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With Tiger missing, who's the favorite at this year's Masters?

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Tiger Woods

It's Masters week, and that means we should all ponder the question: If they hold a Masters, and Tiger Woods doesn't play, does that Masters exist?

What a silly question. No Tiger? No red shirt on Sunday? No quest for a fifth green jacket? Of course it doesn't exist.

Kidding! Kidding! Relax, golf fan.

The Champions locker room has plenty of lockers without the name "Woods" on it, as I was just saying to my good friends Jack Nicklaus, Arnold Palmer and Gary Player.

In fact, Woods' absence could be greeted with sharper-edged query. Like, since Tiger Woods hasn't won a Masters since 2005, who really cares that he'll miss it? He wouldn't have won, anyway.

This Masters figures, like most, to be a donnybrook. There is no clear favorite, and yes, I'm talking to you, Rory (Watch Out, I Shot 65 at Houston Sunday) McIlroy. Fun fact: Rory has played five Masters, and has yet to finish in the top 10.

There are, instead, about 40 candidates to win. And, yes, Rory would be one of them. He's only 24, after all. He's still learning how to genuflect in the cathedral of pines.

If you go by the old "Who's Hot" theory, watch out. The PGA Tour this year has been littered with winners you couldn't pick out of a police lineup, right down to Sunday's surprise winner in Houston, a 33-year-old Australian named Matt Jones. He'd never won before in 155 previous starts. He was so generic, "Matt Jones" almost seemed like a fake name to fool authorities.

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Phil Mickelson is seeking his fourth Masters victory. (AP)

He joins Steven Bowditch and John Senden and Matt Every and Scott Stallings and Kevin Stadler and more as guys who have won and earned the right to the super-secret password to Magnolia Lane, but will arrive with the public believing absolutely zero in them.

Other players who have won in this official 2013-14 golf season come with more swagger: Webb Simpson, who's won a major; and Dustin Johnson, who seems way past due; and Zach Johnson, who already owns a green jacket; and Bubba Watson, the same; and Jason Day, who darn near conquered Augusta National the first time he saw it, in 2011 (finishing tie-2nd), then led as late as the 70th hole in 2013, finishing third.

If you're looking for clues or signs or "Augusta National favors this type of player," well, a big hitter is always a good place to start. And you might want to find someone who putts with knowledge of the greens, as well. But if you study the list of winners since Tiger last won, you could craft pretty much any theory you'd like. For example:

• Phil Mickelson has won twice since '05 (and three overall): Uh, experience matters!

• Zach Johnson won in 2007: Uh, a great wedge game matters!

• Trevor Immelman won in 2008: Uh, South Africans love it here!

• Angel Cabrera won in 2009: Uh, guys who like majors matters!

• Charl Schwartzel won in 2011: Uh, what was that about South Africans?

Adam Scott won in 2012: Australians love it here! Wait … he was the first Aussie ever to win. Uh, long putters matter!

It's a fool's game to guess what will unfold over 72 holes in that green-carpeted wonderland, a place so immaculate as to approximate a Japanese tea garden. And speaking of Japan – 22-year-old Hideki Matsuyama is playing, and he was low amateur in 2011, and he owns top 10s at the U.S. and British Opens, so, you know …

See? Like I was saying. You could pick a million guys, a million times. Go with the "non-American" angle, if you must, since international players thrive here: 18 times since Player in 1978, has an international won. Henrik Stenson? Lee Westwood? Sergio Garcia? Sure, why not?

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Sergio Garcia has four top-10 finishes on the PGA Tour this year. (AP)

Or go macro on your pick, and read the room. The American game is changing, and just as I wrote that sentence, Jordan Spieth must have posted something on Instagram to prove my point. They're young, they fear no Tiger, and they're social-media savvy. The new faces are coming, they're kids like Spieth and Russell (Two Tour Wins Already) Henley and Harris (Hey, I Have Two Wins, Too) English and Patrick (Of Course I'm At Augusta National, I'm Top Five, Baby) Reed.

So just as Augusta National threw open its doors to female members a year ago, let's keep that "Open Door" policy going this week. I'd say the same if Tiger were playing, but he's not, and it turns out they hold the event without him. Just ask Ben Hogan, Sam Snead and Byron Nelson up in golf heaven. They held the event without those guys, too, at some point.

Oh, by the way. I'm sorely tempted to take Garcia for many reasons: Playing excellent, playing more mature, no Tiger to clutter his mind, but what kind of fool would I be to take a putter like him? Naw. Give me Phil. So good at the Masters. Jacket No. 4. Will tie him with Tiger. Feels right.


73-64-69-68 – 14-under 274, Lexi Thompson, champion, LPGA Kraft Nabisco Championship, Mission Hills Country Club, Rancho Mirage, Calif.

On a beautiful Sunday in the Coachella Valley, fate could have not have dialed up a more dramatic split-screen illustration about young golf talent and what can happen to it. There, in the final pairing of the final round of the LPGA's first major of the year, stood Lexi Thompson, 18 years old, delivering on her promise yet again, making it four career wins plus a major now, already the youngest-ever to win an LPGA event, already a success since turning pro at age 15. And there, next to her, stood Michelle Wie, seemingly ancient at 24, who also turned pro at age 15, who had to wait four years for her first LPGA win, who still has fewer wins than Thompson, who was supposed to revolutionize women's golf, move closer to equalizing them with men, and maybe even play in the Masters, and now has been a case study in too much, too soon.

Wait. Before you read that as a burial of Wie, consider that in many, many ways she's a rousing success. She graduated from Stanford. She is well-rounded. She seems quite happy. She's vibrant and intelligent.

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Lexi Thompson smiles after winning the Kraft Nabisco Championship. (AP)

If only she could putt. And if only she could find a different putting stance than that "I Lost My Contact Lens" bend-over special, a terrible look and an equally poor stroke. It might not have mattered, anyway. Thompson's fire burned so intensely, she buried Wie right away with three birdies in her first five holes, planting doubt in Wie and emboldening her own stride along the way.

Lexi Thompson is about 1/1,000th as famous as Wie, and about 1/1,000th as wealthy, too, one might imagine, since Wie signed huge endorsement deals when she turned pro in 2005. Entering Sunday, in fact, Wie has earned $4 million on the LPGA tour, and Thompson $2 million. That was before Lexi got the big money on Sunday.

But the larger point is, Lexi Thompson is the better player, at the younger age, and is the real deal. She qualified for the U.S. Women's Open as a 12-year-old, similar to Wie's preternatural achievements, like darn near winning the Kraft Nabisco at age 13. But Lexi is more complete, and used the showdown on Sunday to run away and hide from Wie, who had to view Thompson with a mixture of envy and admiration.

Wie is so grounded, she probably views it more as the latter. Her walk up 18 with Thompson appeared full of good wishes and sportsmanship. Thompson, meanwhile, sets her sights on winning some more. Get ready. She will.


Anytime we can hear Matt Kuchar's Georgia-drenched accent admonish himself on the 72nd hole, it's usually worth wondering what happened, what would cause the always-pleasant "Kooch" to make a golf swing from the fairway on 18 at the Shell Houston Open, look upward and say:

"That's in the water. Gol-LEE, Matty!"

Golfers call that "self-talk," and it's usually not a good thing. In my past life as a golf writer for the San Francisco Chronicle, I was lucky enough to play a pro-am with Dave Stockton at Sonoma Golf Club. Stockton, just about the nicest guy ever, assessed me after a few holes and said: "We call that self-talk." He paused. "You do a lot of it," he said. Yeah, Mr. Stockton, that's what a lifetime of lack of confidence on the golf course will do to you, right?

It is interesting how golfers always use the third person, too. We've heard Tiger chastise "Woody!" on a number of occasions, and the suggestion is that perhaps an evil twin has taken over their golf swing for the moment. Or, that golf is such a mind-altering sport, players have out-of-body experiences and can stand back and assess themselves, like seeing a ghost.

Anyway, Kuchar still hasn't won in 2014, despite top 10s at the McGladrey Classic last October, at Kapalua in January, at the Sony Open in January and a top 15 at Doral. He made the round of 16 in Match Play, and last week darn near won at San Antonio before a final-round 75. This week, he carried a four-shot lead into Sunday at Houston, saw it fritter away to one shot on the 18th hole, and played from the fairway on 18 to try and make par for the win.

Instead, we got the "Gol-LEE, Matty!" moment as his hybrid sent his golf ball left of the green, and ker-splash, just as he foretold, into the water. He had to scramble to save bogey and get into a playoff, where Matt Jones laughed at Kuchar's misfortune in the cruelest way possible – holing out an extremely difficult pitch over a bunker and over a greenside ridge for the win. It was predestined the cheers for "Kooooooch" would ring sadly hollow on this day.

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Matt Kuchar lost in a playoff to Matt Jones at the Houston Open. (AP)

He should look on the bright side and rest on the old adage, "You can't play defense in golf." Jones made a nearly impossible 42-foot double-breaker for birdie to close out his 66, then chipped in against all odds. Johnny Miller called the putt-chip combo "the two best shots of 2014." So, does Kuchar arrive at Augusta National feeling good about contending? Or feeling awful about blowing these saves out of the bullpen?

Either way, he's earned our Mully o' the Week. Let's go back out to 18 fairway, remind Kooch that the flight from Houston to Augusta would be oh-so-delightful with a winner's check and a big trophy in the overhead bin, have him take a few more deep breaths, tell him there's no such thing as water left, let him drop another one and … give that man a mulligan!


"It's something no one here has ever experienced … it's amazing to see the kids and the energy … I saw some incredible swings … the future looks bright for golf." – Masters champion Adam Scott, on The Golf Channel, watching the "Drive, Chip and Putt" competition at Augusta National Golf Club.

Augusta National Golf Club has come a long way, baby.

It was just 11 years ago that Martha Burk launched a campaign to paint the club as the way she saw most should see it: as a walled-off lair for the entitled, the obscenely wealthy and the Neanderthal. Burk's argument: If the Masters wants to hold one of golf's most famous tournaments, and pledge to "grow the game," what sort of message is having no women members?

Ten years later, Condoleeza Rice became a member. And then, Sunday happened.

ANGC hosted the first-ever "Drive, Chip and Putt" competition, and opened its doors to kids aged 7-15 in a spirited, upbeat competition that saw young boys and girls of many races and creeds competing on golf's most famous American stage. Heck, I even saw green-jacketed members of the club doling out fist bumps and high-fives to kids like it was an NBA sideline.

Who kidnapped Augusta National and substituted "Mister Rogers Neighborhood" in its place?

It was tough to find a critic of the club, or the event, Sunday morning. Most everyone was smiling, the kids walked on air and the club came off looking like Santa Claus in April. Players readying for the Masters – Freddy Couples, Spieth, et cetera – stopped by to encourage the kids, too.

Of course, it also helped that Scott, resplendent in his green jacket earned one year ago, committed time to hand out awards to the kids. Generous and classy with his time, Scott made you wonder if another Masters champ – a guy who's won four times, and who is missing this year's event – would have been similarly giving with his schedule the day before Masters week. Either way, Scott looked good, the club looked good and the kids looked great.


Taxi! To Magnolia Lane!

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