US Masters 2014 Preview

Masters Tournament
10-13 April
Augusta National Golf Club, Georgia, USA

Introduction

An admixture conceptualised by Bobby Jones & Alister MacKenzie! Theatre; Drama; Tradition!

Amen Corner, Azaleas, Butler Cabin, Magnolia Drive, Green Jacket, Champions Dinner, Honorary Starters, Crows Nest, Eisenhower Cabin. Is there a golf (or even sports) event anywhere containing superior levels of tradition?

2014's first Mens Major is for many reasons the most eagerly anticipated Major of the four and, to many, the most prestigious title as well.

Some pundits expect 2014 to be the Rory, Phil or Adam show and that may well prove to be the case; however, I don't agree and I've seen sufficient variety in tipster selections this week to help validate that assessment.

The Course

Augusta always presents magnificently and as usual will require: reasonably long driving, precision mid- and long irons, distance control with the short irons and consistently good putting on bentgrass greens that are typically fast at around 13 on the stimp.

Augusta, while not especially difficult, is thus a good all-round examination of all aspects of players' games.

The Favourites

Those at the top of the bookmaker market are:

Rory McIlroy 11.00
Adam Scott 12.00
Phil Mickelson 14.00
Jason Day 17.00
Matt Kuchar 21.00
Sergio Garcia 23.00
Dustin Johnson 26.00
Henrik Stenson 26.00 and
Justin Rose 29.00

The top of the market has fluctuated significantly throughout the year as Tiger Woods grossly under-performed, and ultimately underwent back surgery, while promising young players such as Patrick Reed, Russell Henley & Harris English asserted themselves.

I detest backing favourites to win, versus backing longer shots each way, so here are some of my self-justifying negative thoughts on these faves:

Rory McIlroy is without a win against a quality field since November 2012 but has shortened after posting 2nd place finishes in Abu Dhabi and the Honda this year, followed by Tiger's WD.

However, he has failed to sustain his form over four rounds for most of the past 15 months and has never put four good rounds together at Augusta, including famously throwing away a 4-shot lead on Sunday in 2011. So, he has his Augusta demons to conquer and in my opinion will again prove suspect under pressure on the fast greens and simply can't be supported at 10/1.

I assign similar question marks to Adam Scott who putted brilliantly to win here last year but who showed weakness under pressure, and not for the first time either, when he threw away a commanding lead at the Arnold Palmer Invitational last time out. Adam is a bit short at 11/1, in my opinion. Similar comments also apply to Matt Kuchar who, like Scott, rather wimpishly threw away a big lead on Sunday in his most recent start; just the most recent in a continuous string of Sunday fades in 2014.

In acknowledgement of the dangers of risking hard-earned money on players who have recently been injured, we can register small black marks against Augusta specialist Jason Day, who has not teed it up competitively since the Accenture Matchplay in February, and Phil Mickelson who withdrew in Texas two weeks ago with a muscle strain – albeit regaining some followers with a handy 12th last week.

Also going against Phil, who has as good a record as Tiger around Augusta, are his age (43) and his propensity (which I detest in players at short prices) for playing himself out of tournaments with high-risk shots. Backing him at 13/1 is hard to justify, though I'll be cheering as loudly as anybody for this good guy if he's in the mix on Sunday afternoon!

Incidentally, further down the list Bubba Watson with his allergies and two perennial Augusta over-achievers Freddie Couples (back problems; again) & Angel Cabrera, who will undergo shoulder surgery after this event, must also be regarded as risky betting propositions.

Sergio Garcia (like Lee Westwood) has now contested more than 60 Majors without winning, so why should we expect he'll buck that trend this week, especially on US soil where he is still subjected to occasional negative crowd attention? It seems obvious that he's been in a better mental place in recent months but his demonstrated frailties in the USA lead me to suspect his best chance of a Major may well prove to be The Open Championship. Too short at 22/1 here!

Dustin Johnson has had plenty of Augusta experience and has always made the cut, as somebody with his prodigious talents always should, but his inability to scramble / chip to a high standard has denied him any chances to contend at Augusta. I can see no reason to change that perspective given his PGA Tour ranking of 97th this season in scrambling and his 25/1 looks on the short side to me, especially if his minor injury withdrawal last week in Houston has not 100% healed.

Henrik Stenson was arguably the world's best player as 2013 ended. However, eight starts in 2014 have yielded only one Top10 (5th) and only two Top20's. He's clearly below his best thus far in 2014 and, now 38, seems unlikely to ever make his name at Augusta after zero Top10's in eight prior Augusta starts.

Justin Rose is now justifiably regarded as an elite player and held consistent form, against the best, from winning the BMW in Sept 2011 until the end of 2013.

However, a recent missed cut and just one Top30 (8th in the Valspar) in five starts this year suggest that injury has demoted him from that top notch form level and he is a bit short at around 28/1.

A Process of Elimination

For this process, I have a strategy for logically stripping a Masters field down to a few contenders; sometimes one or none!

We start with this small field of 97 players and apply some justifiable, fact-based, logic to progressively narrow our betting focus:

1. In the entire history of The Masters only one player in 60 years, Fuzzy Zoeller in 1979, won on his first visit. Rookies are thus discarded because a course 'apprenticeship' has proven to be a prerequisite to winning at Augusta National.

Yes, I know Patrick Reed's played it a few times, but not in Masters Tournament conditions (super fast greens, etc). Further mitigating against the rookies' already slim chances this year was the cancellation, owing to bad weather, of Monday's practice round. This 'first cut' enables 23 rookies to be ignored and we're now down to 74 contenders.

2. The much-loved but uncompetitive 50-and-over's can likewise be safely ignored, thus reducing the number of players under consideration for our investment dollars by a further 11. Subtract the 45-49's as well (no Jack Nicklauses among this lot) and we lose: Olazabal, Clarke, Stricker & Duke, so we're now down to 59.

3. Many players, including some very good ones (eg Keegs, Bjorn, Kaymer, McIlroy, Simpson, etc) have proven unable to come to terms with Augusta's challenges and / or its lightning fast greens, so if we discard all players with zero course Top10's we're down to 28 players.

4. The profiles of the three most recent winners (Schwartzel, Watson & Scott) are all comfortingly similar. All showed huge consistency in the calendar years leading up to their Masters victories with zero missed cuts and at least 50% of their starts resulting in Top10 finishes.

So, our next move is to slice out players with missed cuts in 2014 and thus out go Rose, Snedeker, Els & Kuchar among 21 discards and we're down to just seven players who can win this: Mahan, Scott, Garcia, Watson, Donald, Z Johnson & Furyk.

5. Two of these are short-priced and were subjected to my negativity above, so out go Adam Scott & Sergio Garcia, along with Bubba Watson on 'medical grounds'. Allergies.

I've already pointed out that longish driving is very important, so short drivers such Jim Furyk (275yds; 170th) along with Zach & Luke at (282yds; 130th) simply don't cut the mustard off the tee.

All of which, quite neatly, leaves us with just one player who has survived all these elimination criteria: Hunter Mahan.

Even though his scrambling can be suspect, he does have three finishes in the Top12 at Augusta in the past 5 years (12th; 10th; 8th) while he ticks every other of my boxes and is thus my logical selection to win.

We've seen nine players get their Major breakthrough during the past three seasons:

2011 – Charl Schwartzel, Rory McIlroy, Darren Clarke, Keegan Bradley;
2012 – Bubba Watson, Webb Simpson;
2013 – Adam Scott, Justin Rose, Jason Dufner.

So, if that trend continues, among those who are accomplished players but still waiting in the Major wings (Poulter, Westwood, Kuchar, Donald, Dustin Johnson, etc), why not Mahan?

SmartGolfBets' Masters Selections

Winner
My win tip is Hunter Mahan, by virtue of the above reasoning. As I write he's paying 45.00 – 55.00 around the traps.

Top5 / Place / Each Way
My only selection in this category is Gary Woodland (67.00 generally) who ticks almost every box: he hits it long, owns an Augusta Top30 (along with a meritorious WD) and has a strong recent form trend with three consecutive Top20's on Tour.

Top10
I independently prepared my own Top10 market and then compared it with the early bookmaker prices to determine the biggest 'overs' – bookmaker price too generous. A standout was:

Chris Kirk 15.00 (Rated 10.00 by me). He hasn't missed a cut since The Barclays last August and has developed into a player who would not surprise with a bold showing here.

Exotic Markets

I've scoped the multifarious other markets on the event, hunting for a bit of price value. Two of the best were:

Marc Leishman 12.00 Top Australian (8.00 by me).
KJ Choi 3.75 Top Asian.

Exchange Betting

In yet another week where laying the favourites can be justified, my advice as an opening lay gambit is to consider laying pre-tournament most of the players shorter than 30/1 (31.00) plus selected others who are either rookies, proven course failures or out of form in recent starts.

If you like a bit of back-to-lay action, a number of quality players are at big prices on Betfair relative to their ability and will shorten if they get anywhere near the lead. My top recommendations are:

190.00 Theodore Ernest Els who may have one or two Major efforts left in him and who has six Augusta Top10's on his cv and;

For those who have an ageist bias that precludes backing Ernie, rapidly-developing Victor Dubuisson (170.00) is my 2nd choice.

Finally, bear in mind that it's generally difficult to play catch-up at Augusta, so if the guy you've backed is well in it with a round or three to go, remember that fewer than usual challengers, as compared with a regular tour event, will jump up the leaderboard.

As is so often the case with exchange betting, patience is key if you've backed a guy pre-tournament, or in-play, who's got into contention. Keep some powder dry for later!
Good luck with your punting!

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