McIlroy's Year Of Change
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.
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.
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.
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.