The wait is over, and the first major of the golfing year is upon us - The Masters.
There is something rather special about Augusta National, even for the casual TV viewer, and this year looks to be one of the most wide-open events we have seen for a while.
Fortunately, partly due to the size of the field (98 players on this occasion), but also due to the length and style of the Augusta layout, The Masters has been very friendly to trend-analysts over the years and I believe the first step to picking this week's winner is to narrow down the field by using three key trends:
Jack Nicklaus is the oldest ever Masters winner at the age of 46, so let’s eliminate everyone over this age. This removes the following 12 players:
Miguel Angel Jimenez
Jose Maria Olazabal
Many golf fans will be sick of hearing this by now, but the fact remains that the last debutant to win The Masters was Fuzzy Zoeller in 1979. This trend came pretty close to being broken 12 months ago with both Jonas Blixt and Jordan Spieth giving Bubba Watson a run for his money in the final round, but the left-hander came out on top and I'm happy to eliminate these 20 names:
3. SUB-70 ROUND:
21 of the last 22 Masters champions had shot at least one round of 69 or better in a previous visit to Augusta. It may not be as strong a trend as the first two, but it's sufficiently strong for me to feel happy enough striking out the following 16 players:
Applying these three trends leaves us with exactly 50 players and we clearly can't back them all so we need to go a little further. Despite the fact this next trend rules out one of the outsiders that I am quite keen on this week (Ernie Els), we shouldn't ignore the fact that Tiger Woods (in 1997) was the last player to win The Masters having missed the cut in the previous year's event. As such, I'm going to draw a line through the following 17 players:
This leaves us with a final shortlist of 33 players. Here's my assessment of each of their chances:
Thomas Bjorn - often a dark-horse around Augusta but on his last competitive start (WGC-Cadillac Championship) he withdrew after just 8 holes so looks a risky bet this time around.
Jonas Blixt - exceeded all expectations 12 months ago by finishing runner-up on his debut. Hard to see him repeating that feat, but showed glimmers of form last week so there are certainly worse bets.
Paul Casey - has played some excellent golf this year on the PGA tour and a top-10 finish last week in Houston is a handy warm-up. His best Masters finish of tied 6th came 11 years ago, however, and I'm a little worried about his Scrambling stats.
Darren Clarke - hasn't cracked the top-10 here since his 1998 debut and easily swerved in current form.
Ben Crane - currently ranking 204th on tour in Driving Distance, Augusta is simply too long for Crane to compete against the big-hitters in relatively soft course conditions.
Jason Day - having bagged that elusive second strokeplay win on the PGA tour in this year's Farmers Insurance Open, I believe this year's Masters represents Day's best chance of a major championship victory to date. The Aussie has a runner-up finish and a tie for 3rd to his name here in recent years and has all the necessary statistical attributes to win the Green Jacket.
Ian Poulter - not without his chances this week after showing some good form on the Florida swing. Has a solid record here
at Augusta, but he is another player who would have preferred firm and fast conditions to help him keep up with the big-hitters.
Justin Rose - despite a promising start to last week's Houston Open, the 2013 US Open winner could only manage a tie for 37th and his form over the last six months has to be a concern despite a solid record here at Augusta.
Adam Scott - the fact the Aussie is going back to the long putter for this week's event makes him a more dangerous prospect, but his missed cut at the Valspar Championship followed by a mediocre tie for 35th at Bay Hill make him avoidable at current prices.
John Senden - last year's tie for 8th was a fine performance by Senden, but he came here in much greater form on that occasion than he does this time around having missed the cut in his last three tournament starts.
Brandt Snedeker - a player who is often firmly on my radar for The Masters, but like a handful of others, he's not the longest off the tee which may leave him lacking on a rain-softened Augusta.
Jordan Spieth - a very dangerous player this week with the combination of a runner-up finish last week coupled with his runner-up finish on his Augusta debut 12 months ago. Looks solid in every area of his game, but despite his obvious draws his price looks extremely short.
Kevin Stadler - hasn't played competitive golf in two months due to a wrist injury and is easily avoidable on this basis alone despite a strong debut 12 months ago.
Henrik Stenson - I like the big Swede's chances very much this week. He has finished inside the top-5 in each of his last three starts on the PGA tour and although his Augusta record may not leap off the page, he is 'learning' how to play well here with his last three visits reading 40-18-14. His recent improvement in Scrambling is also a big factor.
Rickie Fowler - a tempting proposition in many ways, but his weekend performance in Houston last week has to be a concern.
I'd like to see Fowler pick up a second PGA tour title before confidently investing in him to win The Masters.
Jim Furyk - the type of player who doesn't give away many bogeys, so in that sense he fits the bill here, but his lack of length off the tee means that Augusta is always likely to be a struggle in the twilight of his career.
Bill Haas - it's an odd thing to fathom given the fact Haas won the FedEx Cup a few years ago, but he really doesn't bring his best game to the majors. His best major championship showing in 21 starts remains a tie for 12th in the 2011 PGA Championship.
Padraig Harrington - the Irishman could be a lively outsider this week having got back to winning ways in the recent Honda Classic. I would like a little more distance off the tee to confidently invest, however.
Charley Hoffman - stranger things have happened, but his putting stats would suggest he might get found out on the perilously quick greens of Augusta.
Matt Kuchar - like Rickie Fowler, Matt Kuchar was uncharacteristically poor on the weekend in Houston last time out, and despite some strong Masters showings in recent years, I still believe a maiden major championship win is more likely to come on a shorter track.
Joost Luiten - shot a superb final round 67 here 12 months ago, but form has to be a concern with the Dutchman's last three PGA tour showings reading 46-C-C.
Hunter Mahan - on paper there's no reason to suggest Mahan can't put in a decent showing this week. However, he was bang in contention at the halfway point in Houston last week and a tame weekend showing sent him sliding into a tie for 25th.
Rory McIlroy - heads up the betting markets this week and rightly so having won each of the last two major championships and possessing the type of game that is tailor-made for Augusta. Not quite found top gear stateside this year, however, and the price is short enough to look elsewhere.
Kevin Na - ranking 194th in Driving Distance is never likely to be a recipe for success here at a rain-softened Augusta.
Geoff Ogilvy - has finished inside the top-40 in each of his seven Masters appearances with a personal best tie for 4th on his penultimate visit. Maybe worth considering in the Top Australian market, but his Scrambling ranking of 195th is a concern.
Louis Oosthuizen - came very close to winning this three years ago but the South African has become a very tricky player to predict of late, his missed cut last week Houston being a good example of this.
Ryan Palmer - whilst his strike rate on the PGA tour will often be cited by punters as a reason to avoid the Texan, his 2015 stats stack up very well for an excellent week. He has a top-10 to his name here on his penultimate visit, he loves to work the ball right-to-left and he has the deadly combination of a sharp short game coupled with plenty of distance off the tee.
Bubba Watson - last year's winner gave us some very interesting sound bites when interviewed during the event. In summary,
he talked about how hard he had found it being defending champion in 2013. Despite his excellent fit for the Augusta layout,
this is enough ammo to swerve the two-time champion this week at a short price.
Mike Weir - the 2003 champion hasn't made a cut since the CIMB Classic back in November and it would take a monumental return to form for him to post even a top-20 finish this week.
Lee Westwood – the Englishman traditionally plays the Shell Houston Open as his Augusta warm-up, and having finished inside the top-30 from 2009-2014, his missed cut last week has to be a concern ahead of his 16th Masters appearance.
Gary Woodland – being one of the longest hitters on the PGA tour and having broken 70 on two of his three Masters appearances, there are worse outsiders than Gary Woodland. He hasn’t quite hit top gear in 2015, however, and his ranking of 150th in Strokes Gained Putting is a worry.
Tiger Woods - it's hard to give an honest assessment of Woods' chances without looking either blindly optimistic or borderline disrespectful to possibly the greatest player of all time. If Woods was struggling with his chipping as much as he was in Phoenix, you get the feeling he'd have sat out the trip to Augusta, so I don't expect to see that level of carnage this week. However, one’s game needs to be in very sharp shape to contend here any year, so I'm happy enough to swerve the four-time Masters champion.
Camilo Villegas - at a frankly huge price this week, the Colombian looks a very interesting outsider. His tie for 13th here in 2009 featured two sub-70 rounds, and despite getting blown away (literally) in the recent Valero Texas Open, Villegas has shown some solid form over the last month.