- Farrell Evans, Golf
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AUGUSTA, Ga. -- For the Champions Dinner on Tuesday night, Charl Schwartzel hosted a South African barbecue. The steaks were covered with a monkey gland sauce, a mix of chutney Worcester sauce and onions. Aspects of the South African favorite will be unfamiliar to many of the past champions, but that couldn't be any more of a surprise than the emergence of Schwartzel last year at the Masters.
The 27-year-old son of a South African chicken farmer arrived at the Masters last April as the 29th-ranked player in the world. He had won six times on the European Tour, including three in South Africa, but his best finish in the U.S. prior to the Masters had been a second at the 2010 WGC-CA Championship. He was probably the fifth-best known player from South Africa. But after a final-round 66 on Sunday, where he had two hole outs from off the green on the front nine and four closing birdies on the back, he was the Masters champion and a new star in the world golf.
Yet this year he's still very much under the radar, just as he was when he got here in 2011. On Tuesday, it was hard to tell that he was the defending champion. There were dozens of empty seats in his press conference, while to no one's surprise Rory McIlroy, Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson all spoke to packed houses.
But Schwartzel, who has missed his last two cuts on the PGA Tour, isn't fazed by all the attention lavished deservedly on those players.
"To be honest, I don't look into those things," he said. "Tiger has obviously won again and he's really playing very good. Rory is playing well. Phil is playing well. Luke ... all of the guys.
"But to me, I go about my business as I normally do, and I feel and I know, if I play my best, I can compete with anyone."
Every major has its share of favorites and sure bets. With the Masters' small field (96 golfers) and the player's general familiarity with the golf course from playing it every year, plus a high level of parity in the game, a bunched leaderboard of the top stars on Sunday evening is inevitable.
"The attention should be on those guys because they are playing well," said Bo Van Pelt, who tied for eighth in the Masters last year. "But there are always other players who will be in contention on Sunday."
So who will be some of those players to mix things up on the weekend with Tiger, Phil, McIlroy, and Donald? Who will be the unsung figures this year to quietly and methodically shred Augusta National?
Graeme McDowell, Adam Scott, Van Pelt, Martin Kaymer, Hunter Mahan, Brandt Snedeker, Nick Watney, Lee Westwood, Bubba Watson and Keegan Bradley are all very substantial players who have excellent chances of completing the cast of dramatic actors on Easter Sunday. They are all expected to be contenders and more importantly they all believe they can win. Augusta is no place to come when you don't own your game or know your place. All of these players are ready and in their minds peaking at the right time. Tiger and company are simply the best of a very deep bench.
On Tuesday, I ran into Dave Stockton Sr. underneath the tree in the back of the clubhouse. If you want to see anybody, I mean anybody in the world of golf, you'll probably see him socializing under this tree with players, entourages, agents, members and those lucky enough to have access to the clubhouse. Stockton, who works with Mickelson and McIlroy on their putting, told me that he didn't like to work with his players during a major week. He was here mostly to fulfill some corporate obligations.
"This is not the time to work on your game," said Stockton, who played in 14 Masters. "You have to play with what you have. I don't want my players thinking about too much stuff."
On Tuesday, McIlroy tried to give some perspective to all the attention he had been receiving coming into the tournament. He was supposed to win last year, but a guy with a name that many could not pronounce ended up with the green jacket.
"It's not just about two guys or three guys or whatever," McIlroy said. "It's nice to be getting all this praise and everything, but you have to take it with a pinch of salt. I'm nowhere near the I definitely don't have the achievements that Tiger has or nowhere near the level of, yeah, success, that he's had over the last 15 years.
"But hopefully I can one day even get close to that point, you know. I'm just happy to be here and hopefully have a good chance of winning."
Still, McIlroy expects to be there at the end on Sunday afternoon with a chance of winning. Everybody expects him to be there. It will be a great championship if another Charl Schwartzel wins this year, but more than likely this will be the year when the favorites take a dominant place on the leaderboard. With conditions perfect for scoring, the cream will rise to the top.
"As soft as the golf course is, you can fire at a lot of pins," Mickelson said. "The greens are soft. I don't want to say they are slow, but it's just not the same Augusta. It's wet around the greens, and there is no fear of the course. You've got to attack this week."
That freewheeling mindset favors players such as Bubba Watson and Robert Garrigus, the two longest hitters on the PGA Tour. Bubba has all the shots and with his length, he could overpower the golf course. In 2012, the 33-year-old Bagdad, Fla. native has finally become a consistent player. He has three top-10s in his seven events, including a second at Doral. His best finish in three Masters appearances was a T-20 in 2008. Bubba, who is notorious for playing himself out of chances to win on certain courses because they don't suit his game, feels confident around Augusta.
Garrigus has a similar game to Watson. He makes a lot of birdies and he hits the ball a mile. Still, it's difficult to predict either one of these players as the Charl Schwartzel of 2012. Too many things have to go perfect for one of them to slip into the green jacket on Sunday evening. Schwartzel admitted on Monday that he hopes he doesn't have to birdie the last four holes to win the tournament.
McIlroy, Woods or Mickelson will probably have to come back to the field on Sunday to make room for players like Watson and Garrigus, who could steal the show by doing their own reprise of Schwartzel's fantastic Sunday.
For one of these two players, a good story about how they beat the game's giants would be a nice icebreaker at the 2013 Champions dinner.
Farrell Evans covers golf for ESPN and can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.