Donald well placed to end era of unpredictability
It's being billed as the most eagerly anticipated Masters for years. The form of the top contenders as they prepare to drive down Magnolia Lane points to an enthralling shoot-out between the biggest names in golf.
Don't bank on it, though. Predicting major winners in recent times has been a hazardous business. The players commanding the shortest odds have invariably been eclipsed by rank outsiders.
It is almost as though the weight of expectation has become an unbearable burden for those attracting favouritism.
Put it this way: if you had an accumulator with the names of Keegan Bradley, Darren Clarke, Rory McIlroy and Charl Schwartzel as the winners of the four most recent majors, the drinks would be on you for quite some time.
All four were surprise winners last year, McIlroy included when you consider his US Open win came in his first major after capitulating in the final round at Augusta.
It was a similar story in 2010 when Martin Kaymer, Louis Oosthuizen and Graeme McDowell won their first majors.
In fact, you have to go back to the Masters of two years ago for a major in which one of the genuinely fancied contenders went on to take the spoils. That was when Phil Mickelson won the right to don the green jacket for a third time.
World number one Luke Donald is still waiting to win his first major. Photo: Getty
Of course, this volatile period has coincided with the Tiger Woods wilderness years. It is testament to the former world number one that so many of his major victories have been achieved when he has been expected to win.
Just ask the likes of Lee Westwood, Luke Donald, Sergio Garcia and Adam Scott how difficult it is to win one of the big ones, especially when the headlines suggest it is your turn.
Pressure comes in various guises. Media chatter can fuel expectation but the bigger burden surely comes from within. Donald and Westwood know that majors should be within their compass when they have risen to world number one status.
To have reached the pinnacle of the rankings they have, by definition, hit the shots to deliver top results more consistently than anyone else.
This magnifies the sense that their careers will be incomplete if they can't triumph in at least one of the four most important weeks of the year. It does not make their task any easier.
So now we have arrived at the first of those big weeks in 2012. Donald won in his last outing (at the Transitions tournament just over a fortnight ago), so did McIlroy (at the Honda Classic) and, of course, Woods has headed to Augusta off the back his victory at Bay Hill.
That is why it is such a mouthwatering Masters. Throw into the mix Mickelson's fine form, Justin Rose reaching a new level with his WGC victory at Doral and McDowell returning to somewhere near his best at Bay Hill, and this week at Augusta becomes even more enticing.
Woods and McIlroy are justifiable favourites. Woods because he is Tiger Woods, because he has just won and because this is the Masters; McIlroy because he has amply demonstrated he can score round Augusta and is now a proven major winner.
Naturally the headlines and the hype will be dominated by the prospect of a shoot-out between these two. But this means the other big names can live below the radar, and for that they won't be complaining.
Which prompts the question: is it possible for world number one to cause an upset by winning a major? The answer is no because it shouldn't be a surprise to see Donald having a green jacket slipped onto his shoulders this Sunday.
Ever since the Englishman dumped his ball in the water on the 12th in his final round here at Augusta last year, he has barely put a foot wrong.
That error, on that most treacherous of par threes, effectively did for his chances in the 2011 Masters.
Since then, he has beaten Westwood in a play-off at the BMW PGA Championship at Wentworth to go to the top of the rankings, won at Disney to claim the US money list and won again a fortnight ago to reclaim top spot from McIlroy.
All were wins completed under major-like pressure. His approach play has pinpoint accuracy, he is peerless out of bunkers, a magnificent wedge player and the best putter on the planet. These are crucial attributes at Augusta.
Defending champion Schwartzel has an interesting take on what's needed to win a Masters. "You really need to think your way around and play conservatively," says the South African.
"Don't force it too much or it will catch you."
Donald was guilty of impatience at last year's US Open and at the Open at Sandwich, where he missed the cut. It's hard to believe he has not learned important lessons from those failures.
To some it might come as a shock if Donald claims his first major this week, but I'm in the camp who won't be surprised if the world number one shoulders his own burden of expectation to end golf's current era of unpredictability.