US Masters Switcher:
Mike Norman tells us why the Europeans are best left alone at this week's Masters, and selects five players to back in the popular Top Five Finish market...
After a sensational few years for European golf it doesn't come as a huge shock to see the rest of the world 'fighting back' somewhat.
Since the turn of the decade, Europeans (or European Tour based players) have won more than half of the 12 Majors played, Team Europe have won back-to-back Ryder Cups, and the likes of Lee Westwood, Martin Kaymer, Luke Donald, and Rory McIlroy have reached the summit of the world golf rankings.
But in the last 12 months - arguably starting with Bubba Watson's success here at Augusta - there's been a gradual change in power. It's now the Americans and South Africans who seem to be dominating, so much so in fact that Paul Krishnamurty questions whether this is the weakest European challenge ever ahead of this week's US Masters.
Tiger Woods is leading the American revival having regained the number one player in the world slot, though he's been backed up superbly on the PGA Tour this year with his compatriots winning every single event, while on the European Tour, no less than six different South Africans have already won this season.
So it makes sense then, with no European winning at Augusta this century, to expect the recent trend to continue and stick with the Americans and South Africans. Below are five players who hold outstanding claims to finish in the Top Five come Sunday evening.
It's difficult to envisage either Schwartzel or Louis Oosthuizen not challenging this week so hopefully I've picked the correct one. From a form perspective the selection ticks all the right boxes; in his last four starts on the European Tour alone he's recorded a win, a second, a third and a fourth, while in his two starts on the PGA Tour (non WGC events) he's finished third and ninth.
Only a final round 75 knocked Schwartzel down to 16th in his last outing in America, but when you consider that was his worst strokeplay finish in 2013 then you can see why he should give you an excellent run for your money. This likeable South African has a fine Major record too that includes a run of seven consecutive championships without finishing outside the top 18. And of course he donned the Green Jacket here just two years ago. He's arguably a better player now and can't fail to go well.
This long-hitting American started the season with a win in the Hyundai Tournament of Champions but then withdrew the following week with a bug, and seemingly lost his form completely. But the saying "form is temporary, class is permanent" definitely applies to Johnson as he demonstrated in Houston last time. In fact his final round at Redstone was easily his best ball-striking round of the season, and if he can carry the form of that fourth place finish into Augusta he'll surely challenge.
The worry is that Johnson has never finished better than T30 at the Masters, but his overall Major record makes impressive reading; five top-10 finishes since 2009 including two top-fives. The long holes should be at his mercy this week, it's how he plays the shorter holes that will be key to his chances, but if he strikes the ball like he did in Houston then he'll be bang in contention.
It's incredible to think that Kuchar finished as the leading amateur at Augusta 15 years ago before falling off the golfing planet for the best part of 10 years. But this forever-smiling American has really found his game in the last three or four years which has enabled him to establish himself as one of the most consistent players in the world as well as a huge contender to don a Green Jacket.
Kuchar has recorded four top-10 finishes in Majors since 2010, including a third place finish here last year, so his pedigree for the big tournaments is not in question, a belief confirmed by his WGC Matchplay victory six weeks ago. That victory is Kuchar's season highlight to date, but he's made the cut in all eight events that he's played, and it's very rare that he doesn't climb on to the leaderboard at some point during a tournament.
Van Pelt's form this season is nothing to shout home about, but he's a player that I believe is suited to Augusta and he might just find an extra gear this week. He ranked fifth in Total Driving in 2012 - a stat that takes into account both Driving Distance and Driving Accuracy, so if he can rediscover that form off the tee he'll be a big player. I backed him in each of the last two years here when he finished eighth and 17th, so fingers crossed he can improve slightly on past performances and contend over the weekend.
The second of my South African selections is a player that I have quite a hunch for this week. Sterne is a fantastic player when on song and currently leads the Race to Dubai standings on the European Tour. He got through a few rounds at the WGC Matchplay six weeks ago before finishing a very respectable tied-12th in the WGC Cadillac Championship. He's an accurate iron player who can putt well on his day, and the fact that he finished 25th here in 2008 when nowhere near the player he is now has to bode well. He's a big outsider, but he's certainly not without a chance.