The first major of the year is already upon us, The Masters. A tradition like no other, players, some new some old, will make their way down Magnolia Lane, in the hope of a special week. Whether it is the first time or the 25th time, players will still be brimming with excitement, as they tee it up at Augusta National.
One player who will not get to enjoy that feeling, for the second consecutive year is none other than, Tiger Woods. The four-time Masters winner has still not recovered from his latest setback of the back injury that has limited him to just 11 starts since his last appearance here, in 2015.
Despite the unfortunate absence of Woods this year, there is still plenty of intrigue ahead of what will be the 81st renewal of this wonderful tournament. The World No.1, Dustin Johnson comes into Augusta with three straight wins under his belt, and with two top-6 finishes in his last two Masters outings, it is hard to see a Sunday without Johnson heavily involved. As a result, Johnson is the worthy 7/1 favourite, ahead of Rory McIlroy (8/1) and Jordan Spieth (17/2).
Spieth has enjoyed a steady 2017 so far, and as such has kept his place at the head of the betting. Also a huge factor in Spieth vying for favouritism is his form figures here which read, 2-1-2. A back-nine meltdown, notably at the par-3 12th, cost him the chance to defend his title last year. With a win at Pebble Beach already under his belt in 2017, the Texan will be hoping to make it two wins in four starts in this event.
Danny Willett was the beneficiary of Spieth’s collapse last year, winning on just his second Masters start. The Englishman became the third player in the last six renewals to win on his second start, a feat that both Spieth (2015) and Charl Schwartzel (2011) achieved before him.
McIlroy, who suffered an injury during the SA open back in January, has come back firing on all cylinders. Despite his early exit at the Match Play, McIlroy will be full of confidence as he continues his quest to complete the Grand Slam. In his last two stroke-play starts since returning from injury, he has finished T7 at the WGC – Mexico Championship and T4 at the Arnold Palmer Invitational. With three top-10’s in his last three starts at Augusta, McIlroy will be hoping that Green Jacket he has long lusted for, will finally be his come Sunday.
Hideki Matsuyama, Jason Day and Rickie Fowler round off the big-six at 22/1.
Matsuyama has struggled since the most recent of his four wins this season, which came at the Phoenix Open. His last four starts have resulted in finishes of MC-25-45 and a group exit at the Match Play. He does however have top-7 finishes on his last two starts at Augusta, and has missed just one cut in five appearances.
Day on the other hand has problems off the course, which explains his inconsistent play of late. The Australian announced at the Match Play two weeks ago that he was withdrawing to be with his mother, who was undergoing an operation for lung cancer. He admitted he has found it difficult to concentrate on the course, understandably during this terrible time, and as such it is hard to tell how prepared he will be, if he does tee it up this week.
The Course and what it will take to win
Augusta National, 7,435 yards, Par 72
Thanks to being the only major that returns to the same course each year, we have plenty of course form, historical stats and trends to delve into.
As always Par-5 scoring will be the focus of many again this week. Every year I highlight Zach Johnson’s scoring on the Par-5’s during his 2007 win and this year is no different. Despite winning with a +1 winning score 10 years ago, Johnson was a staggering 11 under par on the Par-5’s that week. He did not reach a single one of these holes in two, but recorded 11 birdies and 0 bogeys.
Willett won here last year though, finishing level par on the Par-5’s over the course of the week, getting the job done elsewhere en-route to his -5 winning total. Here are the last five winners’ Par -5 Performance so you can see how it related to their winning score.
Willett (2016) Winning score: – 5 Par-5 performance: E (54th)
Spieth (2015) Winning score: -18 Par-5 performance: -12 (4th)
Watson (2014) Winning score: -8 Par-5 performance: -8 (5th)
Scott (2013) Winning score: -9 Par-5 performance: -5 (35th)
Watson (2012) Winning score: -10 Par-5 performance: -8 (8th)
What appears to be more important than scoring on the Par-5’s is the, Par-4 scoring and Bogey Avoidance combination. Of the ten Par-4’s, six of them are 450+ yards, making the Par-4’s here tougher than your usual course. Here are the last fiver winners’ performance on the Par-4’s and their Bogey Avoidance ranking.
Willett: Par-4 Performance: -3 (1st) Bogey Avoidance: 1st
Spieth: Par-4 performance: -3 (2nd) Bogey Avoidance: 3rd
Watson: Par-4 Performance: +1 (4th) Bogey Avoidance: 1st
Scott: Par-4 Performance: -5 (1st) Bogey Avoidance: 1st
Watson: Par-4 Performance: +2 (8th) Bogey Avoidance: 3rd
Here are the top-5 of those qualified, in each of the above category on the PGA Tour this season, with their ranking in brackets.
Par 5 Performance: Brendan Steele (3rd), Pat Perez (4th), Hudson Swafford (5th), Mackeznie Hughes (9th), Hideki Matsuyama (11th)
Par 4 Performance: Justin Thomas (1st), Jon Rahm (2nd), Hideki Matusyama (4th), Rickie Fowler (5th), Brendan Steele (6th)
Bogey Avoidance: Adam Hadwin (1st), Bill Haas (2nd), Jordan Spieth (3rd), Rickie Fowler (4th), Dustin Johnson (5th)
Other keys at Augusta have always been what players have done on and around the greens, but Putting looks slightly less important than Scrambling. Here are the last five winners ranking in Putts Per Round and Scrambling.
Willett: Putts Per Round: 4th Scrambling: 1st
Spieth: Putts Per Round: 3rd Scrambling: 10th
Watson: Putts Per Round: 16th Scrambling: 5th
Scott: Putts Per Round: 27th Scrambling: 3rd
Watson: Putts Per Round: 37th Scrambling: 2nd
When players such as Scott and Watson have won here, they may not have putted better than the field, but they were certainly up there in terms of Scrambling.
Bill Haas just edges Adam Hadwin in terms of Scrambling on the PGA Tour this season, with Rickie Fowler just behind also. Phil Mickelson leads the Tour in Putts per Round, averaging 27.50, which is slightly better than Matthew Fitzpatrick (28.00) in 2nd.
There are no Strokes Gained: Putting stats available at Augusta, but Tyrell Hatton ranks 1st on Tour in that department, ahead of Marc Leishman (3rd), Fitzpatrick (4th), Russell Henley (6th), Hadwin (7th) with both Alex Noren and Fowler in 9th.
You will have to Scramble a lot less if you hit Greens in Regulation, obviously and here is where each of the last five winner’s ranked in terms of Greens in Regulation for the week.
With none of the last five winners ranking outside the top-6 for greens hit on the week, this is key part in the recipe for succcess at Augusta.
Dustin Johnson leads the Tour in Greens in Regulation, hitting 75.25% which is slightly better than Jordan Spieth (3rd) and Shane Lowry in 5th.
With all this and much, much more taken into account, here are my picks for the 2017 Masters.
Phil Mickelson 30/1 (Betfred 1-5 1/4 odds) 1.5pts e/w:
Mickelson is going to have to buck some trends in order to win here, but if anyone can, he can.
Notably, Mickelson would have to be the first of the last 19 winners to win here a year after missing the cut. That particular trend doesn’t bother me in Mickelson’s respect, with the three-time Green Jacket winner having a clear affinity with this course. That missed cut last year was just his third in 24 appearances at Augusta and as such I believe it was almost an anomaly.
Before his lacklustre effort in a weather-affected, Shell Houston Open last week, Mickelson was in fine form, making it to the quarter-finals of the Match Play (his tied best performance in the event) after finishing T7 at the WGC – Mexico Championship.
I am more than happy to overlook the finish last week, purely because I see last week as a tune-up for Phil, rather than him going for the win.
Despite not having a single win since his Scottish Open/Open Championship double back in 2013, I think Mickelson still has plenty left in the tank. His efforts at the 2016 Open Championship, where he went toe-to-toe with Henrik Stenson on the final day, enough evidence for me. The 3-shot winning margin for Stenson slightly flatters the Swede, with the pair going back and forth right up until the 14th hole, where Stenson went on to make three birdies in a row, including a 50ft putt off-the-green on 15.
His putting is in great shape (1st in Putts per Round and 17th in Strokes Gained: Putting whilst he also ranks 2nd in Strokes Gained: Around the Green and 49th in Scrambling. His short game looks in fine fettle leading into this week and if anyone knows these greens and run off areas, it is Phil.
Although he doesn’t stick out statistically in terms of Par 4 Performance (63rd), or even in Greens in Regulation (195th), his history around Augusta gives me confidence he can better his season’s numbers this week. He ranks 23rd in Par 5 Performance, so if he can just lift his game on those Par 4’s this week, I am confident of another special week for Lefty.
At 30/1 there are obvious concerns, but also plenty of reasons to side with the Augusta veteran. Fast approaching 47, Mickelson would actually break Jack Nicklaus’ record as the oldest Masters winner this week, something I doubt is lost on him.
Justin Thomas 40/1 (StanJames 1-7 1/5 odds) 1pt e/w:
After missing cuts at both the Honda Classic and the Valspar Championship, Thomas has slowly drifted in terms of price and attention, but I believe he possesses all the tools to build on his debut (T39) last year.
Thomas called his former Alabama team-mate, Lee Knox as soon as he qualified for the Masters last year, organising to stay with him throughout the week. The advantage of doing so, was Thomas managed to go out on practice rounds with Lee’s father, Jeff who we all know very well.
Knox is the non-playing marker at Augusta National, and if required (when an odd number of players make the cut) often beats his playing partners, although his score is never official. Knox, a businessman is a fine player, holding the course record (61) from the Members tees, at Augusta. Knox’ experience is invaluable and Thomas has again enlisted his help, ahead of his second Masters start.
Jimmy Johnson, Thomas’ caddie also believes the now 4-time PGA Tour winner is in much better shape this time around. Johnson, speaking of Thomas said “He won those (three) tournaments by having patience. At CIMB, he was 4 over through 13 holes the first day and then birdied the last five holes. That gave him a chance to win, and then he did win. He didn’t see the need to force anything when things weren’t going well. He’s gotten so much better at that.” Johnson also followed with “He learned he doesn’t have to be so aggressive. He’s aggressive by nature, but he knows now he can dial it back and still win.”
Despite his recent missed cuts, Thomas did finish T5 in the WGC – Mexico Championship, so it is not as if he is wildly out of form, he is just lacking the consistency he was showing, when winning earlier in the season. A dip in form was inevitable, given just how well he was playing, especially when going back-to-back in Hawaii.
Statistically, Thomas ranks highly in three big areas, sitting 1st in Par 4 Performance, 12th in Putts Per Round and 30th in Greens in Regulation, all of which are important here.
With a year’s experience under his belt, Thomas will be looking to improve on what he would consider a mediocre debut. Of course making the cut at Augusta is no small feat, but a 76 in Round 1, and 78 in Round 3 counteracted good rounds in both Round 2 (73) and Round 4 (71). It is perhaps promising that his best round come on Sunday, showing signs that he may well have got to grips with the course by the end of the week.
For someone who has won three-times this season, and is currently ranked 7th in the World, I thought Thomas was a shade overpriced and as such think he’s worth backing this week.
Louis Oosthuizen 60/1 (BetBright 1-6 1/4 odds) 1pt e/w:
Louis Oosthuizen has always been considered a major player, and already has an Open Championship on his CV, which he almost added to, two years ago.
Oosthuizen won the 2010 Open Championship at St.Andrews by 7 strokes and five years later, nearly won it again at the very same course. Oosthuizen made it into the three-man play-off at the 2015 Open, but was beaten by Zach Johnson.
Not only did he finish 2nd at the Open Championship in 2015, but he did the same at the U.S. Open a month earlier, finishing just one shot shy of winner, Jordan Spieth.
In his first three Masters appearances, Oosthuizen missed three straight cuts, before losing out in a play-off to Bubba Watson in 2012. He missed the cut a year later before racking off three consecutive top-25’s at Augusta, with his 15th last year the pick of the bunch.
Although inconsistent, the South African has posted some eye-catching results in 2017, notably his back-to-back top-5 finishes, firstly at the Phoenix Open (3rd) which he followed up with a 5th at the World Super 6 in Perth.
Top-28 finishes at both the Honda Classic (T21) and the Arnold Palmer Invitational (T28) in recent weeks add to the good finish in Phoenix, meaning a collection of good form State-Side.
He will be disappointed with his performance in the Match Play, where he fell to Ross Fisher in a group stage play-off, but the early exit there will have given extra rest ahead of this week. Last year, Oosthuizen got all the way to final of the Match Play (losing out to Jason Day) before missing the cut in Houston and he may just benefit from the extra lay-off this time around.
Statistically Oosthuizen does not leap of the page, but ranks highly in some of the key Strokes Gained departments including, Strokes Gained: Off-the-tee (18th), Strokes Gained: Tee-to-Green (21st) and Strokes Gained: Around-the-Green: (36th). His putting will need to improve this week, but Augusta greens are a different challenge than anything the South African has faced this season and he knows exactly what to expect of them, after eight starts here.
A player with major pedigree as good as Louis’ should always be considered and he will no doubt be ready for another big week at Augusta at what I consider a very fair price.
J.B. Holmes 125/1 (Betfair 1-6 1/5 odds) or 90/1 Skybet (1-8 1/4 odds) 0.5pt e/w:
J.B. Holmes made 2/4 cuts in the majors last year, but when he did make the weekend he finished T4 at the Masters and a distant 3rd at the Open Championship.
His T4 here last year came on his third start at Augusta, finishing 25th on debut in 2008 before missing the cut in 2015.
It took a final round 68 to shoot up the leaderboard here last year, but 74 was his worst round of the week showing he played four pretty steady rounds on this tough course.
With soft conditions possible, after heavy rain Monday which may be followed with more on Thursday, Holmes’ distance off the tee could be vital.
Holmes missed his first cut since last August in Houston last week, but he wasn’t alone, with players such as Spieth, Adam Scott and Patrick Reed also missing the cut in what was a strange, weather-affected Houston Open.
A T12 last month at the WGC- Mexico Championship was his third T24 of 2017 and he played some great golf that week.
I thought 125/1 for 6 places (1/5 odds) or 90/1 for 8 places (1/4 odds) were fair prices given his two top-4 finishes in the majors last year, and the four-time PGA Tour winner has been playing some of the best golf of his career in the last couple of years. Along with his solid record in majors (now finished T24 or better in all four), Holmes has a 2nd at the 2015 WGC Cadillac Championship on his resume, showing he can do it on the biggest of stages.
Total Points Staked this week: 8
Profit/Loss for 2017: -38