DJ ready to master Augusta
Our golf expert Ben Coley is backing Dustin Johnson to win the Masters but suggests a saver on Phil Mickelson.
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It's almost upon us.
At the time of writing, 239 days have been and gone since Rory McIlroy romped to a second major success at Kiawah Island. Just three remain until the 77th Masters Tournament.
As is customary with the season's first major, the hyperbole machine has been in overdrive for months. Storylines can be found everywhere: the return of Tiger Woods, the fall and rise of Rory McIlroy, the preparation of Phil Mickelson - truly, the scene is set for a great tournament.
Indeed, it's possible to argue that this is the strongest Masters that's ever been played.
That may sound like I'm pushing the boundaries of reality, but certainly in my lifetime I don't recall one so packed with potential, and everything I know about the sport tells me that while a final foursome of Woods, McIlroy, Mickelson and Tom Watson is about as likely as a last minute invitation for yours truly to carry the latter's bag, the four days to come will not quickly be forgotten.
So, where do we start? This is, after all, a betting preview, and you probably don't need me to whet your appetite - so I'll try instead to find you the winner.
No field is as elite and exclusive as the Masters. While club professionals can play their way in to the season's other three majors, you have to be pretty damn special to get an invitation to make the journey up Magnolia Lane and for that reason, shocks are not particularly common.
The course, last modified in 2006, is one which requires experience. Only one player has won on their debut, and very few have managed to earn a Green Jacket on just their second visit, although Charl Schwartzel did exactly that just two years ago.
Length is an advantage, but don't be fooled into believing it's everything. At 7,435 yards, this isn't the longest par 72 you'll see all season and there are two key reasons that length is considered important: one is that par-five performance tends to be essential, and the other is that there is no 'rough' as we know it, simply a first cut which does not punish the errant in the way that a US Open setup would.
Getting the ball out there will help, but this course played very long when Zach Johnson plotted his way to victory by demonstrating an exceptional wedge game, while among recent nearly-men are the likes of Matt Kuchar and Luke Donald, neither of whom would sit towards the top of any power charts.
Those, for me, are the key staples of any Masters staking plan.
We need a big-time performer with course experience, an ability to play par-fives well, possibly with a big drive in the bag and certainly with a tidy short game.
Mickelson and Woods have both stressed that avoiding three putts is essential here, and that requires two things: a dab hand with the flat stick if necessary, but first and foremost the ability and experience to miss in the right places.
It may therefore surprise you to learn that neither Woods nor Mickelson headline the staking plan, and here's why.
As far as Woods goes, it simply comes down to price. I'd back him at 6/1, but I will not take a best of 4s. Every stat going tells you he will win - nobody on Tour is playing par-fives better and nobody is putting better. Nor are any of them Tiger Woods, who has won this tournament four times.
But for me, there remains a lingering doubt about the greatest player I've ever had the pleasure of watching, and that doubt is how he's performed in majors over the last few years.
You have to go back to 2008 for the most recent of Woods' 14 major titles, and while there have been some well-documented reasons for his abstinence, they don't excuse him.
Most disconcerting was his second to YE Yang in the 2009 PGA Championship, when for the first time someone went eyeball to eyeball with him and didn't back down. Almost as worrying was last year's US Open, when Woods - who arrived in form - led at halfway only to finish outside the top 20.
A year earlier, he'd played his way into a share of the lead in this very tournament during the final round, only to falter as soon as victory was within his grasp. None of these things mean he can't or won't win another major - I expect he will - but they're doubts enough to put me off a 4/1 shot.
Mickelson tempts me more, and he makes the staking plan as a saver. Three Masters titles in nine years tell their own tale, and no player is lit up by Augusta quite like the fans' favourite.
He was close to headline bet material, but I just think back to last year, when he should have won, and come to the conclusion that it's probably time to get with the younger crop as the way to profit from the event.
Take a look at recent majors and you'll see a growing trend for bright young things emerging on top. McIlroy, Keegan Bradley, Webb Simpson, Louis Oosthuizen, Schwartzel, Watson, Martin Kaymer - these are the new kids on the block and they're very, very good.
Those names account for eight of the last 10 major championships and the more I think about that fact the more significant it becomes, especially as we can get some talented, younger players on side at generous prices.
First on my list is Dustin Johnson, about whom 33/1 makes a great deal of appeal.
At the start of the season, when DJ won in Hawaii, all the talk was that this was the guy to serve it up to McIlroy - the best of the new US generation. It was a belief born from his performances in the other three majors, a fine Ryder Cup, and a record-breaking set of PGA Tour form figures since he left college.
For one reason or another, the following three months didn't go so well for the big-hitting American, whose off the course exploits earned as much press as his play on it. But last time out saw a return to form in the Shell Houston Open on a course designed to mimic Augusta, and that share of fourth should set DJ up for a big week.
Most encouragingly, Johnson ranked fourth for strokes gained putting in Houston and found something in his swing too, telling reporters: "I felt really good with the golf swing. Hit a lot of the great iron shots."
As far as Augusta National goes, it should be a perfect fit for Johnson, even if his results don't quite show that so far. He's one of the longest hitters on the planet, can work the ball both ways, and has ranked 12th, sixth, 14th and second over the last four years for par-five birdie or better conversion.
He says he likes the course and that it sets up perfect for him, and I see no reason why that shouldn't be the case. No, he hasn't contended here yet, but neither has he missed a cut - finishes of 30-38-38 are promising given how important it is to gather experience of this layout.
Indeed, look back at last year's winner Watson and you'll find great encouragement. Watson is a long, hugely gifted player who had been to the Masters three times, made three cuts, but hadn't bettered a share of 20th prior to his success. He arrived at Augusta in form last year, just like DJ does now, and put experience both of the course and of going close in other majors to good use.
Can history repeat? Well, almost. Defending champions have a very poor record here - largely owing to the responsibilities they face on their return - and instead it's the similar profile of Dustin Johnson who stands out as the best bet this week.
Next on my list is Charl Schwartzel, who appeals as the fourth most likely winner and looks generously priced at 25/1.
To win the Masters on just his second try was a sensational effort from Schwartzel, made all the more impressive by the fact that he'd never really had a chance to win a major before yet strode through the door with four birdies in four fabulous closing holes.
It was a victory aided by some dinnertime advice from none other than Jack Nicklaus, who told Charl exactly how he used to approach every single hole when they met prior to the 2011 tournament.
Clearly, then, this is a track that Schwartzel can tame and his title defence can be easily overlooked - indeed, history says he did well to make the cut.
To elaborate on that, only one player in history has won his second Masters title immediately after his first, and that man is Nick Faldo.
The late, great Seve Ballesteros missed the cut as defending champion, but then finished third and first on his next two visits. Ben Hogan, Arnold Palmer, Nicklaus and Mickelson all won their second Green Jacket two years after their first.
Mike Weir, Bernhard Langer, Fred Couples, Vijay Singh and Angel Cabrera all struggled on their defence before improving significantly a year later. Woods, Ben Crenshaw and Jose Maria Olazabal are three other notable examples of players whose start after their first win is among their worst at Augusta.
That both underlines the task faced by Watson and enhances the prospects of Schwartzel, who has been playing superb golf for the best part of six months now.
Last week's tie for 22nd in Texas represents his worst strokeplay result since October, and I wouldn't be too concerned by his failure to feature - no, for me it represented a perfect preparation, not dissimilar to the one he had two years ago.
Schwartzel has made the frame in a remarkable eight of his last 11 strokeplay starts worldwide, winning two of those, and while this is a higher grade we already know he has the game to win here at Augusta.
From a statistical perspective he looks exceptionally strong in every area, with a first on Tour for three-putt avoidance particularly encouraging given the importance of lagging close from range, and if he can play the par-fives in nine-under as he did two years ago then the South African won't be far away.
Third on my list is Rickie Fowler, despite slight reservations that this could be a year or two too soon.
The impressive 24-year-old has only played in the event twice, but finishes of 38th and 27th are enough to suggest that he has what it takes to compete here for many years to come.
Rickie isn't the longest hitter on Tour by any means but he can get it out there, and his victory in last season's Quail Hollow Championship speaks to how well he can play a tough, championship-standard par 72 of this sort of length.
So far this season Fowler has finished in the top six in half of his strokeplay starts, and I was really impressed with him for 71 of the 72 holes in the Arnold Palmer Invitational last time, when third behind Woods.
We all know what happened on the 16th hole on Sunday but for Fowler to have been in a position where he could attempt to apply pressure to Woods at Bay Hill - something many a man had failed to do before him - was impressive enough, and there's just something about him that strikes me as particularly special.
His demeanour on the course, the way he speaks off it, and the way he's derived benefit from the tough lessons all players have to learn on Tour have all impressed me, and as a close friend of Watson he'll be eager to be part of Sunday night's presentation ceremony.
Fowler was eight-under on the par-fives at Bay Hill prior to making that eight on the 16th, and that follows on from some impressive play on the Tour's longer holes this season. He's also among the top 25 in par breakers, scoring, birdie or better conversion, strokes gained putting and scrambling, and has all the tools to tame Augusta.
We saw two seasons ago in the Open Championship that he can rise to a challenge and having become a winner since, the in-form Fowler could prove an extremely popular winner this week.
I'll put up Nick Watney in slight preference to Peter Hanson as my fourth main selection.
Watney is a self-confessed lover of Augusta, as he confirmed in 2011. "I love it here," he told reporters. "I love the feel of the event. And as far as the golf course, for some reason, my eye just sees the lines. I like to play a draw, and it's documented that a draw works well around here. I love everything about it."
Having finished seventh in 2010 and lost a three-shot lead in the final round of the same season's PGA Championship, Watney was speaking in 2011 as one of the fancied players, but could only finish 46th. Last year, he simply wasn't playing well but managed to finish 32nd. This time around, preparation could be ideal.
I say that because Watney closed out the Shell Houston Open with a confidence-boosting 67 to finish just outside the top 20, and has been playing solid but unspectacular golf since sharing fourth in the Farmers Insurance Open.
It may seem odd that unspectacular golf can be considered an ideal preparation, but for a quiet, unassuming character like Watney it may just be that way - he knows he has what it takes to contend here, but the spotlight is elsewhere.
Like Johnson and to a slightly lesser extent Fowler, Watney has the experience of being in contention in majors and has shown himself to be a tough character capable of winning regularly in big tournaments like the WGC-Cadillac Championship, and two late-season wins in 2012 have been too quickly forgotten in my book.
Those titles turned around what had been a most disappointing season for Watney, meaning on paper his stats look poor, but if we go back further his par-five birdie or better conversion has always been excellent - in each year from 2008 to 2011 he ranked inside the top 10 on Tour.
If Watney can produce on the longer holes again, he could go very close at a course which fits. I'm sure many remember Butch Harmon hailing him as a future Masters winner back in 2010, and at the price it's worth chancing that this is his year.
Finally, Phil Mickelson simply has to go in as a saver.
In a sense it's always hard to know exactly which Mickelson will show up, but he played nicely in Houston and has already got on the board this season, so it's fair to expect he'll go close at his favourite venue.
My concerns are that he likes to play the week before Augusta, but owing to a schedule change he wasn't able to follow the path he likes to. I don't think his price is quite enough to warrant a chunky single, but I do think he should be clear second-favourite and I'll back him to ensure a level week if he does win for a fourth time.