Who's most likelyto win the Masters and why? We convened a meeting of SI golf experts—seniorwriters Michael Bamberger, Damon Hack, Alan Shipnuck and Gary Van Sickle, pluscontributing writer John Garrity—and a PGA Tour pro (who participated on thecondition that he remain anonymous) to answer those and other questions
VAN SICKLE: Do youguys think Augusta National has finally been Tiger-proofed, based on thedifficult conditions the last two years and mildly surprising winners ZachJohnson and Trevor Immelman?
HACK: It's notTiger-proofed, it's excitement-proofed. Guys like Jack Nicklaus and ArnoldPalmer and Tom Watson are pretty careful about criticizing the Masters, buteven they are making more noise than they used to about the course. They don'tlike it very much. It's become a point A to point B golf course. It'sboring.
ANONYMOUS PRO: Thecourse has played so long the last few years, even the long hitters can't takeadvantage of the par-5s, which Tiger and Phil always used to do. When thathappens, it becomes more of a test from 100 yards. The par-3s are brutal, andeverybody lays up on the par-5s, so it's the guy who wedges it the best andputts the best who wins. That's not what built the legends of the Masters.
VAN SICKLE: Thecourse was so difficult the last two years, it was an equalizer. You madebirdies as much by accident as by skill.
BAMBERGER: The newAugusta National works against Tiger because there's less of an intimidationfactor. Like Nicklaus or Palmer in their days, Tiger can put up a 31 on theback nine on Sunday afternoon when nobody else can. When 31 isn't in the cards,that works against him.
VAN SICKLE: Byintimidation, you mean the roars that Tiger or Jack create by shooting 31 onthe back nine?
SHIPNUCK: I agreewith Michael, the Masters is more of a defensive tournament now. It's moredifficult for Tiger to separate himself. It's become boring the first threerounds. They want to protect par at the outset, then they try to make thecourse more scorable on Sunday, but it's too late. They've already sucked thelife out of the tournament.
GARRITY: The morethey restore number 7 to the way it used to be, which was just a great shortpar-4, the better I'll like it. They turned that into a hole at Firestone.
BAMBERGER: GeoffOgilvy made a similar point about the 14th, that the hole was tougher when itwas shorter because you had to play it as a dogleg. Now it simply plays as astraightaway hole with a sloping fairway.
SHIPNUCK:Apparently they've extended the tee box way up on number 7 so they can play it40 to 50 yards shorter if they want. Maybe that's their plan—make the tee boxeslonger so they can adjust the lengths of the holes.
VAN SICKLE: Alansaid it earlier: They're trying to protect par. When did the green jackets turninto blue jackets? The USGA blue coats used to be the only ones worried aboutanyone shooting 275 and embarrassing Shinnecock or Winged Foot. When Tiger shotthe record in '97, Masters officials only cared about how he did it—by hittingdriver-wedge on just about every hole, which was alarming. These days it wouldembarrass Hootie Johnson, the former chairman, if all the trees he planted gotripped out, but Billy Payne ought to consider it.
HACK: One tree ata time, baby. One tree at a time.
SHIPNUCK: It allcomes down to two holes, 13 and 15. Those holes define excitement at theMasters, and they're automatic layups for a lot of guys. Move up the tees andbring back eagles on those holes, which still would give up bogeys and doubles.Take out the new trees, lose the rough, speed up the fairways and turn thecourse into a racetrack. Bobby Jones had a vision of it as a links in aparkland setting.
BAMBERGER: Noteven a parkland setting, Alan. In the '80s when you stepped out of theclubhouse, you felt as if you were looking at a huge playing field, not like itis now. I've heard Ben Crenshaw say that you don't get that unique feelinganymore that this is a strange, special course. Those corridors of trees arelike Oak Hill or Winged Foot.
THE PADDY SLAM
VAN SICKLE: We'vegot a guy going for three straight major victories, and nobody is talking abouthim. It's even crazier that Padraig Harrington has won two majors in a row andisn't ranked No. 2 in the world.
ANONYMOUS PRO:Padraig always comes in under the radar. There's nothing flashy about his game.Royal Birkdale and Oakland Hills were both kind of survival of the fittest.Augusta requires a short game unlike anywhere else, and Padraig doesn't hit alot of flops and pitches and isn't as imaginative around the greens as Tigerand Phil. Padraig looks very rigid in his technique; he simply doesn't looklike a feel player to me, and feel players win at Augusta.
SHIPNUCK: WhenPhil has a train wreck and plays bad, it's fun. It's part of his charm.Harrington is just so relentlessly steady. He'll go to Augusta with a very lowprofile, which suits him fine. There's nothing not to like about him, butPadraig has never captured the imagination of the American public.
GARRITY: Theproblem is, he won his two majors in a row in only one month. And while Tigerwas absent.
HACK: Fair orunfair, it's like the Houston Rockets winning back-to-back NBA titles whileMichael Jordan was retired. Those trophies look the same on Padraig's mantel,but in the public's eye maybe it wasn't the same because Tiger was missing.
SHIPNUCK: I'vebeen saying for a long time that Harrington is the Hakeem Olajuwon of golf.
VAN SICKLE: If youwant to win two majors and stay anonymous in the U.S., you win the British Openand the PGA. Nobody notices. You have to win the tournaments the Americanpublic watches, and that means the Masters and the U.S. Open. If Padraig winsthis Masters, for the rest of his life he won't be off the radar.
HACK: I wouldn'thave touched Phil Mickelson two months ago, but the way he won in Los Angelesand Doral, he has to be the favorite for Augusta. I'd ride that horse.
SHIPNUCK: Phil isback, definitely. He has that look about him. The guy has been kind of lostsince Winged Foot [in 2006], but for three years there he was in contention injust about every major. He's the one guy who has the game, the force and thepersonality. He's the only bona fide rival for Tiger out there, not Anthony Kimor Rory McIlroy or Ryo Ishikawa or some other young gun. Look, Phil has athree- to five-year window. He knows that, we all know that. He's doingeverything he can to get back to where he was and have a triumphant final actto his career. He is energized.
BAMBERGER: Thething that had his caddie, Jim Mackay, so excited was that approach shot intoDoral's last hole on Sunday. Phil couldn't hit his bread-and-butter draw inthere. He played a fade into a back-left pin, a shot that Butch Harmon haswanted him to use, and he executed it beautifully. As Jim said, that's a shothe needs at Augusta. To pull that off under the gun is a huge boost forconfidence.
ANONYMOUS PRO:Phil's iron play and putting are fantastic, but he's still driving it poorly.All the best drives I saw him hit at Doral were with three-woods. I'm surprisedthat Butch hasn't tightened up Phil's driver backswing. It's loose, and so ishis lower body, which is why he's driving it erratically. Phil's problem ishe's enamored with distance. He doesn't realize that taking 10 yards off histee ball would help him so much.
VAN SICKLE: It'strue. He digs the long ball.
ANONYMOUS PRO: Isaw Phil pound a big, looping high draw off the 12th tee at Doral. He can hitit 330 with a cut, so why try to hit it 350 with a draw? The best drivers hitthe ball one way—either they cut it or hit it straight. Like Tiger. If Tigerhas to draw it, he hits his three-wood. Being aggressive is Phil's nature. Youcan't change that. The driver is still the weak link in his bag, but there'splenty of room at Augusta even with the trees. And 36 wins? The guy isphenomenal.
VAN SICKLE: It'sinteresting how Geoff Ogilvy looks like one of the two or three best players inthe world whenever he wins.
BAMBERGER:Inasmuch as he played one of the most difficult courses in the history of theU.S. Open so well at Winged Foot, I don't see how he can't be considered one ofthe favorites at the Masters.
SHIPNUCK: He's hadsome crazy blowups at Augusta—two balls into the pond at 15 and a 9 in '07.Hopefully, he's learned from that.
BAMBERGER: I thinkhe did that out of respect for Norman.
ANONYMOUS PRO:Geoff makes it look so easy. He hits his irons super high, he's a great driverof the ball and a terrific putter. It's a great combination. Plus, he seems sononchalant. He looks as if he can't decide whether to order a turkey sub or hita golf shot.
VAN SICKLE: Whichis amazing for a guy who was once a minivolcano.
ANONYMOUS PRO: TheAussie to watch this year isn't Norman, it's Ogilvy. I think he's going to win,to be honest.
VAN SICKLE: GregNorman played his way back into the Masters for the first time since 2002 witha remarkable British Open performance. Is his return a big deal or mostlyceremonial?
ANONYMOUS PRO: Itwould've been really cool if he was coming back as the Open champion. I wish hehad won. I've heard him say he's basically just hoping to make the cut at theMasters. That says it all. He went away sooner than everyone wanted, but herealizes this is probably his last time around Augusta.
SHIPNUCK: Greg isa great Thursday story. I'll be surprised if he gets into contention. Hecouldn't get it done in Augusta when he was the best in the world. He's amiddle-aged, part-time golfer now. I don't see it happening.
GARRITY: I spentsome time with Greg and Chris Evert for a story recently. He's worked so hardto prepare for this physically. He's been doing a strong workout routine. Theopportunity to go back clearly means a lot. Even if it's ceremonial, he wantsto play like the Shark.
BAMBERGER: I thinkit's supercool for him to come back with Chrissie to the place where he madehis reputation. I hate this word, but this is great closure for Greg. He earnedhis way back, and that is very cool.
VAN SICKLE: Thisis the first major that Tiger Woods will play in almost 10 months. If thosegoose bumps aren't too distracting, what does this Masters look like for Tiger,apparently fully recovered from serious knee surgery?
ANONYMOUS PRO:He'll be fine. I don't think his knee is an issue. He simply needs somecompetitive golf. He made zero putts at Doral and still finished in the top 10.I'm sure he'll do a flyby in Augusta and be ready.
BAMBERGER: Iwonder if these ordinary Tour events like Doral and Bay Hill are going tobecome harder and harder for Tiger to get excited about. Yet he needs theseother events to get into shape to play the majors.
SHIPNUCK: Giventhe rust, his play at Doral was amazing. He was missing his scoring touch, butyou looked up and he was in the top 10. Phil [Mickelson] took a few months offand could barely break 80 at first. Tiger is definitely on schedule. I have nodoubt that he'll be as good or better than he was before the surgery, it's justa matter of how long it takes. He will contend on the new Augusta National, buthe's not quite the favorite he was on the old Augusta National. Before, it wasTiger and everybody else. This year he's one of six or seven co-favorites. Butthat may not last long. He's still Tiger.
HACK: Even withthe course changes Tiger is going to be the favorite at Augusta for the nextdecade. Next week he'll finish top three for sure. His putter has been cold thelast two years. If he putts like he did at Bay Hill, those runner-up finisheswill be three-shot wins, easy.
GARRITY: As greata player as Tiger is, he's always had little flaws or technical issues, whetherit was Butch Harmon's swing or Hank Haney's. The real measure of Tiger is thathe's so able to control the club face and manufacture shots despite a swingflaw or an unstable knee. He can still win and is the favorite to win anywhere,under any circumstance. His balance looks better than it's been in years,surely because of his knee. He also doesn't look as if he's trying to crushevery shot, which I like. I'd be very bullish on Tiger.
ANONYMOUS PRO:Tiger says he hasn't changed his swing, but it looks lower than it ever has,flatter on the downswing, almost as if he's trying to save some bad swings withhis right shoulder by trying to get the club through. He's on plane, just flat.His left knee isn't straightening, it's almost giving, which is why he's losingshots to the right. I'm sure his knee is fine, but mentally, after years ofknee issues, he may not be ready to go at it the way he used to. But he knowshis swing. He'll figure it out. He always does.
AND THE WINNER IS...
VAN SICKLE: Thisis the part where we predict the Masters champion. I don't recall any of uspicking Trevor Immelman last year. Given that our track record is about thesame as Jim Cramer's, who do you like?
SHIPNUCK: I'vebeen backing Ogilvy all year, but I also like Harrington. He has a game planfor Augusta (story, page 46). He's not playing for top 10, he's playing to win,and he's going to be aggressive. I'll take him and Ogilvy in a playoff.
HACK: I still likePhil.
GARRITY: Yourealize that I'm retired and I'm only here as a senior consultant. If I have topick somebody, I'll go with Mickelson. Maybe the Masters is to Mickelson whatthe British was to Watson, and he'll be a Hall of Famer who wins four or fiveMasters, one or two PGAs and nothing else.
VAN SICKLE: Tigerhas never gone four years without winning a Masters. This would be the fourthyear. Even in an off-year, he finishes second. At his press conference [at theMatch Play] in Tucson, I have never seen him more at ease or happier with hislife. I think that matters, maybe a lot. It has always been a bad idea to betagainst Tiger. It still is. I'll go with the chalk.
BAMBERGER: I'mpicking Dustin Johnson, the guy who won at Pebble Beach. He's a very goodgolfer. He looks like a beautiful lag putter. Possibly, he's a guy who doesn'tget rattled. He has more of a jock mentality, like a screw-you,get-out-of-my-way, I'm-going-to-win-this-thing.
VAN SICKLE: He'dbe the first Masters champ who can dunk a basketball, although if there wasmoney on the line, I wouldn't have put it past the original Slammer, SamSnead.
BAMBERGER: Iunderstand Gene Sarazen could dunk.
GARRITY: I'll askhim the next time I see him.
"One tree at a time, baby. One tree at atime."
"Padraig always comes in under the radar. There'snothing flashy about his game."
"Phil is back, definitely. He has that look abouthim.... He's the one guy who has game, the force and the personality. He's theonly bona fide rival for Tiger out there, not Anthony Kim or Rory McIlroy orRyo Ishikawa."
"I think it's supercool for him to come back withChrissie to the place where he made his reputation ... this is great closurefor Greg. He earned his way back and that is very cool."
"This is the first major that Tiger Woods will playin almost 10 months. If those goose bumps aren't too distracting, what doesthis Masters look like for Tiger, apparently fully recovered from serious kneesurgery?"
"I understand Gene Sarazen could dunk."
MY BAG FOR THE MASTERS
Look inside for a peek at what equipment eighttop-ranked pros will be carrying at Augusta
AUGUSTA NATIONAL GOLF CLUB/AP
SPOILSPORTS New trees and the additional length have taken much of the excitement out of the Masters.
LOOMING LARGE Mickelson marches into Augusta on a roll.
LOVE ACTUALLY Norman (with Evert) returns to one of his favorite venues and to the site of major disappointments.
ERICK W. RASCO (GATEFOLD)
TIGER-PROOFED? Woods is a four-time Masters champion, but he has slipped on the green jacket only once since his victory in 2002.
UPSTART An excellent lag putter with a rim-rockin' mentality, Johnson has what it takes to win at Augusta.