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THE MASTERS: Back in the early days of the pandemic, when sports and other aspects of normal life were being shuttered left and right, we looked to this time of year, Autumn, for hope and relief. For we knew that sports would be back, and not only would they be back, but that there would be a “magic time” when all the postponements and rescheduling would align, and we’d get a stretch of sporting action unlike any other in our lifetimes, with out-of-season treats overlapped with the traditional fall sports. The cherry on top of this vision was the idea of the Masters in November– we may have been robbed of the blooming azaleas and springtime majesty, but the opportunity to see Augusta National as the leaves change and the weather turns crisp was downright tantalizing. Well, friends, we have arrived. Congratulate yourselves on your perseverance and let’s all remember this week to be thankful for the things in our lives which bring us joy.

The Masters evokes strong emotions and memories from me, and in a way it has been a marker for my life. I began participating in a family-run gambling pool for this tournament around the age of 9, so this event is really the genesis of my handicapping/sports betting interests, and my 9-year old son has a team of his own for the first time this year. Eighteen months ago, when Tiger Woods left everyone stunned and speechless one more time, I spent Sunday afternoon watching history at my 90-year old grandfather’s house with four male generations of my family. Not until I was leaving did the significance of the event dawn on me… in the moment, it was more thrilling than sentimental, as I was as floored as everyone else by what we were witnessing.

I have been fortunate enough to attend the tournament several times, and everything that everyone says about the magnificence of Augusta National is true. It’s one of the cathedrals of sport, not just of golf but of sport in general, and it’s unlike any other course in that most serious golfers could describe every shot on the course despite having never played it. This is particularly true of the back nine, a mix of short par-3s, reachable par-5s, and spacious par-4s, but with treachery and disaster lurking at every turn. We’ve come to rely on the Masters for intense drama and unrivaled passion– unrivaled in golf, anyway. Will the absence of patrons this year affect that? Will the cool autumn air and different ground conditions make things less interesting and dynamic, as was the case when Zach Johnson grinded out his victory in 2007 by playing conservatively and trying to make pars? That all remains to be seen, and for now I’m not sure it’s all that important, because dawn is breaking on this miserable year: the Masters is here.

Best of luck to all this week, and remember– we get to do it all again in five months! Ain’t life grand?!

WIN MARKET

Recommendations to BACK (odds in parenthesis)

Justin Thomas (14.0)- I’ve heard a lot this week about Tiger’s title defense, about Bryson DeChambeau, about Dustin Johnson’s return to action… but I haven’t heard much about Thomas, despite the fact that’s he’s only a couple of weeks removed from a runner-up finish at the ZOZO Championship– his third runner-up in his last ten starts, a stretch that also includes a victory and only two finishes outside the top-25. In other words, Thomas is in full bloom, at the peak of his powers, and he enters this week having hit more greens in regulation over the last two Masters (108) than anyone in the field. That’s pretty strong evidence that he’s figured out how to play Augusta National– indeed, after finishing T39 on debut in 2016, Thomas has improved his finishing position every year (39-22-17-12), peaking with a T12 last year. There is no one better positioned to succeed this week, and very few who possess the talent to challenge Thomas should he get hot. He should be backed enthusiastically, even at a shortish price like 14.0.

Tony Finau (41.0)- Finau doesn’t close the deal enough. I think we can all agree on that. A man with his talent, and his knack for rising to the occasion in big tournaments with strong fields, should have more than one PGA Tour victory at this point. But that’s really the only hole you can poke in Finau’s game, and once he starts winning more regularly– which he will, rest assured– there will be nothing left to do but acknowledge the genius of the man whose unconventional swing produces some of the longest drives on Tour, and whose soft hands and steely nerve have make him into a world-class player. Finau has logged eight top-25s in his last 10 starts, including three top-5s, and has seven top-3 finishes over the past two seasons. More impressive has been his play in majors, where he has recorded an astounding eight top-10s in 17 career starts. If it seems like Finau is always on the first page of the leaderboard, that’s because he is. And he seems particularly comfortable at Augusta National, finishing 10th on debut here in 2018 and following that up with a T5 last year, when he played in the final group on Sunday alongside Woods and Francesco Molinari. So he’s used to mixing it up in high-pressure situations, and he knows what it takes to get the job done. At a price like 40/1, Finau is an absolute steal.

Matthew Fitzpatrick (92.0)- What we look for at just about any tournament– but especially this tournament, as experience and course knowledge have proven invaluable at Augusta National– are players who are in good form and have a history of success at the venue. Well, Matt Fitzpatrick ticks both boxes this week: he had a strong month of October, finishing T7 at the BMW Championship, T12 at the CJ Cup, and 26th at the ZOZO Championship, and his Masters record includes five made cuts in six career starts, highlighted by a T7 in 2016 and a 21st-place showing last year, when he rallied from a Thursday 78 to shoot 11-under par over the final three rounds. In recent years it has become trendy to say that length off the tee is the most important ingredient to success at Augusta, but great putters have always thrived in this tournament, and Fitzpatrick is one of the best in the world with the flat stick in his hands, so his consistency here shouldn’t come as a surprise. If he can find a groove with the irons– and based on the way his ball-striking stats have been trending lately, that seems very possible– he could set himself up for a life-changing week. At nearly 100/1, Fitzpatrick is one of the best values on the board and a true “live” longshot.