THE MASTERS: One of the most magical weeks on the sporting calendar has returned, as a select field of 91 players will vie for a green jacket and a piece of golfing immortality on the hallowed grounds of Augusta National, the course that Bobby Jones built.
The Masters may not be golf’s oldest championship, it may not have the largest purse or strongest field, but it has a certain mystique and an almost spiritual grandness that sets it apart from all the other majors. The traditions are well known, like the amateurs in the Crow’s Nest, the famed Champion’s Dinner, the past champions invited to play in perpetuity… but what makes it special are the memories and echoes of the past that haunt every square inch of the place. Even if you’ve never made it closer to the gates of Augusta National than your television set, each hole conjures up memories of players and moments from the past. There have been moments of ecstasy, like Mize’s pitch-in on 11, Nicklaus raising the putter during his final win in ’86, Crenshaw breaking down after his improbable victory following the death of Harvey Penick, Mickelson’s leap for joy after finally getting the monkey off his back, Couples having his ball somehow stay on the bank by Rea’s Creek on number 12 during his win in ’92, Bubba Watson carving one out of the trees on 10 to seal the deal, Matsuyama’s caddie giving the course a solemn and respectful bow following the completion of the 72nd hole last year… and of course the flood of Tiger memories, like his embrace of his father following the record-breaking performance of ’97, the incredible pitch shot on 16, when his ball hung on the lip for just a split-second before dropping and unleashing pandemonium, and the full-circle moment when he embraced his son after his unexpected triumph in 2019.
And then there are the moments of agony, like Hoch’s blown 18-incher in ’89, Norman sitting by himself and gazing into the pond in the midst of his infamous final-round meltdown in ’96, McIlroy’s snap-hook on 10 during a final-round 80 that arguably changed the course of his Masters career, and Spieth’s implosion on 12 a few years later that forever shattered his aura of mental invincibility.
All these memories seem crisper for the Masters than they do for other tournaments, and I’m sure the fact that the same course has been used since the tournament’s inception in 1934 is the primary explanation for that. And make no mistake, Augusta National is the star of the show, the great stage that ties the generations together. Designed by Alister MacKenzie and 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 with a tremendous short game and putting touch than a fairways-and-greens machine who struggles with the flat stick.
Of course, last year’s winner Hideki Matsuyama does break that mold a bit, as he’s long been known as the quintessential ball-striking machine who gets a bit sideways with the putter at times. But he’s always played well at Augusta, and in fairness his putting has improved considerably over the years. A neck injury that forced him to withdraw from last week’s Valero Texas Open is a big reason why his price has ballooned to 60.0 on the BETDAQ Exchange, and I have yet to hear a single person predict a Matsuyama repeat. I think I’ll join the crowd on that one, though we should mention that Hideki is already a winner of sorts after a well-reviewed Champions Dinner menu that included A5 Waygu ribeye steak (currently going for a cool $30 per ounce at your local butcher), assorted sushi, and a “Japanese strawberry shortcake” that was apparently the talk of the night. Umai!
Recommendations to BACK (odds in parenthesis)
Justin Thomas (15.0)- Despite being perched at his usual spot near the top of the market it almost feels as if Thomas is flying under the radar this week, with more attention being focused on players like Scottie Scheffler, Jon Rahm, and a certain 5-time champ who just may be making his long-awaited return to competition. Thomas is in a great spot, though– he’s been hot lately, with three top-10 finishes in his last four starts (not counting WGC Match Play), including a T3 at the Valspar in his most recent stroke-play event, and his ball-striking has been absolutely tremendous all season, as he ranks 5th on the PGA Tour in strokes gained on approach and 2nd in strokes gained tee-to-green. Most importantly, he seems to be figuring out Augusta National, as his finishing position improved here in each of his first five appearances, culminating in a 4th-place showing in 2020, before he snapped the trend with a still-respectable T21 last year. Thomas is my pick to win this week and the shortish price certainly isn’t going to stop me from backing him.
Tyrrell Hatton (68.0)- Augusta National has not been kind to Hatton over the course of his career, as he’s only found the top-20 once in five Masters appearances and has broken par just three times across 16 competitive rounds. That being said, his lone top-20 and two of those three under-par rounds came last year, when he closed with a 68, his career-best Masters round, to tie for 18th. There’s certainly a case to be made that he’s finally learned how to succeed at Augusta, and with the run he’s currently on– four straight top-25s, including a runner-up finish at last month’s Arnold Palmer Invitational– his confidence has to be sky-high right now. It’s worth mentioning that Hatton has been an absolute demon on the greens this season, leading the PGA Tour in strokes gained putting, putts per round, and average distance of putts made. If he’s ever going to make a serious run at a green jacket, now feels like the time. He’s a great value at a price like 68.0.
Si Woo Kim (126.0)- Kim has been remarkably consistent this season, making the cut in 12 of his 14 starts and finishing 26th or better ten times, including a T13 in San Antonio last week that featured four straight rounds of par or better on a very demanding course. So his game is razor-sharp as he heads to the major where he’s had the most sustained success, making the cut in each of his past four Masters appearances and finishing no worse than 34th. Last year marked his best result yet, a 12th-place showing in which a Saturday 74 was the only blemish, so like Hatton and Thomas, Kim seems to be getting more and more comfortable at Augusta National each time out. And unlike many who populate the bottom-half of the market, he’s proven that he can rise to the occasion in the Sunday pressure-cooker and stare down the sport’s biggest names. The bright lights do not intimidate him. If you’re looking for a live longshot this week, you could do a lot worse than Kim.