Bunker Mentality

With Tiger missing, who’s the favourite at this year’s Masters?

Bunker Mentality

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Tiger Woods will not be competing at Augusta for the first time since 1994

It's Masters week, and that means we should all ponder the question: If they hold a Masters, and Tiger Woods doesn't play, does that Masters exist?

What a silly question. No Tiger? No red shirt on Sunday? No quest for a fifth green jacket? Of course it doesn't exist.

Kidding! Kidding! Relax, golf fan.

The Champions locker room has plenty of lockers without the name "Woods" on it, as I was just saying to my good friends Jack Nicklaus, Arnold Palmer and Gary Player.

In fact, Woods' absence could be greeted with sharper-edged query. Like, since Tiger Woods hasn't won a Masters since 2005, who really cares that he'll miss it? He wouldn't have won, anyway.

This Masters figures, like most, to be a donnybrook. There is no clear favorite, and yes, I'm talking to you, Rory ('Watch Out, I Shot 65 at Houston Sunday') McIlroy. Fun fact: Rory has played five Masters, and has yet to finish in the top 10.

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There are, instead, about 40 candidates to win. And, yes, Rory would be one of them. He's only 24, after all. He's still learning how to genuflect in the cathedral of pines.

If you go by the old "Who's Hot" theory, watch out. The PGA Tour this year has been littered with winners you couldn't pick out of a police lineup, right down to Sunday's surprise winner in Houston, a 33-year-old Australian named Matt Jones. He'd never won before in 155 previous starts. He was so generic, "Matt Jones" almost seemed like a fake name to fool authorities.

He joins Steven Bowditch and John Senden and Matt Every and Scott Stallings and Kevin Stadler and more as guys who have won and earned the right to the super-secret password to Magnolia Lane, but will arrive with the public believing absolutely zero in them.

Other players who have won in this official 2013-14 golf season come with more swagger: Webb Simpson, who's won a major; and Dustin Johnson, who seems way past due; and Zach Johnson, who already owns a green jacket; and Bubba Watson, the same; and Jason Day, who darn near conquered Augusta National the first time he saw it, in 2011 (finishing tie-2nd), then led as late as the 70th hole in 2013, finishing third.

If you're looking for clues or signs or "Augusta National favors this type of player," well, a big hitter is always a good place to start. And you might want to find someone who putts with knowledge of the greens, as well. But if you study the list of winners since Tiger last won, you could craft pretty much any theory you'd like. For example:

• Phil Mickelson has won twice since '05 (and three overall): Uh, experience matters!

• Zach Johnson won in 2007: Uh, a great wedge game matters!

• Trevor Immelman won in 2008: Uh, South Africans love it here!

• Angel Cabrera won in 2009: Uh, guys who like majors matters!

• Charl Schwartzel won in 2011: Uh, what was that about South Africans?

• Adam Scott won in 2012: Australians love it here! Wait … he was the first Aussie ever to win. Uh, long putters matter!

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Charl Schwartzel and Phil Mickelson

It's a fool's game to guess what will unfold over 72 holes in that green-carpeted wonderland, a place so immaculate as to approximate a Japanese tea garden. And speaking of Japan – 22-year-old Hideki Matsuyama is playing, and he was low amateur in 2011, and he owns top 10s at the U.S. and British Opens, so, you know …

See? Like I was saying. You could pick a million guys, a million times. Go with the "non-American" angle, if you must, since international players thrive here: 18 times since Player in 1978, has an international won. Henrik Stenson? Lee Westwood? Sergio Garcia? Sure, why not?

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Or go macro on your pick, and read the room. The American game is changing, and just as I wrote that sentence, Jordan Spieth must have posted something on Instagram to prove my point. They're young, they fear no Tiger, and they're social-media savvy. The new faces are coming, they're kids like Spieth and Russell (Two Tour Wins Already) Henley and Harris (Hey, I Have Two Wins, Too) English and Patrick (Of Course I'm At Augusta National, I'm Top Five, Baby) Reed.

So just as Augusta National threw open its doors to female members a year ago, let's keep that "Open Door" policy going this week. I'd say the same if Tiger were playing, but he's not, and it turns out they hold the event without him. Just ask Ben Hogan, Sam Snead and Byron Nelson up in golf heaven. They held the event without those guys, too, at some point.

Oh, by the way. I'm sorely tempted to take Garcia for many reasons: Playing excellent, playing more mature, no Tiger to clutter his mind, but what kind of fool would I be to take a putter like him? Naw. Give me Phil. So good at the Masters. Jacket number four. Will tie him with Tiger. Feels right.

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Brian Murphy, Yahoo!

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