Wednesday, April 6, 2016

On the eve of the Masters, there is no clear favorite

In less than 12 hours, the Masters starts. After three days of talk, lots of analysis and a Par-3 Contest to exclude the winner from a Sunday date with a green jacket, there's still no clear favorite.

The primary reason why it's so hard to home in on a pick is because so many top players are in great form.

The Masters champions dating back to 2011 have all won somewhere in the world this year. Charl Schwartzel has won three times since November, including the Valspar Championship. Bubba Watson won at Riviera, just like he did two years ago before winning a second green jacket. Adam Scott won in back-to-back weeks in the Florida swing. Jordan Spieth won an eight-shot runaway at the Tournament of Champions to start the year.

Then there's Jason Day, who has assumed No. 1 in the Official World Golf Ranking, and was the favorite leading into the week. He won his last two starts in a row. However, there's a problem. In the history of the PGA Tour, a player has won three consecutive starts just 27 times. Since Tiger Woods turned pro in 1996, just it's happened just five times, with Woods doing it twice.

Rory McIlroy's game is tailored to Augusta National. The Ulsterman hits it high and right-to-left. He's long, so he can demolish the par 5s. This is the major that stands between McIlroy and becoming the sixth-ever golfer to complete the career Grand Slam. But he hasn't closed the deal. And there's the scar tissue of surrendering a four-stroke 54-hole lead in 2011. McIlroy has changed so many facets of his Masters approach in the hopes of finding the right formula.

How about Phil Mickelson? At 45, Mickelson would become the second-oldest Masters winner ever, 30 years after Jack Nicklaus won the '86 green jacket at 46. Mickelson already has three, so he knows how to do it. If you believe in numerology -- and the Masters is the only major where that's a legitimized part of the analysis -- then you'll note Mickelson won his three prior Masters in even-numbered years (like Bubba Watson! Conflict!). Mickelson is reinvigorated this year, hitting more fairways thanks to work with new swing instructor Andrew Getson. If Lefty can keep the ball in play, he's got as good of a chance as anyone. 

But what about Rickie Fowler, who won in Abu Dhabi and lost in a playoff in Phoenix? How about Patrick Reed, Hideki Matsuyama, Brooks Koepka or Justin Thomas, all members of the 20-something army looking to join the major-winning company of the supposed modern Big Three?

Henrik Stenson, Sergio Garcia and Dustin Johnson have all had more than their fair share of close calls and slip-ups in majors. Any of them could break through this week, in what would be a remarkable story of redemption.

There are anywhere from 12-15 players who could win and, in golf circles, it wouldn't be a surprising result.

It also helps that this Masters field is the smallest since 2002. There are only 89 players. Most of the past champions aren't serious contenders. The amateurs are largely happy to be there. There are fewer wild-cards in the form of PGA Tour event winners who have sneaked their way down Magnolia Lane. For the best players, there are fewer possible Rich Beems, Todd Hamiltons and Shaun Micheels.

However, what keeps this Masters so up in the air is, well, the wind. There's going to be a lot of it during the first three days of the championship. With sustained winds expected to clock in at 20 mph, Augusta National will take on a new character. The par 5s will be largely longer or subject to crosswinds that will make most every player in the field think twice about reaching in two. Several of the long par 4s will play even longer.

In concept, that should favor the long hitters. In reality, it should neutralize the length advantage. It'll crush the players, like Rory McIlroy, who struggle to control their ball flight and embrace the challenge of the wind. The likely slightly slowed greens will become even trickier and will probably flummox the flatstick-challenged.

Most weeks, a clear favorable draw emerges. On paper, the weather will guarantee there is none.

And then there's the nature of the host course itself. On Sunday, the wind is supposed to relent. Combine that with a traditional final-round setup built for birdies, eagles and reverberating roars, and the final day could turn out to be a shootout where anything is possible -- like what happened in 1960, 1975, 1986, 1998, 2004, 2009 and 2011, and so many other years. 

So, who's the favorite to win the Masters? Us.

Ryan Ballengee is a Yahoo Sports contributor. Find him on Facebook and Twitter.

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