By Brian Wacker, PGATOUR.COM
PONTE VEDRA BEACH, Fla. -- No one has ever successfully defended at THE PLAYERS Championship, where Matt Kuchar will begin his quest to become the first to do so this afternoon.
With pristine conditions -- sunny skies, hardly a breath of wind -- scoring has been good so far in the opening round at TPC Sawgrass. Will it continue? Here is a look at who and what to watch for this afternoon.
Lee Westwood (1:18 p.m. ET): The Englishman has knocked on the door a few times here -- most recently in 2010 when he was in contention going into Sunday before shooting 74 to finish fourth. He also finished fifth and sixth in 1998 and 1999 and given his ball-striking abilities should be a factor again.
Phil Mickelson (1:28 p.m. ET): As difficult as this tournament -- or Mickelson -- is to predict, Lefty has been largely consistent if nothing else since his win here in 2007. He's finished in the top 25 every other year the last five and for his career has eight top 25s in the event.
Webb Simpson (1:28 p.m. ET): The reigning U.S. Open champion admitted to a lack of confidence earlier this season. Then he finished second at Hilton Head, where he lost in a playoff. He's missed three of four cuts here, however.
Sergio Garcia (1:39 p.m. ET): The 2008 champion (he also finished second the year before) has just one finish in the top 20 since, but he has played well this year with three top 10s. His ball-striking should work well here, but with Garcia it all comes down to how well he putts.
Luke Donald (1:39 p.m. ET): The former world No. 1 finished sixth last year and tied for fourth the year before with all of last last eight rounds and 11 of his last 12 on the Stadium Course at par or better.
Tiger Woods (1:49 p.m. ET): For all his accomplishments, Woods has won THE PLAYERS just once, in 2001. Though he has three wins this season, he has just one top 10 here since that lone victory a dozen years ago.
Matt Kuchar (1:49 p.m. ET):The defending champion has finished in the top 15 in three of the last four years and in 2004 he tied for 16th. This season, Kuchar has four top 10s, including a win.
Brandt Snedeker (1:49 p.m. ET): He was admittedly exhausted after being in contention at the Masters and subsequently missed the cut in Hilton Head. He was also one of the hottest players in the game before getting injured in February. Snedeker has struggled here, missing the cut each of the last four years.
AUGUSTA, Ga. -- Brandt Snedeker broke par for the third straight day to get in position for what could be his first major championship.
The reigning FedExCup champion fired a bogey-free 69 on Saturday to move to the top of the Masters leaderboard at 7 under. Snedeker, who tied for third at Augusta National in 2008, parred his first 12 holes but birdied both par 5s on the back nine and then added virtual tap-in birdie at the par-3 16th to cap things off.
Snedeker won the AT&T Pebble Beach National Pro-Am earlier in the year, which ended a stellar run that saw him finish as the runner-up the previous two weeks and place third in the season-opening Hyundai Tournament of Champions.
He was sidelined by a rib injury after that win on the Monterey Peninsula, though. Snedeker returned to competition at the Arnold Palmer Invitational presented by MasterCard only to miss the cut in his two starts prior to the Masters.
Snedeker is the only player who can overtake Tiger Woods as the FedExCup leader with a win on Sunday. He is ranked a career-high fifth in the world, as well.
By Brian Wacker, PGATOUR.COM
AUGUSTA, Ga. -- The 77th Masters began a couple of hours ago, outlined against a gray April sky that is hanging heavy over Augusta National. Even heavier is the expectation for Tiger Woods to capture a fifth career Green Jacket.
Woods will tee off at 10:34 a.m. ET alongside Luke Donald and Scott Piercy. Here is a closer look at that group, and a couple of other notable ones this morning.
Justin Rose, Brandt Snedeker, Ryo Ishikawa, 9:17 a.m.: As dominant as Sean Foley's prized pupil Woods has been this season, Rose hasn't been too shabby himself. In his three stroke-play starts on the PGA TOUR this year, he hasn't finished outside the top 8, which included a runner-up to Woods at Bay Hill. While he hasn't had a ton of success here -- just two career top 10s -- the one thing that's held Rose back, putting, has at times been very good this season. While Rose has momentum, Snedeker is just the opposite, having arrived here off two missed cuts following five weeks off due to a rib injury in February. Still, Snedeker's short game plays well here and he's contended before, in 2008 when he entered the final round two strokes off the lead before shooting a 77.
Bubba Watson, Ian Poulter, Steven Fox, 10:34 a.m.: Jack Nicklaus, Nick Faldo and Tiger Woods are the only ones to successfully defend here. That doesn't dissuade Watson, though. "As a competitor, as a believer in my game, yeah, I can see pulling it off," Watson said. "It wouldn't shock me. I would still cry, but it wouldn't shock me. The way I look at it, I'm going out there and I want to make the cut because first off, I don't want to have to sit around and give somebody the green jacket. I want to be here on Sunday, playing." Poulter, meanwhile, said earlier this week the Masters is his best chance at a major. Two of the last three years he's finished in the top 10, including in 2010 when he had a share of the lead at the halfway point.
Tiger Woods, Luke Donald, Scott Piercy, 10:45 a.m.: Woods hasn't won here since 2005, but he's been in contention several times since. Only once during that time has he finished outside the top 6 -- last year, when he had a career-low tie for 40th. He's won three times this year and comes into the week leading the TOUR in strokes gained-putting. Donald has had his chances here with three career top 10s. One of those came in 2011. Donald shot in the 60s in his last three rounds that year and was in contention on Sunday until Charl Schwartzel birdied the last four holes to win.
Brandt Snedeker has played just four rounds on TOUR since winning the AT&T Pebble. (Redington/Getty Images)
By Mike McAllister, PGATOUR.COM staff
AUGUSTA, Ga. -- You see the smile. The outgoing personality. Brandt Snedeker never has a mean word for anybody, right? Always positive, always cheerful, right?
OK, maybe not this week. Not while preparing for the Masters.
"I'm on edge," Snedeker said Tuesday, "and I will not be off edge until I hit the first tee shot."
Snedeker, who enters Augusta National ranked No. 2 in FedExCup points after a fast start to the season, has made 21 career starts in majors. The closest he's come to winning is a tie for third at the 2008 Masters and at last year's British Open.
At age 32, he's learned how to pace himself during a hectic week at a major, but particularly at Augusta National when even playing a practice round, he said, "is taxing."
That's why Snedeker's support group knows to give him a wide berth.
"It's an edgy week," he said, "Everybody kind of handles me with kid gloves this week and gives me a little extra slack because you're on edge and try to keep the distractions to a minimum."
"If you ask my caddie, my teacher, I have a very short string this week. ... I think every professional golfer has it. We have a way of venting to the right people. I don't want to vent to my wife, so I vent to my agents, I vent to my caddie, I vent to the people that I can that really have to sit there and take it and can't really give me anything back."
One thing Snedeker doesn't have to stress about is his healthy.
After winning the AT&T Pebble Beach National Pro-Am and finishing second or third in three other starts, Snedeker was sidelined with a strained intercostal muscle in his rib cage. He returned at the Arnold Palmer Invitational presented by MasterCard but missed that cut and also his last start at the Shell Houston Open.
But he said Tuesday that he's 100 percent healthy, and he hopes the forced time off will prove beneficial.
"I'm as fresh as I can ever remember being for a Masters," he said, "and it's hopefully going to pay dividends on the weekend."
No player putted better in 2012 than Brandt Snedeker. (Martin/Getty Images)
By PGATOUR.COM staff
No one can dispute the fact that Brandt Snedeker and Steve Stricker are among the best putters on the PGA TOUR.
Last year, Snedeker ranked first on TOUR in strokes gained-putting en route to winning the FedExCup, and currently ranks 11th in that category this year. Stricker has yet to play the minimum number of rounds this year to qualify statistically (he's played just seven; the mininum is 14), but unofficially he ranks second. And of course, Stricker gave a well-documented putting tip that Tiger Woods as put to good use lately.
This week's first two rounds of the Shell Houston Open offers golf fans a chance to watch Snedeker and Stricker match their putting talents head-on, since those two will play in the same group, along with another former FedExCup winner, Bill Haas. They tee off at 2 p.m. ET on Thursday and 9 a.m. ET on Friday.
Although Haas doesn't have the putting credentials that Snedeker and Stricker have, he certainly can hold his own in terms of hitting greens in regulation.
Haas currently ranks sixth in GIR, hitting 71.58 percent. Snedeker, meanwhile, is first on TOUR at 74.07 percent. And Stricker, if he had enough rounds to qualify, would be first at 76.19 percent.
Hitting greens has always been a big part of Haas' game -- he ranked 21st in the category in 2010 and 11th in 2011 -- and he seems to have found his groove again after struggling in that category last season.
Snedeker, meanwhile, has made a dramatic improvement in that area. In the previous four years, he never anked better than 113th in GIR, and last year he ranked 132nd.
By Brian Wacker, PGATOUR.COM
ORLANDO, Fla. -- Brandt Snedeker thought his game would be rusty after five weeks off due to a rib injury.
He was right.
Snedeker struggled to a 4-over 76 Thursday at the Arnold Palmer Invitational presented by MasterCard, where he made three bogeys, two birdies and a triple bogey.
Playing his first round of competitive golf since winning at Pebble Beach last month, Snedeker struggled to find any rhythm.
After opening with four straight pars, he missed the green left on No. 5 and failed to get up and down for par. Three holes later, he missed the fairway right and played back into the fairway before missing a 25-footer to save par.
There were some highlights for Snedeker -- a birdie on the sixth and another on the 16th -- but after another bogey on No. 10 things went from bad to worse.
Snedeker rinsed his tee shot on the 17th then missed the green left after taking a drop. It took him three more to get down and the damage was done in the form of a triple bogey.
The FedExCup leader coming into the week, Snedeker also sees his streak of 10 straight rounds in the 60s come to an end.
By Brian Wacker, PGATOUR.COM
Brandt Snedeker, who has been sidelined with a rib injury since winning the AT&T Pebble Beach National Pro-Am in early February, will return to action next week at Bay Hill.
"We're going to go to work and get back after it," Snedeker's coach Todd Anderson said from Sea Island, where Snedeker will arrive on Thursday and spend the weekend.
Snedeker initially felt soreness on the left side of his ribs at the Humana Challenge in partnership with the Clinton Foundation. He underwent treatment, then finished second in back-to-back weeks at the Farmers Insurance Open and the Waste Management Phoenix Open before his win at Pebble Beach, where the injury resurfaced during the opening round.
The FedExCup leader and AVIS Player of the Month for February, Snedeker also plans to play the Shell Houston Open in two weeks.
"We'll just be real careful and make sure we don't go too fast," Anderson said. "We'll spend a lot of time on short game and putting and by Sunday he should be hitting full shots."
Last summer, Snedeker injured the right side of his ribs and missed a month, including the U.S. Open. With the Masters looming, he's been more cautious this time.
Snedeker has been at home practicing his short game the last couple of weeks, according to Anderson, and this year has put more of an emphasis on major championships.
"He's always loved the Masters and felt he could compete there because of the emphasis on short game and putting," Anderson said.
In 2008, Snedeker was two strokes off the lead going into the final round at Augusta National before shooting 77 to finish third. Each of the last two Masters, Snedeker has finished in the top 20.
He has also finished in the top 10 twice at the U.S. Open and last year was third at the British Open.
"He's achieved winning on TOUR, winning the FedExCup and the next step is to compete at and win major championships," Anderson said.
The week after playing in Houston, Snedeker will go back to Sea Island to work with Anderson before arriving at Augusta National the Saturday before the tournament.
Snedeker will play a practice round Sunday of Masters week with friend and Tennessee businessman Toby Wilt, who he teamed with to win the amateur portion of the AT&T Pebble Beach National Pro-Am earlier this season.