2012 Dark Horses
It’s not difficult to pick a favorite from a list of the game’s hottest stars, but who thought about Charl Schwartzel to win the Masters last year or about Angel Cabrera to win two years ago? For every Arnold Palmer or Ben Hogan that wins here, there’s a George Archer or a Trevor Immelman, whom nobody saw coming. The real fun is picking a not-yet-famous player to win who then goes on to build on his Masters victory and grabs for himself a place among the game’s best. For an example, Tom Watson was no favorite coming into the 1977 Masters. He had won a British Open two years earlier, but this was the first time Watson took on the great Jack Nicklaus coming down the stretch, and he beat the Golden Bear. Watson then went on to make a habit of it. So for those of you who prefer to root for the underdog, here’s our list of Not-So-Dark Horses.
Photo by Zachary Boyden-Holmes
There were hundreds of great shots struck on the PGA Tour in 2011, but none more exciting, or more critical, than Bill Haas’s blast out of a water hazard within a foot of the cup on the second playoff hole of the Tour Championship at East Lake in Atlanta. One hole later, he defeated Hunter Mahan to win the season-ending championship and its $1.44 million check. In doing so, he pulled ahead of Web Simpson in the yearlong FedEx Cup by a tiny 15 points and pocketed another $10 million check. The 29-year-old Greenville, S.C., resident hasn’t done any better than a tie for 26th in his first two Masters appearances, but he hasn’t ever come here after cashing a $10 million check either.
Photo by Ross Taylor
Charles Howell III
Augusta’s own Charles Howell III earned his way back to the Masters Tournament with six top-6 or better finishes last year, which brought him into the top-30 in FedEx Cup points last fall, thus qualifying him for the Tour Championship and the Masters. Howell is back at his hometown tournament for his fourth Masters, the first time since 2007. He admits he may try too hard in the tournament that he has dreamed about since he took up the game at the age of seven, honing his skills just up the hill from Augusta National at Augusta Country Club. He’s back now in good form (he has already finished second at the Sony Open in Hawaii) and is preparing for his dream accomplishment. Won’t the galleries burst if he gets into contention on the back nine on Sunday? One of the nicest guys on Tour deserves a fairy tale finish.
Photo by Jackie Ricciardi
What is this with Northern Ireland? Graeme McDowell won the 2010 U.S. Open. Rory McIlroy succeeded him last year, Darren Clark won the 2011 Open Championship at Royal St. George’s and there are more prodigies coming from the country that makes up only six counties atop the Republic of Ireland. McDowell has seven victories on the European PGA Tour and scored the winning point for Europe in the 2010 Ryder Cup. His U.S. Open win put him in the company of Jack Nicklaus, Tom Watson, Tom Kite and Tiger Woods as Open winners at Pebble Beach. As of late January, McDowell was coming into form as they say in the British Isles, with third-place finishes in three of his last six tournaments. McDowell is an athlete who has the mental and physical skills to withstand pressure—like the kind you find on the back nine in Augusta.
Photo by Michael Holahan
Hunter Mahan was the golfer who surrendered the winning point to Graeme McDowell at the 2010 Ryder Cup—after a great match that came down to the end. He also came down to the final stroke at the 2011 Tour Championship when he lost a three-hole playoff during which Bill Haas got it up and down out of a water hazard. Mahan had 10 top-10 finishes in 2011 that also included a second place at the AT&T at Pebble Beach and he finished seventh in the FedExCup and 19th in the World Golf Rankings. His Masters career started off very well when he was invited for the 2003 tournament a month before his 21st birthday on the strength of a runner-up finish to Ricky Barnes in the 2002 U.S. Amateur and went on to finish 28th. Mahan has a very good history in Augusta and it would not surprise veteran patrons to see him slip on the wearable trophy at the end of the week.
© PGA TOUR
Great putting combined with extra length off the tee is the recipe for success at Augusta National. In mid-February 2012, Tour sophomore and Clemson grad Kyle Stanley was leading the U.S. Money List with that combination—plus a significant portion of intestinal fortitude. He blew a five-shot lead and lost a playoff to Brandt Snedeker at the Farmers Insurance Open in January, but a week later he shot a brilliant final round 65 at the Waste Management Phoenix Open to win by a stroke—his first PGA Tour victory. This will be his first Masters, but it can be done. Ask Fuzzy Zoeller. And Stanley will have many in the galleries cheering for him, most of them dressed in that distinctive orange and purple.
Photo by Zachary Boyden-Holmes
Bubba Watson earned his second and third PGA Tour victories in 2011, the Farmers Insurance Open at Torrey Pines by a stroke over Phil Mickelson and the Zurich Classic of New Orleans in a playoff with Mark Wilson. He has not won a major, but he reached a playoff in the 2010 PGA Championship before bowing to Martin Kaymer. In his win in San Diego last year Watson led the field in both greens in regulation (81.9 percent) and driving distance (316.6 yard average). Now that sounds like a recipe for the Augusta National.