Sometimes, probably more than anyone would care to admit, the key to winning the Masters is as random as an 11th-hour tip on the practice tee. Last year a struggling Ben Crenshaw heeded caddie Carl Jackson's gentle suggestion to move the ball back in his stance. Four swings later, Crenshaw was transformed. Six days later, he was putting on the green jacket.
Nevertheless, the Masters invites prognostication because of its predictable patterns. Its roll call of winners features the game's greatest names, and its leader boards have more star quality than those of the other majors. Cinderella stories are rare at Augusta, where even the long-shot victors—like Crenshaw last year and Jack Nicklaus in 1986—are famous. The marquee quality is so powerful, it makes a limited-field invitational with no rough the most anxiously awaited major of the year. At last week's Players Championship, the anticipation alarm officially went off.
Beyond the immediate challenges presented by the Stadium Course at Sawgrass and the best field so far this year, Augusta was the subject most deeply embedded in the minds of the top players. Even defending champion Lee Janzen wasn't immune to using the richest Tour event as a dress rehearsal. "He'd hit a draw off the tee and say, That's perfect for 13 at Augusta,' or carve a nice cut and say, 'I should save that one for the 18th,' " said Janzen's caddie, Dave Musgrove. "He's been thinking about the Masters for weeks."
Now, with all due respect to the BellSouth Classic, everyone is. This Masters is already distinctive in that the usual European juggernaut has been reduced to so many walking wounded. Nick Faldo, Bernhard Langer, Ian Woosnam and José María Olazábal, all of whom have won the tournament in the '90s, are either injured or nursing ailing games, while '80s winners Sandy Lyle and Seve Ballesteros are desperately searching for some remnant of their old selves. Another distinction is that first-time Masters participants Jim Furyk, David Duval, Woody Austin, Tim Herron and Michael Campbell are all candidates to become the first Augusta rookie to win since Fuzzy Zoeller in 1979.
But the heart of the fascination with the Masters lies in the promise it holds for its favorite sons, and this year's run-up got a jolt of adrenaline when Fred Couples blasted his way back to the top with his closing 64 at Sawgrass. Couples's biggest victory since the 1992 Masters makes him a logical favorite at Augusta. He is hugely long, hits some of the softest-landing approaches in the game and seems to thrive on the creativity that Augusta demands. But while Couples is a favorite, we do not consider him the favorite. First of all, no one has ever won the Players and the Masters in the same year. Although he is pleased with his physical therapist, Couples may still have problems with his back. Finally, the bombs he made on Sunday aside, Couples is a fragile short putter. Even during his 64 he missed a two-footer on the 11th. "It's unfortunate, but I win tournaments because I putt well, and I lose them because I don't," Couples says. "I wish I could putt like when I was 24, but that isn't going to happen."
Couples has played steadily through most of the early season, a pattern that Masters winners generally follow. This year, no player has adhered to that model more closely than Tom Lehman, whose tie for eighth at the Players marked his sixth consecutive finish in the top 10. Lehman has a penchant for playing some of his best golf on the most demanding courses when the pressure is greatest. I le tied for third at Augusta in 1993 and finished second to Olazábal in 1994. Last year he was third in the U.S. Open. Those experiences and the current state of his game lead him to believe he can peak during the Masters. "My game is right where it needs to be, and I know how to play Augusta," Lehman says. "The patient player usually gets rewarded at Augusta, and if the Lord blessed me with anything, it's patience and persistence."
Those qualities also make contenders out of two long-suffering campaigners, former Masters champions Tom Watson and Zoeller. The 46-year-old Watson has found a groove in the last few years that allows him to play powerfully and consistently from tee to green. He also retains some of the best short-game skills ever seen. But Watson is the most notoriously poor short putter in the game, particularly when he's in contention. It's a failing that would seem to give him no hope on the lightning-fast greens of Augusta, but Watson has a feel for the course, much as Nicklaus does, who was 46 when he won his sixth green jacket. Zoeller strikes the ball nearly as well as Watson, but also struggles on the greens and hasn't won a Tour event since 1986. He finished tied for fourth at the Players, has three top-20 finishes at Augusta in the '90s and is experiencing no back pain.
Another veteran with a strong record of contending at the Masters is Jay Haas, who has five finishes of seventh or better in his last eight appearances at Augusta, including a tie for third last year. Of average length off the tee but solid in every phase of the game, Haas represents the same steady, unspectacular play as such recent Masters winners as Crenshaw, Faldo, Langer, Olazábal and Larry Mize. "Since Augusta changed the greens from Bermuda to bent grass [in 1981], I think it has become more of a par shooter's course than a birdie maker's," says Haas, who tied Lehman and three others for eighth at the Players.
Another solid, all-around player, but without a history of success at Augusta, is Colin Montgomerie. The 31-year-old Scot is the No. 2 player in the world according to the Sony Ranking and is hungrily stalking his first major after losing the 1994 U.S. Open and the 1995 PGA in playoffs. "My caddie told me just because you are Number 2 doesn't mean you have to finish second all the time," says Montgomerie, who tied for second at the Players after opening his season with a victory at Dubai. "I expect to contend at Augusta."
Two players whose length and ability fit the orthodox view that the Masters favors a power player are Davis Love III and Ernie Els. Both are expecting recent history to work to their advantage. When Love finally broke into the top 10 in a major with his second at last year's Masters, he learned a lot about how to get out of his own way. His closing 66, he said, showed him what it feels like to win a major "except for getting the trophy." Els, one of the others who tied for eighth at the Players, will be playing in his first major since coughing up the PGA Championship, in which he held a three-stroke lead after three rounds. The ultimate big hitter, John Daly, has at least a slugger's chance at Augusta, where he has always made the cut and finished tied for third in 1993. After spending the first three months of the year globe-trotting and playing poorly, Daly finished 19th at the Players, his best performance of 1996. "John is fresh for a change," says Zoeller.