The first day of the US Masters is almost upon us and the out-dated, archaic tradition of the old-timers teeing off to start the year’s first major begins shortly. <br/><br/>
This is generally the toughest major to pick a winner in. The courses of The Open Championships and PGA are usually very tight and challenging - so we can whittle down the potential winners quite easily. Augusta is a different ball game as birdies are often there for the taking. This is even more the case if there is a bit of moisture over the early rounds, which can really allow players to be aggressive on the greens over the weekend. However, if the course plays fast then it can make conditions very challenging. <br/><br/>
This could well be one of the most competitive fields to ever assemble for a Masters. The likes of Jason Day, Adam Scott, Bubba Watson and Rickie Fowler have been hitting their straps at the right time. Meanwhile, only a fool would right-off the genuine class of Jordan Spieth, Rory McIlroy and Dustin Johnson despite their recent lulls. Three-time Masters winner, Phil Mickelson, is another who is in fine form despite not managing a win of late. With such depth, all the ingredients are there for the 2016 US Masters to be a bona fide classic.<br/><br/>
It is hard to see a winner coming from outside the players we have already mentioned. The talent and form of these golfers mean anybody outside this bunch will have to play out of their skin be there or thereabouts come Sunday. Primarily, I will be looking for golfers whose long games are in good nick. A lot of people tend to focus on the importance of a good short-game at Augusta, however, winners typically avoid having to rely on their green-side play as they generally nail a high percentage of GIR.<br/><br/>
Firstly, let’s consider the market leaders for this year’s event. Rory McIlroy will be well backed by the masses and comes here in decent form. He finished 4th in the Matchplay and 3rd in the Cadillac in his last three starts. Disappointingly for him, he is yet to get into the winners circle this calendar year, and a few of his performances when in contention have suggested nerves have played there role. His putting has been in the spotlight, and any positive vibes about the change to the left hand below right grip seemed to go south last week as he seemed to go back to his bad habit of 'blocking' putts. Based on this, It’s hard to see any value in single figure quotes of $9, although a return to winning ways at this tournament wouldn’t shock.<br/><br/>
After absolutely dominating all and sundry last year, Jordan Spieth has quietly come back to the field this year. Spieth rolled to a comfortable win at last year’s Masters, however, conditions were extremely easy, and he seemed to be riding a wave of confidence, which could be missing this year. After his win at the Hyundai TOC in Hawaii in January you’d be forgiven for thinking the Texas native was destined to continue from where he left off in 2015, however, this hasn’t been the case. His most lethal weapon, the putter, has been somewhat cold since his Hawaii win. Further, his long game is nowhere near as consistent or as impressive as the likes of Jason Day. Despite playing well in the Houston Open over the weekend I can't see him repeating last year’s win. He is an absolute class golfer, who I have no doubt will win many more majors throughout his career, however, I'll be siding with others when it comes to the crunch of a bet this week.<br/><br/>
It is impossible to bypass the obvious chances of Jason Day. He has won six of his last thirteen starts – form that is simply brilliant at this level. Crucially, all aspects of his game are firing. Driving, irons, and short game are all in sparkling nick and if he turns up at Augusta on Thursday the same golfer he has been over the last number of months then the rest are competing for second place. In 2011 he was just a kid, yet still finished just a hair off getting in a play-off. In 2013 he led with three holes left, only to overshoot the green and throwaway a top opportunity to don the Green Jacket. It was obvious Day would break through sooner or later and his 2015 major was a deserved reward after knocking on the door so many times. Right now everything has fallen into place for Jason and you get the sense he will be disappointed with anything but victory. Last weekend he went head to head with Rory and won, in last year's final major he went head to head with Spieth and won – he is world number 1 for a reason! I fully expect him to continue this trend and he is without doubt the one who has no weakness in his game. Given that evidence, the $8 available is worth a chunky wager.<br/><br/>
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Weighing up whether to have my remaining chunky bet on Rickie Fowler or Dustin Johnson has been a tough call, however, after checking things through I feel it is only right to back both! Particularly with the juicy odds on offer! The fact is, both have similar Augusta records with a number of made cut appearances and a 5th and 6th placed finish between them both. Fowler’s all round game has unquestionably improved over the past 12 months, and you get the sense he is on the way to a major victory at some point. Whether Augusta is the venue where he'll nail that major is another question, but at $19, I'm more than prepared to take that chance.<br/><br/>
Taking away Jason Day, Fowler is the form player heading into the Masters, and 4 wins in the past 11 months are proof it isn’t just ‘flash in the pan’ stuff. A win at Sawgrass was backed up by a win at the Deustche Bank, one of the playoff events that sees off the season. His remaining two wins have been even more impressive. He took on some horrendous condition in Scotland on the final day of that tournament, his win a testament to the improvements he has made under coach Butch Harmon. His Abu Dhabi win in January was another sign that Fowler has reached a new height of professionalism. His long game is in excellent shape and as is his confidence around the greens. Everything points towards a strong showing – and I’ll be cheering him on extra hard!
Dustin Johnson came seriously close to victory in Houston and despite a few negatives, it is hard to argue with this guy’s credentials. He has copped plenty of criticism for not yet winning a major despite his obvious talent, but I wouldn’t read too much into that. Phil Mickelson had plenty of heartbreaks before breaking through and Dustin is similar. Both are aggressive golfers who abandon course management from time to time. Sure, some of Dustin’s blow-outs on the final day of majors have been a bit more dramatic than anything that happened to Phil. However, Augusta is probably the venue most suited to the big hitting yank. He looks like he has the potential to tear this course apart if he can get things right. Last week at Houston, his whole game was looking really sharp, so he has no reason to doubt his abilities heading into Augusta. It doesn’t hurt that he has Butch Harmon in his corner – a man with a knack for producing Major winners. Bubba Watson has blown Augusta to pieces twice in recent years and Dustin’s game is so similar to Bubba’s. If it proves to be a week suited to long drivers, then I expect Dustin to be towards the top of the leaderboard on Sunday evening.
There is pretty much always a contender in the mix on Sunday who started the tournament at odds of greater than $50. In this category, I can't get away from the great value represented in the $67 quote of Brandt Snedeker. Snedeker has had a win along with 7 other top tens in the last 10 months – so his consistency has been unquestionable. He has previously finished 3rd and 6th at Augusta, and it’s quite possible he is coming into this year’s edition in better nick than ever before. Butch Harmon seems to be a theme in this preview, but believe me it wasn't intentional beforehand. It’s pretty clear Butch has improved Brandt’s game – as he does with most golfers he works with. Bar a withdrawal in March, Brandt hasn’t missed a cut this calendar year. For mine, he is the best chance above the $50 quote.
Finally, I'll have a small bet on Bill Haas. He has six made cuts from six outings here at Augusta and is more than capable on his day. His form here reads 26-42-37-20-20-12. That steady improvement over the last five years is most encouraging, and points to a top ten finish this year! With four top-tens in his last seven starts he is likely to give backers a good run for their money this week. He’s amassed six wins on the PGA Tour in his careers so far, and at 33 he may well be at his peak. Whilst his game suits a more challenging, tighter track than Augusta, performances by Zach Johnson and Matt Kuchar in recent years suggest a golfer like Haas can still be successful at the Masters.
Of the others, it was tough to leave old-timer Phil Mickelson off the list. He is playing gangbusters right now and clearly has the bit between his teeth. He admitted after last week’s impressive performance in Houston that he was already focusing his game towards Augusta – a good sign for punters. However, in recent months there has always been the odd mistake, and for this reason I can’t justify backing him at odds of around $21. I wouldn't put anyone off backing him though. He is easily the best over 40 y/o chance – and his experience could prove pivotal down the stretch. Finally, Bubba and Adam Scott hold every chance but the value just isn’t there for mine.<br/><br/>
Of the others, it was tough to leave old-timer Phil Mickelson off the list. He is playing gangbusters right now and clearly has the bit between his teeth. He admitted after last week’s impressive performance in Houston that he was already focusing his game towards Augusta – a good sign for punters. However, in recent months there has always been the odd mistake, and for this reason I can’t justify backing him at odds of around $21. I wouldn't put anyone off backing him though. He is easily the best over 40 y/o chance – and his experience could prove pivotal down the stretch. Finally, Bubba and Adam Scott hold every chance but the value just isn’t there for mine.