1pt Jimmy Walker to make the cut at 9/4 (William Hill)
1pt Phil Mickelson to be the top left-hander at 7/2 (General)
1pt e.w. Corey Conners to lead after R1 at 55/1 (Paddy Power, Betfair 1/5 1,2,3,4,5,6,7,8)
1pt e.w. Louis Oosthuizen to lead after R1 at 55/1 (Paddy Power, Betfair 1/5 1,2,3,4,5,6,7,8)
0.5pt e.w. Ryan Palmer to lead after R1 at 90/1 (William Hill 1/5 1,2,3,4,5,6,7)
JIMMY WALKER has struggled badly since winning the 2016 PGA Championship, his career derailed by Lyme disease, and this one-time Augusta contender will never win a green jacket. But he might yet sign off with a blemish-free record in the Masters, and is fancied to make the cut yet again on what's his eighth and perhaps final appearance.
So far, Walker is seven-from-seven, and on six of these visits he's been 38th or better. Only in November did he labour to 60th having made the cut on the number, but every time he's played here in April he's progressed without any alarm whatsoever.
Given that he's been out of form for a while, there's obviously a chance this sequence comes to an end, but he has comfortably made the cut in his last two PGA Tour starts, sitting 25th and 32nd at halfway. By way of comparison his form coming into the Masters in November was not as strong: he'd just finished 127th in Houston, missing by miles, and produced a similar display before that in Las Vegas.
With course knowledge set to go a long way under firmer conditions, and having shown more the last twice, prices around the 2/1 mark that he makes it eight-from-eight and again tees off at the weekend look very generous, with the best of 9/4 looking a good way off to my eye. Walker's particularly high ball-flight and the fact his wayward driving isn't punished here explain why he's always loved Augusta, and there's enough about his game right now for the affair to last until Sunday.
There are five left-handed players in this year's Masters field and four of them look capable of playing well and perhaps contending. But at 7/2, PHIL MICKELSON is probably underestimated a little when it comes to proving the pick of the quartet.
Robert MacIntyre makes his Augusta debut, which could be a big handicap especially now we're back in April and conditions are set to be firm. He's practiced with Patrick Reed and will be well-prepared; still, experience is so important here and away from the Match Play, he's been fairly quiet since landing in the US.
A bigger threat could come from Brian Harman, who has been playing well for some time and qualified after a top-three finish at the PLAYERS and a run to the quarter-finals of the Match Play. Nevertheless, his course form reads MC-44, and he'll have to rely heavily on his short-game if he's to improve significantly upon his last visit in 2018.
With Mike Weir up against it, we're left with fellow former winners Bubba Watson and Mickelson, and the former has been disappointing this year. To some extent that's true of Mickelson, too, but he was better at Sawgrass, threatened the top 10 in the Honda, and then played some really good golf only for his short-game to deny him a weekend tee-time in the Texas Open.
It's especially encouraging to see him driving the ball so well, and his irons are getting sharper. Any improvement on and around the greens, which we ought to get for a return to his favourite venue, and Mickelson is more than capable of a decent finish. He's 4/1 for a top-20, which he managed when last playing here in April, but I suspect he can finish a little further down the leaderboard and land this bet.
Crucially, he rates much better value than 7/4 favourite Watson and I would expect one of the two to put their course experience and comfort levels to use.
It's back to a one-tee start following November's split and with a late tee-time typically not a hindrance here, and the forecast set fair for the day, there are two I like from the final few groups on the tee along with one from the morning.
First, RYAN PALMER has a streakiness about him which is ideal for this market, and is an in-form, quality operator who has the game for Augusta, but can't really be expected to win a major at this stage of his career having never been one to rely on late in tournaments.
In that respect he's not dissimilar to Charley Hoffman, who led after the first round in 2017, and in Hoffman's absence I like Palmer to go low from his 1pm tee-time (1800 BST). The Texan has hit the frame in this market five times since the PGA Tour returned in June, and with eight places on offer he's done so twice in his six Masters starts. Not surprisingly, his round one scoring average here is better than the other three by quite a margin.
At 26th in the world, Palmer has never been a better player than he is now and we saw further evidence of both his strengths and his weaknesses at the Match Play. There, he played beautifully and had Jon Rahm on the ropes, but allowed the Spaniard back into their decisive match before bowing out, predictably, in extra holes.
Having broken 70 here a couple of times, and added another top-20 finish to his form chart last week, Palmer can mark his return to Augusta by featuring on the early leaderboard before perhaps those issues he has reveal themselves over the weekend. That he's 14th in round one scoring this year, which translates to 11th among the assembled field, furthers the case for one who definitely has a 67 or so in him on what should be a difficult opening day.
Later on, LOUIS OOSTHUIZEN features in one of the marquee evening groups and can outshine Tony Finau and even Justin Thomas among the trio who tee off at 1.48.
Oosthuizen is a proven major performer who saves his best golf for the strongest events, as we've seen this year courtesy of sixth place in the WGC Workday, and as we saw last year in another World Golf Championship, plus the US Open where he was third behind Bryson DeChambeau. He hasn't missed a stateside major cut since 2013 and plainly knows how to prepare for them.
A former play-off loser here, Oostuizen opened with a 68 to lie 10th after round on in November, and has twice sat second under firmer conditions at a course where his greens-in-regulation statistics are consistently strong. The former Open champion will have nothing to fear from the expected set-up and he's also become particularly comfortable on the greens lately, enough to believe he could be a potential winner here almost a decade on from having his pocket picked by Watson.
I certainly wanted to side with him in some way and this seems a good option rather than backing him to be the pick of a competitive South African bunch. He was 10th for round one scoring last year and sits 18th so far this, and seems an entirely realistic Thursday leader.
Finally, COREY CONNERS is also a threat granted a decent putting round and is my sole selection from the morning wave.
The Canadian has actually fallen victim to a couple of slow starts here but shot 65 in the second round back in November, and his form now is stronger. He led after round one of the Arnold Palmer last month and was third at the same stage in the PLAYERS, while last week he finally got the chance to defend his Texas Open title and produced another good top-20 finish.
Back at Augusta, where he has broken par in seven of his 10 rounds, he's fancied to continue his rich vein of form and make a blistering start from a nice slot, after the morning dew has been swept away. Tellingly, many of the non-elite players who've led here, including Hoffman, Bill Haas and Dylan Frittelli in recent renewals, had dropped a big hint in the build-up to Augusta and Conners has marked our cards more than once.
Posted at 1950 BST on 06/04/21
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