By Steve Silverman-
(CBS) A lot of sports fans pay attention to golf during the majors.
The rest of the year often can be ignored, but after CBS signs off on the NCAA championship game, it’s all about the Masters.
At least it is this year.
This should be a Masters to remember. Tiger Woods is the clear favorite in the tournament because he is dominating the game once again. He rose to the level of the No. 2 golfer in the world last year, just behind wunderkind Rory McIlroy, who seemed like he belonged among the greats himself. But the 2013 season has belonged to Tiger. He has already won three tournaments and has reclaimed the top position in the world rankings from McIlroy.
Many of Woods’ critics are not impressed. They won’t give him credit for being “back” until he starts winning major championships again. He has been stuck on 14 since he defeated Rocco Mediate in a playoff to win the 2008 U.S. Open.
He had a few personal difficulties and injury problems that you may have heard about.
But Woods is now in top form as he gets ready to take on Augusta. He is attempting to take home his first green jacket since 2005. If he is successful, it would be his fifth Masters title.
Having Woods in top form would make the Masters a scintillating event in itself, but there’s a lot more to this year’s tournament at Augusta.
McIlroy has struggled this year. He finished second in last week’s Valero Texas Open, two strokes behind winner Martin Laird after firing an impressive 66 in the final round, but he has not played consistently this year, failing to string great shots and rounds together. McIlroy won four times last year and has won a major (U.S. Open in 2011 and PGA Championship in 2012) in each of the last two years. He certainly has the game to rise to the occasion.
Love him or hate him, Phil Mickelson has been formidable at Augusta. Throughout the majority of Tiger’s dominance on the tour, Mickelson has been chasing him and coming up short. But Lefty certainly has had his moments and it seems that most of them have come at Augusta.
Mickelson has three Masters championships (among his four majors) and his go for broke mentality means he is going to risk throwing away a decent score if he can execute a spectacular shot with the tournament on the line.
That’s a lot of guts – at least from a golf perspective – but it doesn’t always bring home the cash. Mickelson has also played well this year and he should be a factor. However, it comes down to a battle between Tiger and Lefty, it seems likely that Woods is stronger mentally and will find a way to come out ahead.
There are plenty of supporting characters, including Brandt Snedeker, Keegan Bradley and defending champion Bubba Watson.
Snedeker has played better golf than anyone on the tour other than Woods this season. He has a complete game and knows the course as well as anyone. Bradley plays as if he had just put his tongue in an electrical socket. He has an array of waggles, half-swings and starts and stops. He will converse with the fans. He’s also a top-notch golfer who has a real chance to win.
Watson won this tournament last year because he hit his long ball straight and made enough putts to defeat Louis Oosthuizen in a playoff. If the charismatic member of the “Golf Boys” is in contention, the crowd may end up giving him more support than any other golfer, including Tiger.
This is Georgia.
The feeling here is that Woods will not let this opportunity slip away. His game is complete, he has no injury issues and he appears to have a happy personal life with Lindsey Vonn by his side. If this is going to be his Masters, he will be within two shots of the lead after the first round, and run to the front before the halfway point. He won’t give it up in the final two rounds.
But this year’s Masters offers at least one side story that deserves your attention. A golfer named Tianlang Guan from China will participate. Guan is 14-years-old and is the youngest player ever to compete in the Masters.
He is the youngest golfer to participate in a major since “Young” Tom Morris played in the British Open in 1860.
Guan defeated the best amateur golfers in Asia to earn his spot. He is 5-9 and 145 pounds. He may be able to hit the ball 240 yards while his competitors hit it 310 yards or more. However, the rest of his game is shockingly good.
Guan is not a contender, but he is someone to keep your eye on if you want to see golf’s future.
Steve Silverman is an award-winning writer, covering sports since 1980. Silverman was with Pro Football Weekly for 10 years and his byline has appeared in the Wall Street Journal, Playboy, NFL.com and The Sporting News. He is the author of four books, including Who’s Better, Who’s Best in Football — The Top 60 Players of All-Time. Follow him on Twitter (@profootballboy) and read more of his CBS Chicago columns here.