The anticipation and excitement that builds ahead of arguably one of the greatest sporting events of the year is unlike any other. It may be down to the seven month wait over the winter since the last golf major or maybe the world class field assembled year upon year, giving rise to some of the game’s most iconic moments. It could simply be the stunningly beautiful surroundings at one of the greatest golf courses in the world. The list could go on.
But this year it feels like excitement has been stepped up a notch by the way in which the best players in the game have been performing lately. The world’s top 12 have so far accounted for 9 of 2017’s 14 tournaments and yet this is the one that they have all been trying to peak for so it is highly possible that we will see one of the strongest leaderboards in history come the final round on Sunday. What better way to enjoy watching that round than by having the chance to win some money along the way! Sky Sports will be showing as much of the action as they legally can over the four days and the BBC will have highlights packages and some live action on Saturday and Sunday night. The weather forecast is currently for thunderstorms on Wednesday followed by a windy Thursday and Friday before things settle down over the weekend.
While some readers would have backed Danny Willett last year I have no doubt that many more were left cursing Spieth after his quadruple bogey 7 all but did for his chances on the par 3 12th. Willett returns as defending champion after a forgettable time on the golf course in the 12 months since his win and while it will be a great experience for him, making the cut will be an achievement under such a spotlight given his form. Spieth arrives looking to banish last year’s demons although he has fared better than Willett since having won in Australia and at Pebble Beach in February. As ever there are stories every which way you look through the field but none would be bigger than Phil Mickelson looking for a swan song at 46 years old, the same age as Jack Nicklaus when he won his final Masters in 1986.
Augusta National is a Par 72 brute standing at 7435 yards and playing every inch of that and more with fairways mowed back towards the tees and therefore minimising run out off the tee. Most fairways are tree-lined either side with the famous magnolias forcing players to shape the ball off the tee. There is still plenty of space to be found on the fairways though for those who can find the appropriate ball-flight. The greens as always will be set up fast and usually start at around 13 on the stimpmeter. Many of them are a little on the small side and all are severely undulating. That makes them not only hard to putt on but very hard to hold with approaches. Players will look to attack with as much loft in their hands as possible and those with a high ball flight will find that easier than most. Augusta really does test every part of the game but of course there are some areas that have proven more important historically and it is worth considering these.
With Augusta having been the host course since 1933, we have a massive bank of course form to look at and the last major changes occurred in 2007 giving us a plethora of recent course form for much of the field. This means in addition to simple course form, we can use stats and trends as powerful analytical tools to help us find an edge and subsequently some value. With these stats however it is important to differentiate between those that are worthwhile and those that are more a combination of coincidence and speculation.
The main attributes are there for everyone to read in all the many previews that are available this week. Driving distance (DD), greens in regulation (GIR), scrambling, putting and moving the ball right to left off the tee are all known to be crucial and will be hugely important this week. But with modern stats available, these are quite broad areas of the game now and with a deeper look into the last 10 editions we can pin-point some other key stats around Augusta.
Since Tiger proofing measures began around the course it is true that driving distance has been key but lately mid-range drivers have been finding ways to get competitive. Danny Willett only ranked 32nd for driving distance last year with Spieth as low as 52nd in 2015. In fact the last 10 winners only averaged 22nd for DD so while length can certainly be advantageous it isn’t quite a bombers paradise.
Hitting greens in regulation however, is make or break around Augusta. The last 10 winners averaged 6th place for GIR and we have seen the likes of Lee Westwood pound green after green on his way to eight top 11 Masters finishes despite struggling with the putter. The fast, undulating greens mean only the most accurate of ball strikers can hit and hold them consistently over 72 holes.
Scrambling is another key stat and even more so if the course plays firm and fast. Those same 10 winners averaged 7th for scrambling and if you look back at every Masters winner then they all had excellent touch and vision around the green. Greens will be missed and the rough around them will be thick in places so think twice about backing anyone with a suspect chipping game.
Putting is obviously important but with regards to a normal Masters with a winning score of -8, then lag putting from distance is perhaps more crucial than being able to hole birdie putts from 15-25ft. In recent times the two most important stats than can sometimes be overlooked are Par 4 Scoring and Bogey Avoidance. With four reachable par 5s then par 5 scoring often overshadows the par 4s but that is all about the big -hitting side of the game that Sky Sports love to go on and on about. Of course they can play a huge part in any round with the risk/ reward nature but ultimately there are only four of them and there are 10 par 4 holes. Last year Danny Willett played the long holes in level par which was 54th best from the 57 who made the cut. He ranked 1st in par 4 scoring and comparing the last 10 winners makes for interesting reading. They averaged 11th for par 3 scoring, 4th for Par scoring and just 16th for par 5 scoring. While it is true that most winners rack up a good score on the par 5s, they are some of the easiest holes on the course so the majority of the field will be going low on them. There is a far bigger differential on the Par 4s and therefore being able to score on the long difficult par 4s is of the utmost importance.
Nobody needs me to explain to them that hitting lots of birdies combined with avoiding bogeys makes for a winning formula but the ratio can change somewhat on different courses and of the two, bogey avoidance is considerably more key at the Masters than making lots of birdies. Again for our 10 year period, the winners averaged 7th in birdie average but a remarkable 2nd for bogey avoidance. It is very much worth looking at these two stats when considering where to place your money this week.
The leading contenders
Dustin Johnson (Odds to win – 7.0) – Masters Record: 30-38-38-13-MC-6-4, 2017 form: 6-2-MC-3-1-1-1
Won his last three starts and playing the best golf of his career. Experts said 4 years ago if he sorted out his putting and course management he would win everything in sight. He has now sorted out his putting and course management and is winning everything in sight. Additionally, he is also cutting his short irons and he has been peppering flags for fun from inside 175 yards. Obviously deserving of his place at the head of the market but is hard to fancy at just 7.0. The weather may well be key to his chances, if the course remains dry then his length will be negated slightly and I feel even his improved putting may well come up short on the trickiest greens around if they play fast.
Jordan Spieth (9.6) – Masters Record: 2-1-2, 2017 form: 3-3-9-1-22-12-30
It’s not difficult to see Spieth ending his career with 5 or 6 green jackets. Key to how many will be how quickly he can bounce back after last year’s disappointment. Everything we have seen so far in his career suggests that it won’t be a problem for him but the golfing world will still be watching very closely when he arrives on the 12th tee on Thursday. Despite some suggesting that he has an average long game his position at the top of the PGA Tour’s Greens in Regulation stat rightly highlights that opinion as nonsense. Augusta sets up perfectly for him and I have never seen anyone look as comfortable on the slick bentgrass greens, even on his debut in 2014. Contrary to DJ, Spieth’s chances will be improved if the course remains dry such is his touch on fast greens. Very much the man to beat this week given the only two men to finish above him at the Masters both own green jackets.
Rory McIlroy (9.0) – Masters record: 20-MC-15-40-25-8-4-10, 2017 form: 2-7-4-30
He arrives here for his 3rd attempt at the Career Grand Slam but preparations haven’t been ideal with an injury keeping him side-lined for the bulk of February and March. He is surely too good a player not to win a Masters at some point however the media narrative that Augusta suits him perfectly is a little skewed. His long game allows him to dominate the course tee-to-green but he has averaged 30 putts per round over his 30 rounds at Augusta and an improvement will be required to turn that around this year as he ranks 112th in strokes gained: putting so far in 2017. Would obviously be no surprise to see him in Butlers Cabin on Sunday night but I’m not convinced he should be quite as close to Spieth and Johnson in the betting.
Hideki Matsuyama (24.0) – Masters record: 27-54-MC-5-7, 2017 form: 2-27-33-1-MC-75-45-51
His peerless form at the turn of the year has since been overshadowed, firstly by Justin Thomas and then by Dustin Johnson. He is on a relative form slump of late but his ball-striking ability will make him a solid top 10 betting proposition for years to come at The Masters. Expected to go well but will need November’s hot putter if he is to win this week.
Jason Day (24.0) – Masters record: 2-WD-3-20-28-10, 2017 form: 12-MC-5-64-23-WD
When arriving fit and fully focussed then Jason Day has the ideal combination of power, accuracy and touch required to win around Augusta and he has shown that with several good performances already. However the personal problems that he has been struggling with in 2017 will surely leave him unprepared and with his mind elsewhere. If he does play and starts well then he may be one to consider in running as we know he has the major winning mentality now.
Rickie Fowler (23.0) – Masters record: 38-27-38-5-12-MC, 2017 form: 36-MC-4-1-16-12
Has had a good 2017 so far with a win at the Honda Classic in February but may well have been stroked off several short lists last week as he finished both his 2nd and 3rd rounds poorly when the Houston Open looked there for the taking. Possesses only an average Masters record but still young and has all the tools to compete providing he can stay out of the trees as he missed a lot of tee-shots left in Texas. Showed the world how much he enjoys major golf when he finished inside the top 5 of all four in 2014. Straight off the back of a disappointing weekend he looks a little short at 23.0.
Jon Rahm (28.0) – Masters record: N/A , 2017 form: 34-1-16-5-3-2-10
To coin a racing term, Rahm is probably the only unexposed player in the field. He is expected to go right to the top of the game and having risen to world number 12 in just 16 professional starts it is easy to see why.
Would need to be every bit as good as his reputation however to become the first debutant to win since Fuzzy Zoeller in 1979. His towering ball-flight should help him flourish at the course and he will no doubt get the insider’s take from close friend Phil Mickelson which can only help. But the Spaniard ranks 161st in strokes gained: putting and I think we saw just enough weakness in that area during the final of the WGC Match Play to have doubts about 28.0 being any sort of value.
The rest of the pack
Away from the market leaders there are some very favourable prices about for the 2nd and 3rd tier of players. They aren’t quite being spoken about as much as Dustin Johnson or Jordan Spieth but equally they will be arriving expecting to play well.
Marc Leishman is a name that more and more people are becoming familiar with and when he is on his game he doesn’t have any real weakness and is a very accomplished golfer. He has shown over the last 3 or 4 years how comfortable he is contending in majors and he has three top 3 finishes, one of those coming at Augusta in 2013. He also isn’t afraid of winning as he now has three wins on the two main Tours with the most recent of those coming just three weeks ago. The Aussie sits 2nd in strokes gained: putting, 9th in bogey avoidance and 26th in Par 4 scoring. He is playing well and looks to be one of the relative outsiders with a great chance this week at around 70 to win.
Bill Haas has some very sneaky good Masters form but given what an unfashionable player he seems to be, I’ll bet many aren’t aware of it. His record reads; 26-42-37-20-20-12-24, so while he doesn’t have a top 10, he also hasn’t finished outside the top 42 in seven appearances either. From a trends point of view he fits in quite nicely as he is 34 years old, he is having his 8th look at the course, he owns a previous top 20 and he is arriving in good form.
I’m not sure whether he putts well enough in truth to come out on top after the back 9 on Sunday but he is currently playing some of the best golf of his career and his run to the semi-final of the WGC Match Play will have given him a huge confidence boost. A very accurate player, he ranks 19th in GIR, 2nd in scrambling, 3rd in bogey avoidance and 9th in par 4 scoring. That’s an excellent combination for any course but especially Augusta so I’m expecting a big week.
Louis Oosthuizen is another man with strong Augusta form who also fits a lot of trends this week. He is 34 years old, is playing here for the 9th time and he has finished in the top 25 the last three years in addition to his play-off loss in 2012. As a former Open Champion the South African always commands respect and if he starts well then he will be hard to shake from the leaderboard. In recent times his first round has all but done for him in the majors. After shooting a 77 in the spotlight alongside Tiger Woods at the 2015 US Open he then went on to shoot 66-66-67 to finish just one shot shy in 2nd place. Maybe worth leaving until after the first round, but he looks to be a very dangerous player in the field with 2017 form simmering.
Arguments could also be made for Justin Rose, Paul Casey, Brandt Snedeker and Tyrrell Hatton amongst others. Justin Rose has gradually learned how to play the course and while his long game will no doubt be firing there are still enough question marks about his short game to expect him to find at least one too good. Paul Casey flatters to deceive so often but he has finished 6th and 4th the last two years so will arrive in his typically confident mood. Brandt Snedeker is a bit of a course specialist and if conditions are hard and fast only Jordan Spieth will be better equipped to deal with the greens. Tyrrell Hatton just keeps on playing well and surprising even his biggest fans. His stats aren’t fantastic but he is a deadly putter whose worldwide form suggests he will play well despite making his debut. He may be a value alternative to Jon Rahm in the top debutant market.
Having covered those who are equipped to go well this week, equally it could prove wise to dodge players with poor Augusta records. Henrik Stenson and Martin Kaymer for whatever reason have never got to grips with the course and that looks unlikely to change now. Similarly it may well pay to dismiss those who have a suspect short game. Rafa Cabrera-Bello will enjoy the tee-to-green test but even with his chipping having improved greatly, he won’t be comfortable around the aprons and fringes and will do well to finish higher than the 17th on his debut. Tommy Fleetwood is another ball-striking machine but while he is one of the most likeable players on Tour, he is also one of the poorest putters. His chipping is good where conditions suit but fans of the young Southport man may be better served by saving their money for his tilt at The Open in July. Fleetwood makes his debut and I can see him struggling on and around the greens. Francesco Molinari is another European that fits into the same category and with Masters form figures of 30-MC-19-MC-50 he too can be readily dismissed.
With the head of the market featuring three players in single figures this means there are also a lot of very large prices around in the outright market. While some of these are warranted there are often many players over priced for various different reasons. The Masters has been no place for rank outsiders winning over the last few years but there have been several big prices that have flirted with the leaderboard during the four days.
The specialist nature of Augusta means that the same types of players return to the course and perform year after year with Fred Couples and Lee Westwood being two recent examples of players massively out playing their odds. In order to profit from such things then it will require the favourites to start modestly but if that is the case then there can be great trading potential. In terms of specialists in the field this year then you probably needn’t look much further than Fred Couples or Lee Westwood again but there are a whole host of quality PGA Tour winners in the field that are available at massively inflated prices. The 2009 winner Angel Cabrera showed signs of life last week in Houston and is also an interesting runner at a course he loves.
Brendan Steele stands out at odds around 340 as that simply must be too big for a player that hasn’t missed a cut since July and sits 8th in the Fed Ex Cup standings. He won as recently as October and he has a very solid all-round game The downside is that he is making his debut but anything over 300 is still double the 150/1 available with the bookmakers and he looks to be a great piece of value if nothing else. If he starts well then the market should respect him as a two-time winner who has really upped his game over the last year.
James Hahn is the world number 80th ranked golfer and yet he is grouped with the veterans and also-rans down around 850 to win. Hahn has two wins on Tour but not just anywhere as they came at Riviera and Quail Hollow showing that he clearly enjoys tough, championship layouts. Riviera is also visually similar to Augusta and a host of players have either won or performed well at both venues. He isn’t even playing too badly with form figures of 58-28-41-49. It’s his 2nd look at the course too having missed the cut by just one shot in 2015 after calling a penalty on himself. Has the mentality to hang around should he start well so there looks to be plenty mileage in getting on board at the odds.
In addition to trading potential, the Masters is also a great event for general in-play betting. It isn’t a tournament where winners come from off the pace and the opening rounds of the last 10 winners read; 70-64-69-69-69-67-68-68-71. That makes it worthwhile to focus on players towards the top of the leaderboard once proceedings are underway. Moreover, of the 40 rounds played by those 10 winners, only 5 of them were over par and Zach Johnson accounted for two of those in difficult conditions in 2007. Therefore history tells us you can all but write off the players who shoot over par on Thursday.
So there we go, the Masters problem is solved. We only have to find an in-form player who hits it relatively far, hits a lot of greens, has a great touch around the greens, and is a solid putter, especially from range. They must also have experience of the course, play par 4s strongly and be extremely adept at keeping bogeys off the card. Then when they shoot 74 on day 1, we start all over again with someone on the leaderboard!