10 players to watch at the Masters

Tiger Woods
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Is it crazy to think that Tiger Woods could contend this week at the Masters? T.J. Auclair doesn't think so.
By T.J. Auclair
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Series: Golf Buzz

Published: Tuesday, April 07, 2015 | 10:10 a.m.

Finally. It's here -- the season's first major championship, the Masters.

It's been eight long months since the last major, when Rory McIlroy took the PGA Championship at Valhalla. Since then, anyone who loves golf has been dying for the Masters to get here.

Aside from the fact that it's, well, the Masters, there are so many other reasons to be excited for this week. Tiger Woods is back. Rory McIlroy has a chance to complete the career grand slam and win his third consecutive major. Bubba Watson could make it three wins in four years. It's Ben Crenshaw's final Masters. The list goes on.

RELATED: Masters field | 20-somethings to watch | First-timers | Full coverage

Since the majors are so special, it didn't seem fair to compile just a "5 players to watch" list this week. With that, here are 10 players to keep an eye on at Augusta National.

10. Tiger Woods
Best finish in 2014-15 season:
Missed cut at Waste Management Phoenix Open
Reason to watch: Am I crazy? Maybe, but hear me out. Did you see any of the highlights of Tiger from his practice session at Augusta National on Monday? I've never seen him like that. He looked human instead of robotic. He was smiling, dancing (that was weird), embracing old friends, signing autographs, acknowledging fans' well wishes and just overall, seeming to have fun. The circus that comes with being Tiger Woods didn't look like a chore for once and -- from what we saw of his sketchy chipping that forced a self-imposed leave of absence -- it didn't look sketchy at all. OK, so it was just Monday, you say, and Tiger hasn't won the Masters since claiming his fourth green jacket in 2005. Fair enough. But when he does tee it up at Augusta National, no matter the state of his game going in, Tiger contends. Including the four victories, Tiger has racked up 13 top-8 finishes in the Masters since 1997. One of those was a T4 in an abbreviated 2011 season in which he made just nine starts. Since this major edition of "5 to watch" includes 10 players, I just can't count him out at Augusta National.

9. Jimmy Walker
Best finish in 2014-15 season:
Won the Sony Open in Hawaii and the Valero Texas Open
Reason to watch: Over the last two seasons, no player on the PGA Tour has been better than Walker. Since October of 2013 when the Tour's wraparound schedule began, Walker has collected five wins and a total of 15 top 10s. He heads to Augusta having won in his last start -- a home game -- in San Antonio. His confidence is high. In his first crack at the Masters a year ago, Walker tied for eighth. That's a solid finish for a Masters rookie. I think he improves on it this year.

8. Patrick Reed
Best finish in 2014-15 season:
Won the Hyundai Tournament of Champions
Reason to watch: A year ago after Reed won the WGC-Cadillac Championship at Doral, we all laughed at his "top-5 in the world" statement. Ironically enough, a win from Reed at Augusta National this week would make him, you guessed it, the No. 5-ranked player in the world. To succeed on the PGA Tour, one has to have that belief in self. Not everyone is as forthcoming with that belief as Reed, but boy can he play. He won two NCAA championships while playing for Augusta State, so it's safe to say there's no major he'd rather win more than the Masters in his college town. He missed the cut in his first Masters start in 2014. This year he improves on that significantly.

7. Dustin Johnson
Best finish in 2014-15 season:
Won the WGC-Cadillac Championship
Reason to watch: In five starts at Augusta National, Johnson's best finish is a T13 in 2013. It's the only major in which he's failed to record a top 10. Something has got to give there. Length is a huge advantage at Augusta National and their are few in the game as long as Johnson. Since returning from a controversial six-month leave of absence, Johnson has been on fire. In six starts since the beginning of February, he has four top-10 finishes, including a playoff-loss at the Northern Trust Open and the win at Doral. For a long time now, Johnson has been one of the most talented players on the PGA Tour. The only thing missing from his resume is a major. This might be the week that all changes.

6. Adam Scott
Best finish in 2014-15 season:
T4 at the WGC-Cadillac Championship
Reason to watch: The 2013 Masters champ -- the first-ever Australian-born player to win a green jacket -- is flying under the radar this week at Augusta National. And that's just the way he likes it. With all eyes on the likes of Tiger, Rory McIlroy, Jordan Spieth and Bubba Watson, Scott can just go about his work. You've got to go back to 2010 to find the last time Scott went a season without at least two top-10 finishes in majors. At this point in his career, it's all about the majors for Scott.

5. Henrik Stenson
Best finish in 2014-15 season:
Second at the Arnold Palmer Invitational
Reason to watch: Here's another player flying under the radar at Augusta National. Stenson -- the No. 2-ranked player in the world -- is still in search of his first major championship win. The Masters is the lone major where Stenson has failed to record a top 10. He's poised to change that. Stenson has finished no worse than T4 in his last three starts and heads to the Masters well rested, having not teed it up since a runner-up finish at the Arnold Palmer Invitational.

4. Jason Day
Best finish in 2014-15 season:
Won the Farmers Insurance Open
Reason to watch: Day has pretty much put it out there that there's no tournament he'd rather win than this one. He tied for second in the 2011 Masters and was third in 2013. Perhaps the only problem facing Day at Augusta National is harnessing his desire to win and not letting it get in the way of his play. Just go out and play -- don't overthink it. Day has proven on two occasions recently he's got all the tools required to win a green jacket. Is this the week he does it?

3. Jordan Spieth
Best finish in 2014-15 season:
Won the Valspar Championship
Reason to watch: While Walker has been the hottest player on the Tour over the last 24+ months, no player has been hotter the last month than the 21-year-old Spieth. In nine starts this season, he has already amassed six top-10 finishes, including a win at the Valspar Championship, followed by back-to-back runner-up finishes -- all of those in his last three starts. In his first Masters start a year ago, Spieth nearly became the tournament's youngest winner. He had a share of the 54-hole lead, but settled for a tie for second -- a remarkable Masters debut. This year, he has his sights set on improving just one position. And with the way he's played lately, you'd have to think anything less than a Masters win would be disappointing.

2. Rory McIlroy
Best finish in 2014-15 season:
T9 at the WGC-Cadillac Championship
Reason to watch: McIlroy has the chance to complete the career grand slam this week at Augusta National. It would also be his third consecutive major victory and would have everyone ecstatic about the possibility of a "Rory Slam" come June at the U.S. Open. His play early on this season has left something to be desired for the world's No. 1 player. But I think there's a good reason for that. Since winning the PGA Championship last August, McIlroy has spent the last eight months obsessing about this week. He's fired up for this week.

1. Bubba Watson
Best finish in 2014-15 season:
Won the WGC-HSBC Champions
Reason to watch: For my money, Watson is deservedly the favorite this week at Augusta National. He's the defending champ and has won the tournament in two of the last three years. Because of that success, Watson's confidence has been sky high and it's shown in his results. Five starts this season have yielded four top-10 finishes, including a win, a runner-up and a third in his last start -- a month ago -- at Doral. He comes to the Masters this week well rested and knowing that, at this moment in time, there may be no player in the world whose game fits Augusta National more than his own. That's got to be a nice feeling.

Here's how my five to watch fared at last week's Shell Houston Open:

5. Matt Jones -- Missed cut
4. Phil Mickelson -- T17
3. Justin Rose -- T37
2. Sergio Garcia -- T37
1. Matt Kuchar -- 70    



T.J. Auclair is a Senior Interactive Producer for PGA.com and has covered professional golf since 1998, traveling to over 60 major championships. You can follow him on Twitter, @tjauclair.