Touch of Masters needed to predict winner at Augusta Norman and Price getting players' votes as favorites


AUGUSTA, Ga. -- Compiling a list of contenders for The Masters every year is usually not too difficult. Figure in a couple of the PGA Tour's hottest players, come up with a few former champions and add some who've been close.

And then there is this year.

A litany of troubles -- from back problems to personal problems to more fundamental problems, such as putting -- have made the 57th Masters almost impossible to predict. Trying to find a favorite is near impossible.

It's easier to pick those who probably won't win.

Perhaps the most prominent is Tom Kite, the tour's leading money-winner this year and all time. Suffering from severe back spasms, Kite's status for today's opening round is up in the air after he has spent most of his time in a fitness trailer this week, trying everything from ice packs to acupuncture.

This was supposed to be Kite's triumphant return to a place that has provided mostly misery for him. But after not even being invited last year, Kite was put back on the list when he won last summer's U.S. Open at Pebble Beach. Talk about adding injury to insult.

"I probably wouldn't have written the script this way," an obviously pained Kite said yesterday. "But I don't think Dean Smith would have written the script that way, but he'll take it."

For a tournament that until last year had been dominated recently by foreign players -- Fred Couples ended a four-year stretch with his victory -- there are few aside from Great Britain's Nick Faldo and Zimbabwe's Nick Price who are being given a chance. Two-time champion Seve Ballesteros also has a balky back. Ian Woosnam hasn't played well since winning here two years ago.

But even Faldo's chances seem to be waning. Since returning home to England last month to be with his wife for the birth of their third child, Faldo's typical steel-trap concentration has been showing cracks. Evidence of that came last week in New Orleans, where the two-time Masters champion and defending British Open champion played poorly.

"The ultimate is demanding something from yourself and being about to do it," said Faldo, who is trying to use his off-season meeting with legend and recluse Ben Hogan for inspiration. "I'm playing for the green jacket."

Couples is playing to get his second straight green jacket, something that has been done only by Faldo (1989-90) and Jack Nicklaus (1965-66). Though he seemingly put his well-publicized divorce (or, as it was called yesterday, "the other thing") in the background by winning last month's Honda Classic, Couples still is not all focused on golf.

"I'm a little nervous about [today]," said Couples, who has been bothered by migraines the past few months. "Last year was a year that I knew I was going to play well every round. This year I don't know quite what to expect. It's been nerve-racking."

So was walking into the dinner for former Masters champions Tuesday night. And having to make a speech in front of some of the sport's legends, including Gene Sarazen, 91.It was then that the magnitude of his victory last year hit Couples.

"Everyone has asked me how it felt, and I didn't have an answer until I walked into that room," he said. "Sitting next to men like Byron Nelson and Gene Sarazen. It was an eerie feeling."

Asked about his chances, Couples didn't sound much like a defending champion. Defensive, maybe. "My chances are as good as anybody's, but by tomorrow they could be less," he said. "I don't feel very comfortable over the ball at times."

So who's going to wear the much-coveted green jacket come Sunday night? Will it be Greg Norman, exorcising the demons of Masters' disappointments? Or perhaps Nick Price, who won his first major at last year's PGA Championship and won the not-quite-major Players Championship last month.

"Nick is on the same kind of roll I was when I won," said Faldo.

Asked to pick a favorite yesterday, Couples had trouble. He finally came up with Norman. "He's probably the pick of a lot of players," Couples said. He then hedged, adding, "If he doesn't win, he'll probably have a very good tournament."

Raymond Floyd, the 1976 champion who knows something about being in the hunt at Augusta, believes that there's really never a long list of Masters contenders anyway.

But he concedes that without a dominant player, as Couples and the now putting-troubled Davis Love III were last year, it's hard to pick. But Floyd will go with Norman, too.

"I would always put Greg on my list of favorites," Floyd said. "He says he's putting it together, and if a player says he's putting it together, I believe him."

If you believe Kite, you get the feeling he has a chance, albeit slight, to make a miraculous recovery by his 1:26 p.m. starting time. But watching him walk stiffly yesterday, you get the idea that he'll have to wait for another chance at winning The Masters.

Kite appeared to be clearly in the role of favorite until he pulled something in his back on a family trip to Disney World last week. Now, instead of putting it together with his record-shattering performance at the Bob Hope Classic, the tour's all-time leading money winner seems on the verge of falling apart.

It is the first significant injury of Kite's 22-year career, and the timing couldn't have been worse. Kite summed up the mindset he will take into today's opening round when someone wanted to know what he thought of his chances at Augusta.

-! "Of . . . playing?" he said.


Where: Augusta (Ga.) National Golf Club

When: Today through Sunday, 72 holes (sudden-death playoff in case of a tie)

CWho: A field of 90 players (66 U.S. pros, 20 foreign pros, two U.S. amateurs, two foreign amateurs)

Defending champ: Fred Couples

Prize money: Purse of $1.5 million, $270,000 first prize

TV: USA, 4 to 6 p.m., today and tomorrow; Channels 11, 9 highlights 11:39 to 11:45 p.m. today and tomorrow; Saturday, 3:30 to 6 p.m.; Sunday 4 to 7 p.m.

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