Originally Published: April 3, 2011

Who will step up this week at Augusta National?

Sobel By Jason Sobel
ESPN.com
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A tradition unlike any other.

The Masters? Well, yeah. That too.

In this instance, though, I'm talking about the debate, deliberation and dialogue leading into the year's first major championship. The most tradition-rich golf tournament on this side of the pond is also the most analyzed and scrutinized.

As if to prove it, this edition of the Weekly 18 is all Masters, all the time, beginning with a look into why the tournament might actually be the de facto starting point to this year's golf season.

1. And so it begins …

Casual fans often refer to Masters week as the "real" start of the golf season. To which ardent followers usually counter: "Where have you been these past three months?"

In most years, I'm on the side of the diehards. From the Aloha Swing to the West Coast Swing to the Florida Swing, there are always plenty of stories before the first major championship.

This year? Well … sure, we're already 15 tournaments into the PGA Tour schedule, but I can't help agreeing with those who feel that the 2011 campaign really begins this week. After all, a lot has taken place so far, but it does feel that we've eased into the season rather than starting with a bang.

Need proof? Quick: Name the defining moment thus far. Jhonny Vegas prevailing early in his rookie season? D.A. Points winning at Pebble Beach alongside Bill Murray? Luke Donald displaying short-game prowess while taking the Match Play?

All entertaining, but DVD copies of those performances won't exactly be flying off the shelves any time soon.

It doesn't end there, either. Name the best player this season. Mark Wilson? Martin Kaymer? Nick Watney? Bubba Watson? I'm all for parity, but the multiple-choice answers are less about who has dominated and more about who hasn't played poorly.

Which leads to the biggest story entering the Masters: The most important news so far is what hasn't happened rather than what actually has.

Tiger Woods not only hasn't won, he hasn't even contended. Phil Mickelson had only one top-10 until breaking through with a win at this week's Shell Houston Open. Lee Westwood relinquished his short hold on the world's No. 1 ranking. After taking over that role, Kaymer hasn't exactly played like the game's best.

What does it all mean? Well, either parity might continue to reign throughout the season … or we're really just about to get started.

Three up

2. Iron men

Nope, this isn't in reference to those who have played a lot of golf this year or haven't missed a Masters start in a while. I mean it in the more literal sense -- guys who are very good iron players.

Since 2000, nine of the 11 winners have ranked fourth or better for that week in the greens in regulation statistic. Four have led the field, and only Angel Cabrera (14th) and Mike Weir (37th) have deviated from the norm. In case there's any question as to which is the more important stat, consider this: Of those 11 winners, only two ranked fourth or better in putting for the week.

How can we extrapolate these numbers into helping us pick contenders for this week? That's easy. Just check out the PGA Tour's current GIR leaders, where right at the top are three players who will tee it up this week at Augusta -- Ben Crane, Bubba Watson and Justin Rose.

If those three players are on the leaderboard this week, you can be sure that -- once again -- iron play was a major factor at the Masters.

3. Sunday's final pairing

You're going to hear this over and over again during the week -- and especially leading into the last 18 holes Sunday -- so I might as well beat everyone to the punch.

The Masters champion has come from the final pairing in 19 of the past 20 editions of the tournament, with only Zach Johnson in 2007 bucking that trend.

That doesn't necessarily mean that everyone who isn't in the day's last tee time should pack it up and go home, but 95 percent is more than a slight coincidence.

So what does it mean? Well, any strategy of lurking on the leaderboard and waiting to make a move would be foolish. It's obviously ultra-important for a contender to not only be in prime position going into the final round, but to be right there at the top, with the entire field in front of him.

In fact, based on recent history, it's crucial for players to get off to a quick start. No eventual champion in the past decade has been outside the top five through 36 holes, and only one -- Tiger Woods in 2005 -- has even been outside the top 15 after only the opening round.

When searching for the potential champion during the first few days of the event, don't look too far down the leaderboard.

4. Vijay Singh

Which players lead with the most top-10s at the Masters over the past 10 years? It should come as no surprise that the answer is Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson, with an eye-popping nine and eight, respectively.

Third on that list is Singh, who owns an impressive five top-10s during that span, which doesn't even include his 2000 victory.

Numbers can be deceiving, though. Upon closer examination, each of Singh's top-10s came between 2002-06. In his past four Masters starts, he's finished T-13, T-14, T-30 and missed the cut.

He'll get a lot of pub for playing in his 67th consecutive major championship -- dating to the 1994 Open Championship -- but he is more than just a footnote for this tournament.

At 48 -- the same age as Kenny Perry when he lost in a playoff two years ago -- Singh looks rejuvenated, already posting a second- and a third-place finish this season. On a course where experience is so important, don't be surprised to see that record of five top-10s in 10 years become six in 11 come Sunday.

Three down

5. Recent major champions

The past nine winners of major championships  dating back to Padraig Harrington's victory at the 2008 PGA Championship  have combined for exactly one PGA Tour title since their wins.

And that just happened on Sunday, with Phil Mickelson claiming the Shell Houston Open.

Check the records, if you don't believe it, but Padraig Harrington, Angel Cabrera, Lucas Glover, Stewart Cink, Y.E. Yang, Mickelson, Graeme McDowell, Louis Oosthuizen and Martin Kaymer have combined for just one more win on the U.S. tour since their triumphs.

That doesn't mean they haven't had other success, though.

Harrington has since won the Irish PGA and Iskandar Johor Open, Yang won the Volvo China Open and Korea Open, McDowell won the Andalucia Valdarrama Masters and Chevron World Challenge, Oosthuizen won the Africa Open and Kaymer won the KLM Open, Alfred Dunhill Links Championship and Abu Dhabi Championship.

6. Martin Kaymer

The world's No. 1-ranked player has played exactly six career competitive rounds at Augusta National -- and none of them have come on the weekend.

Kaymer is 0-for-3 in making the Masters cut, and while some might consider him one of the favorites this week, he claims his first goal is to simply still be playing on Saturday and Sunday. How much does it mean to him? He's actually changed his game just to suit this course.

"I struggled a little bit with the draw the last few years," he said. "The last few months, we worked on it a little bit more in order to play well there and that was probably my biggest disadvantage, that I couldn't hit the draw there. Obviously that makes a big difference. If you fade the ball only, you make the golf course even more difficult."

It's admirable that a player of Kaymer's stature would attempt to alter part of his game just for this one tournament, but it's difficult to believe he can go from zero to hero at Augusta in one year. That's the bad news. The good news? His goal of reaching the weekend should be very attainable.

7. Jim Furyk

His game has come around recently, with a T-13 at the Transitions Championship, followed by a T-9 at the Arnold Palmer Invitational. But the reigning player of the year preceded those results with five straight finishes outside the top-30 -- the first time he has done so since 1997.

"I probably have done a very poor job preparing in the offseason," Furyk recently said about his slow start. "[It's] something I need to address. I thought I would address it this year, but obviously I didn't."

With those back-to-back strong starts, though, it might all be behind him.

Furyk should return to Augusta this week with more than a little confidence. Despite missing the cut last year, he reached the weekend in each of his previous six attempts and has finished in the money 12 times in 14 career Masters appearances.

Three wishes

8. I wish more people realized this: Augusta National is the most progressive of the four governing bodies over major championships.

I know, I know. Those guys in the green coats look stuffy and their course is as exclusive as exclusive can be, and players have even said playing at Augusta is "like walking on eggshells."

Get past the old-school overtones, though, and you'll find that those who run the Masters are the most progressive of any major championship organization.

Granted, television coverage is still limited, but that's part of the club's "less-is-more" philosophy. They will, however, offer increased coverage on various online platforms, including eight live video channels, functionality that allows rewinding and a live 3-D stream, plus an application for phones and the iPad.

Meanwhile, chairman Billy Payne understands the role the club can play in growing the game globally. Augusta National instituted the Masters Tournament Foundation, "a charitable extension of the tournament designed to annually invest in development programs for the game of golf worldwide." Those programs include everything from cofounding the Asian Amateur Championship (the winner of which clinches a Masters invitation) to instituting the Junior Pass Program (allowing children ages 8-16 free access to the tournament during the week with a paying adult) to allowing the course to be used in the new EA Sports video game (with proceeds going to toward the club's charitable efforts).

All of this helps Masters fans continue to skew younger while becoming more diversified and reaching more people globally.

Is there still an old-school feel around the tournament? Absolutely. Make no mistake, though: It shouldn't be misconstrued as an inability to adapt to the times.

9. I wish everyone would check out ESPN.com's ranking of the best 25 tournaments in Masters history.

Find it here.

10. I wish an amateur would find his way onto the Masters leaderboard at some point.

For a tournament cofounded by career amateur Bobby Jones, it's no surprise that ams are held in high regard at the Masters.

The non-pay-for-play guys spend their nights in the famed Crow's Nest and their days being celebrated on the world's most glorified course. Like Matteo Manassero (T-36 last year), Ryan Moore (T-15 in 2005), Ricky Barnes (21st in 2003) and Matt Kuchar (T-21 in 1998), the low amateur is rewarded with the Sterling Silver Cup, a tradition that dates to 1952.

This year, there are six candidates for such commendation: Peter Uihlein (U.S. Amateur champion), David Chung (U.S. Amateur runner-up), Jin Jeong (British Amateur champion), Nathan Smith (U.S. Mid-Amateur champion), Lion Kim (U.S. PubLinks champion) and Hideki Matsuyama (Asian Amateur champion).

The smart money is on Uihlein, an Oklahoma State junior and the son of Acushnet CEO Wally Uihlein. He recently made the cut at the talent-laden Transitions Championship, then followed by defeating Jeong in the prestigious Georgia Cup. More importantly, having grown up in a culture in which he's known many of the game's top professionals, he won't be as star-struck as some of his fellow amateurs.

And if he makes it to the leaderboard -- or even makes it to the weekend -- that's a result that would have pleased this tournament's cofounder very much.

11. From the inbox

Time for a little rapid-fire Masters-related Q&A from the Twitter crowd …

@StephensonTay can a player over 45 still win at Augusta or have the course changes taken out the old guys?
Really? Did you stop watching the tournament when they "Tiger-proofed" it? Let's see… Kenny Perry reached a playoff at age 48 two years ago and Fred Couples finished solo sixth at 50 last year. I could go on and on about how much experience matters at Augusta, but Exhibits 1A and 1B are enough evidence. The defense rests.

@TheGolfClub are you going to tweet from Masters? Have "they" implemented a policy?
Let's get this straight: There is not -- nor has there ever been -- a "no-tweeting" policy at Augusta National. However, there is a rule that states no phones or other technological advancements (laptops, iPads, etc.) are not allowed on the course. So if you can figure out a way to tweet without actually using some form of technology on the course, more power to you.

@grimslaa do they practice anything in particular that is different from what they would usually practice?
Not necessarily, but it might be a little more serious than usual. I'm not saying competitors will have their game faces on Monday morning and won't crack a smile, but the usual money game might be on hiatus for a week. If you're there during a practice round, you'll see players chipping and putting to spots rather than the hole. This happens every week, but is more prevalent before the majors.

@filmsyncs Why is it said that a lefty has an advantage playing Augusta National?
I don't know that it's necessarily true, but here's the theory: Augusta favors those who can play the ball right to left. Well, it's easier to control a fade than a draw, so for lefties that right-to-left fade is an easier ball flight to keep in optimal position than a draw for the righties. Again, it doesn't mean southpaws have an "advantage" on the course, but it might be easier for some to control their ball.

@JRLohman26 How hard is it to focus at all during the week due to the mystique of the tournament?
I think I can still remain pretty focused on everything, even though … oh, you meant the players? No, if anything, it's easier for them to focus during Masters week, just because they're prepared for it. Other events might have the lure of a big city or local pro sports teams to keep 'em out at night, but this one is all about eating, sleeping and breathing nothing but golf. Focus will be the least of their worries.

@NickGeyer is there a unanimous hardest hole? Seems like everyone has a different opinion because of the way they shape it.
You could ask 18 different players and get 18 different answers. Last year the fifth hole ranked as the course's most difficult, but for my money, it's No. 11 -- which was second-toughest a year ago. The par-4 plays 505 yards and left is dead. So to answer your question, no, there isn't a unanimous hardest hole, but I'd be surprised if the 11th wasn't right up there on the list.

@dillonmays_ GET US THE DAMN PIMENTO CHEESE RECIPE!!!!!!!
I know this is a matter of opinion. And I know it's going to sound blasphemous. But trust me: The egg salad sandwiches are better. In fact, I'd go as far as to say the egg salad is the Jack Nicklaus of Augusta sandwiches, while the pimiento cheese is -- and I say this carefully as I duck the inevitable lightning bolts -- overrated. Yeah, I went there.

12. Fact or fiction

This is the most wide-open major in recent memory.

I've heard and read this sentiment from various media outlets in the past week or two and it might be true -- with a caveat. It's only the most wide-open major in recent memory if your memory doesn't extend past eight months ago.

I know it's easy to place superlatives on whatever is taking place right now, but let's step back from the hyperbole and actually examine this issue logically.

First of all, the Masters is always the least wide-open (most closed?) of the four majors, simply based on numbers. There are annually about five dozen fewer competitors in the year's first major than the other three. Pure math -- without any golf knowledge interfering -- shows a player has a 1 percent chance of winning the Masters, but only about a 0.7 percent chance to win the other three.

But of course, this isn't a level playing field and, as we all know, some players have better chances than others. At the Masters, there are more players who can be eliminated right off the bat. Take away the older past champions and amateurs; that leaves about 75 players with a chance to win the green jacket.

Even if we compare that to the 156-player field at last year's PGA Championship, after eliminating the 20 club professionals we're still left with approximately 60 more potential contenders.

Now, we still haven't gotten to the heart of the matter: That this year's Masters is more "wide-open" because the game's elite players haven't distanced themselves from the pack going into this week. Well, wasn't that also the case entering last year's PGA? Tiger Woods hadn't won a tournament all season, Phil Mickelson was mired in arthritis treatments and we were following two consecutive majors in which very good players (Graeme McDowell and Louis Oosthuizen) won but were hardly anyone's favorites going into the week.

Is this week's Masters anyone's ballgame, so to speak? Without a doubt. But calling it the most wide-open major ever -- or at least in recent memory -- would be foolishly setting the hype machine to full blast without regard for the past.

Jason Sobel is a golf writer for ESPN.com. He can be reached at Jason.Sobel@espn.com.

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