4pts e.w. Justin Thomas at 12/1 (William Hill 1/5 1,2,3,4,5,6,7,8,9)
3pts e.w. Rory McIlroy at 18/1 (bet365, William Hill 1/5 1,2,3,4,5,6,7,8)
1.5pts e.w. Paul Casey at 35/1 (William Hill 1/5 1,2,3,4,5,6,7,8,9)
1pt e.w. Jason Day at 55/1 (bet365, Betfred 1/5 1,2,3,4,5,6,7,8)
0.5pt e.w. Si Woo Kim at 100/1 (Sky Bet 1/5 1,2,3,4,5,6,7,8,9,10,11)
"Anything you learn today, this week, forget it."
That was the advice Jon Rahm offered to Sebastian Munoz during the final round of the 2020 Masters. Munoz, who would go on to finish 19th, was one of a collection of first-timers who found Augusta National more welcoming than perhaps they expected. At the top of the leaderboard, Sungjae Im might have become the first player since Fuzzy Zoeller in 1979 to triumph on debut had it not been for Dustin Johnson, and that would have been fitting in a unique renewal.
In the end, the world's best player was a dominant winner of a tournament which saw records tumble. Cameron Smith became the first man in history to break 70 in all four rounds, and he was five behind the champion, who twice shot 65. Scoring-wise, November 2020 might not have been all that much lower than April 2019, but that too was a historically easy renewal, soft greens key to both. When you give the best players in the sport big, receptive targets, they can make even the most devious of courses look simple.
Perhaps Rahm is wrong to write off November entirely. Players like Munoz, Im, Collin Morikawa and Scottie Scheffler might benefit from having walked golf's most iconic walk, from having stood on that 12th tee and faced up to an awkward club selection and still shallow target. But what they didn't experience was the real Augusta National, and following a dry spring, all indications are that this week's test will be fundamentally different.
The Augusta National Women's Amateur, won by Tsubasa Kajitani, gave us an early look at conditions and it was noticeable that the greens appeared to be far less amenable than five months ago. Described as 'crispy' by one participant and with a steady wind drying them out further as the tournament progressed, they look primed to ask serious questions. It is not only Jordan Spieth who is 'back'.
Spieth hasn't quite made his way to the head of the market, but at 11/1 he's shorter than he was even to win a weak Texas Open. That he did so, ending a victory drought which had been approaching four years, may prove invaluable and he looks to hold an outstanding chance at a course he adores. Twice runner-up either side of a dominant victory in 2015, he would be preferred to Johnson and Bryson DeChambeau of what's currently the top three in the market.
But it's JUSTIN THOMAS whose preparation appears best of all and he's long looked a Masters winner in waiting, so the recently-crowned PLAYERS champion once again heads my staking plan.
Thomas was fourth here in November, but the changing conditions weren't necessarily a factor in his continued improvement. He simply made a few putts this time, something he'd failed to do on four previous visits which showed progressive form figures of 39-22-17-12 but always left a sour taste, particularly in 2019 when he hit the ball so well he declared that he ought to have won.
That's quite a statement when you've just finished a non-threatening 12th, and the actual winner is Tiger Woods, but it speaks to how comfortable Thomas is from tee-to-green at Augusta. Right from his first visit, he ranked 11th in greens hit, progressing to sixth, second and third across his next three, and sixth again in 2020. There's nobody in the field who can match him on that score.
Perhaps he did find November's greens less fearsome but more likely is that he has figured things out just a little and, as we saw on his latest stroke play start at Sawgrass, his long-game is good enough to beat the best players in the world without lighting up the greens. In fact, that's been true of all three of his victories since the beginning of 2020, including when he lost strokes to the field with the putter but still won a World Golf Championship at Southwind.
Here at Augusta, it's iron play which so often separates the field. Three of the last six winners led in strokes-gained approach, which would be four had Justin Rose kept Sergio Garcia at bay, and all six ranked inside the top five. Nobody hit more greens in regulation than Johnson, in fact nobody ever has. Woods also topped that old-school statistic in 2019 and it has long been key to passing this relentless exam, whether conditions have been soft or firm or somewhere between the two.
Coming into last year's renewal, Johnson had led the field in strokes-gained approach in two of his previous five starts. Woods had also led in one of his, and even Reed — not typically an outstanding iron player — had managed it three starts before winning here. Go further back and while we've no such data for Sergio Garcia, he led the field in greens hit en route to victory in the Dubai Desert Classic and was likely one of the top couple from a strokes-gained perspective, too.
Thomas is one of the best iron players I've ever seen, certainly among the best around at the moment, and that aspect of his game could be all the more important under the expected conditions as greens repel all but the most precise shots. With his short-game outstanding — I'm not sure there's anyone bar 2018 winner Reed who pitches better from a tight lie — it's off the tee that he'll need to be on his game, and he was better at the PLAYERS than he's been for some time.
I would think he's the most likely player in the field to top that approaches chart, something he did in the Tournament of Champions, or at least be best from tee-to-green as was the case at Sawgrass. Thomas led the PGA Tour in SG: Approach last season, ranked second in 2019, and sits third for the current campaign. This reliable iron play of his should open up plenty of scoring opportunities and on his sixth visit, he can avoid the quiet Saturday back-nine which cost him a chance here last time.
We saw the full Thomas repertoire in the best event so far this year just three weeks ago, including some low, running hooks which could be ideal for holes two, five, 10 and 13 in particular, and this is an outstanding chance. I understand why he isn't favourite and everyone at the front of the betting is respected, but I don't think there's a player with a better profile in the field.
Of those other obvious contenders, it'll be fascinating to see how Rahm goes having become a father at the weekend. I can buy into the idea that the Spaniard might improve for parenthood, particularly in majors where he's so far underachieved just a little, and he's plainly comfortable at Augusta. Still, he's been relatively quiet recently, and those equipment changes he made at the start of the year might continue to hold him back.
The above paragraph is my attempt to delay confirmation of the staking plan, akin to a teenager, eyes fixed on the floor, about to tell his parents he's put a golf ball through the kitchen window. But here goes: I think RORY MCILROY is overpriced with so many places on offer and that's pretty much that.
I don't suppose I really can leave it there, and the four-times-a-year crowd may be oblivious to the errors of Phoenix, Riviera and wherever else. There's no avoiding it, though: I've put McIlroy up several times this year and while sixth, 17th, MC and 28th are not disastrous results, they do add up to a grand total of nothing in return.
Nevertheless, he has at times played some very good golf and the point I'd like to make is that his relative struggles are overplayed. He's finished in the top 25 in 11 of his last 13 stroke play starts, six of those being top-10s, and his Augusta record is similarly strong. Just once in his last seven visits has McIlroy finished worse than 10th, and on five occasions he's been eighth or better, in doing so placing pretty much wherever you shop.
That's an extraordinary record, and it would be wrong to assume he's always arrived at the top of his game. In fact in 2018, his best chance to win this since 2011, his long-game in particular had been poor. McIlroy had stormed to victory at Bay Hill on the shoulders of his putter, returning to the world's top 10 in the process, but had missed two cuts, gone out early at the Match Play, and finished 59th in the Honda Classic.
Widen the lens to the previous year and his 10 pre-Masters starts on the PGA Tour yielded a grand total of one finish of better than 20th — that victory at Bay Hill. His form now is far more solid but the nature of the player, perhaps even the character, guarantees fervent debate. And to be clear, I absolutely understand where it comes from, and why he's scrutinised so intensely.
The bottom line is that if his game is decent, he can hit the frame here. If it is good — if the work with Pete Cowen pays off quickly, which it might, given that Cowen has promised not to pull him away from the swing he's built this remarkable career out of — then he can contend. And if he can avoid the sort of start which saw him lie 77th and 10 off the pace in November, and build that confidence he depends on, then yes he absolutely can win.
There are plenty of concerns, but I think that's true of most players, and am hopeful that having started the week playing a practice round with Johnson, McIlroy might end it receiving a green jacket from the world number one. Above all else, I don't think he should be four to six points bigger than he was in November, when he managed to finish fifth despite that horror start. And he doesn't need to be at his best to prove it.
If anyone is to look a silly price as the event unfolds, it's probably either Brooks Koepka or Tyrrell Hatton, and both made my shortlist as a consequence. The trouble with Koepka is he's a fortnight out of surgery on a dislocated knee and hasn't played competitively since February. Butch Harmon says his swing looks great, and he's been hitting balls all weekend, but Augusta is a difficult walk which will expose any physical issues.
As for Hatton, as a quality iron player who has made winning a habit, and who is ranked eighth in the world, there is quite simply no other tournament in which he could possibly be 50/1 at the moment. Here at Augusta, however, he's done nothing in four starts to suggest he's a winner-in-waiting, and course form has generally been of extreme importance at a dramatic and frustrating venue which isn't for everyone.
Perhaps Hatton will figure it out, but all of his disappointments lately have been on the biggest stage whereas PAUL CASEY has been producing the goods and that's enough to suggest he can reward each-way support once more.
Like Garcia and Danny Willett, Casey arrives at Augusta having won the Dubai Desert Classic at the beginning of the year, but whether that's a worthwhile correlation I'm not so sure. What is of benefit to him is simply having won again, something he's not always found easy, and the dominant nature of his victory there in the Middle East has provided the platform for what looks set to be a massive year.
Since then, Casey has finished 12th from the wrong side of the draw in Saudi Arabia, fifth at Pebble Beach, 10th in the Arnold Palmer and fifth in the PLAYERS, despite nursing a wrist problem which seems to have cleared up. In his sole subsequent start he was a little disappointing in the Match Play, but he produced some decent numbers and was without his regular caddie that week.
At 17th on the PGA Tour in strokes-gained approach (ninth last season) and having long been one of the best drivers around, we know Casey has the ideal game for Augusta and that's reflected in his results. Ever since contending on his debut in 2004 he's produced stacks of good golf here, with eight top-20 finishes in 14 appearances and three of his four top-sixes coming in his last six visits, evidence that his experience is paying off.
All of this is fairly straightforward, horses-for-courses calculation. Take a dot-to-dot approach to the Masters, and focus on good course form, a recent win, a high world ranking, and brilliant ball-striking, and of course he will come up. But the key thing for me is that while 43 years old, Casey's recent major performances suggest, at this level, he is ready to peak.
First, he contended for the PGA Championship at Harding Park and finished second. Almost two decades on from his very first European Tour victory, this was as close as he has come to winning a major. Casey's previous best was third in the 2010 Open, but that was a distant third. Only twice — Augusta in 2004, and Harding Park last year — has he been within two of the lead with 18 holes to play, and properly in the mix.
Then, here in November, he led following a first-round 65. That was the first time he's ever ended a round of the Masters at the top of the leaderboard, and while he will have been disappointed not to kick on, it was another step towards potentially winning one of these. One thing that ties most major champions together, including just about everyone who has won here recently bar perhaps Charl Schwartzel, is that they've had a real taste of contention in the recent past.
Perhaps Casey can in fact win a major championship, following the lead of Garcia and Adam Scott, who many had written off, or else Henrik Stenson and Darren Clarke, who earned Claret Jugs in their forties. Regardless, everything is in place for a big week and I'm happy to take my chances when it comes to how he finishes things off on Sunday.
Daniel Berger is similarly trendy, that is to say he's a recent winner with a top-10 finish here and ticks in all the right boxes. He's of some interest along with Viktor Hovland, who at first glance looks a little shy on experience, yet ranked fourth for greens hit when playing well here as an amateur. It's possible to view his recent dip more favourably, particularly as he signed off the Match Play making birdies, but 33/1 is probably not giving enough away and I'm happy to wait for next month's PGA Championship.
Instead, with firm conditions increasing the advantage held by those who can hit it high and land it soft, I'm happy to chance JASON DAY at 55/1.
Like McIlroy, Day hasn't won in a little while and that's a negative whichever way you dress it, but the way he played in the final round of the PGA Championship last year does help. Day flushed it that week and might have given Morikawa something to think about had the odd putt dropped, but above all else he looked totally comfortable in the mix, as well he should.
Since then, he's undergone further changes to his equipment and support team, with Chris Como now his coach, and in general I like what I've seen. Certainly, he has produced some eye-catching performances, not least when ranking second in strokes-gained tee-to-green at Sawgrass, and his driving there was as good as it has been in a very long time.
The worry is he's never been the best iron player, but there have been some better signs in that department too and it's really the putter that needs to warm up. Once one of the best in the world, the Australian has been very much in-and-out on the greens and missed a number of short putts at Sawgrass last time.
That's the risk we'll have to take, compensated by a generous price for one whose Augusta record features three top-five finishes, including as recently as 2019, 10th in 2016, three more top-30s, and just the one failure. That came in November, when he played poorly in round two, but perhaps these firmer conditions will prove more suitable and that high launch of his will certainly be more of an advantage.
Day has played well at courses where he's comfortable this year, such as at Pebble Beach when seventh and when unrewarded at Sawgrass, and I've always felt he's up to winning this. If he does hit the ball as well as he did in the PLAYERS, at the very least he'll have the opportunity to bag some nice place money.
On a lengthy shortlist, Louis Oosthuizen's reliability in the biggest events and increased consistency here mark him out as a potential each-way contender, but it's Sergio Garcia I found hardest to leave out. The 2017 champion says he's discovered a putting fix and has been hitting the ball extremely well all year, including at the Match Play, where he eliminated Lee Westwood with a hole-in-one, and when eighth at Sawgrass.
The problem with Garcia is that since winning here four years ago, his major record has been atrocious. Just why that is I'm not sure even he knows, and perhaps missing the November edition through Covid-19 will have given him the opportunity to reset. Certainly, he's a prime candidate to produce that field-leading approach display which would surely guarantee a much improved result.
However, at more than twice the price I'll chance SI WOO KIM turning up and delivering the sort of tee-to-green performance he's more than capable of.
Aged 25 and a three-time PGA Tour winner, Kim is often left out of conversations when it comes to the most capable youngsters around. My theory is that he's been out on the PGA Tour for so long now that we forget how young he is, and he's also been prone to injuries and the inconsistency they guarantee.
All looks better now though and he showed clear signs of improvement for moving to the Claude Harmon stable last year, contending on a couple of occasions and then putting it all together to win The American Express at Patrick Cantlay's expense in January.
After that, Kim suffered another of those dips in form but he was right back on track at Sawgrass, hitting the ball really well for a top-10 finish, and played some more nice golf in Texas last week to finish in a share of 23rd. Across both these events he gained strokes in every department, and between them he played well in the Match Play, losing a couple of matches in which he was several strokes under par.
Crucially, Kim is the type of player who can produce that outstanding approach number which might be vital. He was second at the PLAYERS, second at the AmEx, fourth in the CJ Cup, third in the Wyndham and sixth in the Memorial, all these since the PGA Tour returned last year. And when he has won, it has been through this kind of quality ball-striking, which was enough to see him become the youngest ever winner of the PLAYERS back in 2017.
With Augusta form which reads MC-24-21-34, Kim has shown enough to suggest he can find the necessary improvement to hit the frame, and the way he closed it out to beat Cantlay in January hints that he has enough about him to win at the very highest level.
Posted at 2000 BST on 05/04/21
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