Masters 2013: Tiger Woods faces tough competition at Augusta

 

Tiger Woods is the undoubted favourite to win the Masters but odds as short as 3-1 flatter the four-time champion.

They reflect the amount of money being wagered on him landing a 15th major this week but they ignore the number of other potential winners in the 93-man field.

Augusta 2013 has an out-and-out favourite but there is also the very real prospect of a Grand National scenario and a highly priced champion.

Furthermore, while that winner might provide punters with a hefty return their victory would not be regarded as a huge surprise.

This is the way of pro golf today, where modern equipment and practice regimes make it harder to separate the great from the good.

Masters archive: 1997 Tiger Woods

Rory McIlroy's encouraging return to form, finishing second to Martin Laird in San Antonio, bolsters the UK challenge, which is discussed elsewhere on these pages.

But what about the lengthy list of others capable of denying the resurgent Woods?

The champions in the last three Masters provide an ideal starting point. Bubba Watson, Charl Schwartzel and Phil Mickelson all deserve careful consideration.

Mickelson represents the closest resemblance to a walking each-way pay out. 'Lefty' already has three green jackets in his locker and last year finished in a share of third place behind Watson.

Who knows whether he would have been celebrating another victory had he not disastrously tangled with a bamboo plant on the par-three fourth in his final round last year.

Mickelson's all-out aggression and short-game flare is made for Augusta, particularly with its traditional risk-and-reward final-round set up. He always arrives with a game plan - remember how he carried two drivers en route to victory in 2006?

This year he is toying with using a specially modified strong three wood. He won in Phoenix in February and performed well at Houston where he finished in a share of sixteenth place.

Unpredictable Augusta

The last six Masters have produced six different winners and four of those were winning first-ever major titles.

On the downside Mickelson would have preferred to have been competing in the week leading up to Augusta, but felt the demands of the Texas Open in San Antonio would be counter-productive.

Watson doesn't just have left handedness in common with Mickelson. They share a similarly aggressive approach and the instinctive artistry of 'Bubba Golf' was ultimately rewarded with play-off victory over Louis Oosthuizen 12 months ago.

Recent results do not suggest he will become the first player to retain the Masters since Woods' victory in 2002, although a share of 14th in his last outing at Bay Hill gives grounds for some optimism.

Schwartzel is a real dangerman. The 2011 champion has been one of the most consistent performers in recent months. Around the turn of the year he wasn't out of the top three in six consecutive tournaments winning three of them.

More recently the South African has finished in the top ten at the Honda Classic and shared fourth place at the storm-shortened Malaysian Open. His four-birdie finish to win two years ago proves he has the firepower to claim the game's biggest prizes.

Schwartzel's compatriot Oosthuizen arrives here with a sense of unfinished business having come so close to adding last year's Masters to his 2010 Open Championship.

Regarded as possessing the best swing in the game, the world number six carded a brilliant third-round 65 while collecting a top 10 at the Houston Open in his last outing before the first major of the year.

Tearful Watson recalls 2012 Masters triumph

Another player who comes alive in this glorious corner of Georgia is the 2009 winner Angel Cabrera. In addition to that victory, the 43-year-old has four more top 10s at Augusta and began the Houston event with a brilliant 66.

Cabrera has an uncanny knack of being able to switch into gear from way under the radar. Few predicted his win four years ago nor his triumph in the 2007 US Open.

American hopes are far from limited to Woods and Mickelson.

Matt Kuchar contended last year and finished in a share of third. He's won a Players' Championship and this year claimed the WGC Matchplay and shouldn't fear a shoot out if he's in the mix come Sunday afternoon.

Brandt Snedeker hasn't rediscovered his early season form after suffering a rib injury, but is a devastatingly good putter who came third in 2008 and has been in the top 20 in each of the last two years.

In 2009 Steve Stricker was tied sixth in his best Masters performance. He has bafflingly under achieved given his prowess on the greens.

The now semi-retired 46-year-old has banked two runners up cheques though from just four starts in his newly-curtailed schedule.

Stricker has a more mellow perspective these days. It may serve him well in the coming days; more accepting of what he has achieved, the burden of major expectation might not weigh quite so heavy.

Jason Dufner flickered last year and is another potential challenger along with Keegan Bradley, who possesses the power but maybe not the finesse demanded by the Augusta National layout.

The biggest outsider

Ben Crenshaw, a winner in 1984 and 1995, is the biggest outsider, with odds as long as 10,000-1

Aside from the UK challengers, Europe harbours hopes in the shape of Peter Hanson, who was two shots shy of last year's play-off, and a resurgent Henrik Stenson, who was within touching distance until a final-round 81 a year ago.

Can Padraig Harrington claim a fourth major title? The Irishman's game is bubbling nicely and he claimed a fourth Augusta top 10 when he finish eighth in the 2012 tournament.

The list goes on. We haven't mentioned Adam Scott's chances of becoming the first Australian winner or the prospect of Sergio Garcia conquering his major demons.

It may be that these two have seen their best chances come and go already, but no one can deny their talent and ability to challenge again this year.

The same can be said of so many contenders. Yes, Woods is the man to beat, but he knows there is great depth and danger in Augusta's class of 2013.

It is anything but a one-horse race.