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This time last year, the build-up to the Masters was all about one man, Rory McIlroy, and whether he could join the legends of the game by winning the Green Jacket to complete the career Grand slam, just the sixth player in history to do so.
But then along came Jordan Spieth who produced a brilliant performance to clinch a record-equalling wire-to-wire victory and McIlroy had to share the hype and the platform. When the latter was forced to miss a large chunk of the summer due to injury, Spieth was the biggest story in town but then at the US PGA Jason Day battered the field into submission with a record-breaking 20-under-par winning score so although the year began focused on one man, it ended with everyone talking about the Big Three.
When it comes to assessing the contenders to win this week, the bookmakers certainly aren’t drifting from the narrative of the Big Three dominating golf at the current time as Day, Spieth and McIlroy head the betting. However, if you look a little further on the pricing boards there are a handful of other real contenders tucked in behind the trio of favourites who have the current form, the past experience of Augusta and the big game mentality to potentially upset the odds.
While we will attempt to find some long odds value for an each-way flutter, this tournament isn’t going to see a 66/1 or 80/1 shot come flying through the field to shock the golfing world by winning the Masters, ala Zach Johnson in 2007 or Trevor Immelman in 2008. With many of the big boys right in form and having won or come close at Augusta, this week is going to see the best players on the planet fight it out on final back nine.
The place to start our assessment of the potential winners is with World Number One Jason Day (7/1). The Australian put several close calls behind him to finally pick up his first major at Whistling Straits in August and rather than taking his foot off the pedal, his game has gone onto another level. The 28-year-old has been in supreme form the past few months, winning six of his last 13 starts, including back-to-back victories at Bay Hill and the WGC Matchplay last month.
Day has spoken of his obsession of winning a Green Jacket and how after finishing in the top three twice in his first three appearances at Augusta (the other was a withdrawal through injury) he harmed his chances by “trying too hard. I’ve done it the last couple of years on that golf course and I really want to get back to good form there.” Among the most impressive facets of Day’s game is his mental attitude and this week he has acknowledged the hype that will surround him and has spoken of accepting it and embracing it. Despite that, he still finished in the top 28 on his last two visits and if he shows up here with his A game – something he has a Woods-esque gift for doing of late – then he will take some stopping.
A player with an even better record at the Masters than Day is defending champion Jordan Spieth (15/2). The Texan’s record here is frankly ridiculous, a second place and a win from his two appearances and his displays in the majors last year – two wins, a second and also being one-shot outside a play-off in the other – announced the arrival of a probable all-time great. Although he has not been in the best of form by his sky-high standards – only winning the Tournament of Champions so far this campaign, back in January – the 22-year-old reminded everyone during a final round birdie blitz which catapulted him into contention at last week’s Houston Open, that he can heat his putter up like nobody else in the game. Spieth hasn’t hit the heights yet this year but if he putts the lights out over the four days he will be the man to beat.
It’s been a long while since Rory McIlroy (9/1) has been third favourite heading into a major but it is probably a fair reflection of his chances. Although on his day, the Northern Irishman is the best player in the world, there are more question marks around his mastery of Augusta than for Spieth and Day combined. The four-time major champion finished tied-eighth and fourth on his last two outings in this event but he has only ever been right in contention on the Sunday once, back in 2011 when he famously blew a four-shot lead with a disastrous meltdown, shooting 80 to tumble down to tied-15th. Spieth by comparison has never carded a competitive round below par-72 at the course. In almost every year the 26-year-old has had a terrible run of holes which has knocked him out of contention and this, coupled with his patchy form this campaign which has seen him adopt a new putting grip, is why he is justifiably behind the other two big guns in the betting markets. Write him off at your peril however.
Outside of the Big Three are a handful of other top players who could realistically peak for the four days and walk away with the Green Jacket. While Phil Mickelson’s (18/1) days of collecting Green Jackets are probably over, don’t be too surprised if Lefty’s name crops up on the leaderboard at the weekend. Another great left-handed player, Bubba Watson (12/1), has to be seriously considered. At this Horses-For-Courses event, the 37-year-old is a bit of an anomaly; he only has twice finished in the top-20 at the Masters but both times he won the tournament.
Bubba is in sparkling form, claiming two wins and a second-place finish from eight events this year and loves Augusta as much as the famous course loves his game. Adam Scott was moved to say after holding off his challenge at the WGC-Cadillac in Miami “"I think Bubba is the favourite. Even if I won every tournament I play before the Masters, if Bubba keeps finishing second, I'd still think he's favoured. It just sets up so good there for him." Having tipped him two years ago at 28/1, his current price of is not as attractive as I would wish but it is about right and will look generous if the Floridian plays his way onto the leaderboard by the weekend.
Scott (12/1) meanwhile has surprised most observers with the ease by which he has reverted to the normal putter after his broom-handle one was banned. The 2013 Masters champion was superb in winning at Doral and has proved adept at peaking at the right time, 11 top-10 finishes in his last 20 majors paying testament to that. However, despite all those great finishes, Scott has rarely been right in the hunt to win in that period, instead finishing strongly at the weekend when already out of the shake-up. With the greens at Augusta testing like few others and the likelihood that the other big guns will be coming out to play, Scott’s odds of 11/1 are pretty easy to refuse.
Dustin Johnson (18/1) is a player who will again attract huge backing but this column still hasn’t forgiven him for his final green meltdown at last year’s US Open. Like with much of his career to-date, this was classic Johnson – near flawless for most of the event but failing to get the job done when the pressure was cranked to its highest level. The 31-year-old surely has too good a game to never claim one of the game’s biggest prizes…and yet this is an utterance that has been repeated for a number of years. Until he finally gets the job done, there will always be huge question marks over him and while the represents good each-way value, backing him to lead after round one might be the best course of action.
Dusty’s namesake Zach (60/1) cannot be discounted either; the 2007 champion took until last year to have his second top-10 finish at Augusta but with his stunning victory at the Open he reminded everyone that if he gets in the position to contend for the big ones, he is still well capable of closing out the deal. With a fifth place finish at Bay Hill and a ninth at the WGC Matchplay, the 40-year-old is close to peaking at the right time.
The final three main contenders can all have a compelling case compiled to support their chances of winning this week and they are Rickie Fowler (16/1), Justin Rose (25/1) and Louis Oosthuizen (33/1). Fowler has five cuts from five appearances here and has improved hugely under the tutelage of Butch Harmon the last two years. Having not delivered on his potential for a number of years, the Californian served notice of his intentions with four top-fives in the four majors in 2014 before moving his game up to the next level with four wins on tour last year, including winning the Players at Sawgrass and a Fed-Ex event at the Deutsche Bank. The next step for the 27-year-old is to follow Day in winning a major, a victory which would possibly see the golfing world begin talking about a Big Four. In converting four of his chances to win last season, Fowler displayed a steely resolve not previously associated with him and with his huge improvements in his Total Driving, Strokes Gained and Greens In Regulation stats this campaign, his game looks good enough to push him into the winners’ circle.
Rose and Oosthuizen meanwhile appeal for similar reasons. They both finished second before to superb winning displays (Spieth last year for the former, Bubba’s wizardry in a playoff in 2012 for the latter) at Augusta and both have proven their mettle with a major title apiece. The British golfer has a perfect record of 10 cuts made from 10 visits here and has three top-10s in total; whether he is in the right form to finish ahead of this stiff competition is in doubt but he has led the Masters on three occasions after the first round so my money on Rose will be going on that market.
Oosthuizen could consider himself unlucky not to pick up his second major last year, his brilliant final back nine at Chambers Bay leaving him just a shot short of Spieth’s winning total while he lost out to a putting clinic from Zach Johnson in the Open Championship playoff. The South African has continued his fine form into this season, winning in Australia in February before a run of 14th-7th-2nd culminating in his runner-up finish to Day at the WGC Matchplay. An each-way at his price could prove a great investment.
Outside of these main contenders, a number of players will have significant backing, particularly in the each-way markets, with Henrik Stenson, 2011 champion Charl Schwartzel, Patrick Reed, Brooks Koepka and Branden Grace high up this list.
However, for value we would like to draw your attention to two players whose price might make an each-way bet a wise decision, Hideki Matsuyama (40/1) and Marc Leishman (80/1). The Japanese player announced his huge talent when finishing 27th as an amateur on his debut appearance five years ago while his consistency in the majors is demonstrated by his record of 12 cuts made from 13 tournaments, with his fifth at the 2015 Masters and two other top-20s in last year’s majors indicative of the progress he continues to make.
The 24-year-old caught the eye again when beating Fowler in a playoff at the Phoenix Open in February while his form-line this season has been 17-5-WD-17-MC-1-11-WD-35-6-18, impressive in its consistency. The lightning quick greens at Augusta this week should suit Matsuyama – as they did when he triumphed at the Memorial in 2014 – and he could muscle his way into the shake-up.
Leishman meanwhile played some lovely golf on his way to the Open playoff last year, running out of steam over the four extra holes but demonstrating again his massive talent. Serious Illness to his wife has given the big Australian a different perspective on life and he plays a reduced schedule as he looks to balance his career and his young family. Having won the Nedbank Challenge at the start of this campaign, his season is yet to really explode into life although his fifth place at the Northern Trust and his 17th at Bay Hill showed signs that it may do so soon.
A tied-fourth at the 2013 Masters proved that Augusta holds no fears for the 32-year-old and his price is big enough to be pretty tempting.
While most of the players discussed above have a chance of winning the Green Jacket, due to the high level at which they have performed in the last six majors, it is difficult to look past the three market leaders of Day, Spieth or McIlroy when picking a winner. Due to his liking for Augusta, I would add Bubba Watson to this list and if he brings his best game he could well claim his third Masters. Whoever wins it, with this stellar cast playing some of the best golf since Woods in his pomp it is going to be a hell of a battle to see who will master this glorious golf course.
Day to win
Bubba, Oosthuizen, Matsuyama, Leishman each-way
Dusty (20/1), Rose (22/1), Rafael Cabrera Bello (66/1) to lead after Round 1
All odds taken from various bookmakers and are correct at the time of writing
Setanta Ireland will be there at Augusta National with LIVE coverage of all four days from The Masters.