The clocks have gone forward. That sweet, nostalgic smell of fresh cut grass is in the air. And there are more than a few red-faced people walking around after the sun showed up for the first time in months. It can only mean one thing. It’s time for the inaugural Straight Up Sport Masters Tournament preview. This won’t be a hole by hole dissection of the beautiful, azalea-laden Georgia course, more a look at the history of the tournament and what makes this week of golf so special. And, of course we’ll have a little dip into the betting markets. As regards the latter, our emphasis will predominantly be on value.
For the uninitiated, The Masters at Augusta National has the unique selling point, unusually for golf, of being held at the same course every single year. The Augusta National Golf Club was founded in 1933 – a year before the first “Augusta National Invitational” Tournament – by Bobby Jones, a legend of the amateur game, and Clifford Roberts, the latter deciding he wanted to use this piece of Deep South grass to set up his very own private, good ol’ boys club. For many, until very recently, the club once stood as a symbol of rich, southern, white entitlement. Indeed Roberts himself once noted, “As long as I’m alive, players will be white and caddies will be black.” In this context, Tiger Woods incredible victory in 1997, obliterating the course and smashing numerous records, on his way to a first Augusta victory for an African-American player was as fine a symbolic middle finger to the old order as one could possibly produce. Eldrick ‘Tiger’ Woods has gone on to provide some phenomenal Augusta moments, none more memorable than the outrageous chip in 2005, when the ball rested on the lip of the sixteenth hole -Nike logo for the world to see- before being engulfed by the cup and sending the crowd and the ‘business time’ red t-shirted, fourteen time major winner into raptures.
Alas, Tiger comes into this week’s tournament shrouded in mystery. He took a well-documented break a number of months back – apparently not injury related- to try and re-discover his form. Has he done so? Absolutely nobody knows, including perhaps himself. In a field where three hundred yard bombers are now the norm, Woods’ distance is no longer an advantage, so, if he is to compete, the thirty-nine year old will need to rediscover his phenomenal short game. This is as good a time as any to make some full disclosure. We would love nothing more than for Tiger to add a fifth Augusta Masters to his collection this week. Frankly however, we will be thoroughly impressed if he can stay within ten of the leader on Friday and give himself the opportunity to stick around for the weekend. The feats of Jack Nicklaus, Arnold Palmer and Gary Player are undeniable on this fantastic course. Still, for those who grew up during the ‘bitter’ Blur and Oasis wars, Tiger Woods is the true icon of the Augusta Masters. But, while our heavy heart says Green Jacket, our head says Tiger may well be watching the weekend’s action on television. And, regardless of what you think of him personally, this would not be a good thing for the game of golf.
Now, let’s get down to business and make our predictions for the first of golf’s four Majors this year. While the U.S. Masters never changes venue, the course itself is always being tweaked, generally with a view to making life as difficult as possible for the big hitters of the 21st century. A few pine trees here and a rolling undulation there mean the course changes year by year. However, the mainstays of the serene surrounds are the ice-rink like greens. There is a perverse pleasure in watching phenomenally talented professionals five putt from thirty feet, particularly if like us, you’re pretty awful at golf. Invariably, the winner of this tournament is able to avoid three putts like the plague. In Augusta, perhaps more than anywhere else in golf, the old adage, “Drive for show, putt for dough”, comes into play. And so to the tournament favourites.
Rory McIlroy (6/1), all conquering world number one, comes into the 2015 Masters on the cusp of reaching some truly rarefied air. At just twenty-five he is already on the brink of winning all four major championships during his career, a feat currently confined to five true greats: Gene Sarazen, Ben Hogan, Gary Player, Jack Nicklaus and Tiger Woods. From mid-summer last year, the County Down man played otherworldly golf, adding the British Open and U.S. PGA Championship to an already stacked trophy case. Further, he may have unfinished business of sorts with Augusta having seen his hopes go up in flames in 2011 after a disastrous final round 80. At least we found out that year, thanks to an errant McIlroy drive that there are some lovely cabins just fifty yards from the 10th tee. In any event, McIlroy is a different beast now and monumental collapses simply do not befall him any longer. He will win the U.S. Masters some day and maybe chase down the ‘Rorslam’ but we’re not taking this short a price on a man who has never won this tournament before.
Of the pre-tournament favourites we’re more inclined to lean towards the defending champ, Bubba Watson (10/1) and a man who clearly loves this course, Australian, Jason Day (12/1). Watson, also the winner in 2012, has clearly come to understand the course at Augusta National and we’re puzzled as to why he doesn’t head the betting markets. He is a monster hitter and more importantly, in his own words, “one of the best two putters in the world.” Now, admittedly, self-praise is no praise but when you’ve won the tournament twice your words carry that little bit more stock. Further, Watson – owner, on the side, of the goofiest hip-hop career you could ever imagine – dominates Augusta’s par fives, which is an absolute must on a par 72 course.
A moment for Jordan Spieth, if you will. This twenty-one year old Texan, joint- second on his first professional appearance at Augusta last year is, in our view, going to be Rory McIlroy’s greatest nemesis in the years to come. What we say next may sound a little ridiculous however. Spieth has a form line of second, second, first in his last three starts. Still, we feel he doesn’t quite have the clinical ability to close it out in crunch time and while he’s been hot for the last month, we’d question whether perhaps his tank maybe a little empty come the back nine on Sunday. 12/1 on an inexperienced twenty-one year old, admittedly with almost limitless potential, seems far too short for us.
Injury last season robbed Jason Day of a real shot at the Masters, the Queenslander having to settle for a tie for 20th. His second place finishes in 2011 and 2013 are more indicative of his true potential. While only 27, Day’s furiously aggressive swing has led to multiple wrist and elbow injuries, but, once he gets into rhythm he is about as enjoyable to watch as any other player, McIlroy included. Nevertheless, if he wants to stay in the same neighbourhood as McIlroy and Watson over the coming years, not to mention wunderkind, Spieth, Day needs a statement victory. This may well be his time.
It’s no fun sticking rigidly to the top of the betting market. So, we’re going to venture a little further down the market to find what we believe to be some Ole Gunnar Solskjaer style value. We’ve taken a number of things into account this week, amongst others the predicted, moody weather and the players’ ability to avoid three putts. Incidentally, if the expected rain comes then bare in mind that the shorter hitters will really struggle with the length of the course. Putting becomes difficult on changing greens and players need to be able to keep a cool head and manage the course. Grafters – another term for European golfers – don’t mind a bit of wind and rain but our focus this week will actually be on the American contingent.
Honourable mention goes to this year’s P.G.A. money leader, the late blooming Oklahoma born, Jimmy Walker. Walker has enjoyed phenomenal success since the back end of 2013, winning five times, most recently in the Valero Open in his adopted home- state of Texas. Last year, on his Masters debut, he hung tough at the business end of the leaderboard, eventually finishing a highly commendable eighth. At thirty-six, composure is not going to be a problem and following minimal research it seems he manages trying conditions as well as if not better than most. Where is his Achilles heel, you say? Well, despite the outstanding form of Walker, it would be remiss of us to describe 22/1 as a value bet on a man who has yet to win a major, and who has actually taken his place in the field in just six majors to date.
We couldn’t go on without a quick mention of the PGA’s prodigal son, Dustin Johnson. D.J., despite being engaged to one of the most beautiful women in the world – Paulina Gretzky, daughter of ice-hockey legend Wayne – allegedly spent much of the first few years of this decade getting to know some of his colleagues’ wives that little bit too well while also engaging in a little too much of that fantastically catch-all American pastime of ‘partying’. Completely on his own initiative Johnson took a restorative break from competitive golf and, to his credit, the sojourn seems to have done him the world of good. He has already won, at last month’s WGC-Cadillac Championship, and climbed to the lofty heights of seventh in the world rankings. Clearly, when Wayne Gretzky tells you to pull your life together, you listen. Johnson has a great chance this week but 16/1 is far too prohibitive for our liking.
Moving on then, our first pick goes to the affable Floridian, Matt Kuchar, a man who has won plenty of the more difficult, low scoring tournaments; The RBC Heritage, The Memorial Tournament and The Barclays. While he comes to this year’s tournament in less than stellar form, Kuchar has finished no lower than tied 8th in the last three renewals of the Masters. The rain and wind shouldn’t upset the languid ‘Kuuuch’ and at 33/1 we think he’s a great each-way shout.
We’ll be the first to admit that our next pick is a bit of a wildcard, the unpredictable – our favourite euphemism for hotheaded- Keegan Bradley. Bradley, still only twenty-eight, has serious credentials, having won the U.S. PGA Championship in 2011, on his first appearance in a major tournament. Bradley is certainly not a bottler – winning a major aged twenty-four confirms as much – but we feel even at this young age he should have a few more tournament wins under his belt. He’s amongst the very best drivers of a ball on the PGA Tour and when he gets in the zone, as in the 2012 Ryder Cup, his putting can be absolutely red hot. Added to this is the fact that he finished his preparation for the Masters with a tied fifth in Houston last week. A good performance the week before the Masters certainly doesn’t assure success. Nonetheless Bradley’s performance at the Golf Club of Houston will hopefully have done his somewhat erratic confidence levels the world of good. His propensity to boil over aside, Bradley unfortunately may meet his Augusta kryptonite in his tendency to three putt greens. Still, if his iron play is as good as we know it can be then three putting hopefully won’t come into the equation too often. We’re sticking with the courage of our contradictions here, so, while we advise you to approach Bradley with caution, we feel 80/1 is just too alluring to resist.
The last player worth having a look at is Masters debutant, Brooks Koepka. He cut his teeth on the European Tour so clearly has plenty of mental strength. Further, he’s already picked up his maiden victory on this season’s PGA Tour at The Waste Management Phoenix Open. And, this guy hits the ball an absolute mile. True his lack of experience goes against him and victory maybe a bridge too far but if he starts dominating the par 5s then a top-ten finish is absolutely within his reach.
Regardless of what you’ve read in the last few days, the winner could come from any one of roughly forty of this week’s field. McIlroy is favoured for what people believe he can do on this course. Bubba Watson meanwhile has actually done it but retaining this championship has proven extremely difficult in the past. Therefore, we’re going to opt for the aggressive Jason Day, incidentally a man with a remarkable back story, to realise his potential and land his first Green Jacket on Sunday evening. And, even if it means being a little bleary eyed on Monday morning, be sure to stick the final round out. It rarely fails to thrill.
Augusta Masters 2015 – Picks
- Jason Day – e/w @ 14/1
- Matt Kuchar – e/w @33/1
- Keegan Bradley e/w @ 80/1
- Brooks Koepka – Top 10 @6/1