Field of dreams

The Masters is an easy-to-win competition because it has about half as many serious challengers as a typical PGA Tour event. Illustration by Jonathan Bartlett for ESPN The Magazine

Who are you picking to win the Masters, Tiger, Phil or the field? For most of the past decade -- as Woods won his second, third and fourth Green Jackets from 2001 to 2005 and Mickelson earned three of his own, in 2004, 2006 and 2010 -- that was the most popular of gentlemen's bets. But no more.

The Masters still represents a great chance for Woods to win major No. 15 (he contended last year after taking four months off), but his fall, along with Mickelson's rise, has changed the landscape along Magnolia Lane. Throw in the recent climb of international players and the odds on the field are too great to bet against.

The last time Woods won a major, the 2008 U.S. Open at Torrey Pines, the only other player with an average of more than 6.0 Official World Golf Ranking points was Mickelson. Currently, there are five players with a better than 6.0 average, and four -- Martin Kaymer, Lee Westwood, Luke Donald and Graeme McDowell -- have more points than Tiger himself.

OWGR is important because it is the best way to gauge the strength of a tournament's field. Why? It shows how a player is performing against the toughest competition. The guest list at Augusta this year features name after name of guys -- Paul Casey, Rory McIlroy, Matt Kuchar, Steve Stricker -- who have beaten the best, proving the field relative to Tiger and Phil is stronger than ever.

Still, it's the Masters, the tournament that bills itself as "a tradition unlike any other." That's true, in part, because it has a field unlike any other major, namely, one that's a whole lot weaker. At roughly 100 players (96 in 2010), there are nearly 40 percent fewer competitors than at the U.S. Open, British Open and PGA Championship. Throw in "traditional" Masters invites like the U.S. Amateur champion and runner-up, the British and Asian amateur champions, the U.S. Mid-Amateur and U.S. Amateur Public Links winners, and you're whittling the list of contenders down even more. The lifetime invites to past champs like Larry Mize, Craig Stadler and Ian Woosnam, guys who haven't been factors on Tour since Woods was a teenager, is another reason roughly only 30 players have a legitimate shot at the Green Jacket. A typical PGA Tour event has twice that number of serious challengers.

But past champions and amateurs aside, the Masters remains the most exclusive field in golf, requiring a top-50 spot on the OWGR, a win or high finish at a major within the past five years, or a victory at a fully sanctioned PGA stop within the previous 12 months.
That means a player like Justin Rose, a proven contender who didn't make the Masters field in 2010 but went on to win the AT&T National and the Memorial, rising to No. 33 in the world, can be sitting at home in early April.

Even Rory Sabbatini, who tied for second at the 2007 Masters and is currently ranked No. 51 in the world, wouldn't have been playing at Augusta this year had he not won the Honda Classic in early March. On the other side of the equation, Chad Campbell, who finished T2 in 2009, still needs a win to get in the field. "It's got to be a bitter feeling for Chad," says Jason Bohn, who is set to make his second Masters appearance in 2011. "He basically shot the lowest score of the week two years ago. But that's the Masters. It's the easiest major to win because the math says it is. But that doesn't mean it's still not really, really hard."

Almost as hard as picking this year's winner.