RBC Heritage experts' picks

April, 16, 2014
Apr 16
7:07
PM ET

Each week of the season, our experts share their insights into which players fit the criteria for our four categories: Horse for the Course (a golfer who knows the track inside and out), Birdie Buster (a guy who could take it low this week), Super Sleeper (a player who could unexpectedly contend) and Winner.

This week, we're on Hilton Head Island, SC at Harbour Town Golf Links for the RBC Heritage.

Horse for the Course

Michael Collins, ESPN.com senior golf analyst: Luke Donald

The past five times Donald has played this event, he's finished outside the top three just once. That's without getting a win. He's a short hitter with phenomenal short game, which around this track is exactly what's needed. If you play fantasy golf, make sure this man is in your starting lineup.

Farrell Evans, ESPN.com senior golf writer: Boo Weekley
Two of Boo Weekley's three career tour wins came at Harbour Town in back-to-back years in 2007 and 2008. Weekley's most recent top 10 came last May when he won at Colonial.

Bob Harig, ESPN.com senior golf writer: Boo Weekley
He has two of his PGA Tour victories at Harbour Town, three other top 13 finishes and has never missed the cut.


Birdie Buster

Collins: Kevin Na
With slow play issues behind him, Na is a great sleeper this week since he didn't play last year. He's another guy whose game off the tee works well at a place that demands precision with each hole's opening shot.

Evans: Will MacKenzie
Fourteenth in the FedEx Cup standings with five top-10s, the 39-year-old journeyman is the best player on tour this season that was not in the field at Augusta. Look for him to continue his solid play this week at the Harbour Town Golf Links.

Harig: Jordan Spieth
If he has anything left in the tank after a draining week at the Masters, the 20-year-old Spieth ought to love the serenity of Harbour Town.


Super Sleeper

Collins: Tim Wilkinson
Apparently if you don't have at least one Australian in your picks this year, there's a great chance you're going to look dumb. Wilkinson is from New Zealand, so I won't say "same thing" because then both countries will be mad at me, but close enough. But if the only other foreign winners this year on the PGA Tour hang with kola bears, then I think this guy has a good chance this week.

Evans: Shawn Stefani
Needing a good finish to retain his playing privileges on tour after coming into the year on a minor medical exemption, the Houston native made the most out of a sponsor's exemption from his hometown event to finish in a tie for fifth. Now playing in just his third tour event of the year, the 32-year-old former Lamar University star has a chance to continue his good play after a pinched nerve in his neck cut his 2013 season short.

Harig: Tom Watson
The 64-year-old U.S. Ryder Cup team captain is making a rare regular PGA Tour appearance at a place where length is not an issue.


Winner

Collins: Zach Johnson
Coming off the horrific first-round Masters performance which had the former champ leaving early, it's easy to see the grinder who's not far from home wanting to play well as fast as possible. In nine tries, he has had only two top-10 finishes, which is exactly why I expect him to win this week.

Evans: Jordan Spieth
After the emotional toil of coming so close to winning the Masters, the 20-year-old Texan could have withdrawn from the RBC Heritage, but he stuck to his schedule. Last year he came to this event as a special temporary member and finished in a tie for ninth.

Harig: Graeme McDowell
The defending champion is a perfect fit for Harbour Town and he was doing a slow burn after missing the cut at the Masters. He's playing well enough to get another win.

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Masters hangover: The calm after the storm

April, 16, 2014
Apr 16
4:07
PM ET

Harbour Town Golf Links features one of the most picturesque layouts the PGA Tour has to offer on a year-to-year basis. But with all due respect to this week's venue, Monday morning presented a daunting reality for golf fans around the world.

Trivia question

In 2005 at Harbour Town, this week's PGA Tour venue, a player set the Tour record for fewest putts in a 72-hole tournament. Who set that record? Answer below

The Monday after the Masters is annually the furthest point away from more competition at Augusta National. Breaking news, we know.

This hangover of sorts isn't limited just to fans, writers and television production crews. Sliding on the green jacket Sunday evening hasn't promised more immediate success that season for the champion.

Take Bubba Watson, for example. In 2012, after Watson won his first green jacket, the rest of his season featured some nice finishes but ultimately no other victories. In his first eight starts that year -- which included his career-changing Masters win -- Watson had four top-5 finishes. In the 11 starts that followed, he had just two.

At the U.S. Open that year at Olympic Club, Watson didn't make the weekend, as an opening 78-71 put him one shot off the cut line. In fact, before winning the Masters last week, Watson didn't have a top-10 finish in a major since his win in 2012 at Augusta.

None of this is by any means intended as an admonishment of Watson. This trend is not exclusive to this year's Masters champion. The numbers:

• Call it the after-effects of an emotional high, or maybe just the rigors of the late night talk show circuit, but Masters champions aren't quick to get back on the course in recent years.

Only one of the previous 10 Masters champions played the following week on the PGA Tour -- Zach Johnson, who finished sixth at Hilton Head in 2007. Only twice since 2000 has a player won any major championship then followed that up with a PGA Tour win the next week -- Tiger Woods at the WGC-Bridgestone after winning the PGA Championship in both 2000 and 2006.

The last player to win the Masters and then go on to win the next week on Tour? You have to go all the way back to Bernhard Langer in 1985.

Trivia answer

Question: In 2005 at Harbour Town, this week's PGA Tour venue, a player set the Tour record for fewest putts in a 72-hole tournament. Who set that record?

Answer: David Frost, 92 putts. Amazingly, he still finished tied for 38th that week.

• When the champions do get back on the course, it's been rare that they contend in their returning event. Woods won his first PGA Tour start following his historic 1997 Masters victory. No other Masters champion since has won in his first subsequent tournament.

Of the previous six Masters winners, more players have missed the cut in their first start back (two) than have finished in the top 15 (one). Since 2001, only two players have even finished in the top five in their first post-Masters start: Phil Mickelson and Woods, who have done it two times each.

• Of the last six Masters champions, only Adam Scott last year went on to win later that season on the PGA Tour. Three of the last six Masters winners -- Charl Schwartzel, Angel Cabrera and Trevor Immelman -- have no PGA Tour victories since claiming the green jacket.

Even Mickelson, who is ninth on the Tour's all-time victory list, needed 20 PGA Tour starts between his 2010 Masters title and his next PGA Tour win, the 2011 Shell Houston Open. In the past 10 years, the player quickest to claim his next win after a Masters victory was Johnson, who did it four starts later in 2007 at TPC Sugarloaf.

• The season's next major has not been kind to Masters winners recently either. Of the previous seven Masters champions, only two went on to finish in the top 10 at that year's U.S. Open -- Schwartzel in 2011 (T-9) and Mickelson in 2010 (T-4). Five of those champions finished outside the top 40. Of the combined 26 Open rounds played by those seven champions, only four were better than par. The combined score: 75-over par.

Watson's only career start at Hilton Head came in 2007 (missed cut), so it's no surprise that he isn't in the field this week. His first post-Masters event in 2012 was three weeks later at the Zurich Classic of New Orleans, where he finished tied for 18th.

Waffle House, which was the site of Bubba's famed Masters celebration selfie, has been a target for hangover sufferers for decades. Maybe waffles can aid in the Masters recovery process too.

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Masters experts' picks

April, 9, 2014
Apr 9
6:40
AM ET

Each week of the season, our experts share their insights into which players fit the criteria for our four categories: Horse for the Course (a golfer who knows the track inside and out), Birdie Buster (a guy who could take it low this week), Super Sleeper (a player who could unexpectedly contend) and Winner.

This week, we're at Augusta for the Masters.


Horse for the Course

Bob Harig, ESPN.com senior golf writer: Phil Mickelson
Lefty may or may not still be dealing with injury woes, but Augusta National often brings out his best. He's made 16 straight cuts, including three victories and five other top-5 finishes.

Farrell Evans, ESPN.com senior golf writer: Fred Couples
Couples has made 27 cuts in 29 appearances at the Masters. The 1992 champion may be a little hampered by a bad back, but don't be surprised to see him on the leaderboard on Sunday afternoon.

Kevin Maguire, ESPN.com senior golf editor: Jason Day
If he played even one tournament prior to the Masters, I'd pick Day to win the green jacket Sunday. His thumb injury makes me a little nervous, but the Aussie does own a second- and third-place finish in three starts at Augusta.

Alf Musketa, ESPN Insider professional sports handicapper: Rory McIlroy
Every year the Masters committee will tweak Augusta National, but some things never change. You have to draw the ball. There are no fewer than seven holes that require a right-to-left tee shot. The course also favors high-ball hitters to hold these ultrafast greens. McIlroy dominated Augusta tee to green with those traits in 2011. Have we forgotten he had a 4-shot lead going into Sunday that year? McIlroy is the 8-to-1 favorite this week and his final-round tournament-best 65 this past Sunday tells us he's ready to back that up.

Gene Wojciechowski, ESPN.com senior national columnist: Jason Day
The easy choice is Phil Mickelson. After all, the guy has won three green jackets and has finished T-5 or better in four of the past six years (he won in 2010). But ... I'm going with Jason Day, who has two top-three finishes in his three Masters appearances.

Ian O'Connor, ESPN New York sports columnist: Phil Mickelson
He's won three green jackets for a reason. Phil's first win of the year would tie Tiger and Arnie with Masters title No. 4.


Birdie Buster

Harig: Matt Jones
Nobody is on a bigger high. The Australian qualified for the Masters by winning the Shell Houston Open in a playoff over Matt Kuchar. Jones is a first-timer at the Masters, but if momentum means anything, perhaps his roll continues.

Evans: Patrick Reed
Arrogant, overconfident and bold are a few words that could describe this 23-year-old former Augusta State All-American. But perhaps you need to be a little crazy to believe that you can win the Masters in your first appearance in the tournament. After two wins in 2014, it's hard to dismiss his high self-regard.

Maguire: Sergio Garcia
The Spaniard has said in the past he's playing only for second place, but with a strong run this year -- in six PGA Tour starts he hasn't finished outside the top 16 -- the 34-year-old Garcia lurks slightly under the radar.

Musketa: Phil Mickelson
No player has dismantled the Masters like Mickelson has in the past 10 years. He has three green jackets, seven top-10s, accumulated 55 under par with birdies and eagles (also 20 over par) and has had the best scoring average (68.5) of any player in the field in that span. A recent trip to Augusta will pay dividends, as inclement weather is in the forecast for the early part of Masters week and some players may not get in the practice they need. If your pool needs a player to make a birdie, Lefty is your man.

Wojciechowski: Sergio Garcia
He's capable of brilliance or meltdowns, but Garcia has had a strong season. He's coming off a third place at Houston and finished T-8 at last year's Masters.

O'Connor: Bubba Watson
Combine his absurd length with the lingering muscle memory of winning here two years ago, and you have a contender who can go on a birdie binge anywhere, anytime.


Super Sleeper

Harig: Angel Cabrera
The 2009 champion who lost in a playoff to Adam Scott last year has been on a poor run. In his past 12 PGA Tour events, he has seven missed cuts, a withdrawal and a best finish of T-44.

Evans: Sergio Garcia
It's his turn to win a major. We've been saying that for years about the Spaniard, who's artistically gifted for Augusta National's special character. This is the one major many of us thought Garcia might win early in his career. But it just hasn't come to pass. After finishing 12th and eighth in his past two Masters and third last week in Houston, he's carrying the kind of momentum that could finally propel him to his a green jacket.

Maguire: Graham DeLaet
The Canadian played a practice round with 2003 Masters champ (and compatriot) Mike Weir on Tuesday and surely picked up a few pointers. DeLaet's length and prowess hitting greens in regulation will serve him well as long as he ends up on the proper side of the hole at Augusta National.

Musketa: Matteo Manassero
He turns 21 next week, really. Although he missed the cut last week at the Shell Houston Open (just a tuneup event for many), I was impressed with his T-8 finish at Bay Hill, which is a long course. He finished 12th at the Honda on another solid track. Manassero is proving to be longer off the tee recently with a new driver in the bag, and he possesses a short game that will win in the U.S. someday.

Wojciechowski: Matt Every
It's his first Masters appearance. Big deal -- about a quarter of the field are first-timers at Augusta National. Every won at Bay Hill last month and usually isn't afraid of the moment.

O'Connor: Graham DeLaet
Why not make a little history here? A Presidents Cup stud last fall, DeLaet already has five top-10s this year. He'd be the first Masters rookie to win since Fuzzy Zoeller in '79.


Winner

Harig: Jason Day
A popular pick because he's had two top-three finishes (and one withdrawal) in his only starts at the Masters. Day was in good form prior to a thumb injury, which knocked him out of two tournaments following his WGC-Match Play victory. There's also some good Aussie karma at the moment.

Evans: Rory McIlroy
Fully adjusted to life as a global superstar, with equipment he loves, the 24-year-old Northern Irishman should add the third leg this week to his career Grand Slam. He finished nicely last week at Houston with a 65 to take a tie for seventh. He should better handle the pressure that's harmed him here in the past.

Maguire: Zach Johnson
With so many rookies in the field (nearly one-quarter of the golfers teeing it up this week), there will be a premium on experience, and the 2007 Masters champ certainly knows his way around Augusta National. Depending on how firm and fast the course plays, he might not lay up on every par-5 (like he did in his win) but slow and steady wins this race, and Johnson will be receiving a present from Adam Scott come Sunday night.

Musketa: Matt Kuchar
I predicted Kuchar to win the Masters after his fourth-place finish at the Valero Texas Open. After an early-season, four-week vacation in Hawaii, he was preparing a schedule that few players followed. He has now played four of the past five tournaments leading up to the Masters. I want a player to be playing well coming into Augusta, I want him to be sharp. You are not going to find your game there. If you are putting poorly, you have no shot. Augusta greens will expose your short game like no others. Yes, he's blown back-to-back leads; thus, no one will be picking him here. Kuchar has already won a Players Championship and a WGC event, and his next goal is obviously a major. This in-form Georgia Tech star is the player to beat this week.

Wojciechowski: Adam Scott
The question isn't who is going to win it, but who can't win it. Only three guys have gone back-to-back at the Masters, so the odds aren't in Scott's favor. But who thought the UConn men were going to win it all, right? So I'll go with the Aussie repeat. Much like Tiger Woods and Phil, Scott prepares specifically for the majors.

O'Connor: Rory McIlroy
It's time for Rory to make up for his spectacular Masters meltdown three years ago. The alleged next Tiger wins the green jacket without the current Tiger in the field.

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Masters experts' picks

April, 8, 2014
Apr 8
3:43
PM ET

Each week of the season, our experts share their insights into which players fit the criteria for our four categories: Horse for the Course (a golfer who knows the track inside and out), Birdie Buster (a guy who could take it low this week), Super Sleeper (a player who could unexpectedly contend) and Winner.

This week, we're at Augusta for the Masters.


Horse for the Course

Bob Harig, ESPN.com senior golf writer: Phil Mickelson
Lefty may or may not still be dealing with injury woes, but Augusta National often brings out his best. He's made 16 straight cuts, including three victories and five other top-5 finishes.

Farrell Evans, ESPN.com senior golf writer: Fred Couples
Couples has made 27 cuts in 29 appearances at the Masters. The 1992 champion may be a little hampered by a bad back, but don't be surprised to see him on the leaderboard on Sunday afternoon.

Kevin Maguire, ESPN.com senior golf editor: Jason Day
If he played even one tournament prior to the Masters, I'd pick Day to win the green jacket  Sunday. His thumb injury makes me a little nervous, but the Aussie does own a second- and third-place finish in three starts at Augusta.

Alf Musketa, ESPN Insider professional sports handicapper: Rory McIlroy
Every year the Masters committee will tweak Augusta National, but some things never change. You have to draw the ball. There are no fewer than seven holes that require a right-to-left tee shot. The course also favors high-ball hitters to hold these ultrafast greens. McIlroy dominated Augusta tee to green with those traits in 2011. Have we forgotten he had a 4-shot lead going into Sunday that year? McIlroy is the 8-to-1 favorite this week and his final-round tournament-best 65 this past Sunday tells us he's ready to back that up.

Gene Wojciechowski, ESPN.com senior national columnist: Jason Day
The easy choice is Phil Mickelson. After all, the guy has won three green jackets and has finished T-5 or better in four of the past six years (he won in 2010). But ... I'm going with Jason Day, who has two top-three finishes in his three Masters appearances.

Ian O'Connor, ESPN New York sports columnist: Phil Mickelson
He's won three green jackets for a reason. Phil's first win of the year would tie Tiger and Arnie with Masters title No. 4.


Birdie Buster

Harig: Matt Jones
Nobody is on a bigger high. The Australian qualified for the Masters by winning the Shell Houston Open in a playoff over Matt Kuchar. Jones is a first-timer at the Masters, but if momentum means anything, perhaps his roll continues.

Evans: Patrick Reed
Arrogant, overconfident and bold are a few words that could describe this 23-year-old former Augusta State All-American. But perhaps you need to be a little crazy to believe that you can win the Masters in your first appearance in the tournament. After two wins in 2014, it's hard to dismiss his high self-regard.

Maguire: Sergio Garcia
The Spaniard has said in the past he's playing only for second place, but with a strong run this year -- in six PGA Tour starts he hasn't finished outside the top 16 -- the 34-year-old Garcia lurks slightly under the radar.

Musketa: Phil Mickelson
No player has dismantled the Masters like Mickelson has in the past 10 years. He has three green jackets, seven top-10s, he accumulated 55 under par with birdies and eagles (also 20 over par) and has had the best scoring average (68.5) of any player in the field in that span. A recent trip to Augusta will pay dividends as inclement weather is in the forecast for the early part of Masters week and some players may not get in the practice they need. If your pool needs a player to make a birdie, Lefty is your man.

Wojciechowski: Sergio Garcia
He's capable of brilliance or meltdowns, but Sergio has had a strong season. He's coming off a third-place at Houston and finished T-8 at last year's Masters.

O'Connor: Bubba Watson
Combine his absurd length with the lingering muscle memory of winning here two years ago, and you have a contender who can go on a birdie binge anywhere, anytime.


Super Sleeper

Harig: Angel Cabrera
The 2009 champion who lost in a playoff to Adam Scott last year has been on a poor run. In his past 12 PGA Tour events, he has seven missed cuts, a withdrawal and a best finish of T-44.

Evans: Sergio Garcia
It's his turn to win a major. We've been saying that for years about the Spaniard, who's artistically gifted for Augusta National's special character. This is the one major many of us thought Garcia might win early in his career. But it just hasn't come to pass. After finishing 12th and eighth in his past two Masters and third last week in Houston, he's carrying the kind of momentum that could finally propel him to his first green jacket.

Maguire: Graham DeLaet
The Canadian played a practice round with 2003 Masters champ (and compatriot) Mike Weir on Tuesday and surely picked up a few pointers. DeLaet's length and prowess hitting greens in regulation will serve him well as long as he ends up on the proper side of the hole at Augusta National.

Musketa: Matteo Manassero (250-1 odds courtesy of William Hill US ... now that's a sleeper!)
Manassero turns 21 next week, really. Although he missed the cut last week at the Shell Houston Open (just a tuneup event for many), I was impressed with his T-8 finish at Bay Hill, which is a long course. He finished 12th at the Honda on another solid track. Manassero is proving to be longer off the tee recently with a new driver in the bag, and he possesses a short game that will win in the U.S. someday.

Wojciechowski: Matt Every
It's his first Masters appearance. Big deal -- about a quarter of the field are first-timers at Augusta National. Every won at Bay Hill last month and usually isn't afraid of the moment.

O'Connor: Graham DeLaet
Why not make a little history here? A Presidents Cup stud last fall, DeLaet's already has five top-10s this year. He'd be the first Masters rookie to win since Fuzzy Zoeller in '79.


Winner

Harig: Jason Day
A popular pick because he has had two top-three finishes (and one withdrawal) in his only starts at the Masters. Day was in good form prior to a thumb injury, which knocked him out of two tournaments following his WGC-Match Play victory. There's also some good Aussie karma at the moment.

Evans: Rory McIlroy
Fully adjusted to life as a global superstar with equipment he loves, the 24-year-old Northern Irishman should add the third leg this week to his career Grand Slam. He finished nicely last week at Houston with a 65 to take a tie for seventh. He should better handle the pressure that's harmed him here in the past.

Maguire: Zach Johnson

With so many rookies in the field (nearly one-quarter of the golfers teeing it up this week), there will be a premium on experience, and the 2007 Masters champ certainly knows his way around Augusta National. Depending on how firm and fast the course plays, he might not lay up on every par-5 (like he did in his win) but slow and steady wins this race and Johnson will be receiving a present from Adam Scott come Sunday night.

Musketa: Matt Kuchar
I predicted Kuchar to win the Masters after his fourth-place finish at the Valero Texas Open. After an early-season, four-week vacation in Hawaii, he was preparing a schedule that few players followed. He has now played four of the past five tournaments leading up to the Masters. I want a player to be playing well coming into Augusta, I want him to be sharp. You are not going to find your game there. If you are putting poorly, you have no shot. Augusta greens will expose your short game like no others. Yes, he's blown back-to-back leads and thus no one will be picking him here. Kuchar has already won a Players Championship and a WGC event, and his next goal is obviously a major. This in-form Georgia Tech star is the player to beat this week.

Wojciechowski: Adam Scott
The question isn't who is going to win it, but who can't win it. Only three guys have gone back-to-back at the Masters, so the odds aren't in Scott's favor. But who thought the UConn men was going to win it all, right? So I'll go with the Aussie repeat. Much like Tiger Woods and Phil, Scott prepares specifically for the majors.

O'Connor: Rory McIlroy
It's time for Rory to make up for his spectacular Masters meltdown three years ago. The alleged next Tiger wins the green jacket without the current Tiger in the field.

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No Tiger, but plenty of favorites at Augusta

April, 7, 2014
Apr 7
4:17
PM ET

If we at Numbers Game are known for anything (and that's unlikely, but play along), it's cold, calculating math regarding the sport you and I both love. But this week, more than any other, defrosts our calculator. Masters memories are seemingly endless, and are better discussed by others who are more qualified in other sections of this website.

What we at Numbers Game can do, though, is give you fuel to win your Masters pool. The numbers point to four players as the biggest favorites this week at Augusta National -- three recent major champions, and a fourth who has been banging on the door for years now.

Trivia question

This will be the first Masters without Tiger Woods since 1994. Can you list the top four finishers at Augusta that year? Answer below

Adam Scott

With a third-place finish or better this week at Augusta, Scott will become the No. 1 player in the world for the first time in his career. The biggest reason Scott is in that position is that he is, by far, the most consistent performer in major championships over the past two years. Since the beginning of 2012, only three players have made the cut in all eight majors played -- Scott, Jason Dufner and Tiger Woods. Scott has a combined score of 4-under par in those eight tournaments. Dufner is a combined 12-over (so 16 shots behind Scott), while Woods is 21-over (25 shots behind). Scott isn't just making cuts, he's contending regularly in the sport's biggest events. Scott has five top-10 finishes in major championships in the past two years.

According to the Elias Sports Bureau, no other player has more than four in that span (Lee Westwood and Ian Poulter). Scott will attempt to become the first back-to-back winner of the Masters since Woods in 2001 and 2002. Only three players have ever won the Masters in consecutive years -- Woods, Nick Faldo (1989-90) and Jack Nicklaus (1965-66). Those three players have a combined 38 major championships to their names.

Dustin Johnson

Before his opening-round 80 and subsequent withdrawal last week in Houston, one could make the argument that Johnson should enter the Masters as the prohibitive favorite, despite not yet having a major championship to his name. In his five stroke-play starts in the 2013-14 season leading up to last week, Johnson had yet to finish worse than tied for sixth. He was leading the PGA Tour in greens in regulation (73.6 percent), scoring average (69.0), birdie average and all-around ranking. And being outside the top 100 in driving accuracy (as Johnson is) is truly irrelevant when you lead the PGA Tour in approach-shot proximity from the rough. But where Johnson has improved astronomically this season is on the green. DJ ranked 117th last season in strokes gained putting. In his career, he has only finished a season inside the top 80 on tour in that statistic once -- when he was T-50th in 2012. This season? Johnson is 19th, a jump of nearly 100 spots.

In the more archaic putting stat "putting average," he's first on tour, and his 38 percent conversion rate of birdie- and eagle-putt attempts is also best this season. Johnson has six career top-10 finishes in majors, all coming since the 2009 PGA Championship. He has been either first or second entering the final round of a major three times since 2010. His eight PGA Tour wins are two more than any other player currently under age 30 (Rory McIlroy has six). Each of the past three Masters winners and 15 of the past 19 major champions were first-time major winners. So back permitting, why not Johnson?

Rory McIlroy

The two-time major winner and Las Vegas' favorite this week sent a warning shot to the Masters field on Sunday at the Golf Club of Houston. McIlroy's sparkling, bogey-free 65 needed just 24 putts (only 11 on the back nine), and had six approach shots land within 16 feet of the cup. In last week's Numbers Game, we mentioned McIlroy's uncharacteristically mediocre iron play since the beginning of last season. That changed last week at the Houston Open, where McIlroy ranked T-8th in the field for the week in approach-shot proximity from the fairway. In Rory's last start before the 2012 PGA Championship (the WGC-Bridgestone), McIlroy led the field in that statistic. We all know what happened next at Kiawah Island.

There is also strong precedent for McIlroy when it comes to entering a major championship with momentum. In his last PGA Tour rounds before the 2011 U.S. Open and 2012 PGA, McIlroy shot 68 in each, finishing tied for fifth and solo fifth in both tournaments, respectively. Sunday's 65 in Texas vaulted him to a T-7th finish. Should McIlroy win his first green jacket this week, he would join an incredible list of players to win three professional major championships before turning 25 years old. In the past 90 years, the only three players to accomplish that feat are Woods, Nicklaus and Bobby Jones.

Jason Dufner

On top of the obvious that he's our most recent major champion, many signs point to Dufner being a strong pick at Augusta National this week.

Checkpoint No. 1: coming in with good form. No champion since Nick Faldo in 1989 has entered the Masters without a top-20 on the PGA Tour that season already to his credit. None of our previous four Masters winners had missed a cut on the tour leading up to that season's first major. Dufner passes those with flying colors: four top-15 finishes in six 2014 tour starts with no missed cuts.

Trivia answer

Question: This will be the first Masters without Tiger Woods since 1994. Can you list the top-four finishers at Augusta that year?

Answer: Jose Maria Olazabal won. The rest of the top four: Tom Lehman, Larry Mize and Tom Kite.

Checkpoint No. 2: playing well at Doral. No pre-Masters tournament in recent years has been a better indicator of Augusta's leaderboard than Doral. Over the past 10 years, the Masters champion has played earlier in that season at Doral nine times. All nine of those winners made the cut at Doral, and four of them finished in the top 10. The past two Masters winners, Scott and Bubba Watson, finished T-3rd and second, respectively. Dufner passes again: a tie for ninth place at The Donald's new creation.

Checkpoint No. 3: a clutch résumé. While it's true that Dufner is a combined 10-over on the weekend at Augusta in his career, recent trends point to that changing this week. Dufner has broken par in four of his past five final rounds in major championships. In the past three final rounds of majors last season, Dufner was a combined nine under par. And four times in Dufner's career, he's entered the final round of a major inside the top 10. He shot par or better all four times, posting a combined score of 4-under. No Tiger? No problem. Masters week is here, and the excitement is impossible to contain.

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Top 10 rounds in Masters history -- No. 1

April, 6, 2014
Apr 6
6:09
AM ET

ESPN golf analyst and two-time major champion Andy North put together his list of the 10 greatest rounds in Masters history.

ESPN.com will roll out his rankings on a daily basis leading up to this year's Masters at Augusta National, where the world's top players will compete for the green jacket.

No. 1: Jack Nicklaus, Round 4, 1986

Jack Nicklaus owns 506 career birdies in his Masters career, but the most magical ones might have come during his back-nine charge in 1986.

With his son on the bag, Nicklaus carded a final-round 65 with a 30 on the inward nine after going eagle-birdie-birdie from Holes 15-17.

At age 46, Nicklaus claimed his sixth green jacket in what many refer to as the greatest Masters in history.

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Top 10 rounds in Masters history -- No. 2

April, 5, 2014
Apr 5
8:44
AM ET

ESPN golf analyst and two-time major champion Andy North put together his list of the 10 greatest rounds in Masters history.

ESPN.com will roll out his rankings on a daily basis leading up to this year's Masters at Augusta National, where the world's top players will compete for the green jacket.

No. 2: Gary Player, Round 4, 1978

A 42-year-old Gary Player ran off a string of seven birdies in his last 10 holes of the final round to rally from a 7-shot deficit to win the 1978 Masters.

The South African's 64 in the final round helped him earn his third green jacket and the ninth -- and final -- major championship victory of his storied career.

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Top 10 rounds in Masters history -- No. 3

April, 4, 2014
Apr 4
7:34
AM ET

ESPN golf analyst and two-time major champion Andy North put together his list of the 10 greatest rounds in Masters history.

ESPN.com will roll out his rankings on a daily basis leading up to this year's Masters at Augusta National, where the world's top players will compete for the green jacket.

No. 3: Charl Schwartzel, Round 4, 2011

Buoyed by birdies on his last four holes in the final round, Charl Schwartzel carded the low score of the day to become the 2011 Masters champion.

Schwartzel's 66 on Sunday helped him hold off Australians Jason Day and Adam Scott in just the second Masters appearance for the South African.

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Top 10 rounds in Masters history -- No. 4

April, 3, 2014
Apr 3
6:36
AM ET

ESPN golf analyst and two-time major champion Andy North put together his list of the 10 greatest rounds in Masters history.

ESPN.com will roll out his rankings on a daily basis leading up to this year's Masters at Augusta National, where the world's top players will compete for the green jacket.

No. 4: Art Wall, Round 4, 1959

In just his fourth start at Augusta National, Art Wall's final-round 66 helped him leapfrog 12 players to capture his one and only major championship victory.

Wall, with five birdies on his last six holes, edged out Cary Middlecoff, who could manage only a 72 in the final round.

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Top 10 rounds in Masters history -- No. 5

April, 2, 2014
Apr 2
8:30
AM ET

ESPN golf analyst and two-time major champion Andy North put together his list of the 10 greatest rounds in Masters history.

ESPN.com will roll out his rankings on a daily basis leading up to this year's Masters at Augusta National, where the world's top players will compete for the green jacket.

No. 5: Tiger Woods, Round 3, 1997

There were numerous timeless moments during Tiger Woods' recording-setting win at the 1997 Masters. The 21-year-old's 65 in the third round helped set the stage for what would be a Sunday coronation at Augusta National, where he carried a 9-shot lead into the final 18 holes.

Woods became the tournament's youngest winner with the victory and broke the tournament scoring record held by Jack Nicklaus and Raymond Floyd.

Tiger also became the first person of color to break that barrier at a golf club that didn't have its first African-American member until the 1990s.

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