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Who could break through at Augusta?

AUGUSTA, Ga. -- For pro golfers, winning a major is the ultimate achievement. But not everyone has the right to win one. You've got to earn your place as a serious threat to contend in one of the game's four elite events by building your résumé with wins on lesser stages.

Three-time major champion Larry Nelson famously put it this way: "Winning a major is only a big deal to the public if you're a player who is supposed to win a major."

Some relatively unknown player could make a name for himself here this week at the Masters, but it's likely the winner will be a well-pedigreed golfer who is supposed to win.

Augusta is special because it's the only major played on the same course, year after year. If you're one of those players who hasn't won a major, but who the public and the media believe should have won one, this tournament could offer the best chance of a breakthrough.

Fred Couples, one of the most popular and talented players of his era, would not be getting inducted into the World Golf Hall of Fame in May had he not gotten his lone major title here in 1992. That win would most likely not have come had he not become intimate with the course through eight previous Masters that included four top-10s.

There are several top players in the field this week at Augusta trying to make the Masters their first major win. Like Couples, they are intimate with Augusta National and have had some success here.

They are supposed to do well.

These players include Justin Rose, Luke Donald, Brandt Snedeker, Adam Scott, Steve Stricker, Matt Kuchar, Ian Poulter and Lee Westwood.

Before last year's Masters, Bubba Watson had been more popular for his playful antics, long drives and country-fried first name than he was for his relatively lean body of work on the golf course. He proved that he had the stomach for the majors with a playoff loss at the 2010 PGA, but few people looked at him as a guy who had to win a major. As late as Saturday night at the 2012 Masters, Bubba was saying that he would be pleased with a top-10.

Westwood wasn't interested in a top-10 because he had 12 top-10s in majors coming into last year's Masters, including a second at the 2010 event. Within the sport, his name had become synonymous with near-misses in the majors. Only a win would be good enough to lift his career to a new plateau.

When he finished in a tie for third in 2012, his ninth top-5 in a major championship, it was another disappointment for a man whose destiny had become to win one of the big four.

Not everyone places that kind of pressure on himself. The credo of most players is that the more often they get into contention in the majors, the better their chances will be to finally get a victory. Augusta offers both the familiarity of the venue and the grand setting of a major championship to nurture this mindset.

There are some truisms about the Masters that also jibe with commonly held beliefs around the majors.

At Augusta, the players know to take advantage of the four par-5s.

"There's a number of key holes for me out there on the golf course," said Poulter, who looks closely at stats. "I think most guys that have played very well around this golf course have played the par-5s exceptionally well.

"They are all reachable. You need to be making birdies and even try to take a couple of eagles out of the course, and if you can do that, then you have a chance."

This week the players know not to get caught up with what Tiger Woods is doing or to pay too much attention to the leaderboard on Thursday, when Sunday on the back nine is prime time in this tournament.

"We have kind of come to the realization if you want to beat Tiger or Rory or whoever is playing great, you really have to focus on what you do," Snedeker said. "Everybody says it's different with Tiger. I understand it's a little bit different with Tiger, but when you hear those roars going crazy, you have to get even more involved in what you're doing if you want to be successful. That's what guys are starting to do more and more of."

Over the years, Donald has solicited advice from the likes of Jack Nicklaus and Nick Faldo, but has reservations about a one-size-fits-all approach to preparing and competing in majors.

"I don't think everyone's system, just because it works for them, is perfect for you," Donald said. "But there are certainly parts that I listened to and pick out and try to learn from.

"I think I've gained some good knowledge from doing that, and I'll continue to do that as I go forward."

Kuchar got to play Augusta National once a year when he was at Georgia Tech. The first time he played here after winning the 1997 U.S. Amateur, he finished low amateur in the '98 Masters. Last year, he had his best start here with a tie for third. In February, he won the WGC-Accenture Match Play in Tucson, Ariz.

Though he has only five career wins, the 34-year-old Sea Island, Ga., resident is one of the two or three steadiest players in the world. He is as ready as anyone to win his first major. Last year, he took a tie for third in Augusta and a tie for ninth at the Open Championship.

"Been playing some really good, consistent golf kind of week-in and week-out," Kuchar said of peaking for the majors. "You just don't want to hope that you happen to be timing it well for a certain week."

Poulter has emerged as one of the best clutch putters in the game. Nowadays, when we talk about the 37-year-old Englishman, it's usually in connection to the majors and the Ryder Cup. Last year at Augusta, he notched his second top-10 in three years with a tie for seventh.

The star of the victorious European Ryder Cup team at Medinah doesn't feel anxiety about winning a major.

"I know this week is probably my best chance, so I just need to go out there and perform," he said. "I don't have sleepless nights over it. The fact is, I just need to go and play well. And if I do play well, then you know, put myself in position, then hopefully I can take it with both hands come Sunday."

If Poulter sounds confident -- and he is a very confident man -- it's because he knows he's supposed to win a major championship.