A Titanic battle looms at Augusta

As the world’s finest have gone head to head across the globe in recent months, we all know that for the players at this time of year that these events, with all due respect to them, are almost perfunctory obligations with the 76th Masters Tournament at Augusta National in the first week of April consuming most of their attention.

Players already qualified were trying to do nothing but peak for the first Major of the year, while those not yet qualified – which for the first time in many years included the likes of Ernie Els, Retief Goosen and Robert Allenby – were doing their utmost to lift their ranking in time to ensure they’re driving down Magnolia Lane again this year.

Tiger Woods Tiger Woods

Poignantly, the 100th anniversary of the sinking of the Titanic will be celebrated the week after The Masters Tournament and from what we’ve seen from the leading players so far, a Titanic battle among the Georgia Pines seems an absolute certainty.

My tip for the Green Jacket is still for Rory McIlroy to make amends for his dramatic collapse over the final 9 holes in 2011.

This of course, is not the most fearless of predictions; given the Ulsterman reached the pinnacle in the Official World Golf Rankings after victory in the Honda Classic on the PGA Tour this year.

He has bounced back from a brief US Open ‘hangover’ and has seamlessly brought his late 2011 form, when he won in Hong Kong, to the 2012 season.

A close second to Robert Rock in Abu Dhabi when paired head to head with Tiger Woods for 3 of the 4 days, a beaten finalist in the WGC – Accenture Matchplay Championship to Hunter Mahan and then victory at the Honda Classic on the PGA Tour in March is evidence of his rich vein of form.

His gut check win over Woods, who threw a 62 at him, entitle him to Masters favouritism along with the World Number One ranking that he was always destined to aspire to.

Still, despite his high standard of play over the past 4 months in particular, I’m not sure he’s breathing quite the same rarefied air as when he whipped the field at Congressional to win last year’s US Open in such handsome fashion.

Maybe reaching that sublime standard of excellence will be impossible to regularly match again but we saw some chinks in the armour at the Accenture and again at the WGC Cadillac Championship at Doral.

In both events, McIlroy compounded some small mistakes with others and ran into a patch of holes where he went backwards – something he didn’t show us once at Congressional.

Similar mistakes at Augusta, as he would know only too well, can be catastrophic. That said, he didn’t miss a putt he needed on the back nine at the Honda to hold off the fast finishing Woods – his first such tournament victory where his long time idol has been in contention – and was near his best at Doral after a strong weekend to finish 3rd behind Justin Rose.

However, it’s hard to call him the ‘odds on’ favourite given the form of so many outstanding players.

The jostle for the number one spot we saw this time last year has resumed after Luke Donald’s slow start to the year brought McIlroy and Lee Westwood back into the frame for the top spot.

Donald has bounced back to form with a T6 at Doral and victory in the Transitions Championship but behind that group and all the way down to players in the Top 50 in the Official World Golf Rankings, the gap between the best and the rest appears to be as tight as it has ever been.

Geoff Ogilvy at number 49 is a perfect example.

After his close finish at Augusta last year and with a penchant for performing on the big stage, who would be surprised to see him capture his and Australia’s first Green Jacket?

The same could apply to Louis Oosthuizen who is ranked at #27, Ian Poulter at #24 or WGA Cadillac Championship winner Justin Rose, who ‘rose’ into the Top 10 with his victory.

Despite his early final round implosion at Doral, Bubba Watson showed by bouncing back on the back nine and with his early contender for ‘Shot of the Year’ on the 72nd hole, that he’s made of stronger stuff these days even when not playing his best stuff.

At his best he routinely can turn any course, even the famed ‘Blue Monster’ and possibly Augusta National, into a driving and wedge exhibition.

Defending Masters Champion Charl Schwartzel is also ominously working himself into form with a tie for 5th behind McIlroy at the Honda and moving quietly but effectively into a tie for 4th at Doral.

Although he has not won since The Masters last year, a betting man might look to the nine top 10 finishes in his last 12 events around the globe since October as evidence of his strong chances of defending his title.

Last year’s Aussie contenders Jason Day and Adam Scott made late starts to their 2012 campaigns in the United States, although Day came home with a wet sail for second place in the rain shortened Qatar Masters.

While not playing poorly, Day was never in contention at Doral but his fighting performances in 2011 at the Majors (tied 2nd in the Masters and 2nd outright at the US Open) announced to the world that he can never be discounted when the going gets tough.

Scott however, did contend from the opening round at Doral with his putting continuing to be a revelation after his change to the long putter led to a brilliant 2011 season. Despite a faltering weekend, at age 32 and in the prime of his career, his Masters credentials appear are as strong as ever.

Other contenders most likely to round out the group to provide the greatest challenge to McIlroy will be those players with experience around Augusta National and who have already shown their hand with rousing form early in the season – Phil Mickelson, Hunter Mahan, Luke Donald, Lee Westwood, Keegan Bradley and of course, a surging Woods.

New world number 4, Hunter Mahan, has elevated his chances of a slipping on a green jacket come Masters Sunday following his win at the Shell Houston Open.

Despite missing the cut at Augusta in 2011, he has finished in the top 10 twice (T8 and T10) in the past three years and with two PGA tour victories and US$3 million dollars in the bank this season, he cannot be ignored.

Woods’ dominant performance to win the Arnold Palmer Invitational at Bay Hill has dispelled concerns of another long injury layoff, courtesy of the Achilles strain that forced his withdrawal at the Cadillac, but surely also any lingering doubts that he is back at the top of his game and ready to contend for more victories and Majors?

Woods was in total control on the final day at Bay Hill and was able to contend with the blustering winds and firm greens better than anyone else, turning in what was the most perfect of Masters tune ups.

The only drawback for Keegan Bradley could be that he will be playing in his first Masters, although he’s made a habit of helping himself to a few ‘firsts’ lately after winning the PGA Championship last August in his first start in a Major.

His talent, length and never say die approach are well suited to The Masters – could a ‘Keegan Slam’ storyline capture our interest as the year unfolds after the final putt is holed on Masters Sunday?

Can a Steve Stricker, Dustin Johnson, Matt Kuchar or Mark Wilson do it, perhaps perennial Masters contender KJ Choi or world number 6, Martin Kaymer, who seems to be flying under most people’s radars at the moment?

As always, ‘Masters Fever’ has gripped us but who will win this one is anyone’s guess.