2012 Masters: 10 to watch not named Tiger or Rory

Luke Donald

Luke Donald

So, if you’re not named Tiger, Phil, or Rory you can’t expect to possibly be wearing a green jacket come April 8?

Nonsense.

Tell that to a guy named Charl, as in Charl Schwartzel, the unheralded South African who saved the best for last and emerged from a wild, eight-player shootout and won last year’s Masters. Or to Angel Cabrera, Trevor Immelman, and Zach Johnson, all of whom have newer green jackets than Woods.

Oh, and they all have one more than McIlroy.

But Tiger’s the favorite going into the 2012 Masters? Wow. Knock me over with the whispering wind from Corey Pavin’s clubhead speed, because Woods has been the favorite every April since 1998. That he has prevailed only three times in those 14 tournaments is further proof that these major championships are not easy to win and more times than not are unpredictable.

Or did you have Keegan Bradley winning last year’s PGA? Or Darren Clarke the Open Championship? Or McIlroy bouncing back from his Augusta heartache to take the U.S. Open? Or Martin Kaymer winning at Whistling Straits in 2010? Or Louis Oosthuizen hoisting the claret jug? Or Graeme McDowell prevailing in the Pebble Beach U.S. Open?

No, but you had Mickelson winning the 2010 Masters?

Hey, we didn’t say a favorite never comes through, only that it’s not such a sure thing, which is why you might want to keep in mind these chaps at this year’s Masters and pass on Tiger, Phil, and Rory:

• • •

AARON BADDELEY

Not that he has a stellar record at Augusta, because he doesn’t. In six starts he’s made just three cuts and his best finish is T-17. No wonder you have never heard of “Badds-proofing” Augusta National.

But here’s the thing with Baddeley: The man can putt and that’s rumored to be a priceless commodity around this layout.

Sure, he’s got enough shortcomings to explain the fact that he’s missed the cut in five of his last six starts in the majors, but again, this is a hunch, nothing more. Give him a nice ball-striking week and let him roll it as he’s been known to do, and he very well could make some noise.

• • •

ANGEL CABRERA

Hard to believe, but a lot of people are saying, “Hey, I remember him.”

Well, he should be remembered, because there aren’t a lot of players out there who’ve got two major titles on their resume. But since winning the 2009 Masters, Cabrera has slipped from competitive view, for whatever reason, be it a lethargic attitude, shoddy work ethic, or faulty mechanics, or a combination of all three.

Yet here’s something that can’t be debated: Augusta seems to bring out the best in the burly Argentine. After missing the cut in his debut, in 2000, Cabrera reeled off three consecutive finishes inside the top 15 and dating back to 2006 his results have been T-8, T-37, T-25, first, T-18, and 7th.

OK, so it’s not up there with Woods and Mickelson, but you’d have to say the place fits his eye. Probably because the most effective club in his bag is the driver, Cabrera can attack Augusta National and play aggressively, and don’t lose sight of this fact: Cabrera hadn’t done a thing in more than a year when he played himself into contention at last year’s Masters.

• • •

PAUL CASEY

Funny thing about the explosion of attention focused on top-ranked star players from Europe (Luke Donald, Lee Westwood, Rory McIlroy, Martin Kaymer). Back a few years ago when Tiger Woods had a vice-like grip on the No. 1 position, it was Casey who was Europe’s highest-ranked player.

Placed third behind Woods and Phil Mickelson in late August of 2009, Casey was 22nd on the PGA Tour money list in a limited schedule, then in 2010 he finished eighth while putting up strong efforts in the Open Championship (T-3) and PGA (T-12).

Just 33, Casey at the start of 2011 appeared ready to break through.

Instead, some injuries and a well-documented divorce have led to a breakdown in his game. He has dropped to No. 32 in the world, but there is optimism within his camp and with two top 10s and four top 20s in seven Masters starts, there is reason to believe he can play this tournament.

• • •

K.J. CHOI

Any list of unheralded world-class players should include the 41-year-old from South Korea. Toss out his quiet rookie season in 2000 and all Choi has done in 11 full seasons since is pile up eight wins and a total of 58 top 10s.

But he’s never won a major?

True enough, and it would be hard to argue that his biggest drawback hasn’t been his putting. Yet for some reason, he seems to find his game at Augusta National, where there have been three top 10s, including each of the last two Aprils. Indeed, Choi was one of eight players who had at least a share of the lead in last year’s wild Sunday and in his last eight trips around Augusta National, Choi is 19 under with seven sub-par scores.

• • •

LUKE DONALD

So, you’re No. 1 in the world, the reigning money champ on both sides of the Atlantic, just a few weeks removed from your fifth PGA Tour win, and yet you’re considered an afterthought in the Masters conversation?

Welcome to the very skewered world of pro golf, where just the presence of Tiger Woods has altered the landscape for years and has done so again on the eve of the 2012 Masters. So dominant a personality and talent is Woods that it’s difficult to take your eyes elsewhere.

Absurd, perhaps, but one would have to admit that Donald hasn’t exactly scripted a major persona. True, he made a nice run in last year’s Masters to finish T-4, but in the last dozen major championships he has missed the cut four times and scored but three top 10s.

That pedestrian slate against a world-class game is why one would be justified in suggesting Donald is under great pressure this year. If he’s truly No. 1 in the world, isn’t it time to prove it?

• • •

JUSTIN ROSE

You wouldn’t say he’s been a staple at Augusta National – at least not like the azaleas and pimento. But give him his due: When he does tee it up he sticks around.

Rose has yet to miss a cut in six Masters (though he’s not been qualified three times since 2005). With a top 10 and three top 20s and 12 sub-par efforts in 24 rounds, the 31-year-old Englishman has demonstrated a good feel for the demanding golf course.

Toss that all into the recipe and stir in a half-cup of a start to 2012 that includes a win, a T-5, and four top 15s in seven starts and you’ve got a player who is worthy of your pre-Masters respect.

• • •

CHARL SCHWARTZEL

It would be a risky endeavor to back his chances. Only behemoths win back-to-back Masters (Tiger Woods, Nick Faldo, Jack Nicklaus) and we’re not willing to toss the quiet South African into such lofty company.

But, still . . .

He’s got a pure swing and is a wonderful talent who in just two starts (T-30 in 2010, first in 2011), has demonstrated a comfort zone at Augusta National. Also, before he missed the cut at the Transitions Championship, the South African had seemingly been settling into a nice little groove at both the Honda Classic and Cadillac Championship.

He skipped Bay Hill and went to Houston, keeping an itinerary that worked well in 2011.

• • •

STEVE STRICKER

You cannot win the Masters without having a great week putting, so let’s study the bottom line to the quiet man from Wisconsin: He rarely has a bad week putting.

Then again, he rarely has a bad week with the driver, the iron game, or the wedge, so what’s not to like about his chances? Digest the finishes in last year’s majors (T-11 at Augusta, T-19 at the U.S. Open, T-12 in the Open Championship and the PGA) and you have the main ingredient to perhaps the world’s most consistent player the last three, four seasons.

But has the window closed on Stricker? He is 45 and rarely do you look to players of that age to chase down a major championship, but the gut tells you he’s at the prime of his career, knows and trusts his game implicitly, and is capable of pulling it off.

• • •

BO VAN PELT

Of all the names who helped make last year’s final round of the Masters the epic that it was, most easy to overlook is the unflappable onetime Oklahoma State standout. Playing for just the second time at Augusta, and the first since 2005, Van Pelt calmly and effectively got himself into the mix before settling for a share of eighth.

Nothing Van Pelt has done thus far in 2012 indicates he isn’t capable of another strong Masters – in his last four stroke-play events he’s been eighth three times and ninth once.

Remarkably consistent (Van Pelt has been worse than 64th just once in the last eight money lists), there’s a lot to like about his on-course demeanor and at 36 it appears that he’s just reaching his stride as a PGA Tour force.

• • •

NICK WATNEY

Confession: I’m an unabashed fan of Watney’s demeanor, his genuineness, and his all-world talent. He hits it long, high, and fairly straight, and when it comes to turning one’s self into a quality putter, Watney fits the bill.

Still, perhaps the greatest attribute to Watney is his honesty and he’d be the first one to tell you he needs to back up his world ranking (presently 19th; he’s been within the top 10 on several occasions) with quality major championship efforts.

Progress was made in 2010 when Watney was seventh in the Masters and British Open and the 54-hole leader at the PGA, but last year was a letdown – missed cuts at Opens on each side of the Atlantic – and it would be a safe bet to suggest he has put a ton of pressure on himself for the year’s first major.

No worries, because he’s got the skill set to handle such expectations.

A few weeks shy of his 31st birthday, Watney has yet to achieve the level he is capable of. Here’s a guess, though, that he isn’t far from doing so.

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