- The Masters: Preview
Greatness awaits at Augusta
Will the 77th Masters Tournament see the world No. 1 claim a 15th major, or will a rival hijack that narrative?
Spring may be arriving late in Britain but, in a scenic corner of Georgia at least, the Masters Tournament always arrives on time. The April weather at Augusta National - just like in the United Kingdom - can never be guaranteed to be idyllic, but the golf is very rarely anything but dramatic.
- Tiger Woods is expected in many quarters to win his fifth title but at 3/1 he offers little value for punters. In terms of likely winners, Phil Mickelson (12/1 with bet365) looks a better prospect but there is value to be found further afield - not least among the likes of Dustin Johnson (30/1), Ian Poulter (45/1) and Rickie Fowler (50/1). But it is 75/1 shot Peter Hanson that we find particularly intriguing. He may not quite have the mental fortitude to win the event (that seemed to be the case last year) - but a paying place is more than within his grasp. And for punters, that will mean a nice little return.
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Twelve months on from a tournament that saw Gerry Watson Jr - known to his friends as simply 'Bubba' - win the famous green jacket with a remarkable gap wedge from the trees to the right of the 10th fairway that few would think to consider, let alone actually pull off, golf's great and great (the merely good do not receive an invite) return to the site of Bobby Jones Jr's enduring legacy to compete once again.
Watson will set the tone for the week with his menu choices at the traditional Champions' Dinner to begin festivities, but it is Tiger Woods who many expect the Augusta patrons to be raising a toast to come closing time on Sunday evening. After a few years of erratic form and conduct, the American is back to world No. 1 and favourite once more to win a tournament he has previously claimed four times.
Even putting aside lingering concerns about the state of his current swing, Woods is unlikely to be handed the title. Phil Mickelson, another multiple Masters champion, will put specially-manufactured clubs into his bag this week in an attempt to win the event again, while world No. 2 Rory McIlroy has a game seemingly well-suited to Augusta's particular challenges - even if it is misfiring slightly at the moment.
The established names often receive too much attention in the run-up to such tournaments, however, only for a hungry lesser light - or virtual unknown - to gallop up on the blindside and propel themselves into the sporting stratosphere. For the third year in a row, will there be a new player taking on honorary membership at Augusta?
Every player would love to count themselves among those ranks but, as Watson and Charl Schwartzel will no doubt warn them, such an honour does not come without some intense moments on the back nine on Sunday.
The tournament throws up memorable moments with a regularity that few other sporting event - let alone similar golf tournaments - can match. For that, the course itself must take much of the credit. Designed with the exact purpose of rewarding the best golfers only for successfully playing their very best shots (and punishing them commensurately for any slips of planning or execution), the 7,435-yard layout is the key component in any Masters.
Expert analysis suggests that the course favours long hitters (especially in recent times, after many holes were lengthened extensively), particularly those that hit the ball high and with a natural draw (or fade, for the left-handers). This makes sense - more holes and tee-shots on the course demand a right-to-left ball flight than vice-versa, and the prodigious sloping of the terrain makes flying the ball the whole way to the target preferable to adding in the unwelcome risk of bounce and run.
However, it would be wrong to suggest that this means the course limits the type of player who can contend.
After all; Trevor Immelman, Zach Johnson and Mike Weir - three of the past eight tournament winners - were not among the game's biggest hitters when they won. But they do underline the one must-have component needed for any contender - a razor-sharp short game. With devilish greens and awkward bunkers, any wannabe contender simply has to be able to get up-and-down with absolute precision any time they miss a green.
Half of that equation is putting - so pay particularly close attention to that come Sunday. More often than not, it is the guy who consistently holes out from inside ten feet over the final 18 holes (if not the whole week) who ends up donning the famed green jacket, and sitting in the Butler Cabin alongside long-time presenter Jim Nantz and Augusta chairman Billy Payne come Sunday evening. Bubba Watson's play-off escape from the trees may be how his victory lives on in the memory, but his putting throughout the day prior to that decisive blow was equally vital.
Testing both character and ability as far as they can go - that's the tradition of the Masters.
Barring the handful of veteran past champions (the likes of Sandy Lyle, making use of their lifetime invite to have another knock around the great course) and wet-behind-the-ears amateurs (see Northern Ireland's Alan Dunbar, invited to this event after winning the Amateur Championship last year, every player in the 93-strong field will consider themselves to have a chance of winning the Masters.
For some, however, the prospect of such a triumph is distinctly stronger than for others. We take a look at the various runners and riders to watch out for this week:
Tiger watch - the world No. 1
Tiger Woods could barely enter this tournament in better form, having won three times already on the PGA Tour in 2013. The 14-time major champion will now only be judged by his major performances, however, and will be desperate to win one this year to end a drought that now extends back to mid-2008.
The American still hopes to overhaul Jack Nicklaus's record of 18 major titles, leaving the 37-year-old work to do in the supposed 'twilight' of his career. The omens are not that bad for Tiger, however: At 37, he has played in 60 majors and won 14 of them. Nicklaus, at the same age, had played in (and won) the exact same number.
Woods finished in a tie for 40th last year, compiling the worst four-round total of his career around the course - but before that had not finished outside the top-six in all his appearances prior to his last win at Augusta, in 2005. His game is in better shape than it has been for a number of years, but it remains to be seen whether it is at the level it was when he was actually winning green jackets.
A putting lesson from Steve Stricker at Doral last month immediately produced results for Woods, which will stand him in good stead on the slick surfaces he will face once again this week. His short game, similarly, is once again in fine fettle. But his driving is the concern - even in his most recent victory, at Bay Hill, Woods seemed unable to hit a dependable draw off the tee, a shot he will most certainly need to navigate Augusta.
Woods knows how to contend at the course, and can hit a reliable, Sean Foley-manufactured baby fade into position without a significant tactical disadvantage 80 per cent of the time. But that failing could come to cost him in that other 20 per cent and, if the major jitters he exhibited at the weekend throughout 2012 return, those combined factors may make it difficult for him to win this week.
The two other obvious favourites
At the beginning of the year, it would have been hard to imagine Rory McIlroy slipping out to beyond 10/1 to win the Masters, such was his form at the end of the 2012 season. But, after both a switch of club manufacturer and extended winter lay-off (perhaps neither of which did any good for his swing), McIlroy has struggled for form and confidence in 2013, dropping to No. 2 in the world and out of many people's reckoning for Augusta.
Slowly regaining confidence, McIlroy's problem now seems to be with the distance control and consistency in his irons, something that will cost him dearly if it continues this week. If he finds an extra measure of control, however, then his natural right-to-left ball flight and strong short game could certainly enable him to pull off the sort of tournament domination he nearly completed in 2011.
If McIlroy blew the Masters in 2011, then Phil Mickelson let the green jacket slip away from him in 2012. A fine performance on Saturday had the left-hander in position to win the event, before a triple-bogey six at the fourth effectively ended his chances. Having already won in 2013 - and with a special three-wood in his bag for the tournament - Mickelson will be eager for revenge, and a fourth green jacket, this year.
Primed to contend
Could this be the moment for Rickie Fowler to come of age? The California native has a slight CV when it comes to wins, and blew a decent chance to challenge Woods at the recent Arnold Palmer Championship. But that performance in itself was evidence of the good form Fowler is currently in, and he certainly has the smooth, compact swing to plot his way round Augusta successfully.
Fowler has made the cut on his two prior appearances (T-38th in 2011, T-27th a year later) but, more pertinently, after seeing good friend Bubba Watson win 12 months ago will know exactly what it takes to win and believe he has the stuff to do so. His final round record is poor, however, something that cannot be said for Brandt Snedeker - a force to be reckoned with on the PGA Tour over the last nine months, and a player with a top-three finish at Augusta in his locker. A recent wrist injury, however, might leave him too rusty to contend this week.
If he can push the mental demons aside long enough, Sergio Garcia has shown himself more than good enough to win this event - although he does profess to hate Augusta (sacrilege!). Dustin Johnson certainly hates the greens, but has the raw power to overwhelm the course - as Bubba did last time - if the conditions prove favourable.
Elsewhere, Luke Donald's odds are longer than they have been for many a year yet his chances remain about as good as ever (ie: better than a puncher's chance, as long as it does not get too wet), while you can never rule out Lee Westwood who, despite a quiet start to the year, may just be waiting for the right time to strike after seeming to make some strides with his perpetually-unreliable short game. Unlike those two Graeme McDowell actually has a major title to his name, but he only seems to be growing slowly to Augusta's test (finishing in a tie for 12th, only the second time he has even made the cut, in 2012).
The best British money, however, might just be on Ian Poulter - the Ryder Cup hero has two top ten finishes in his last three appearances, and may just be driven by his Medinah heroics to get the major title that is missing from his otherwise impressive CV.
Worth a punt
Sweden's Peter Hanson has shown a habit of getting into contention at majors in recent times and, at 80/1 in many places, seems horribly overlooked for a player who held the lead going into the final round 12 months ago.
Elsewhere, the South African duo of George Coetzee and Branden Grace are unlikely to be fazed by debut appearances at Augusta and have the game to reach the weekend, while US Open contender Michael Thompson - who won this year's Honda Classic - is worth monitoring if the course is set up tougher than in years past.
All this talk would mean little without a few equally meaningless predictions also thrown in...
Winning score: 11-under
Lowest round: 65
Low amateur: TJ Vogel
Top debutant: Scott Piercy
Par three winner: Steve Stricker
Word you won't hear all week: Rough (known instead as the 'second cut')
Word you'll hear this week but no other: Patron (instead of 'spectators')
Snack of the week: Pimento cheese sandwich
Top European: Rory McIlroy
Top American: Dustin Johnson
Top Rest of World: Adam Scott
Winner: Rory McIlroy