Of all the momentous moments of drama, suspense and sporting excellence that golf has served up over the past century, many have come from the rolling fairways of Augusta National; the home of The Masters since its inception in 1934.
From the unforgettable showdowns – Palmer vs Venturi in 1960, Faldo vs Norman in 1996, Mickelson vs Els in 2004 – to the great shots; Bubba from the trees, Larry Mize from the sand, Tiger from, well, just about anywhere, the vigour with which these professional sportsmen battle in the name of slipping into an unfashionable green jacket is unrivalled.
With spring just starting to coquettishly reveal itself, attention in golf betting circles naturally turns to this, the first major of the calendar year. The reason that The Masters is so beloved by punters is because it is held at the same venue every year – unlike the other three majors, which are held on a rotational basis each season. This can give the betting community a slight advantage over the bookmakers.
Of course, in a sport where winners priced in excess of 100/1 regularly come up trumps all over the globe, golf is highly volatile to predict and punt on….but the rewards are obvious.
So can Danny Willett, the first Englishman to slip into the Green Jacket since Nick Faldo two decades prior, retain his crown, or will Augusta specialist Jordan Spieth get back into the winners circle?
The Makings of a Champion
As with any golf contest, there are ‘horses for courses’ and these will naturally take precedence when shortlisting players to back.
So who are we looking for to tame Augusta’s lengthy stretches?
Firstly, as you can probably guess, distance off the tee is essential. Since Rees Jones put pen to paper and designed Augusta it has been tweaked and modified regularly, with the last overhaul from Tom Fazio in 2002 proving crucial. He not only switched from Bermuda to Bentgrass (more on that in a moment), but also added length to most holes. Mr Fazio must have been in a bad mood when planning his remodelling work.
Some players prefer the lush Bentgrass to the grainier Bermuda variant, and that is certainly a factor on the greens which are typically lightning fast. If your short stick isn’t in fine working order then you aren’t winning The Masters, it’s as simple as that.
Winning scores vary at Augusta and that is largely due to the inclement conditions; in 2015 the greens were very soft and winds almost non-existent, hence Spieth’s winning mark of -18. Fast forward 12 months and in treacherous surroundings Willett got home in -5. Zach Johnson won with +1 in 2007, so that identifies just how much the weather plays a part in the destination of the Green Jacket. Keep your eyes peeled on the forecasts in the run-up to the first tee.
So power off the peg is crucial but accuracy, it seems, is not. Historically, even hitting just 30% of fairways can be enough to get the job done, with the rough not that penal and the fairways still of wider-than-average width anyway despite Fazio’s tinkering.
Hitting greens is key – when isn’t it – but Scrambling is as much a key stat to consider as Greens in Regulation given any wayward tee work. Oh, and playing the Par 5s well is essential; these offer rare scoring opportunities at Augusta with many of the Par 4s offering little in the way of shooting low.
Sunday, Bloody Sunday
Closing out a major championship is as much a test of character as it is ability, and occasionally those with one hand on the trophy are found wanting when that gut check comes along. Greg Norman succumbed to Sunday nerves more than anybody, and he was joined in that notorious hall of fame 12 months ago by Jordan Spieth.
The 22-year-old was in cruise control and seemingly on route to becoming the first player to win back-to-back Masters’ since Tiger Woods in 2012. He took to his back nine on Sunday with a five-shot lead, but what unfolded was the stuff of nightmare; it’s quite possible he hasn’t enjoyed a full eight hour’s kip since.
Bogeys at 10 and 12 started the rot, but a hideous seven at the Par 3 twelfth – after twice disappearing into the wet stuff – set the tone for a meltdown of epic proportions. He fell behind Willett, and would never catch him.
Watching Spieth hand over his green jacket to a jubilant but understated Willett was tough for anybody with even a shred of decency in them, and you wonder how the experience will affect the now 23-year-old. Will he bounce back this year, or will the demons never leave him?
So to 2017….
The bookmakers have performed their duty and already compiled their ante-post Masters market, and they believe that Spieth (7/1) will firmly put 2016 behind him with victory this April. He has already won this term of course at the AT&T National, so any winning-line jitters may well have been exorcised.
Next up is Dustin Johnson (9/1), a winner in February at the Genesis Open and a player who has bagged top-10 finishes in his last pair of visits to Augusta. The ‘major bottler’ tag is now well and truly shaken off after victory in the US Open last year. Of those at the head of the market, which include an out-of-touch Jason Day and a currently injured Rory McIlroy, it is DJ and Spieth who are worthy of heaviest investment.
But what about the outsiders? The likes of Willett, Charl Schwartzel and Trevor Immelman were all unfancied prior to trying the Green Jacket on for size, and clearly any major tournament offers up opportunities for some healthily-priced longshots.
If conditions become rather putrid then wily old campaigners like Zach Johnson (80/1), Jim Furyk (100/1) and Lee Westwood (110/1) will come into their own, while in an out-and-out test of golfing credentials how about a flutter on JB Holmes (100/1) or Bill Haas (110-1)?
As for the European contingent, surely our best hopes lie on the shoulders of Jon Rahm (50/1) and Thomas Pieters (80/1); two extraordinary young talents who look tailor-made for Augusta.
One thing is for sure: the 2017 Masters will be as exciting as ever.