THE MASTERS: Though a Masters in November was better than no Masters at all, let’s face it: the tournament was missing something without the springtime majesty that makes Augusta National glow, and without the roars and echoes that fray the nerves on Sunday’s back nine. Fortunately, normalcy has returned, at least on the Mother Nature side, as the azaleas are in full bloom and the course, from all accounts, is firm, fast, and absolutely pristine. And though attendance will be limited, there will be up to 12,000 patrons on the grounds each day, so I expect we’ll still hear plenty of roars when things get exciting. In other words, the sport’s premier event is back, and though the world’s most famous golfer won’t be in attendance, all the best players will be. If this week doesn’t get your juices flowing, your “love” for the game must be different than mine.
As one of the two most iconic golf courses in the world, Augusta National needs no introduction. Designed by Alister MacKenzie and the great Bobby Jones for the express purpose of hosting this tournament, the course has undergone many renovations through the years and has been lengthened considerably, but its basic character remains intact: it’s a rolling, tree-lined layout with ample space off the tee and minimal rough. There are plenty of risk/reward opportunities, especially on the back nine, and the undulating, freaky-fast greens constitute the course’s primary defense. Imagination and great short game feel are more important at Augusta than most places, and great putters are at a distinct advantage. This is a week where you’d rather have an artful escape artist who ranks high in scrambling and putting than a fairways-and-greens machine who struggles with the flat stick. You’d rather have Freddie Jacobsen than Benny An.
Dustin Johnson won the November edition, when the course was soft and basically defenseless, and DJ is a threat to win in any conditions, but he will have to adjust his strategy if the reports about the firm and fast setup prove to be correct. When the greens at Augusta National aren’t receptive, there are certain pins you simply can’t attack, and certain places where you absolutely cannot miss it. Johnson and other Masters veterans should have a pronounced advantage in such conditions, and so it’s not surprising to see the usual suspects dominate the top of BETDAQ’s Win Market, with market leader DJ (10.0) followed by Bryson DeChambeau (12.0), Justin Thomas (12.5), Jon Rahm (13.5), and the suddenly red-hot Jordan Speith (15.0). As is always the case in a major, there are plenty of talented players with fat, tempting prices next to their names, but it’s worth noting that this tournament has been won by a player ranked no lower than 12th in the World Golf Rankings in 7 of the last 8 years. Don’t be afraid to go with a blue-chipper this week.
With that in mind, here’s what I’m thinking:
Recommendations to BACK (odds in parenthesis)
Patrick Cantlay (25.0)- Though he’s had tremendous success at every level of competitive golf, going from the world’s top-ranked amateur to a brief and highly successful stint on the Web.com Tour and then on to the PGA Tour, where he’s won three times and has cracked the top-10 in the world rankings, there is one glaring hole on Cantlay’s otherwise spotless resume: he has yet to win a major. And though some may think his style of play is best suited for the U.S. Open due to his ball-striking chops, he has said publicly that he feels like his best shot is at the Masters. The results back him up, especially lately, as he finished T9 here in 2019 and T17 last November, proving conclusively that he knows how to navigate his way around Augusta National. He’s been playing the best golf of his career this season, finding the top-20 in 7 of his last 8 stroke play starts, a stretch which includes a victory and a runner-up, so he should be primed and ready for a big week. The fact that he’s priced like a second-tier option makes him a must-bet for me.
Daniel Berger (47.0)- At what point does a “hot streak” simply become the new normal? This is a relevant question as it pertains to Daniel Berger, because over the past year he’s been a fixture on the front page of leaderboards, racking up 17 top-25s, 12 top-10s, 7 top-5s, and two victories in his last 22 starts. His ball-striking has been brilliant as usual, as he currently sits at 20th on Tour in GIR percentage and 23rd in total driving, but he’s had a breakthrough with the flat stick and now ranks among the best putters in the game, sitting at 16th in the Tour’s Strokes Gained Putting stat. Considering he hasn’t played the Masters since 2018, this will be the first time he gets a shot at Augusta National with his newfound putting proficiency, and he’s already shown a liking for the course, making the cut in all three of his Masters appearances and finishing 10th in 2016. With the way things have been going lately– remember, he’s just two starts removed from a T9 at The Players and just four starts removed from his victory at Pebble Beach– I’m guessing he has his goals set a bit higher than the top-10 this week. Berger is a legit contender for the green jacket and an absolute bargain at a price like 47.0.
Scottie Scheffler (76.0)- Despite occasional bouts of inconsistency with the putter, Scheffler seems like the type of player who should excel at Augusta– he’s both long and straight off the tee, is excellent around the greens (26th on Tour in Strokes Gained Around-the-Green), and makes loads of birdies due to his aggressive nature, ranking 15th on Tour with 4.48 birdies per round. He looked very comfortable on debut last year, shooting par or better in all four rounds and finishing T19, which was an impressive performance considering he had posted only one top-30 finish in the five starts immediately preceding the event. He’s in much better form this time around, with four top-20s in his last six starts, including a runner-up at the WGC Match Play a couple of weeks ago, so you’d have to think he’s awfully confident as he gets another chance at Augusta National just five months after first seeing the course in competition. Scheffler has already shown a knack for playing his best in the biggest events– he found the top-5 in February’s WGC-Workday, as well– so I don’t expect the bright lights and big names to phase him. He’s a bit of a dark horse I suppose, but at a whopping 75/1 he may be my favorite bet on the board this week.