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Masters Pond Scrum: Hype says this one might top 2011

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AUGUSTA, Ga. -- Gee, not much has changed since our two Pond Scrum protagonists last butted their balding heads in the first week of the 2012 season, eh?

It has been a whirlwind run-up to the season's first major, with nearly every tournament favorite in top form and gunning for Grand Slam immortality. It would be quicker to list those who haven't won, actually, with nine of the top 22 in the world ranking having already claimed a victory somewhere.

After a 2011 Masters that ranked among the most exciting in tournament history, an edge-of-your-chair nail-biter that was hard to keep straight given the noisy leaderboard changes, it presents the possibility of an even more indelible affair this spring.

Last year, Charl Schwartzel birdied the last four holes and ended an eight-player sprint to the finish, one of the great closing kicks in major championship history. Based on the way Rory McIlroy, Luke Donald, Tiger Woods and others have played early this season, that sterling finish might fast be forgotten.

As ever, the Masters marks the true beginning of golf season for many fans, and this iteration promises to deliver the usual goods, as well as an assortment of subplots, political intrigue and social outrage. In fact, the latter might just derail the tournament itself for a while.

In the second installment of their 2012 series, CBSSports.com senior writer Steve Elling and European Tour correspondent John Huggan are here to offer their cuts, tucks and alterations on the eve of green jacket week, and perhaps more than ever, some context and clarity are truly needed.

Gents, until the honorary starters take their whacks on Thursday morning, the first tee is all yours.

It has been years, maybe even decades, since there was as much pre-Masters buzz as there is this week, since most of the top players are off to successful starts. For the both of you, which player to you like?

Huggan: Only rarely can we have arrived at this stage of a Masters week with so many of the very best players performing so close to the top of their form. Only perennial Augusta cut-misser Martin Kaymer has shown little or nothing in the leadup to the toonamint. So the prospects of a Masters at least as good as last year's epic are bright indeed. Anyway, given all that, I have to go with the guy who I think is the best player on the planet. The rankings may say the admirable -– and half-Scottish -– Luke Donald, but for me, numero uno is Rory McIlroy. Not only has he all but forgotten what it is like to finish outside the top five in any tournament, the U.S. Open champion will drive up Magnolia Lane with something to prove after last year's meltdown.

Elling: I know Tiger Woods will be the popular public pick, given his Augusta track record and 30-month slumpbuster last week at Bay Hill. But I'm sticking with my early season pick all the way in McIlroy. After all, the guy was leading heading in the back nine last year, after leading after each of the first three rounds. Sure, if they gave trophies for leading after 54 holes, Greg Norman would have as much chrome as Woods, but McIlroy took his brutal beatdown and turned it around to win the Open in record fashion. In other words, he led after seven of the first eight rounds at the 2011 majors.

Huggan: Oh, no, we agree. That's just about enough to push me into premature retirement. Has my judgment become so impaired over the last few months?

Elling: You are the expert on all things premature. What do you like about Rory at Augusta?

Elling: To me, the elephant in the room with McIlroy's game last year was the putter. Well, nobody has been squawking about his stroke lately. It looked pretty pure when he was pouring in all those teeth-chattering par-savers on the back nine to win the Honda Classic. All with a certain Striped One breathing down his neck as he posted the lowest final-round score in his career, a 62. McIlroy did not faint and briefly claimed the No. 1 rankling. It will be his again, quite possibly very soon.

Huggan: Rory has all the tools for that course. He hits it long and right-to-left, the accepted "best shape" for most holes. Here's the real key -- the young Irishman is one of the best chippers on any tour. That's the one thing you absolutely must have if you are to win the Masters. Oh, and you better putt well, too, of course. But that goes without saying on those greens.

Elling: My lone concern with McIlroy, now the world No. 2, is his state of readiness. He hasn't played in three weeks, and though he made a recon trip to Augusta last week, he hasn't seen live fire longer than any of the other top favorites in the field. Let's see how it works, because everybody preps differently.

Huggan: For once, oh goateed one, you make a reasonable point. Guys who chase tennis players never do well at the Masters. I give you Greg Norman and Adam Scott if you don't believe me.

Elling: Don't forget Sergio (Martina Hingis) Garcia.

You mentioned his name. What do you think of world No. 1 Luke Donald's chances of finally getting that first major?

Elling: Let's see. The usual first fact cited at Augusta National is that it's a second-shot golf course, right? Well, Donald is as good with a metal club in his hand as anybody. The bigger question is why he hasn't contended there more often, really. It's a big-boy golf course, but he's cut from the same mold as former Masters champ Zach Johnson, in that Donald is a terrific wedge player and owns a sparking short game.

Huggan: My feeling for McIlroy does not diminish my admiration for Donald. A T4 finish last year showed that the Englishman has the game to at least challenge for golf's most valuable piece of laundry. But his formula for success, as ever, is limited by his lack of length. It can be done, as the likes of Johnson and Trevor Immelman showed not so long ago, but if Donald is to win he has to get down in less than three shots almost every time he is within 125 yards of the pin. Even with his propensity for accuracy and his gorgeous putting stroke, that is asking a lot, especially when bombers like McIlroy, Woods and Mickelson will be finding many of the par-5 greens in two shots.

Elling: If people saw the guy win the Transitions Championship in Tampa two weeks ago, is there any doubt that the guy is the best putter in the game? When it comes down to that fateful back nine Sunday, players have to convert the putts. Donald can do it -- and almost pulled it off last year.

Huggan: It's hard not to root for Donald. In this modern age -- one dominated by a relatively mindless and one-dimensional style of play -- he is a throwback to a more interesting time, one when the game was more art form than the science it has become. That no one in this day and age -- with the exception of the delightfully goofy Bubba Watson -- hits shots like Lee Trevino and Seve Ballesteros used to do has diminished golf as a spectator sport.

Elling: There were eight different players who held at least a share of the lead last year, and Donald got within a stroke at a couple of points. His biggest gaffe was rinsing his tee shot on the 12th hole, a very poor shot by his standards on the shortest hole on the course at 155 yards. He made a double-bogey, or he might have given eventual champ Charl Schwartzel a bit more to think about when he was making those four birdies to close out the title.

Huggan: Don't get too carried away, though. If Ernie Els had stayed upright down the stretch in Tampa, we'd be saying that event was just another top 10 for good old Luke.

Elling: Yeah, that Els stumble was tough to watch. So of course, those brilliant Masters folks saw fit to give a special exemptions to Ryo Ishikawa instead of the South African, who has won three majors. The decision had nothing to do with Japanese TV ratings, of course. Ernie just isn't as important as Ryo. Note: Those alarm bells you hear ringing are a massive sarcasm alert.

Huggan: The Ishikawa-in, Ernie-out thing is nothing short of disgraceful and diminishes the stature of this so-called major. Maybe it's time we had a debate over what events should be the constituent parts of a Grand Slam that better reflects the world we live in today.

Elling: Kick the Masters to the curb? Never happen. Who decertifies it?

Huggan: Perhaps we should, though.

Speaking of Augusta National leadership, how much of a distraction will the gender issue be again this year? Or maybe the golf tournament is the distraction to the gender issue? Sometimes, it's hard to tell.

Elling: The issue is whether a membership invitation, extended to the past four bosses at IBM, will be offered to the company's new female CEO, Virginia Rometty. Maybe she's too smart to want to be a member. Fact is, nobody knows what's happening at Augusta or who gets green-lighted for a green jacket. Last year, I saw former NFL receiver Lynn Swann in a green jacket. He'd recently joined the club.

Huggan: Just as it hangs over the Open Championship like a bad smell, the gender issue is one that will forever haunt the green jackets and the Masters until an emerald twinset is seen strolling the storied grounds. Indeed, just as it is by the Royal & Ancient Golf Club in my part of the world, golf is diminished by the blatant and unashamed misogyny of Augusta National. No rational argument can possibly support a state of affairs that automatically eliminates half the world's population because they don't have penises.

Elling: I'm going to keep mum and enjoy this rant. Don't mind me. Whale away, partner.

Huggan: When rated against such an issue, a mere golf competition -- even one so prestigious -- has to be relegated to a distant second place. Which is not to say that I think anything will change any time soon, even if the CEO at IBM, a major Masters sponsor, is a woman. In fact, this would seem to me to be more of an issue for the company than the club, at least initially. It is hard to imagine female customers being inclined to offer support to a company so closely aligned with such an openly discriminating body as ANGC. So there will be pressure on them to either pull their sponsorship, or be the catalyst for change at ANGC.

Elling: We all understand that it's a private club, and they can make their own rules. But when you open your doors to the public and host a PGA and European tour-sanctioned event, different rules should apply. Playing at courses that exclude an entire race or gender is just not cool. Get with the 21st century, guys.

Huggan: In turn, if IBM does do the right thing, ANGC might just get the message -- finally -- and follow suit. Don't hold your breath, though. The more they are told to do X, the more inclined the jackets will be to do Y. Their famous clothing may be green but their necks are definitely red.

Elling: Your seat in the media center was just moved into the latrine. The men's latrine, of course. The club's first black member was welcomed in 1990? Not that long ago, considering that the Civil Rights Act was signed in 1964.

Elling: When this issue hit the fan 10 years ago with Martha Burk leading the picket line, we all figured it would be settled by now. Or at least I did. Another decade has passed, more of the old-guard geezers have expired, but none of the new blood has pushed this issue along? I understand that the general public greets this topic with a resounding yawn, but that doesn't mean we're wrong or that the point is not worth pursuing.

Huggan: Bottom line: ANGC runs a great tournament. But they are, in so many ways, an embarrassment to the game.

Elling: Spot on. At a time when very bright people are trying mightily to grow the game and stop the skidmarks of folks quitting the sport, doors are still closed to certain part of the population? On Wednesday, I fully expect club chairman Billy Payne to stonewall, obfuscate and deflect -- as each of his predecessors have done. They'll deserve all the flack they get as a result.

Huggan: "I'm sorry, world, we don't discuss anything that might make us look bad in the eyes of almost everyone with a brain."

If you had to put a percentage number on it, where is Tiger Woods relative to truly being back where he was in 2008 or thereabouts?

Huggan: If we give Tiger Woods, circa 2008, 10 points out of 10, the present version is maybe a six. Three-quarters of that four-point drop has occurred on the greens, where Tiger is but a shadow of the man who seemingly didn't know what it was like to miss. And I don't see things getting better any time soon. As someone who used to know Tiger well said recently: "I don't see too many guys in their late 30s starting to putt better."
Elling: I might go as high as an eight, and that's after personally witnessing at least a portion of every official round he has played in the States this year, but there are still some questions to be answered.

Huggan: Given that likelihood that his putting won't perk up, Tiger is almost certainly not going to dominate the game as he did at the turn of the century. He is, in fact, merely one of the better players these days. He'll win events, maybe even the odd major here and there. But he isn't going to be winning multiple majors in one season. No way. No matter how well he hits the ball -- and he has recently shown signs of marked improvement in that department -- he won't run away with events as he has done in the past. Ten-shot wins and the like are the product of extraordinary putting, not supreme ball-striking. And Tiger, as I said, doesn't do that anymore, at least not consistently.

Elling: The thing that impressed me most at Bay Hill, and intermittently at various other stops this year, is the improvement off the tee. Tiger Woods is hitting it straight, for the most part. Of course, at Augusta, that's the least-relevant part of the game. Ask Seve. Or Ollie.

Huggan: Yes, accurate driving helps, of course ... but it is possible to get by without it.

Elling: At the risk of continuing a distressing trend, I have to agree with you on the putter, too. He had six three-putt greens at Augusta last year, two on the final day. Cost him a chance to win. Scar tissue.

Elling: Were you having any deja vu watching the win at Bay Hill? I certainly was. Everybody with a chance to make a move backed up. It was like going back in time to 2000-01.

Huggan: Bay Hill was impressive, but everyone in contention went backward early on Sunday. And the course was set up in a way that all but eliminated the really low score. Both of those factors helped Tiger, but that should not diminish how well he performed.

Elling: At this point, I'd be stunned if he wasn't on the Sunday scoreboard. Think about it -- the guy has contended at the Masters under every possible circumstance, from a bad wheel to a bad marriage. No reason to think that's gonna change now, when he's playing better than at any point since 2009.

Each of you, please identify an under-the-radar guy and detail why you like him at Augusta National.

Huggan: As ever, I am hopelessly biased, but I'm going to keep picking him until he wins the damned thing. So, while I acknowledge that he has yet to show much in the way of form during 2012 and has slipped all the way to 47th in the world, Geoff Ogilvy remains a great each-way bet for the Masters. Besides, an Aussie has to be due. They've won almost everything else worth winning in almost any major sport you care to mention, but a guy from Down Under has never finished first at Augusta National.
Elling: Can the defending champion be under the radar? If your name is Charl Schwartzel, the answer is yes.

Huggan: Ogilvy has the perfect game for the Masters. He hits it miles off the tee. His long-irons have the hang time of a mortar shell. His bunker play is at least the equal of anyone on tour. And, having been brought up on the likes of Royal Melbourne, Victoria and Kingston Heath, he is well used to the fast greens he will encounter later this week. I mean, how can he lose?

Elling: Because you picked him? I like the logic, though. Ogilvy was one of the eight guys tied for the lead on Sunday last year, so that's a pretty good pick, brother. He was the co-leader in the clubhouse until the last three groups came in.

Huggan: Speaking of long-term failure, another Masters oddity is that no European has won at Augusta this century. In fact, no golfer from Great Britain has won any of the four majors since Scotland's Paul Lawrie -– back at Augusta again for the first time since 2004 -- claimed the Claret Jug at Carnoustie in 1999. So, while the Aussies are way overdue, the Euros are just fashionably late. But as we said earlier, they have plenty of possible winners this year. As well as Donald and McIlroy there is Lee Westwood, Graeme McDowell, Ian Poulter, Justin Rose and, if he gets his putter going, Sergio.

Elling: The reason I half-seriously nominate Schwartzel as a "dark horse" is because I don't think he remotely got his due for the way he won that thing last year. As Adam Scott told me, if Phil and Tiger had birdied the last four to win a Masters, they would have erected a statue or named a bridge after them or something.

Huggan: Nah, not Tiger. Wrong color. Phil, for sure.

Elling: Ouch. Anyway, making four birdies in a row, breaking up a board that had eight different leaders? Epic fare from the quiet South African. It had never been done at any major, according to available data.

Huggan: He is pretty dull, though.

Elling: Hey, Vijay is pretty dull. He won three majors. They can't all be as funny as Padraig Harrington. Or remotely as funny as we think we are.

Elling: You mentioned Rose, he'd be another great second-wave pick. Off the top of my head, he's led at Augusta after 18 and 36 holes in the past, and he just won at Doral. Too many good players to pick from. Glad I am not a punter, as you call 'em overseas.

Huggan: Yes, this is the most wide-open event at Augusta National for a long time, unless you're a woman, of course. For them, it's still a closed shop.

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