Your sleeper picks for the ‘09 Masters

Nick Watney hits his tee shot on the 13th hole during the third round of the Arnold Palmer Invitational.

Nick Watney hits his tee shot on the 13th hole during the third round of the Arnold Palmer Invitational.

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The sleeper. It’s the guy no one pays any mind until he’s one off the lead entering the final round. And when he’s still one back making the turn on Sunday, everybody’s kicking themselves: Man, why didn’t I think of him?. You can bet there will be that guy at the 2009 Masters. His name will pop up on the first-round leaderboard, and he’ll hang around throughout the tournament. Last year, it was Brandt Snedeker and Steve Flesch. That’s right. Steve Flesch. He shot 78 in the final round and finished T-5. Who will it be this year? Golfweek has your answers.

10. Fred Couples

Age: 49

Country: United States

Golfweek/Sagarin Ranking: 95

Official World Golf Ranking: 120

The scoop: Freddie? Washed up, you say? Not so, friends. This sweet-swinger contended in a big way at the Northern Trust Open earlier this year and eventually finished T-3. He contended again last week at the Shell Houston Open.

Since he won in 1992, Couples has made the cut every year except last year and 1994 (did not play). In that span, he has five top-10s, including two as recently as 2006 (T-3) and 2004 (T-6). On a course where local knowledge is paramount, Couples could be your guy. And if his fluid, full-swing tempo somehow translates into his jabby putting stroke, he can heat up at Augusta.

9. Justin Leonard

Age: 36

Country: United States

Golfweek/Sagarin Ranking: 13

Official World Golf Ranking: 26

The scoop: Leonard does well when par is a premium, as it has been at the Masters for the past few years. He won the St. Jude tournament in 2008 after finishing regulation 4 under par. Leonard is streaky in ‘09. He finished fifth at the season-opening Mercedes and made the elite eight at the WGC-Match Play.

8. K.J. Choi

Age: 38

Country: South Korea

Golfweek/Sagarin Ranking: 71

Official World Golf Ranking: 21

The scoop: Choi has quietly had a decent year on Tour. He opened with a T15 and T12 back-to-back at Mercedes and Sony and then notched a T3 at Northern Trust as he contended down the stretch. Choi’s success at Augusta has been sporadic, but he’s shown flashes of good play there. He finished third in 2004 and had a T15 the year before. Choi’s lack of distance (144th in 2009) may hurt him on the lengthy track.

7. Jeev Milkha Singh

Age: 37

Country: India

Golfweek/Sagarin Ranking: 31

Official World Golf Ranking: 29

The scoop: Singh isn’t by any means a household name in the U.S. (unless you’re talking about Vijay), but Jeev finished fourth at Doral and was in contention throughout the week. He hasn’t missed a cut in his last 18 events, and Singh has two wins in that span, one on the Japan Tour, and one at the Barclays Singapore Open that included a world-class field. Singh has gone T25-T37 the last two years at the Masters, and with his newfound comfort in the U.S., he could make a run at Augusta. He was the first-round leader at the PGA Championship before finishing tied for ninth.

6. Stewart Cink

Age: 35

Country: United States

Golfweek/Sagarin Ranking: 18

Official World Golf Ranking: 18

The scoop: Cink is a good fit in Georgia. He thrived while at Georgia Tech, and Cink has a decent record at Augusta. He has six top-25s in his last six Masters starts, and he’s reasonably solid entering the year’s first major. He’s only missed one cut in seven events and had a third-place showing at the WGC-Match Play.

5. Robert Allenby

Age: 37

Country: Australia

Golfweek/Sagarin Ranking: 4

Official World Golf Ranking: 30

The scoop: Outside of Tiger Woods, Allenby may be golf’s most consistent player. Allenby is tied with Woods for most consecutive cuts made on the PGA Tour with 32. He finished T11 at Bay Hill and posted a T5 at Honda, but the Aussie hasn’t fared well at Augusta. He has gone T42-MC-T22-MC the last four years. If Allenby can get his putter under control (117th putts per GIR; 142nd putts per round), look for him to contend.

4. Rory McIlroy

Age: 19

Country: Northern Ireland

Golfweek/Sagarin Ranking: 66

Official World Golf Ranking: 17

The scoop: Simple: enormous talent. Then why is he No. 4 on this list? Simple: This is the first time he’s playing Augusta National. And unless McIlroy hires a local caddie and does some serious homework on those greens, he may underachieve in his first Masters. We trust he’ll do well, and there is no doubt he has the talent and no-fear attitude to win, but short putts have been the Irish teen’s weakness this year. And if you don’t trust your stroke over a 4-footer at Augusta, well... good luck, friend.

3. Luke Donald

Age: 31

Country: England

Golfweek/Sagarin Ranking: 8

Official World Golf Ranking: 33

The scoop: England is still waiting for Donald to fulfill all of the expectations that have been laid on him. Donald was having one of the best seasons on Tour (T23-T25-T7-T6) before he injured his wrist at the WGC-Match Play and was forced to withdraw. It counted as a T9 because officially Donald’s withdrawal came on the 18th hole of his match, and it was deemed a loss. However, he bounced back with a solid T20 at Doral, and Donald should do well at Augusta, a place where he feels comfortable. From 2005-2007, Donald went T3-T42-T10.

2. Sean O’Hair

Age: 26

Country: United States

Golfweek/Sagarin Ranking: 51

Official World Golf Ranking: 28

The scoop: Other than our No. 1 sleeper, O’Hair is perhaps the hottest player in golf. Granted, he suffered a devastating runner-up finish at Bay Hill to you-know-who, but there’s no denying O’Hair has had a very strong year heading into the Masters. He opened with a fourth-place finish at Mercedes and followed with a T12 at Sony. He went T10-T5-T13 at Pebble, the studded Match Play, and Doral, respectively. The only thing working against him is that he hasn’t had much experience at Augusta, but he finished in a tie for 14th last year with a final-round 75.

1. Nick Watney (pictured)

Age: 27

Country: United States

Golfweek/Sagarin Ranking: 22

Official World Golf Ranking: 35

The scoop: Can you really call someone who’s won on Tour this year a sleeper? Defining a sleeper is almost as tough as picking one, but Watney is definitely not a favorite at Augusta. Put it this way: If he won, would you be surprised? He’s a sleeper. That being said, he’s very, very close to not being a sleeper. Watney topped a strong field to win the Buick Invitational earlier this year, and finished runner-up to Phil Mickelson at Doral in what turned out to be a memorable duel. He finished T12 at the Transitions the following week and had a T4 at Bay Hill. He’s golf’s hottest player heading into Augusta. Better yet, he finished T11 there last year.

It may not be such a surprise if he wins after all.

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