The Masters at Augusta: In-depth betting preview and tips from Ben Coley

Read Ben Coley's in-depth preview of The Masters below

Rickie Fowler can break his major duck and become a popular winner of The Masters - that's according to Ben Coley and his unmissable betting preview.

Recommended bets

3pts e.w. Justin Thomas at 16/1 (1/5 1-10)

3pts e.w. Rickie Fowler at 20/1 (1/5 1-6)

1.5pts e.w. Hideki Matsuyama at 33/1 (1/5 1-7)

1pt e.w. Louis Oosthuizen at 40/1 (1/5 1-7)

1pt e.w. Marc Leishman at 55/1 (1/5 1-6)

Rory McIlroy has been a Masters champion in the making ever since he chipped balls into a washing machine on live television, aged eight, dressed in Tiger Nike, Player black.

Twenty-one years later, he's presented with what appears to be a golden opportunity to earn the Green Jacket which would complete a career grand slam still some weeks shy of his 30th birthday.

Golden opportunities in golf are still more miss than hit, and it's the acceptance of this fact that makes McIlroy all the more dangerous - not just here but in the months and years ahead. He's done everything he needs to prepare well, from winning his biggest title in five years to reading what we might term self-help books, but if it isn't enough, so be it.

In full flight, there's no sight quite like McIlroy, and it would be a shame were he not to conquer this resplendent golf course. It would also be a surprise. McIlroy and Augusta National are a match made in heaven and he's awfully hard to leave out of any staking plan, particularly with so many places to play with.

Episode two of Not Another Golf Podcast is a Masters special - click the image to listen

There are no negatives that I can give you, not even the putter. Work with Brad Faxon, again more mental than physical, appears to have helped enormously and he doesn't need to make everything to win this. As ever, the challenge at Augusta leans more towards approach play, the making of a major champion more iron than whatever goes into the head of that TaylorMade Spider he's grown so comfortable with.

All other departments in the McIlroy game are firing. His strokes-gained: ball-striking return in 2019 is 2.1 shots per round, enough to lead 2017 Masters champion Sergio Garcia by almost half a shot. There is no gap between other players anywhere close to this - one is simply out on his own.

In approach-play terms he sits ninth among the assembled field, a balanced attack starting on the tee and continuing all the way to the green. It's self-evident that McIlroy has played outstanding golf so far this year, but the numbers point towards something more - the idea that he is in fact at his peak.

And he is, by any measure, the most likely winner of The Masters. I just don't quite think he's a bet, not with eight or 10 places each-way. Odds of 7/1 are about as short as you'll see for a major championship and require the sort of total faith which this unforgiving tournament doesn't allow for.

Instead, my headline vote goes to Rickie Fowler, who can extend the run of first-time major winners here to half a decade by finally breaking his duck.

Fowler is the ultimate nearly-man in the eyes of some, but that's a mantle Garcia shed, and he isn't alone: Dustin Johnson, Adam Scott, even Phil Mickelson have been cast in the role. It's not always as simple as McIlroy, Brooks Koepka and Jordan Spieth have made it look; no two career paths are identical.

I certainly believe that Fowler has it within to become a major champion, and he did everything but win this event last year. Indeed, his 14-under total would have won 75 of the previous 81 editions, and even from a strokes-gained perspective - i.e. to use the field scoring average as an adjuster - he was good enough to win 41 of them.

Quite simply, he bumped into an opponent at the height of his powers, who also happens to be a fearless front-runner while revelling in the role of villain. Of all the players to throw punches at Patrick Reed in last year's Masters Tournament, it was only Fowler who truly threatened to knock him out of a Green Jacket.

That could be really significant one year on. At last, Fowler left Augusta knowing he'd done all that he could've done, which includes a world-class birdie at the 72nd hole to prove much to both us and to himself.

He did the same in Phoenix earlier this year, defying bad weather, bad luck and, yes, bad play to cling on grimly after a gruelling final round - played in the sort of cool, windy conditions which some are forecasting this week. There are parallels between that event and Fowler's major heartaches and whereas at Augusta it was the performance that felt significant, here it was the outcome.

Since then, Fowler's gaze has been locked on The Masters. He's skipped the Match Play once more and, as he likes to, has played in the event which immediately precedes the season's first major. That it was the Texas Open rather than Houston is not a positive, but it means Fowler's ho-hum performance is in no way a negative.

In fact it goes down as encouraging. Playing with new shafts in his irons, Fowler gained strokes on approach for the fourth event in succession and as we saw with that victory in Phoenix, as well as in the Honda Classic two years ago, anything positive in this department makes one of the sport's most potent putters a real threat.

Here at Augusta, there is simply nobody in the field who I would rather have putting for me. It then becomes a question of setting up opportunities, and with his best two driving performances this year having come in the Phoenix Open and then last week, there are reasons to be positive from an overall ball-striking perspective.

Fowler almost won the Honda Classic, too, and with form across the opening months of the year so vital in unearthing a Masters champion, it's his profile which makes the most appeal. I really like both his scheduling and the ebb and flow of his performances.

If his plan was to bag and win and then get ready for this, it's a case of so far, so good. Now it's a case of whether he can execute the final phase and I don't think he's ever been better equipped.

Rickie Fowler looks ready to win his first major championship

Last year, Justin Thomas got my headline vote at 10/1 and I can't leave him out at almost twice the price now.

Thomas has the perfect game for Augusta, chiefly because he's one of the very best (by which I mean top four or five, rather than top 20 or 30) iron players on the planet, who also boasts a tight short-game and the sort of chip-on-your-shoulder confidence which separates great from good.

His Augusta record comes in for some criticism, but form figures of 39-22-17 should in fact serve as encouragement, particularly as he's climbed the greens-in-regulation charts throughout all three appearances.

Last year saw him shoot a second-round 67 to climb to sixth and while the weekend didn't go to plan, it's all part of what you'd call a fairly typical Augusta learning curve. I expect him to keep on improving and there really isn't that much required to go from 17th to first.

"Yeah, I played well this week, just putter let me down," he said. "I played well enough to have a great chance to win the tournament, I just didn't make any putts."

One year on, Thomas arrives ranked fourth on the PGA Tour for all-important approach play and there's nobody who is scoring better on the par-fives, so with his greenside game working well, too, there really aren't many holes in the profile.

The one concern is that his typically excellent iron play went missing a little in March, but that too could work in his favour. Thomas has had time to work on it and has flicked the switch before, his high-profile wins coming when he's been ever so slightly out of focus, as evidenced by odds of 50/1 for the US PGA and 33/1 for the Bridgestone Invitational.

Justin Thomas has an ideal game for Augusta National

Given that he's said before that his problem at Augusta has been the pressure he's put on himself to perform, it could just be that a less-than-perfect preparation works in his favour at a course he'll go very close to winning on sometime soon.

"I've been very comfortable for four years now," he said when asked at Sawgrass what we should make of his Augusta record. "I don't think there's many courses consistently that could fit my game much better."

Thomas has played rounds here with Tiger, Fred Couples, Jeff Knox... anyone he feels he can learn something from, and all it takes is for his strengths to be on display for a serious title challenge. I'm willing to rely on him having timed things perfectly.

There are strong cases to be made for all of those towards the front of the betting. If anyone is owed a Green Jacket it is surely Justin Rose, while Dustin Johnson is quoted at 10/1 having been half the price on the back of a similarly productive few months two years ago, when his hopes were ended by a fall down the stairs.

He's hard to leave out and the same is somewhat true of Jon Rahm, whereas Tiger Woods, a struggling Jordan Spieth, Francesco Molinari and even Brooks Koepka were easier to overlook. And, while he's bullish and rightly so, Paul Casey just looks short enough for one who still didn't look totally at ease when winning the Valspar Championship.

By contrast, I thought that the 50/1 quoted about Marc Leishman was generous and the Australian should go really well in his bid for a first major championship.

While it's of course likely that we get a truly elite winner here, there's no denying the fact that Masters champions have tended to be from that second wave - those who are perhaps a little more experienced, a little less explosive than their peers who dominate the market.

Danny Willett, Charl Schwartzel, Adam Scott, Patrick Reed, Sergio Garcia, even Bubba Watson the first time - these were all away from the very front of the betting yet brought to Augusta the right sort of game, and a confidence level enhanced by strong recent play.

Leishman certainly fits this description, having bagged three top-five finishes in seven stroke play starts in 2019, before a run to the last-16 of the Match Play where Bryson DeChambeau was among his group-stage victims.

The Australian isn't a player to set the pulse racing, but he does boast a wealth of high-class major form, including when playing alongside Adam Scott as his compatriot won this title in a play-off six years ago. That experience could yet prove significant, and it's one Leishman referenced after playing his way into contention this time last year.

"I saw firsthand what it takes to win around here," he said. "I think I played well enough to win that day, and I feel like I hit the right shots to win. I just didn't take my opportunities when I got them.

"I feel like I learned a lot that day and hopefully it will put me in good stead for this week and can be sitting here Sunday night. But if not, I'll give it my best shot."

These comments came after Leishman added a second-round 67 to a first-round 70, enough for a place in Saturday's final group alongside Reed. He's very much the forgotten man of last year's Masters, and his performance across the first two rounds is worth marking up given that he was grouped with a returning Tiger Woods.

Although ultimately forced to settle for ninth place, that's twice now that Leishman has been bang in the mix for The Masters and he's also gone close to winning The Open Championship, including at St Andrews, so this is not a stage which will worry him.

At 15th in bogey avoidance and 19th in strokes-gained approach, there's a level of depth to his form which works particularly well for this and he simply looks a rock-solid wager.

Louis Oosthuizen is the man who stopped Leishman in his tracks at the Match Play and he too is worth backing.

While undeniably frustrating and yet to win in the USA, Oosthuizen is a major champion with four further runner-up finishes - it's a CV which only a handful of players in this field can match.

His preparation has been perfect, with second place at the Valspar followed by a run to the quarter-finals of the Match Play, where avoiding two further rounds might prove to be a blessing in disguise given his troublesome back.

Granted, his iron play there wasn't good enough to win at Augusta, but he's found comfort here in the past, ranking inside the top 20 for greens hit on each of the seven occasions he's made the weekend.

Even before finishing an unfortunate second to Bubba in 2012, he'd missed the cut despite hitting over 80 per cent of greens a year earlier, so Augusta National is a course which suits one of the sweetest swingers in golf.

In recent years he's really found a level of consistency here, finishing inside the top 25 on four of his last five visits, and with the putter having fired of late there's every indication that he can do something similar.

Oosthuizen's victory in the South Africa Open last December felt like it could preempt a huge 2019 and arriving with form similar to that of Reed last year, he looks a big player.

Finally, while genuinely tempted to put up Viktor Hovland at 1000/1, it's Hideki Matsuyama who completes my shortlist.

The Japanese is simply striking the ball so well that he has to find himself in the mix come Sunday afternoon soon, and it could just be that a return to Augusta facilitates the necessary improvement.

Having been 27th here as an amateur, The Masters has always look an ideal event for his major breakthrough and he's in fact done well here even without his A-game from tee-to-green, such as when complaining about his long game two years ago.

Form figures of 5-7-11-19 across the last four renewals tell you how much Matsuyama likes Augusta and as he explained in 2017, the more rounds he gets the better his prospects become.

"Every year I play the course, you learn a little more, especially where not to hit it. That's been one of the keys, playing five times before, that I've been able to learn and to understand. Even though I'm not hitting it well, I can still get it around okay."

As the leader in this field in strokes-gained: approach, there are certainly no issues with how he's hitting the ball and with strong bogey-avoidance stats and a game made for taking apart par-fives, Matsuyama should go really well.

Whether or not he can get over the line remains to be seen, but the expectation levels have dropped since he went off favourite for the 2017 US PGA, where the pressure on him was evident, and that's another positive ahead of what promises to be yet another enthralling renewal of The Masters.

Posted at 2000 BST on 08/04/19.

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