Tribune columnist Kurt Kragthorpe’s five players to watch in the Masters:
Tiger Woods • While I was tempted to work alphabetically, there can be no saving this guy for last. He’s more intriguing than ever. Tiger always plays well at Augusta National, even when he’s not at his best, and he’s coming off a victory in the Arnold Palmer Invitational.
Yet his last win at Augusta came in 2005, and his pursuit of Jack Nicklaus’ record 18 major tournament victories has been holding at 14 for a while now. A win this weekend would relaunch that chase and add to the interest in the remaining majors of 2012. As Rory McIlroy said in a news conference this week, “He creates excitement that no on else in the game can.”
It’s usually possible to gauge Tiger’s frame of mind of by press conference transcripts. He was the storytelling Tiger on Tuesday, which is a good sign.
Rory McIlroy • His disastrous final round last April would be indelible, except having so many other players with a shot at winning that day tended to overshadow his collapse. McIlroy’s eight-stroke victory in the U.S. Open two months later also tended to erase those memories. He was able to joke this week about his wayward drive on No. 10, while observing how much he learned about his approach to that day, saying he was not ready to win a major.
Phil Mickelson • He already had a nice history of consistent play at Augusta before winning in 2004, and he’s added two green jackets since then. As Mickelson reflected this week, “There was this burden of having never won a major. There was this burden of wanting to win a Masters so bad.”
Those were lifted long ago, and Mickelson can play freely. He described McIlroy’s demeanor as “without fear, which is a great way to play,” and that also applies to his own approach to Augusta now.
Luke Donald • He’s the No. 1-ranked player in the world and never has won a major, which seems like a weird combination. He’s obviously capable of winning this week, but the first major title is always the toughest to get. Asked what advice he would give any of the players chasing his first major win, Mickelson said he once received a gem from short-game teacher Dave Pelz, but he intends to share it only after his career ends. “I’m serious,” Mickelson said.
Mike Weir • The Sandy resident is on this list for the wrong reason. The curiosity is mostly whether he can avoid embarrassment as a former winner with a lifetime exemption. Weir has not made the 36-hole cut in any of his four PGA Tour starts this season, although he did play all four rounds in a recent European Tour event in Spain.
Weir is “feeling better and better” about his swing, he wrote on his website, but is still struggling to regain his on-course feel for the game in his recovery from elbow surgery.
Weir will be accountable for his scores this week, but there’s no shame in being one of the 16 Masters winners whose only major victory came at Augusta. Fred Couples and Craig Stadler are among the others who have had very nice careers — without approaching Weir’s $26.8 million in earnings.