Wesley Petersen: Another duel at Augusta?
The past two Masters tournaments have ended in play-offs and I'm betting on a hat-trick in 2014.
In 2012, South Africa's swing king Louis Oosthuizen lost to Bubba Watson in a duel after 72 holes of competition and last year Adam Scott became the first Australian to try on the green jacket after a shootout with Angel Cabrera.
I like play-offs. In as much as four days of golf is enough of a test of skill and will, often there is very little between the final pair on a Sunday.
I'm not saying stroke-play is not a perfectly good determinant of form and ability over four rounds, I'm simply saying it's great to see how players respond to a match-play situation after an unforgiving Sunday at Augusta National.
Look, it's going to be close on Sunday, within three strokes is a given, but I think odds are we're going to see a two-way tie. The quality is just that good and balanced in my opinion.
Tiger Woods, who won't be at the Masters this year due to a back injury, grabbed a record 12 stroke victory in 1997. Since then there has been no triumph by more than three strokes.
Here's a quick stats run-through on winning margins in the 16 years since Woods tamed Augusta, while the course feasted on the rest of the field.
The most common finish since 1997 is a two-stroke victory. There have been five. The least common is a three way play-off. There has only been one, with Cabrera winning the Mexican stand-off in 2009. Only twice has the winner won by a single stroke after 72 holes. This brings us to two-way play-offs. There have been four, which is equal to the number of three stroke victories between 1998 and 2013.
So if we do see a play-off, which two players are likely to cross swords?
Matt Kuchar is the 'hot' player right now. He lost in a play-off to Matt Jones in Houston over the weekend and the week before tied for fourth in Texas, where he shot a 65 in the third round, but fell away on the Sunday. Six top tens in nine events, makes him a very consistent performer on tour. Kuchar has real pedigree, great form and is a good bet for a first major win (although he has won the 'fifth major' - The Players in 2012). Why not this week?
There are two significant factors that will count against Kuchar at Augusta. He's been struggling to close out on Sundays and his driving distance is close to average at 281.9. Still, I think being tied for third at Augusta two years ago shows he can play on the Bobby Jones layout.
Now, who will throw down the gauntlet to Kuchar?
I'm looking to another quality player never to have won a major. I'm looking to Sergio Garcia to step up as a contender.
I can hear some gasps of disbelief. I know there are several factors counting against the Spaniard, not least being his history at Augusta National. It's a course that has, how can I say, 'broken' him in the past.
Garcia took issue with the layout itself in 2009 when he faded into insignificance on the Sunday. In a media interview afterwards Garcia said about Augusta, "I don't like it. To tell you the truth, I don't think it's fair and you know it's just… It's too tricky. Even if it's dry you still get mud balls in the middle of the fairway. It's too much of a guessing game."
The reporter then asked him what could be changed. "I don't care. They can do whatever they want. It's not my problem. I just come here and play and then go home."
In 2012, there was more evidence that the trip down Magnolia Lane is too much for Garcia. He was one stroke off the lead after two rounds, but then carded a 75 to ruin his chances of an elusive major. After the round he reportedly told Spanish media: "I'm not good enough. I don't have the thing I need to have. In 13 years I've come to the conclusion that I need to play for second or third place." Garcia was reportedly not only talking about the Masters.
So El Nino, who many expected to rack up major titles, remains without one, although, like Kuchar, he did win The Players, in 2008.
It may seem like Garcia has the least hope of a major title at the Masters, especially since Europeans have not won the year's first major since Jose Maria Olazabal in 1999, but I think Garcia currently has the game and form to make a charge.
He's driving well in terms of distance, averaging 297.6 on the PGA Tour. His putting has also improved, helping him to four top tens in six events this year. He leads the scoring averages and perhaps, more importantly, but not surprisingly, is the best scrambler on tour.
Augusta always seems to call on invention and creativity to find and play the green. Think Tiger Woods' chip-in on the 16th in 2005, Phil Mickelson's shot from the pine needles around a tree on the 13th in 2010 and Bubba Watson's hook shot off pine needles on the 10th in 2012. I think this is where Garcia can shine, provided he takes current form through four rounds this week.
He was the first round leader at the Masters last year with a 66, before falling away and making a fourth round 70 to finish tied for eighth. So, just maybe Garcia has put his Masters demons behind him.
The thing is, I think Garcia's expectations are not set too high and that, combined with form that is heading towards the potential he showed early in his career, could lead to the right balance of confidence for Augusta National.
The same would apply to Kuchar, with his recent tournament form being tempered by soul crushing Sundays. He'll have confidence in his game, but be well aware that a week of hard work can easily be erased by a poor, suicidal shot that draws the exclamation: "Golly, Matty!" (That's what Kuchar exclaimed when he found the water on the 18th to allow Jones to force a play-off and eventually win the Houston Open.)
So, if Kuchar and Garcia faceoff in a play-off on Sunday, who would walk away in a spiffy new jacket?
Honestly, I want it to be Garcia and I think he has the clutch game to outgun Kooch. Of course this is a bold prediction and these two might not even feature all week. But if there are to be two gunslingers 'walking ten paces at dusk' on Sunday, I reckon they are among the favourites to do so.
Wesley Petersen is KFM sports anchor. Follow him on Twitter @WesleyPetersen.