THE MASTERS: The wait is nearly over, as we’re only one sleep away from the most anticipated Masters in recent memory. This feels like the one we’ve been waiting for, when the young guns who have come to dominate the sport are all in good form but so are the players they grew up idolizing, players like Phil Mickelson and, of course, Tiger himself. The ingredients for a truly memorable tournament are all there, and now we just have to sit back, take in the familiar guitar licks and Jim Nantz’s soothing baritone, and let the brilliance wash over us.
The venue needs no introduction: Augusta National is possibly the world’s most famous golf course, and its rolling hills, lush greenery, and lightning fast greens have become synonymous with springtime for golfers everywhere. The back nine at Augusta is the greatest theatre in all of golf, with lots of birdie (and eagle) opportunities but disaster waiting around every turn. Many have seen their hopes dashed at Amen Corner, but with some courageous shotmaking a player can charge up the leaderboard and ride the wave of the mythical Augusta roars all the way to golfing immortality.
Sergio Garcia broke through last year to claim his spot among the greats, and you could just feel his past frustrations melt away as he slipped on the green jacket (I mean, he has seemed like a much happier guy over the past year, hasn’t he?). Sergio will now look to become the first back-to-back winner since Tiger Woods in ’01 and ’02, but he certainly has his work cut out for him, and Tiger will be among those standing in his way.
It’s great to see Woods rounding into form again, and based on his spot near the top of the market it appears as though many expect him to do what was unthinkable only a few weeks ago: claim his fifth green jacket and 15th major championship. While that would still be an upset (in my view, anyway), there’s no denying that Tiger’s resurgence is a big reason why this year’s Masters is viewed as a pivotal moment in the sport, when we might truly see a changing of the guard, or, possibly, one more rousing triumph for the old guard.
The top of BETDAQ’s Win Market features the usual suspects– Spieth (12.0), Rory (13.5), JT (14.0), DJ (14.5), Tiger (16.5), Rose (18.5)– while players like Paul Casey (30.0), Jon Rahm (30.0), and Hideki Matsuyama (38.0) can all be found at juicier-than-usual prices. Yep, there’s plenty of red meat to choose from, and with the notable exception of Danny Willett in 2016 this tournament has been dominated by top-of-the-market types in recent years. That being said, there are only 87 players in the field, so it might be worth taking a shot on a couple of longshots in the hopes that they’ll catch lightning in a bottle (we have some experience with this, you see).
Here are a few recommendations for the 82nd Masters:
Recommendations to BACK (odds in parenthesis)
Justin Thomas (14.0)- While Dustin Johnson still sits atop the rankings, it is Thomas who has emerged as the world’s best player over the past six months. Since his victory at last year’s PGA Championship, Thomas has four wins and nine top-15 finishes in 14 worldwide starts, and if you expand that out to the top-25, he’s 13 of 14. One of the most naturally gifted players in the sport, Thomas now has the confidence and steely nerve to go along with his prodigious length off the tee and soft hands around the greens, and since he’s started to put it all together there simply hasn’t been anyone who’s been able to keep up. Augusta National seems tailor made for Thomas, who bombs it and has no trouble working the ball from right to left (two qualities that are quite helpful at Augusta), and he’s made the cut in both of his prior Masters appearances, though he’s yet to unleash one of the frighteningly low rounds that he’s become known for. But over the past few months he’s played like a man transformed– this is Justin Thomas’s time, and he knows it. I’m happy to get aboard this week at a price like 14.0.
Tommy Fleetwood (66.0)- Fleetwood’s debut at the Masters last year was a disappointment, as he opened with a 78 and went on to miss the cut. But first-timers frequently struggle at Augusta National, and Fleetwood has developed into a world-class player with an adaptable game and a penchant for saving his best stuff for Sundays. His primary strength is his ball-striking– he currently leads the European Tour in Greens in Regulation, finding the putting surface over 80% of the time– but his short game has improved tremendously over the past couple of years and his putting stats this season are the best of his career. He hasn’t won since January’s Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship, but he’s finished 26th or better in 7 of his past 8 worldwide starts and he’s shot par or better in 15 of his past 17 competitive rounds, so he’s clearly in good form at the moment. Plus, he’s a gamer– a guy who’s not afraid to mix it up with the best on the biggest of stages. That quality will come in handy this week, as Fleetwood will be paired with Tiger Woods for the first two rounds. Asked about the pairing yesterday, he seemed unperturbed: “I’m only bothered about me,” he said, “Whatever he does is not my problem, I’ve got to get on with my own stuff.” He added, “My game feels good at the moment. I feel like I’ve been preparing for quite a while.” At a price like 66.0, Fleetwood may be the best value on the board this week.
Brian Harman (134.0)- Though he’s not a name that is generating a lot of buzz this week, Harman has been on the best run of his career over the past six months and seems primed for a run at a green jacket. A Georgia native who will be getting enthusiastic support from the galleries, Harman has spent a lot of time at Augusta National, though his only previous Masters appearance (2015) resulted in a missed cut. But that was at a different time in Harman’s career– he missed the cut in all four majors that year, suggesting that he might not have had the confidence required to compete with the very best on the very biggest of stages. His breakthrough came at last year’s U.S. Open, where he finished runner-up after hovering around the lead all week. Since then, Harman has been on a tear: he’s already logged seven top-10s and five top-5 finishes this season, leading the PGA Tour in both categories. And the strength of his game is his putting, which should definitely come in handy on the treacherous Augusta National greens. All things considered, Harman is certainly worth a bet at better than 130/1.
TOURNAMENT MATCH BETS
Rickie Fowler (1.87) vs. Sergio Garcia (1.91)
Sergio has seemed like a different man since his rousing triumph 12 months ago, with marriage and fatherhood among the drastic life changes he’s experienced. There’s really no telling what that will mean for his prospects in this year’s Masters, but I have a feeling that, in the long run, a mellowed and contented Sergio will be a better Sergio. But with all the distractions that this week will entail, from the Champion’s Dinner to media obligations to his newfound priorities, I have my doubts that we’ll see him at his best. Fowler, meanwhile, comes into this week overlooked and under the radar, and he’s surely hungry for success at a place where he has finished 12th or better in 3 of his past 4 appearances. Recommendation: Fowler at 1.87
Tiger Woods (2.0) vs. Phil Mickelson (1.93)
Though Tiger has been the one in the spotlight this week, Mickelson has quietly positioned himself for another run at a green jacket, which is pretty remarkable when you consider that people were ready to write him off as over the hill just a few short months ago. The man known as Lefty has quieted that talk with his play this season, logging six top-15 finishes, including a win at the WGC-Mexico, in just nine starts. While both Tiger and Phil have tremendous records at the Masters, Mickelson has experienced more recent success, finishing 22nd last year and runner-up in 2015, and he seems to be in a “no pressure, free-roll” situation this week while Tiger will be facing intense scrutiny as the center of everyone’s attention. It just feels like Mickelson is in a better spot to succeed. Recommendation: Mickelson at 1.93