I'm not going to waste any time selling you on the story – we've got the first major of the year, a timeless course, the return of Tiger Woods, and the glorious rules of Masters television (limited commercial interruption). Clear off your schedule for the next four days.
A-List: Okay, Tiger's only won once in his last seven trips down Magnolia Lane, but let's not act like he's been kicking the ball all over the joint (T6, 2, T2, T3, 1, T22, T15). Just about anyone else in this field would run over their grandmother for that track record, and if he can shake off the rust and somehow get into the chase on the weekend, he's got a huge mental edge on the rest of the Tiger-fearing field. And for once we don't have to worry about prematurely burning up all the Tiger starts – everyone's got 10 in the bank, obviously. I'm not going to roll with him on Thursday, but I want him ready in the bullpen, accessible when needed (I'm almost definitely going to use him Friday).
Ernie Els was the can't-miss kid at Augusta for several years – consider his run from 2000 to 2004, where he never finished worse than sixth but never secured the green jacket. He's fallen on hard Magnolia times since then (47, 27, MC, MC, MC), but recent form means more to me and those two wins in Florida ultimately earn Els the check mark.
If you prefer to make a selection based on performance here, Phil Mickelson is your play, but I don't like a thing about his game right now. Anthony Kim? I've never felt his skill set was an ideal fit for the Augusta requirements (plus he's only been here one other time), and while he did win with his B Game last week in Houston, he's also got a bum thumb that's headed for surgery right after this week. That steers me to other options.
B-List: Lots of choices in this pool, good thing we get four of them. Settle in.
Retief Goosen has been close to a win here before (2002, 2007), and this year he's my pick to get the job done. He's a consistent driver no matter the course setup, he's got the stomach for pressure golf, and he's a dynamite putter on fast greens (his putting at the 2004 U.S. Open at Shinnecock might have been the best I've ever seen). If you lived through a lightning bolt as a child, you'd be cool under pressure too.
Jim Furyk almost feels like a forced play; he's also superb with the flat stick under pressure, and his earlier win this season was a monstrous step forward for his confidence. Furyk has only missed one Masters cut in his career, and he's been in the Top 30 a whopping 11 times in 13 starts. Next step – a late pairing on Sunday afternoon.
I'll go against type a little bit and use a bench spot on Dustin Johnson, no matter that he's only making his second start at Augusta (T30 last year). He's got a fantastic mix of power and distance control, he's better on et greens than many realize (11th in putting average), and he's currently standing first in par breakers and birdie conversion percentage.
Padraig Harrington and Lee Westwood were the two names I considered for the final spot, with Harrington getting the call for two reasons: he's contended more often here, and I trust his putter more in a tight spot. Heck, just a few years ago it was pretty much a concession that Westwood would never be a factor in the majors because of his problems rolling the ball. He's come a long way since then, but this isn't the ideal place for his breakthrough.
Alvaro Quiros? Love the player, hate the local inexperience; just one turn here, a missed cut last season (78-75).
C-List: I know it sounds crazy to leave Paul Casey and Charl Schwartzel off the dance card this week, but there's a legitimate reason for both. In the case of Casey, we're looking at injuries – a bad shoulder and rib kept him out of Houston last week and he openly admits he's not 100 percent. Schwartzel's got the mind and the game to be a factor here for many years, but he's making his Augusta National debut in 2010 and this is the type of course where local knowledge goes a long way.
Ian Poulter takes up one of my C positions; he's got the nerve of a burglar on the greens and that's the type of thing that wins here. He doesn't have a sterling record at the Masters (20 25, 13, 33, 31), but I'm impressed that he's never missed a cut, and you can argue that he's grown up considerably as a player over the last few seasons. And the heck with the defending curse, let's go with Angel Cabrera in the other seat; he's collected four Top 10s over his last nine visits and he's got the perfect attitude for Augusta. What's more unflappable than a duck?
I've said my piece and explained my picks. Now it's your turn in the comments, and feel free to revisit this post all weekend, we'll break down the first major together.