For Golf Channel analyst Brandel Chamblee, the list of potential winners at the Masters is smaller than perhaps any other tournament because of the inherent problems of dealing with both the pressure of winning the year’s first major and the difficulty of Augusta National.
“The fact there’s been only one guy who’s won his first time out since 1935 (Fuzzy Zoeller, 1979) says a lot,” Chamblee said. “It takes years to figure that place out. And more than figuring it out, it takes a ridiculous amount of nerves and talent to get it done there.”
Former champions, such as four-time winner Tiger Woods and three-time champ Phil Mickelson, will be the easy picks when play begins Thursday. Here are five other players who, either at Masters past or on the PGA Tour this year, have done well enough to merit consideration.
Keegan Bradley: A revelation when he won the PGA Championship in 2011, Bradley, 26, has since proven he belongs, and has had a strong start to 2013 with four straight top-10 finishes including a third at Bay Hill.
“I think Augusta is going to be a good week for me,” said Bradley, a Jupiter resident. “My game is in good shape.”
“He has the game to do exceptionally well there,” ESPN analyst Andy North said. “It’s going to be an interesting week for him. He’s got a good chance.”
Bradley has played Augusta only once, finishing 27th last year. Augusta is for big hitters, and his No. 10 ranking in average driving distance (301 yards) bodes well. While his putting numbers are only so-so for all the attention his long putter has gotten, he’s converted a solid 97.4 percent of putts inside 5 feet to rank 27th.
Justin Rose: Only Woods has played better this year than Rose, who finished fourth at Honda, eighth at Doral and second to Woods at Bay Hill. It’s remarkable that the 32-year-old South African has been on Tour since 2004 and has yet to win a major.
“At the beginning of the year I picked Justin to win a major this year,” North said. “He’s got an enormous amount of game — length, maturity; there aren’t any weaknesses and his time is coming. He has a chance to win a major, and if he does he might win multiple majors.”
The knock on Rose is that he starts strong but fades on the weekend; he was nine shots better the first two rounds at Honda than the last two, and seven shots better at Bay Hill.
“I don’t put too much into that,” ESPN’s Curtis Strange said. “Those who know the game think the world of him.”
Graeme McDowell: With Rory McIlroy still off his game, the 2010 U.S. Open champion could become the first player from Northern Ireland to wear the green jacket.
McDowell has played Augusta five times and figured he learned a few things last year, when he finished 12th.
“I felt I played the course a little more aggressively, especially around the greens,” he said. “It’s such an intimidating golf course, when you do get out of position, you’ve got to know how to use the slopes, how to play to certain pin positions, so you can be more aggressive at times.
“I felt I got over that hurdle a bit last year. I’m excited to get back.”
McDowell is coming off a strong showing in South Florida, where he finished ninth at Honda and third at Doral.
Rickie Fowler: The charismatic Jupiter resident has shown good form of late, with three top-six finishes including a third at Bay Hill, where he shot a respectable 73 while paired with Woods on the final day. He went from 38th at the Masters to 22nd last year. While Chamblee rates him a longshot to win, climbing into the top 10 wouldn’t be a surprise.
“His game is definitely starting to mature,” Chamblee said. “He’s a little guy (5-foot-9) who hits it a long way, but little guys have to red-line it to get distance and their control is not as good.
“I’ll be surprised if he’s in contention Sunday, but I’d love to see it. He’s so good for golf, and brings people _ especially young people _ to the game. He’s got that magnetism.”
Jason Day: His recent struggles in Florida — his best finish in three events was a 33rd at Doral — shouldn’t obscure the fact that Day had a remarkable Masters debut in 2011, when he tied for second with Adam Scott, two shots behind Charl Schwartzel. He suffered a foot injury last year that left him unable to negotiate the hilly layout and he had to withdraw.
“My course management (in 2011) was really, really solid,” the 25-year-old Aussie said at Bay Hill. “I putted and chipped really nicely. I hit it good, but the biggest thing was I was just enjoying myself.”
“I love Jason because he plays aggressively, but he still misses shots when he shouldn’t,” Chamblee said. “But the kid’s got a chance.”
MASTERS AT A GLANCE
Where: Augusta National Golf Club, Augusta, Ga. (par 72; 7,435 yards).
Field: 87 professionals, six amateurs. The 36-hole cut will be top 44 and ties and anyone within 10 shots of the lead.
Defending champion: Bubba Watson.
Wednesday: Par-3 contest, 3-6 p.m., ESPN.
Thursday-Friday: 3-7:30 p.m., ESPN.
Saturday: 3-7 p.m., CBS.
Sunday: 2-7 p.m., CBS.