So here we are. Magnolia Lane, Azaleas, Patrons, Amen Corner, the Butler Cabin, the Green Jacket.
The most iconic golf course in the world and the Mecca of golfers everywhere. A timeless venue, littered with history, ready to create new heroes and moments that will be discussed in hushed tones for years to come. Augusta. The Masters.
After months of anticipation, Masters week finally rolls round and with it, the prospect of one of the very best majors in recent memory.
Thus far this season it seems like every week another contender with serious Augusta previous has re-announced themselves as a genuine challenger; the likes of Jason Day, Bubba Watson, Phil Mickelson, Paul Casey and Rory McIlroy all ending long barren spells, not to mention a certain Mr Tiger Woods contending again after a what seemed a career ending back injury.
Allied to this, we’ve got world number 1 Dustin Johnson with unfinished business after a slip down the stairs curtailed his chance before it had even begun last season, world number 2 Justin Thomas seeking his second straight major and 8th victory in his last 35 events, world numbers 3, 6 and 8 Jon Rahm, Hideki Matsuyama and Rickie Fowler looking to break through on the major scene for the first time and world number 4 Jordan Spieth looking to add a fourth major at a venue where he’s had incredible success previously.
Did I mention last year’s Champion Sergio Garcia and his playoff combatant Justin Rose?
With more narratives than an Eastenders scriptwriter would consider reasonable, this year’s edition has all the hallmarks of a classic and I, for one, will be glued to the screen for every second of Sky’s coverage.
I won’t dwell too much about the make up of the course as the likelihood is, if you’ve ever watched golf, played golf or bet on golf, you’ll already be able to picture Augusta in all its magnificence, but its worth just stating a few facts that are worth us considering when trying to find the winner:
Length is a distinct advantage at Augusta.
Augusta famously features very wide fairways, with little to no rough, allowing for the longer players on Tour to take a fairly liberal approach with the driver off the tee.
The average driving distance rank for winners this decade is 17, and with the frequent elevation changes and glass quick greens, it is a significant help if you are thirty yards closer to your target when you’re hitting your approach.
Those that hit a draw here also famously have an advantage due to the natural camber of the land, and whilst players like Alex Noren and Martin Kaymer aren’t ruled out, their task is all the more difficult due to their preferred left-to-right ball flight.
Par 5 scoring is critical.
Of the last 10 winners, 75% of their scoring has been done on the par 5s during their wins, with Zach Johnson famously recording red numbers on all 12 of the par 5s during his victory in 2007 (he finished on +1 for the week showing you how vital playing the longer holes is).
Ball striking is more important than putting at Augusta.
Although Augusta features probably the quickest green complexes in the game, with the stimpmeter often at 14+ as the greenskeepers use a state of the art air filtration system to dry the greens out to whatever effect they like regardless of conditions, the winner’s list here is like a who’s who of players you’d least fancy to make a 10 footer for your life. However, the majority of them are elite tee-to-green players – see Garcia, Scott, Schwartzel, Watson – who were able to find plenty of greens in regulation, thereby allowing themselves the opportunity to miss a few putts.
Predicting an excellent putting performance on any given week is difficult but for those who are outstanding ball strikers week in, week out they often only need above average putting performances to contend for victory.
Limiting mistakes is as crucial as maximising birdie opportunities.
Of the past 10 Masters champions, seven have finished the week as the leader in bogey avoidance and none have ranked worse than 5th. Augusta is the sort of venue where it is very easy to run up a big number (see Ernie Els opening his tournament with a six-putt 9 in 2016, or Justin Spieth dunking two approaches into the water when leading the tournament with seven holes remaining the same year) and players who limit their errors end up picking up significant strokes on the field. Experience at the course is critical for that very reason.
Trends mean that we can rule out half the field.
With the Masters being the only major held every year at the same venue, we have plenty of course form to use as well as a long bank of trends to help us identify the winner.
Some of the most famous trends include: Debutants don’t win (last first time victor was Fuzzy Zoeller in 1979); amateurs don’t win (no amateur has ever won here); old guys don’t win (Jack Nicklaus at 46 years of age in 1986 remains the oldest major champion); players need to have had a previous round sub 70 at the course to win (24 of the previous 27 winners had a round in the 60s at the course already).
With just 87 players in the field, making this year’s edition the smallest since 1997, we can officially narrow the contenders by half by following these trends.
So with the above facts in mind, let’s consider the key protagonists.
Rory McIlroy and Jordan Spieth currently share favouritism on Matchbook at odds of 12.0 at time of writing. The Northern Irishman is seeking the career-grand slam and, despite a run of four consecutive top tens here, in reality he’s not really contended at Augusta since his 2011 meltdown when four shots clear entering the final round. The top tens he picked up were largely back-doored when running into a place on the final day rather than ever being in the mix and despite winning on his last stroke play start at Bay Hill, the concern would be that that was off the back of a career-best putting display when he gained +10 strokes against the field with the flat stick.
If he putts the same way here he’s the very likely winner but it’s tough to repeat those numbers and others appeal more.
Jordan Spieth arrives at the other end of the putting spectrum, having just finished tied for 3rd in Houston despite losing 3.24 strokes to the field putting (which had him 69th in the field on the week). Previously regarded as a wizard with the putter, it’s the sole element of the game letting him down at the moment as he currently ranks 3rd in strokes gained tee-to-green, 3rd in bogey avoidance, 1st in scrambling and top ten in both strokes gained approach and greens in regulation.
Champion in 2015 and runner up the year either side, Spieth clearly loves the course and if the putter even warms up remotely, he could win this going away.
Dustin Johnson (14.0) is next up and feels somewhat forgotten given he’s the world number 1. He was half the price for this last year before withdrawing due to an untimely slip at his rental home, and, WGC-Matchplay result aside, there isn’t much to suggest he shouldn’t be a few clicks shorter this time around. Although his results leading into last year’s tournament were better, statistically his game is still in excellent shape (4th stokes gained tee to green, 2nd bogey avoidance) and he’s not done much wrong, winning the Tournament of Champions and top tens in Dubai, at Pebble Beach and in Mexico. One issue is the curse of the world number 1, with no world leader since Tiger in 2002 capturing the Green Jacket.
Next up in the betting is Justin Thomas (14.5) and Tiger Woods (16.0). Thomas is rock solid, with the only knock being the fact that he has yet to trouble the scorers at Augusta with no sub 70 rounds in his efforts of T39 and T22 thus far. However, he’s continuing to improve each month and now with a major under his belt courtesy of the PGA Championship last season, he rates a real threat.
Woods on the other hand looks extremely short for a guy with just 18 competitive rounds under his belt in 18 months. Yes he’s the greatest of all time but lest we not forget that he last won the Masters in 2005 and he played a further six years in his prime without getting over the line. Golf is harder now and I can’t see it happening for him this week, certainly not at this price.
Justin Rose (17.0) was the unlucky loser last year when priced at 30.0. His Augusta record is sensational and there’s a lot to like about his chances but he’s priced about right this time around and other options appeal more. If you’re looking for a no thrills top 10 bet though, he’s one to side with.
Jason Day (22.0) had a pair of podium in the early part of the decade but oddly, he’s not kicked on from that early promise despite the fact he’s a more rounded golfer now. He rebounded from a tough year personally in 2017 to win at Torrey Pines, a venue he loves, but his improved performances this year have been the result of a slick sharp game and his long play remains a work in progress, ranking just 83rd in strokes gained tee-to-green and 106th in greens in regulation on the year. He’d need to find that part of his game very quickly to win this week.
Three former Masters champions are high in the betting – Bubba Watson (20.5), Phil Mickelson (23.0) and Sergio (35.0).
Bubba has done absolutely nothing wrong this year, winning once again at Riviera and cantering home against Kevin Kisner in the Matchplay final, but he looks well found and short enough to try and claim his third Masters title given the credentials of those around him.
Lefty has age against him as he’d need to become the oldest man to win a major if he were to triumph but he’s shown a redoubtable strength of character to continue mixing with the youngsters in recent times and he’d be as popular a winner of any sporting event I can recall if he were to pick up his fourth Green Jacket.
He looks priced correctly though so I’ll leave him to win on his own terms.
Sergio was popular enough last year (especially with Matchbook Betting Podcast host Emmet Kennedy) when finally breaking his majors hoodoo, but he seems pretty friendless in the market this year, perhaps due to the fact he’s been somewhat short of time in the middle. Despite this, he’s displayed encouraging signs when winning a low grade event in Singapore in January and recording consecutive top 10s in Mexico and at the Valspar Championship, before looking like a real contended in the Matchplay were he was 3-0 in his group before exiting at the first knock out stage. He took his history against him though as defending champions have a very poor recent record in the event with none winning since Tiger in 2002, and only Jordan Spieth really contending in 2016.
There remain four further obvious contenders to mention in Jon Rahm (30.0) , Paul Casey (29.0), Rickie Fowler (31.0) and Hideki Matsuyama (46.0).
With average winning odds for the past six champions of 38/1, there is every chance that the winner this week is in this grouping, though all four would need to break their major ducks to prevail.
Whilst I would love Rahm to be triumphant, I don’t think it’ll be this week as his long game hasn’t shown enough recently to suggest he’ll feature.
On his day, one of the best ball strikers on the planet, the big Spaniard looks a bit out of sorts and a 137th place ranking on the strokes gained approach list suggests that he might struggle to give himself enough opportunities to score.
He also has a tendency to make bogeys and that could kill any chances. He’ll have plenty more goes and come in with better prospects in future years here.
One player who might not come in with better prospects is Paul Casey, as he’s now the wrong side of 40, but he got the win his fine play over the past two years deserved when beating Tiger et al at the Valspar Championship in March.
The Englishman owns a fine Augusta record with three straight top six finishes and statistically is a perfect fit for the track, ranking 2nd in strokes gained tee to green, 17th in bogey avoidance, 7th in scrambling, 17th for greens in regulation and 20th in par five scoring.
Having got the winless monkey off his back in his last stroke play start, he might find more in contention and the odds available look very enticing.
Rickie Fowler is a perennial favourite for bettors and golf fans but looks sadly out of sorts recently. A promising start last week in Houston fizzled out into a tie for 43rd and he now lacks a top 10 in a full field event all year. He’s spoken of trying to work on his swing and that’s not something that’s boded well for many of the games top names. One to avoid until we start to see some form.
Hideki Matsuyama had to sit out six weeks of his Masters prep with a thumb injury but has spoken of a two week tailored plan to get his game in order for his effort this time around. Not worse than 11th in his previous three starts here, the Japanese sensation has the weight of a nation on his shoulders but on his day he’s as good as anyone in the world as shown when lapping the field at the WGC-Bridgestone last August.
After than tournament he went off at 10/1 for the PGA Championship (the last major contested), duly finishing fifth after being bang in contention at half way. Despite the fact he’s been injured lately, the odds seem to have adjusted too far and he’d surely win this event more than once if it was fictionally played 45 times.
Whilst there are other runners with chances, realistically I expect the winner to come from the aforementioned and will be having three cracks at the outright:
- Jordan Spieth – 3 points win @ 12.0 (lay 3 points @ 2.5)
- Paul Casey – 1 point win @ 29.0 (lay 3 points @ 7.0)
- Hideki Matsuyama – 1 point win @ 46.0 (lay 4 points @ 7.0)