAVID WALBERG (WOODS)
TWO COLOR PHOTOS
DARREN CARROLL (MICKELSON, TOMS)
TWO COLOR PHOTOS
SCOTT HALLERAN/GETTY IMAGES (FURYK, CINK)
THREE COLOR PHOTOS
ROBERT BECK (ELS, GOOSEN, CLARKE)
SIMON BRUTY (JIMENEZ)
JOHN BIEVER (CASEY)