We offer up our thoughts on some of the game's best players and their chances to win at Augusta.
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Rory McIlroyHis 2012 so far: On the PGA Tour, Rory hasn't exactly had problems, finishing first, second and third in the three tournaments he's played. He won the Honda Classic over a loaded field, and he's playing some of the best golf of his young career.
His record at the Masters: He's played in exactly three Masters, and has a record of T20, cut, T15. But that doesn't really tell the story; last year he was thoroughly dominating the field when he utterly melted down on No. 10 on Sunday. Would he ever recover? Since he throttled the course at the U.S. Open, the very next major, that'd be a yes.
Why he could win: Why couldn't he win? McIlroy is one of the few golfers in the world who could win no matter what else the rest of the field does. At his best, there are few, if any, better than him. And he learned some hard lessons about staying focused and dialed in last year; you can bet that he won't be making that same mistake at the 10th this year.
Why he could fall short: The same reason any elite player could lose: because things don't quite click, and someone else is at the top of their game. If McIlroy's even at 80 percent, there aren't many guys who can beat him. Unfortunately, all of those guys are in the field this week.
Our take: He'll come close, but not close enough. This isn't going to be Rory's year, but many more will be.
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His 2012 so far: Woods won an official event for the first time in more than two years when he captured the Arnold Palmer Invitational for the seventh time in his career. He also has a pair of top-3 finishes in six starts this season.
His US Masters record: Only Jack Nicklaus and Arnold Palmer can boast the kind of success Woods has had at Augusta National. His four green jackets are second only to Nicklaus' six, and even in the years Woods hasn't won, he's almost always finished inside the top 5 (six times in his last seven starts).
Why he could win: Because his game is peaking at the right time. As opposed to years past when we questioned Woods' swing and his mental state, he comes into the US Masters with a breakthrough win and a boatload of confidence. When you put both of those things together with Augusta National, you almost always get a green jacket. Woods has produced some incredible moments at the US Masters over the years and the way he's playing at the moment, you have to believe he's going to make another serious run this year.
Why he could lose: We've only seen Woods close things out in an official event on one occasion in the past two-plus. It's easy to jump on the Tiger bandwagon and start proclaiming that he's back, but until he starts winning on a consistent basis, it's impossible to tell if we'll see "Bay Hill Tiger" or "Abu Dhabi and Pebble Tiger" on the weekend. Sure, it's Augusta National, his home away from home -- but the uncertainty surrounding his play on the weekend has to give you pause.
Our take: Tiger Woods will be right there when the leaders make the turn and things start to get really interesting on Sunday, but with so many big names playing at incredibly high levels right now, you get the feeling that someone could pull a Schwartzel and come out of nowhere to win. Woods will pick up another top 5 finish, but he'll have to wait another year for his fifth green jacket.
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Luke Donald speaks to the media ahead of the 2012 US MastersHis 2012 so far: Four events on the PGA Tour, with a win at the Transitions and a T6 at the WGC-Cadillac. The Transitions victory helped him retake the world No. 1 ranking from Rory McIlroy.
His US Masters record: Seven US Masters played, three top 10s, including a T4 last year. He's missed the cut at Augusta twice, most recently in 2010.
Why he could win: Donald is hands-down one of the smoothest golfers on Tour, both in his play and his mindset. He's had opportunities to take and retake the top spot in the world, and unlike Phil Mickelson, he's capitalized on both. His off-the-green short game will come in handy at Augusta, and his ability to remain calm under pressure, the above photo notwithstanding, will serve him well as the energy ratchets up day after day at Augusta.
Why he could lose: Sometimes Donald gets a bit too casual out on the course, and Augusta eats those kinds of players alive. You can't let the course come to you, you can't wait for the rest of the field to make mistakes at Augusta. If you're going to win, you have to do it on your own terms. Donald can do that; will he?
Our take: Yes, he will. This is the year. The focus all tournament long will be on Tiger Woods and Rory McIlroy, but in the end this is the year Donald ascends the mountaintop, validates his top ranking, and firmly establishes himself among the best golfers of the 2010s.
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His 2012 so far: Westwood has been his usual, consistent self so far this year, posting a second-place finish at the Dubai Desert Classic, and a fourth at the Honda Classic. Even with the top-5 finishes, he's still without a win this year, which may or may not be a big deal going into the US Masters. It really depends on who you talk to.
His US Masters record: He's a US Masters vet, having made 12 starts in the past 15 years. It's hard to believe Westwood has been coming to Augusta National for that long, but his local knowledge has certainly paid off in recent years with three top-15 finishes in his last four starts, including a second in 2010. He finished T-11 last year.
Why he could win: Because he's been close before, and conventional wisdom tells you that a player of his caliber is going to break through at some point. Westwood knows Augusta National, so it's not like he's at a disadvantage this week. He hits the ball a mile off the tee and is relatively solid around the greens, two things that should serve him well this week. The only question is his mental game on Sunday, but if he gets a lead, watch out.
Why he could lose: Because he still doesn't have a Major championship, which makes you wonder if the questions and self-doubt could force him to press if he gets close on Sunday. Westwood certainly has all the tools to win at Augusta, but being so close so many times, maybe this just isn't the Major he's supposed to win.
Our take: You can almost take Westwood posting a top 10 finish to the bank, but beyond that, it's hard to say what he's going to do on the weekend. He hasn't won a big tournament of note since the 2010 St. Jude Classic, and that could be a problem. Even with the mid-tier wins of late, that doesn't necessarily mean his game is ready for the big stage. We see another strong finish in his future, but no Green Jacket.
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Phil MickelsonHis 2012 so far: Mickelson's season has been a mixed bag. He started the year with a missed cut at the Farmers Insurance, won at Pebble Beach with a brilliant final round 64, and then went T-43, T-24 through a portion of the Florida Swing. He posted a T-4 at the Shell Houston Open just last week, so it looks like his game is trending upward at the moment.
His record at the Masters: With three wins, four thirds, a fifth and a T-5, T-6, two T-7s and a 10th since '95, it's gotten to a point where he could literally show up and post a top-10 finish at the Masters. With the exception of Tiger Woods, no one in the field has had more success at Augusta National than Phil Mickelson.
Why he could win: Because he's Phil Mickelson. There are a few guys in golf you'd pick to win a major no matter how they're playing, and Mickelson is certainly one of them. He knows the course like the back of his hand and already has three green jackets in his locker at Augusta National. You'd be crazy to bet against a guy with that much success at one place.
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The Great Unknown
First off, let's define what we mean by "Great Unknown." It's a player who doesn't necessarily draw the attention of the sporting public at large - you know, the ones who believe that the golf season begins this weekend. Obviously, this takes out players like Woods, McIlroy, Phil Mickelson and other well-established pros. But someone like Charl Schwartzel, last year's winner, fits snugly in this category, as did Angel Cabrera, Trevor Immelman and Zach Johnson, to name a few recent winners. Remember, just because you know who Nick Watney is doesn't mean the rest of the viewing public does.
Why a Great Unknown could win: It's been done before, and often very recently. The Masters has a way of raising the profile of whoever wins - a green jacket will do that for you -but it's worth remembering that many of the recent winners have not exactly gone on to light the golf world on fire. Still, all it takes is the best weekend of your professional life. Consider Schwartzel, who won last year by birdieing the final four holes, the first time that had ever been achieved. That was surely the finest four holes of his life, and it came at exactly the perfect time.
Consider, also, that relative talent is far broader now than at any time in golf's history. There are easily 10 players you could pick to win and not get laughed at; when in the annals of the game has that been possible? So "Great Unknown" might just mean someone whose public presence hasn't yet caught up with their talent.
Why a Great Unknown won't win: Because on the greatest stage, golf's best players step up. Prior to the mid-2000s trio named above, you need to go all the way back to 1991 and Ian Woosnam to find a player who was arguably out of public knowledge in the golf world. Before him? Tommy Aaron way back in 1973. So while the recent trend has been toward players playing the tournament of their life one time, the overall trend is that this weekend's winner has already secured his place in golf lore.
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Jonathan Wall, Yahoo! Sports