The 83rd Masters Tournament at Augusta National Golf Club is nearly upon us. CHRIS CUTMORE runs through the betting market and offers some tips on where the smart money might lie among the favourites and those flying under the radar.
TIGER VS RORY?
A couple of weeks ago, Rory McIlroy finally got his chance to go mano a mano with his idol, Tiger Woods. After a 2&1 defeat at the WGC Match Play, a crestfallen McIlroy hot-footed it out of Austin without uttering a word, having blown his big day after a 20-year wait. Yet he might only have to hang around until this Sunday to get another shot at the champ, and with a rather more significant prize at stake, and on the grandest stage of all.
There are a number of genuine contenders for the Masters this week, but two stick head and shoulders above the rest, and they happen to be the two biggest names in the game. McIlroy (7/1), attempting to become only the sixth man in history to complete golf’s career Grand Slam, is in red-hot form; Woods (16/1), complete with 14 majors and four back surgeries, is finally regaining his aura. Strap yourselves in because chances are both will be in the mix come the back nine on Sunday and the golfing world will finally get the showdown it has been craving.
Tiger Woods reacts to his shot on the 12th tee during practice at Augusta National on Monday
Woods beat Rory McIlroy recently at the WGC Match Play and they could soon duel again
McIlroy, the favourite to win this week, gestures on the 3rd hole during his practice round
McIlroy’s year so far speaks for itself: a win at The Players last month and top-10s in every tournament he has teed it up in. He has also finished in the top 10 in each of his last five visits to Augusta National. Forget his past heartbreaks here, McIlroy is ready to wear that green jacket at last.
Woods’s season has yet to catch fire after being stalled by a minor neck issue, but his golf has been steady, and started to look very strong before his surprise elimination at the Match Play. He is back at Augusta fit and healthy and with his game in solid shape for the first time since 2013, when he finished fourth. Going so close at both The Open and the USPGA last summer proves he can still do it at the very highest level, and just consider his Masters record: four wins, 13 top-10s. His huge win in last season’s Tour Championship also cannot be underestimated – he blew away McIlroy in the final round there too. No-one’s scared of Tiger any more, they say. McIlroy still has to prove it.
The keys to success at Augusta are hitting as many greens in regulation as possible, careful course management so as to avoid the dead zones on the slickest, slopiest greens in golf, and demolishing the par-5s. McIlroy leads the PGA Tour in strokes gained tee-to-green this season, with Woods ninth; both know their way around Augusta like the back of their hand; and McIlroy’s game plan is based on Woods’s blueprint for dismantling the long holes – copyright established 1997.
Yes, it is almost too romantic a scenario to seem possible – but all the cynics out there should come on in for a cuddle and feel the love. Rory vs Tiger for the green jacket is a real possibility.
Dustin Johnson – looking for his second major victory – chips at Augusta on Monday
The gooseberry in this relationship could be Dustin Johnson (10/1). With two wins in his last seven tournaments, the brutally long-hitting American looks near unbeatable at his best – and he’s close to that right now. His tee-to-green game tears most courses apart and fits the template for Augusta, where he has three consecutive top-10s. That nagging doubt remains over his temperament in the crucible of major Sundays, and he still only has one to his name despite his outrageous talent.
Justin Rose has deposed Johnson as world No 1 and stands alongside him as the nearest likely challengers to McIlroy and Woods. And he’s better value at 14/1. The Englishman has done everything but win at Augusta – he has led after rounds one, two and three, and lost in a play-off to Sergio Garcia in 2017. He won in California earlier this year and his consistency means he is almost guaranteed to be a factor.
So strong are those four that it looks tough to see beyond them, but such is the strength in depth at the top of golf right now that there are realistic champions everywhere, including much further down the betting.
Woods putts on the 13th green during practice at the course where he has won four times
World No 1 Justin Rose has done everything bar win at Augusta and is one of the men to beat
OTHER LEADING CONTENDERS
Those with past good results at Augusta, strong current form and great tee-to-green games should all be considered. Jon Rahm (18/1) heads the list: he finished fourth last year, has top-10s galore this season and crushes his ball off the tee, sitting 17th in the shots gained tee-to-green rankings. The Spanish bull’s weak spot remains the red flag of major competition, which has gotten the better of his fiery temperament during his embryonic career, and he self-combusted again while leading The Players. He’ll learn from that though, and Augusta looks perfect for him.
Justin Thomas (18/1) has gone off the boil slightly in recent weeks but still sits third on the tee-to-green list, has a major to his name, and is, as they like to say over the pond, trending in the right direction with finishes of 39-22-17 at Augusta, showing he’s clearly learning how to play the course.
Rickie Fowler (20/1) finished second here last year and is bubbling away nicely after winning at Phoenix. His ball-striking has been a little erratic but his quality is undoubted. Just don’t mention the words best player never to win a major… whoops!
Paul Casey (28/1) will have plenty of backers this week after his win at the Valspar Championship confirmed his prime ball-striking ability – he’s 14th on that all-important strokes gained tee-to-green list – and his record in the last four years at Augusta: 6-4-6-15.
Then there is Matt Kuchar. The ever-smiling American might not like tipping as much as we do, but that’s no reason to ignore him. Consider this: he’s 11th on the tee-to-green rankings, has four Masters top-10s and has won twice, among a string of other good results, this year. At 50/1 he’s the best value bet in the field, so long as you’re not putting money on him to concede a gimme from 12 inches.
And so we go from the game’s current bogeyman to two of the good guys, Francesco Molinari (25/1) and Tommy Fleetwood (30/1). Both members of the Moliwood partnership from the Ryder Cup look in great shape. Fleetwood is fifth on the tee-to-green rankings and has looked a winner in waiting with a string of excellent performances on the PGA Tour this year, coming so close at The Players. His precision game suits majors, and his draw suits Augusta in particular. He was 17th last year.
Molinari, meanwhile, has curiously bad stats this year from tee to green and has never troubled the top-10 in seven visits to Augusta. But he has become a beast of a golfer since last summer’s heroics at The Open and Le Golf National, winning at Bay Hill and coming third in the Match Play in recent months. It would be a surprise if he did not contend.
MASTERS TOP PICKS
Tiger Woods (16/1)
Jon Rahm (18/1)
Francesco Molinari (25/1)
Xander Schauffele (40/1)
Matt Kuchar (50/1)
JB Holmes (150/1)
WORTH A PUNT?
There are a few other names well worth pondering. Phil Mickelson (45/1) is always worth a cheeky punt at Augusta given his three green jackets, and especially as he won at Pebble Beach this year and is somehow hitting his tee ball as long as most of the young guns at the age of 48. His form since has been awful, however, and he is just as likely to miss the cut here as contend.
One man it is impossible to ignore at Augusta is Jordan Spieth (20/1), whose Masters results are simply incredible: 2-1-2-11-3. His alarming slump elsewhere continues, however. So anyone fancying a very bold bet might consider him to – gasp – miss the cut.
Bubba Watson (35/1) is also tough to predict. Two green jackets and a game tailor-made for bringing Augusta to its knees are off-set by underwhelming form. A fifth place last year suggests he is worth backing again, however.
The defending champion, Patrick Reed (50/1) is in the doldrums but another former champion, Adam Scott (45/1) looks in good form – when we actually get to see him. The Aussie is rather picky about when he plays these days but there are enough signs his wonderful swing can cause some damage here again.
Justin Thomas chips on the 13th ahead of the tournament, which starts on Thursday
OTHER BEST BETS
Justin Thomas to be first-round leader (28/1)
Jordan Spieth to miss the cut (11/2)
Tommy Fleetwood to be top Englishman (4/1)
BEST OF THE REST
Quite how Brooks Koepka (28/1) finds himself so low down the list of possible champions despite winning two of the last three majors (and three in all) is rather odd. But so is his recent dramatic weight loss which, he admits, had led to considerable distance lost with his driver. That is Koepka’s main strength so it is hard to see him winning this Masters amid a dip in form. The price is tempting, but it’s probably worth thinking again.
Also flying well under the radar you can find Xander Schauffele (40/1). With three top-10s in just seven major starts, excellent tee-to-green stats, and a win this year, the world No 10 is a real dark horse. In his one Masters appearance so far, he made the cut.
Sergio Garcia (50/1) looks a huge price too, given his past victory and a decent showing at the Match Play and elsewhere. Just don’t mention the number 13 though.
YOU NEVER KNOW!
Fans of excellent ball-striking and very slow play might like a look at Patrick Cantlay (70/1) and JB Holmes (150/1), a huge hitter who enjoyed a big win in LA this year.
Finally, for those feeling very bold, debutant Lucas Bjerregaard (175/1) caused a big shock by taming Tiger in the Match Play and is one of the huge hitters who will enjoy the lengthening of the par-4 5th by 50 yards – another advantage for the bombers at Augusta.
And Keith Mitchell (200/1) – recently described as the ‘no-name champion’ in one cruel headline after his win in Florida – keeps confounding expectations, so might be worth a punt with those bookies paying out up to 10 places.
*All odds, from oddschecker, are best price at time of publication. This year both Sky Bet, Betfair, Paddy Power and Coral are paying up to 10 places at the Masters. All odds and bookmakers’ terms available here.