After a long wait, the Masters is finally here — and Ben Coley has four selections for this week's mouthwatering major at Augusta National.
It is unmistakably November, and this will forever be remembered as the November Masters, yet suddenly it feels like spring. There is colour beneath the grey sky, and it's a cocktail of hope and expectation that now hangs in the air. Somehow, seven months after it was meant to happen, the Masters Tournament has timed its run to perfection.
This is golf's most iconic tournament, and the one which needed salvaging. That it arrives at a time when there is light at the end of a dark tunnel feels almost too good to be true. And that's Augusta National in a nutshell. In America lately we've heard a lot about how every vote counts, and damn right they do. Here, it's every single blade of grass.
Augusta itself — course, rather than club — represents everything that I love about golf. Fast, contoured greens prevent players from indiscriminately firing at flags, whatever yardage they've managed to consume from the tee. Undulations and sweeping turns demand different shapes, different flights. An almost total absence of rough makes it a sport for the artist over the brutalist.
To win the Masters, to don that famous Green Jacket, is to have passed golf's ultimate test. It is to have answered the questions posed by holes like the first, the fifth, the 10th or the 12th; to have taken advantage of those opportunities presented at the second and third, the 13th and 15th. Every note and every flourish here is intended, the rhythm controlled, and I just cannot wait to find out who wins this precious, 84th edition of the Masters Tournament.
Like many, I've felt for a while now that the Masters will be won by one of the very best players in the sport — which it in fact hasn't been all that often throughout the last decade or so. That belief has only increased after Dustin Johnson did what he needed to do in his first start post-coronavirus in Houston, where Brooks Koepka also challenged for just the second time in 2020. With those two seemingly having salvaged their preparations, it becomes harder and harder to envisage an upset.
Johnson's Augusta record is a useful, aesthetic tool when it comes to summarising what has typically been required here: experience. With a missed cut in the middle serving as a handy divider, his form figures read 30-38-38-13-MC-6-4-10-2 as he has gradually figured out what to do, what not to do and how, ultimately, to avoid big numbers. His worst round in four years is a one-over 73 and having been the best player in the world from August onward, this time last week he was set to be the first name on my list.
However, the real worth of Houston, where ultimately he played as he has been playing for a while, looks to have been overplayed. And, as with all of the principals, there is a strong case to be made on facts and figures we can all call to hand, so the best way to work may be from back to front. I do wonder if Johnson's 11-day isolation period, which meant missing two events far stronger than the Houston Open, could just leave him short of both competition and even Augusta reconnaissance.
Nevertheless he probably ought to be shorter than Bryson DeChambeau, who has historically putted very poorly in this event. That can be viewed in two ways and it would not be a surprise were he to find the jolt of improvement he so clearly needs. However, I remain sceptical when it comes to just what damage his famed driving can do here, and how effective it will be in covering up the fact that, of the players who dominate the market, his is the approach play which is least convincing.
There are many ways to conquer any golf course, including this one, but quality ball-striking is way more important than putting, and we can be more specific in highlighting quality iron play. That's how you end up with winners like Bubba Watson, Adam Scott and Sergio Garcia, three of the least convincing close-range putters in the sport. And it's even what powered Jordan Spieth's victory here in 2015.
All told, 14 of the last 20 winners of the Masters ranked sixth or higher in greens hit. Now, we can also say that the last five have ranked inside the top three in strokes-gained approach. Had Justin Rose beaten Garcia in that thrilling 2017 edition, four of the last five Masters champions would in fact have registered the best strokes-gained approach figures for the tournament. It's pretty conclusive.
DeChambeau did so himself in winning the US Open, but the field played out of the rough more than it did the fairway, and that's where his sheer strength became hugely advantageous. On reflection, Winged Foot may have been the ideal course for DeChambeau to unleash this gym-enhanced game of his and he did so wonderfully. As a golfer, he is worthy of enormous respect. As a betting proposition, he makes less appeal than most, especially having sidestepped top-class competition since September.
Instead, my idea of the winner is JUSTIN THOMAS who, on his fifth start in the Masters, looks ready to contend for the first time.
Since arriving on the PGA Tour in 2015, Thomas has climbed the ladder to now establish himself as the leading iron player in the sport, statistically speaking. Indisputably, he's inside the top handful and his progression is nicely summed up by his annual strokes-gained approach rankings: 35th, 20th, sixth, fourth, second, first.
There are few more reliable regardless of the range, for all his improved wedge play is probably the main reason for an impressive rise, and it's this aspect of his game which I expect will one day make him a Masters champion.
Form figures of 39-22-17-12 here suggest he has a little more to do, but they've been underpinned by a long-game which says he's already mastered Augusta — at least from tee-to-green. Thomas has ranked 11th, sixth, second and third in greens hit over the last four years, and for someone who was not in the shake-up behind Tiger Woods last April, one line in his post-round interview stuck with me: "I played well enough to win this golf tournament by quite a few."
To make that claim just as Woods is fighting off Koepka and Johnson is really quite something and it speaks to how confident Thomas is at the course, one which fundamentally plays to his strengths: long driving, quality approach play, and taking advantage of the scoring holes.
If anything, he says he needs to be a little more aggressive, and that realisation could be key to winning his second major championship, three years on from his first. One way or another, this platform he's built, by hitting greens, seems a big pointer. No fewer than 12 of the last 20 winners of the Masters had marked our cards with a high (top 15) GIR ranking the year before, and Thomas has done it in 2016, 2017, 2018, and 2019.
Thomas's preparation has been excellent. He's won one of the strongest events played since June, the WGC-FedEx St Jude Invitational, and could, perhaps should, have won two more at the Workday and the Zozo. I really like that he managed a top-10 finish at the US Open despite being nowhere near his best, as that's not always looked like something he's willing or able to do, and it's an area of improvement he had been targeting.
Defeat to Patrick Cantlay in the Zozo was of course an opportunity missed, but it looked an ideal prep run in every other way while perhaps keeping him from being the man to beat. Co-runner-up Jon Rahm spoke of how the sidehill lies at Sherwood were similar in some way to Augusta, and that's certainly true of Muirfield Village, where Thomas had his pocket picked by Collin Morikawa back in June, for all he made that possible with his own clumsy finish.
Remember though, Thomas bounced back from that play-off defeat to win two starts later, and his victory in the PGA Championship came on his second major start after he'd failed to convert from the final group in the US Open. A determined, model professional with a love of golf and its history through his PGA professional father, he has turned frustration into achievement on more than one occasion already and is nothing if not capable of learning from his mistakes and missteps.
One of the world's form players with a game which is so well suited to Augusta, Thomas is worth backing with a degree of confidence. He's won 14 times including 11 in the last four years and yet so often plays second-fiddle in terms of coverage, even expectation, among the media and pundits. That's no so with the oddsmakers, who have to pay more respect to the numbers, but 12/1 with such generous place terms is fine with me.
"I feel like I'm playing well and I feel like I should have a great chance to win," said Thomas after just missing out in California, and back close to home in the Deep South he looks a prime candidate to land what would be a popular victory — one which would see him collect a Green Jacket from his friend, mentor and practice partner, Tiger Woods.
With 11 places on offer with Sky Bet, 10 with Betfair, Paddy Power and BoyleSports, nine with Hills, and so on, the Masters deserves unique treatment. Despite a rule change meaning just the top 50 and ties will make the weekend, this is still the easiest cut to make all year, especially now that as well as the veterans in the field we have some players who qualified on the strength of 2019 play and are currently out of sorts.
That's why I'm inclined to take two from the top portion of the market, and wouldn't put anyone off taking more than that. Ultimately I was left choosing between Rahm and RORY MCILROY and, after much deliberation, it's the latter who is tipped to contend for what would be a historic victory.
Clearly, Rahm's form credentials are stronger. He's won twice since June, both under difficult conditions, and in doing so has reached the summit of the game. A permanent feature among the top five drivers on the circuit, his approach play has improved and with it he's added the top-grade PGA Tour titles which had been absent since that raucous breakthrough at Torrey Pines back in 2017.
With the best scoring average in the field of those to have played 12 or more rounds here, and having been statistically the best driver at Augusta over the last three years, the Spaniard holds an excellent chance. That he tied second with Thomas last time means I like his preparation, and it's only the fact he's started to show some strange frailties on the greens which has tipped me in favour of McIlroy.
Truth be told, as a win-only proposition, McIlroy probably isn't a big enough price to take on board the fact his form has dipped massively since sport, like most things, was forced into lockdown. Before it, he had returned to the top of the world rankings with four wins in 24 starts dating back to the 2019 PLAYERS, and his worst finish in four starts to open up 2020 was a share of fifth place.
But with these bumper place terms, quibbles over a point or two are worth setting aside for one week only as we instead focus on what I believe could be the perfect set of circumstances for this fabulous player to cement his status as an all-time great.
McIlroy, who needs the Masters to complete a career grand slam, can first be excused the performances he produced from June to September. It emerged during the BMW Championship that he was soon to become a father and his daughter arrived safely a few days later, prior to the final event of the season.
Everyone deals with life events like this differently, and I can see why McIlroy's form dipped. Here is a player whose return to the top coincided with a desire to understand more about himself, about what motivates him, and about the power of the mind and meditation and even juggling. He is thoughtful and introspective, and has made no secret of the fact that while fiercely competitive, this is just golf. Family matters more.
It's perhaps no coincidence then that from the moment he revealed his secret to the media, his play improved with 12th place in the BMW, then seventh (72-hole scoring) in the TOUR Championship just after his wife, Erica, gave birth. From there he's been eighth in the US Open, his best finish since winning that event in 2011, followed by 21st and 17th across the CJ Cup and Zozo Championship, a fortnight in which nobody made more birdies.
Leading the field in driving at both the CJ Cup and the US Open before it, McIlroy has made big strides in that department and the putter has also started to warm up. What remains is to dial in his approaches and so clear has that weakness been that I expect he's spent the last fortnight focused on it, in turn improving his prospects of cutting out the ruinous mistakes which held him back on the west coast.
Crucially, his approach play took a step forward in the Zozo, and I anticipate another here, at a course where there are likely to be fewer wedges struck than just about anywhere else in 2020. That matters, because McIlroy remains one of the best iron players in the sport in spite of, rather than because of, what he does with wedges. When it comes to anything from a four to an eight-iron, I'm not sure there are many, if any, who are better.
The other key factor in his favour is the rain that has been around in the run-up to the event, and is set to return during it. We all know by now that McIlroy is at his best when soft conditions exaggerate his advantage off the tee and with those mid-to-long irons and while the sub-air system will help, these greens should be receptive, and the fairways ought not to run out — they never do, really, which is one of the many reasons McIlroy has been so effective here.
And then we come to the elephant in the room: his grand slam bid. It's now six years since McIlroy won a major, and he's had five goes at winning this to complete the set. To some, that says he's been crushed by the weight of pressure, and yet his three best Masters finishes — fourth in 2015, fifth in 2018, seventh in 2017 — have all come since. I don't for a second deny that his failure to produce from the final group when Patrick Reed won had something to do with the enormity of the situation, but it's not like it has held him back in general terms. It won't be an excuse for playing poorly, something he hasn't really done here since 2012, a year on from his Augusta nightmare.
Nevertheless I find it somewhat interesting that McIlroy's best performances here have coincided with his worst world rankings and at fifth now, he is less talked about than has been the case previously, not least because of the shadow cast by the muscle man in sixth. That plus the switch to November, and an edition which will take place without crowds, are small but potentially decisive factors which are surely in his favour, and so is the fact that he'll have his family with him again.
"I've got enough distractions going on in my life at the minute in terms of a new baby; it's almost a nice thing to not have the Masters on your mind 24/7," McIlroy told ESPN's Bob Harig. "Erica and Poppy are going to be there, it'll be her first golf tournament. And after getting home each day, it's such a nice thing to be able to get your mind off of golf.
"I've always been better that way. If I let something consume me too much then I start overthinking it. It's just not a good thing. It has been a good distraction that way. I'm looking forward to getting myself ready to play some good golf. It's going to be a different tournament, a different Augusta."
Back in the spring, McIlroy alluded to the fact that Augusta will play long as another advantage and he's been working backwards from this date, especially so given his personal circumstances in the interim. In the hope and expectation that the arrival of this long-awaited Masters doesn't overwhelm him, and with enough in his play since becoming a father to believe he's close to where he was at the start of 2020, he's up there with Thomas as one of two standout bets at the front of the market.
Victories for Danny Willett, Reed, Spieth, Garcia and even Woods have rather undermined the idea that Augusta — extended closer to 7,500 yards last year — is all about power. As touched upon, approach play has been the key statistical category, although it's also true that one way or another, and with the odd exception, most champions here arrive with months' worth of quality driving behind them, too.
This year, it's possible that power becomes a bigger part of the conversation once more, indeed it certainly will be should DeChambeau contend. There can be no doubt that despite higher-than-feared temperatures and even the threat of thunderstorms, the rain which has fallen and will continue to fall will play into the hands of the longer hitters, who are best placed to do what is traditionally needed and score on the four par-fives.
There is always a chance that a long, soft slog in fact turns into a battle of the wedges, as was the case when Zach Johnson won in 2007, but the game has changed a lot since then. My inclination is to lean heavily towards those with excess power at their fingertips, and away from the likes of Webb Simpson, Tyrrell Hatton, Collin Morikawa and the otherwise-tempting Matt Fitzpatrick, who have to make do without it.
Tony Finau and Patrick Cantlay are hugely respected but I must admit to having had my head turned by HIDEKI MATSUYAMA last week and he edges them for the third spot, being long enough to compete with the giants at the front of the market.
Hand on heart, does Matsuyama really deserve to be the same price as Cantlay, who beat an elite field last time? Probably not, especially having gone more than three years without a win, during which time Cantlay has managed three, including at two of the courses which appear to correlate best with Augusta.
However, we're back to those place terms again and of all the players in the world's top 30 — a window which covers most Masters winners — it's Matsuyama who I believe could take the most from an injection of confidence. That was my overriding thought while watching the final round of the Houston Open, this quiet character having really got himself into the mix and firmly in the zone, and it could set him up perfectly for Augusta.
At his best, Matsuyama is superior to Cantlay and Finau in that key approach-play department and he also has bags more Augusta experience. He's never been closer than Cantlay was last year, when a bogey-bogey-par finish cost him a chance after he'd hit the front, but the Japanese has made seven cuts in eight and has been close to the places even when starting badly in 2017, or when arriving out of sorts in 2018.
Also a winner at Muirfield Village and having produced his best golf on the bentgrass greens of Firestone, a long course at which Tiger once dominated, Matsuyama has demonstrated time and again that Augusta is a perfect fit for him if able to put all of the pieces together.
That's no given, but having eaten the par-fives alive in Texas, where he putted well and in fact did absolutely everything to an extremely high standard, I'm compelled to give him the chance to back it up. After all, he has hit the top-10 finish we need in two of his last five visits and I expect he'll do so plenty times more.
"You know, my game is getting better and it's definitely going to give me a lot of confidence going forward," he said on Sunday, after hitting 17 of 18 greens and getting his irons firing as they were throughout the first half of the US Open back in September. "My good finish over the weekend is going to really hopefully help me in the Masters this week coming up."
It's worth reiterating that form in the Houston Open or indeed whatever event happens to precede the Masters hasn't always stacked up, and as mentioned at the top I think it's shaved a little too much off Johnson's price. Matsuyama though looks very likely to play well and with such places on offer that is enough to give him the edge over Cantlay and Finau, the latter having been poor with his approaches in Houston for all he boasts the only sub-70 scoring average in the field here.
As with those three, Xander Schauffele is a prime candidate to contend again and Bubba Watson has rightly halved in price as he's returned to form. The message is this looks a very strong renewal in terms of the sheer number of players who either excel at Augusta or, as is the case with someone like Hatton, arrive playing the best golf of their lives.
That means there's little temptation to go searching for those big-priced players who might sneak seventh or eighth, with Si-Woo Kim, Charl Schwartzel and Corey Conners three of the more interesting candidates. However, I will add CAMERON CHAMP to my team to complete the staking plan.
Like Morikawa and Matthew Wolff, Champ is making his Augusta debut and that is a significant handicap. Not since 1979 has a debutant won here and that man, Fuzzy Zoeller, was the first to do so. That said, Spieth very nearly managed it in 2014 and this move from April to November, combined with the absence of fans, probably increases the likelihood that the rookie hoodoo is ended.
Prior to the PGA won by Morikawa, and the US Open where Wolff held the 54-hole lead, McIlroy and Spieth were among those to suggest that younger, less experienced players might find things a little easier under the gun without crowds adding to the pressure. That may even have applied to Paul Casey, who stood tall and pushed Morikawa the distance at Harding Park.
Perhaps McIlroy and Spieth were right and while experience will count this week, there are a number of first-timers with the skills required. And at the prices, for all the 100/1 disappeared on Monday, I'm inclined to take a chance on Champ, who is up there with DeChambeau as one of the two most powerful players in the field.
Of course, that power is only worth so much and what I really like about Champ is that his approach play has lit up at just the right time. He ranked fifth in the CJ Cup, where a hopeless week on and around the greens kept him away from the leaders, and then a very solid 22nd in the Zozo — this represents his most productive fortnight so far in terms of how well he's hit his irons, with the CJ Cup a personal best.
The other occasional weakness in his game since emerging in 2018 has been the putter, but to underline how far his driver can carry him, Champ has been 25th or better in every single event in which he's putted better than the field average so far in 2020. Ultimately a continuation of the solid putting week he produced when eighth last time out, in a high-class field, could put him right in the thick of things again here.
Although less consistent than Wolff, less prolific (just) than Morikawa, that's factored into the prices and his explosiveness could prove perfect for a long, soft Augusta National, where par-five performance will be key. Champ ranked second in that category in the Zozo and, having joined his young contemporaries in the mix at the PGA Championship, he's good enough to contend on his first try here.
Posted at 1700 GMT on 09/11/20
We are committed in our support of responsible gambling. Recommended bets are advised to over-18s and we strongly encourage readers to wager only what they can afford to lose.
If you are concerned about your gambling, please call the National Gambling Helpline on 0808 8020 133, or visit begambleaware.org.