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Short Game: Five dark horses at Augusta Add to ...

While it’s true the Masters has been dominated by golf’s very best players over the years, there have been a few outliers who’ve upset the azaleas – especially during the past decade.

Angel Cabrera was ranked No. 69 in the world when he won in 2009, Zach Johnson No. 56 in 2007. South Africans Trevor Immelman and Charl Schwartzel were both No. 29 when they slipped on their green jackets.

Tiger Woods, Rory McIlroy and Phil Mickelson might be the fashionable picks this week but here’s five men who have a chance, if not a high world ranking.

They’ve been in good form this year, have momentum on their side, the right type of game for Augusta and a good track record at the major - or all four.

Henrik Stenson (No. 41): The Swede is enjoying a career renaissance after a couple of unimpressive and injury-plagued years plunging down the world ranking. He surged into the top 50 late last month with a pair of top-10 finishes on the PGA Tour, including a runner-up result at the Shell Houston Open in his last-ditch bid to qualify for the Masters. He’s won on a big stage before (the 2009 Players Championship) and led the Masters last year through 17 holes. (Never mind the quad on the 18th.) He has momentum and a big game that can handle Augusta.

Bill Haas (No. 29): The 2011 FedEx Cup champion has a ridiculous five top-10 finishes in his past six starts on the PGA Tour, with only a few faulty final rounds keeping him out of the winner’s circle. If he learned anything from his late letdowns and can run through the finish line Sunday, the even-keeled four-time PGA Tour winner should be in position to add a major to his resume.

Martin Laird (No. 56): Only five times in Masters history has the champion won the week before as well. The Scot, who captured the Valero Texas Open title last Sunday, is the only man in the Masters field this year who can become the sixth. It’s not a stretch. After a slow start to 2013, Laird obviously found something in San Antonio and possesses the style of game (long, high, right-to-left hitting) that plays well at Augusta.

Padraig Harrington (No. 52): The Irishman had some lean years after hoisting three major championship trophies in a 13-month period in 2007-08. Too much tinkering with his swing. But he’s found some stability lately and is coming off a tie for 10th place at the Texas Open. He has four other top-10 finishes this year, including three on the European Tour, and tied for eighth place at the 2012 Masters. Wearing glasses now, can he see winning big ones again?

Thorbjorn Olesen (No. 40): Regarded as Europe’s next big star, the 23-year-old Dane is making his Masters debut. But he’s not exactly out of his element. He’s been a pro for five years, has won on the European Tour and held his own against Tiger Woods when they played together in the third round of the Open Championship last year. He’s had two top-three finishes in Europe this year and was seventh at the Arnold Palmer Invitational last month against a world-class field. Another breakthrough could be ahead.

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MISSING INVITATION: No one would ever say the Masters is an easy tournament to win. The difficulty of Augusta National Golf Club and its intense inherent pressure make it an extremely daunting challenge.

But that said, its field is the smallest of any of the major championships (94 players are invited this year) and the bottom end is filled out with entrants with almost no chance of winning, let alone contending (elder past champions, a handful of amateurs etc.).

What’s more, the Masters’ rigid eligibility requirements inevitably leave out many players who are in great form leading into the Masters but don’t quite meet the criteria. Just the top 50 in the world ranking, for example, get in. The No. 51 player is capable of winning any week anywhere, but he doesn’t get the chance at Augusta National.

Here are five players who are hot at the moment but won’t be at the Masters. Would any of them put on the green jacket next Sunday? It wouldn’t be outside the realm of possibility given their momentum, but we’ll never know.

Billy Horschel: The 26-year-old American posted a runner-up finish and a tie for third spot in the PGA Tour’s Texas swing over the past fortnight, but he needed to win one of them to get into the Masters. He had a great chance Sunday at the Valero Texas Open, starting the final round with a two-stroke lead. But he was lapped by Martin Laird, who shot a course-record 63 to steal the trophy (and the last ticket to Augusta).

Marcel Siem: The pony-tailed German won the Trophee Hassan II on the European Tour on March 31 and thought he had climbed within the top 50 to earn a Masters berth. But he came a fraction of a ranking point short. The Texas Open invited him to play so he flew overseas to take one last chance at qualifying. Needing a win Sunday, he tied for 10th place despite opening the tournament with 76.

Kiradech Aphibarnrat: The husky Thai won the Maybank Malaysian Open in late March against a strong field that included Luke Donald, Charl Schwartzel and Edoardo Molinari. He also placed fourth the week before in another European Tour event. But his world ranking of No. 85 as of last Monday wasn’t high enough.

Thomas Aiken: The South African had a win and a tie for 11th place on the European Tour last month, and two top-15 finishes the month before. In his victory at the Avantha Masters, he shot 10-under 62 in the third round. But, like Aphibarnrat, his ranking (No. 87) didn’t cut it.

Scott Brown: The American won the Puerto Rico Open in March, but the tournament held opposite the Accenture Match Play Championship is one of the few on the PGA Tour that doesn’t include a Masters ticket in the victor’s prize package. He’s had three other top-30 results this year and has won more than $800,000 (U.S.) Too bad he won’t be at Augusta. He grew up just across the Georgia state line in North Augusta, S.C.

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JUST A SUGGESTION: Golf Digest asked several tour players how they’d change Augusta National for the better, if that’s possible.

Many suggested eliminating the rough or “second cut” as it’s called (to allow the ball more roll, thereby punishing off-line shots) and mowing the fairways toward the green rather than the tee box (creating more rollout on tee shots and fewer mud balls).

But Canadian Mike Weir, the 2003 Masters champion, chimed in with one of the few fan-friendly ideas. Here’s what he said, from the April edition of Golf Digest:

“I wouldn’t mind them allowing cellphones one day early in the week. Monday or Tuesday would be perfect. The Masters is always very concerned about how their policies will affect the players, and in this case I don’t think the players would mind one bit. Think how proud people would be to show their pictures off to their friends and family and how many emails would be sent out with those pictures attached to them. It would be cool to give the people, many of whom have come great distances and at high expense, a chance to created even more permanent lifetime memories.”

Most PGA Tour events allow cameras during practice rounds and some have experimented with permitting cellphone use in designated areas during all days. But the Masters has been stridently opposed to phones on the grounds. Fans are searched as they enter and anyone caught on the course with a phone can expect to be evicted, with a lifetime loss of their badges.

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HE SAID IT: “It’s so quiet. One thing I appreciate is that it’s so wide open, you can enjoy the course, get your bearings and have no distractions. It’s like a member’s day on the course, and there are a lot of them out here today. There’s no pressure. And you can actually take time for yourself. You can see forever. You can look around, soak in the atmosphere, enjoy the moment and take it all in, because it really is the calm before the storm.” -- Adam Scott

The Australian, alone in the locker room, putting on his shoes before his practice round, describes the mood Sunday at Augusta National to masters.com.

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BY THE NUMBERS: Martin Laird became the 94th and final invitee to the Masters this year by winning the Valero Texas Open on Sunday. That’s a typical size. The field has exceeded 100 just three times in the tournament’s history, with the record 109 in 1962. The fewest was 42 in 1938 and 1942.

 

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