How do you solve a problem like Augusta National? Every year, the world’s best try to crack this notoriously tough nut in a bid to take home the coveted green jacket; a symbol of triumph over adversity at one of the hardest tournaments to win on the planet, The Masters.
For sports journalists and golf tipsters, it’s an equally perilous task in predicting who might be ready to collect that elusive prize late on 14 April, especially at a tournament that has thrown up its fair share of surprise victors. Who would have thought that last year Patrick Reed would rise through the pack to claim his first major and silence the doubters who have regularly criticised his bolshy persona?
The odd surprise is a frequent and mouth-watering prospect at The Masters, but a few recurrent trends do reside here…
Besting the beast
More than any other championship course, Augusta National is renowned as a track where you have to plot your way round – knowing the right places to miss, and generally avoiding getting yourself into trouble. Equally, it’s a course that often turns on imperceptible breaks on the green that only multiple years of playing reveal. As Britain’s Justin Rose heartbreakingly discovered at the 2017 tournament, the difference between victory and defeat can be only a matter of inches.
All of this goes some way to explain why old hats like Phil Mickelson and Ben Crenshaw took 11 and 12 attempts respectively before they were finally sized up for their green jackets. Both would go on to win it more than once and challenge in other years. Perhaps, then, a look through the players with multiple top tens at The Masters will reveal some of this year’s sternest contenders. Indeed, a resurgent Mickelson might well be the pick based on this angle, having already finished a close second and taken home the trophy at the Pebble Beach Pro-Am in two of his starts in 2019. Then again, Jordan Spieth has only once finished outside of the top three on one of his five visits to Augusta National – winning in 2015 and throwing away another the following year. Discount these course specialists at your peril.
Of course, outliers like Reed prove that there’s more to unlocking the keys to Augusta than simply years of experience.
Augusta favours the game’s best ballstrikers – those who hit it high, long and with spin
The Masters venue favours the game’s best ballstrikers – those who hit it high, long and with spin – and a look at the stats suggests that players who consistently top the greens in regulation average go well at Augusta. Sergio Garcia ranked sixth for the season a year before winning, Spieth had led the stats when runner-up on debut, while both Bubba Watson and Adam Scott were in and around the top ten before their first green jackets.
Of those in the top ten greens in regulation for 2018, the in-form Adam Scott (a permanent fixture in the GIR stats it would seem) is again of interest thanks to a much-improved putting set up, while streaky player Billy Horschel is one of those names with enough talent to one day top a leaderboard of this calibre.
Henrik Stenson’s game, with an emphasis on a left-to-right shot shape, is often said to be unsuitable for Augusta National but he is of small interest, too, having topped the GIR stats in 2018 and featured in the top ten GIR stats for last year’s Masters tournament on route to a T5 finish. How important a draw-favouring swing is to winning at Augusta is up for debate, but should the opportunity present itself, Stenson won’t be afraid to take victory for himself.
The marble-like greens of Augusta pose their own unique threat to the playing field, so it’s no surprise that the game’s putting maestros weave their finest melodies hear in Georgia. Crenshaw, Zach Johnson and Tiger Woods have all been chief exponents of ‘drive for show, putt for dough’ – as too was Patrick Reed last year when he outperformed on the greens with a leaderboard-topping average of 1.44 putts per hole. Habitual great putters Jason Day, Rickie Fowler and Brandt Snedeker (all there or thereabouts in previous years) would no doubt love to ride this stat to victory.
Photo by David Cannon/Getty Images
Rory McIlroy, 7/1
We hold nothing against Rory McIlroy, but there comes a point where even his greatest fans have to wonder if the Green Jacket is Rory’s white whale… As if sensing this slight wobble in support, the Northern Irishman has recently pieced together the most impressive run of form of any player on the planet, which culminated at the back end of March in him winning none other than The Players Championship – ‘the fifth Major’ – in thrilling fashion.
Navigating TPC Sawgrass’s various challenges best of all, he held off a late surge from local Florida resident Jim Furyk to post a final round two-under-par 70 to take the victory by a single shot. Tackling the terrifying island green 17th and the wicked watery 18th during the final round is no snip, but to close out his first victory in more than a year on this course of all places is even more impressive.
The victory also takes him past another milestone. He is now one of only three players to have won 15 times on the PGA Tour and claimed four Majors before the age of 30. The other two: Nicklaus and Woods.
So, is Rory a live Masters contender? You better believe it. For starters, his form reads T4, T5, T4, 2, T6, WIN in his last six appearances. Consistency: a vital characteristic needed for Augusta National. Next, there’s his Tour-leading tee-to-green stats. A humongous 2.415 average strokes gained from off the tee through to shots around the green. Ball striking of that quality has lead directly to Butler Cabin before. Oh, you think Rory isn’t a good enough putter? Well, his current average of 28.59 putts per round reads better than Tiger Woods’ 28.76 putts at his pomp in 2000. And, last but not least, Rory has finished inside the top ten at The Masters for the last five consecutive years.
It’s all stacking up: his form book is bulletproof, the stats are astonishing, and he’s brimming with confidence after his win. Spoken by the words of any true football fan: “This could be the year…”
The Reigning Champion
Patrick Reed, 50/1
The stars aligned for Reed at The Masters in 2018: he putted out of his skin, drove the ball magnificently (sixth longest average drive, top-15 for driving accuracy during the tournament), and went toe-to-toe with multiple major winner Rory McIlroy and came out on top.
Does he have it in him to replicate his performance? Simply put, it’s a tough ask. Only Tiger Woods, Nick Faldo and Jack Nicklaus – three of the greatest to ever pick up a club – have managed back-to-back victories. Of course, it doesn’t help that returning champions act as a master of ceremonies of sorts, selecting the meal for the Champions Dinner and generally being fussed by the media:
it’s easy to get caught up in the festivities.
However, after a dismal performance at the Ryder Cup in Paris, Reed has shown positive signs of life this season with a smattering of top-20 performances. His putting statistics point to a player very much comfortable with the flat stick at the moment, and should he dial in his irons in time for April, Reed might offer an each-way chance to make the top ten.
The World Number One
Justin Rose, 12/1
The most consistent player in world golf is also currently the highest ranked – Justin Rose needs very little introduction.
Rewind to 2017 and many would have expected the Englishman to have bested Sergio Garcia in a tournament that revolved around the final group on Sunday. But on the last hole of regulation play, Rose failed to convert a birdie putt that would have won him the tournament – he would go on to lose the playoff.
Back in the present, and Rose is already sitting on one PGA Tour victory in 2019, and looks as rock-steady as ever. We’ve said it before, but this could be his year.
The Course Specialists
Jordan Spieth, 20/1
Augusta was the venue where Spieth signalled his golfing talent. He finished T2 in 2014 before going one better the following year in only his second start at the hallowed US course. Joy turned to despair in 2016 when two trips to Rae’s Creek on the 12th during the fourth round led to a quadruple-bogey seven that turned a likely title defence into a catastrophic self-capitulation. Despite winning The Open since, Spieth’s aura has diminished. Even as Spieth continues to search for his sparkling best, Augusta has an inherent ability to energise the player. A final-round 64 last year gave Spieth third in his own right, despite struggling for large patches of the tournament – were he to get into a better rhythm this year, he would surely figure highly come Sunday. Generally-priced odds of 20/1 are short enough for an out-of-sorts player based on this year’s form, but few players react as well to Masters conditions as Spieth.
Photo by Getty Images
Phil Mickelson, 40/1
Phil Mickelson has started the year like a man on a mission. He cruised to victory at the Pebble Beach Pro-Am in complete control of his game. Driving woes of previous seasons look firmly behind him, the putter is hot and Mickelson still has the Midas touch with a wedge. Could he really win the tournament at the age of 48? He’s in with a great shout – and at 40/1 offers the best value of both in-form players and regular top-ten Augusta finishers.
The Young Pretender
Justin Thomas, 16/1
It would be fair to say that Justin Thomas’s T39, T22 and T17 performances in his three spins around Augusta are not representative of the precocious talent he is, but they do at least suggest someone heading in the right direction. In fact, he’d have finished closer last year but for a bogey-bogey-bogey finish on Sunday.
The 2017 PGA Championship winner certainly has the game to compete at Augusta – his long, aggressive, birdie-hungry play smacks of a golfer who is more than happy to snatch a green jacket with both hands. Another year on and clearly maturing, odds of 16/1 seem fair for one of the most complete players currently playing the game.
He’s in form, too, boasting the number one ranking for strokes gained tee-to-green and strokes gained total – i.e. Thomas is playing as well, if not better, than anyone right now.
It seems bizarre that a former-Masters champion, a one-time FedEx Cup winner and seasoned PGA Tour pro would all be classed as ‘outsiders’ for any event, but that means there might be value in supporting Adam Scott, Billy Horschel and Kevin Kisner.
Photo by Patrick Smith/Getty Images
Adam Scott, 40/1
Scott is of particular interest after a string of great performances at the end of last season continued into 2019 with a second-place finish at the Farmers Insurance Open.
Scott’s revitalised short game might make this year’s return trip to Augusta a fruitful one
Scott is one of the finest ballstrikers to have played the game in the last couple of decades, but it is his revitalised short game that might make this year’s return trip to Augusta a fruitful one. A new putter and putting grip seem to have firmed up the Australian’s occasionally tentative action – if he keeps the three putts at bay during the Masters, his 40/1 odds could look very generous indeed.
Kevin Kisner, 66/1
One of these days, Kevin Kisner is going to convert his spectacular putting statistics (fourth best at Augusta last year through four rounds) into a big victory – and with his family home residing in Aiken, South Carolina, no more than 30 minutes down the road there would be few more popular winners.
Having played the course on a number of occasions as a member of the University of Georgia golf team, Kisner also knows the course better than most.
At 66/1, his insider knowledge may well turn into gold, should lady luck smile on him.
Billy Horschel, 125/1
Billy Horschel’s 125/1 odds are not entirely representative of the player he is today. He came forward in June 2017 to announce he had been helping his wife through her battle with alcoholism – largely explaining the talented player’s slump in form. A year on, he finished the 2018 season with T11, T3 and T3 performances, culminating in a second-place finish at the Tour Championship.
Looking at Horschel’s 2018 stats shows what a well-rounded player he is – finding himself inside the top 50 for almost every metric. His third-place rank for GIR percentage – and residing inside the top 25 for strokes gained putting – might be the key to unlocking a strong Masters performance.
The Masters runs from 11-14 April.