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27th May 2024 3:29 am

“A difference of opinion is what makes horse racing and missionaries."

Napoleon declared: I have only one counsel for you – be Master

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Having stayed up to watch Valdero and the stuttering victory of Akshay Bhatia – no, me neither – over Denny McCarthy, I started to think seriously about the mental impact such games must have on the players. Yeah, sure, it’s what they do, I get that, but to be so totally focused as McCarthy was for the final nine holes must be truly draining. It delivered him eight Birdies on the back nine, AND he had 92 putts in regulation to tie the PGA tour record of total putts for a tournament. That is a tremendous stat.

Having forced a play-off, McCarthy went to pieces – and I suspect he had simply run out of adrenalin. First, he played a wayward tee shot and a layup, and then he played a wedge shot that Jean van de Velde would have been proud of, putting his ball into the brook at the front of 18. It was unnecessary to play to the front of the hole; the percentage shot was to play to the back of the green and allow the ball to roll back towards the hole. He didn’t, and his wet ball meant that unless the Greek God of Golfing, Sisyphus (pointlessly pushing a large boulder to the top only to have it roll back down to the bottom), had given him a free pass, McCarthy’s game was effectively over. For Sandy Lane, the top of Olympus (must have been the kebab I had last night) evaded his selections with a best-placed 1oth for Matt Fitzpatrick. For all that, it was a thrilling tournament and a spectacular last hour of TV.

If there are daffs in the bed, and the laurel hedge is awash with humping pigeons, then spring has arrived, and with it, Augusta and the Masters.

I think it was CBS anchor Jim Nantz who described Augusta as “a tradition unlike any other”, which, if he had done it in Latin, would almost certainly form the Club’s Coat of Arms.  All the PGA Tour winners over the last year are invited, together with the top 50 in last year’s Official World Golf Ranking (on 12/31/23), a few selected LIV golfers, every past champion of this event, and finally, various amateurs, who make up the field, which this year numbers 89. Of the $18 million prize fund, the winner receives $3.24 million – almost double the winner’s pot for Valdero. He also gets a green jacket, exemptions to the other majors, and a spot in The Masters for life.

© Joel Marklund, August

It is such an iconic tournament on a stunning course, and the awarding of the Green Jacket (which the septics always seem to diminish in their crass presentational style) still has the weight of history and tradition on it. But who will have the level of focus needed? Who will be avoiding the Van der Velde shot?

One of those who will not be lacking in focus is Tiger Woods, the winner in 1997, 2001, 2002, 2005, and 2019 and who is scheduled to play here in only his second event of the season. On Sunday, he did precisely what he did in 2019 and took a fistful of sticks out for a stroll around the first nine with just his caddie and his best mate, Rob McNamara. My man in the bunker told me he was walking fine, appeared relaxed and showed no signs of his 48 years of hard graft and medical intervention. No, of course, he won’t win it for a sixth time – but a bit like daffodils and spring  – there is something hopeful and expectant about seeing a smiling Tiger getting ready for another pop at extending his wardrobe.

Augusta National is a 7,555-yard Par 72, and it is consistently voted as one of the top ten most challenging golf courses each season in terms of scoring. The challenge is significant with tight fairways lined by trees, plenty of uphill and downhill fairway lies, and water hazards on many of the holes on the back nine. Add to that the speedy greens, which, even if a decent club player could get to the greens in regulation, they would struggle to putt for par.

The favourite is SCOTTIE SCHEFFLER at 4/1. He is in incredible form, having won two tour events and a T2 in Houston. He’s finished T19-T18-1-T10 in four Masters appearances, so a high finish seems to be all but guaranteed. He has top-ten finishes in eight of his last 11 majors, which is almost professionally supernatural. Sadly, his price does not allow for being struck by lightning, tearing his shoulder by pumping the air after a tricky putt (as happened yesterday to Bhatia), or being struck by a loose camera cart. I can’t back anything in a Major less than 10s. Last year’s winner, the Spaniard JON RAHM, is 12/1, and whilst he has been performing adequately on the LIV tour and is being talked about as a probable back-to-back winner – he’s not for me. I think he’s nailed on for a Top 10 finish, and you can get 11/8, which seems fair and would give you an interest. He has five top-10s in his last six trips to Augusta so the price is wrong in my book.

If I were making up a potentially tradeable Dutch block on Betfair, I would almost certainly include LIV Player BROOKS KOEPKA @ 18/1, who finished T2 for the second time last year, mostly through sloppy green play. Brooks has three top-seven finishes and two missed cuts in the previous five trips to Augusta. JORDAN SPIETH @ 22/1 is on that list based on his ten visits here, where he has six finishes in the top four, including a win in 2015. The Masters seems to enthuse the man, and last year, Spieth finished T4 with a solid overall game, including gaining nearly 7.5 shots combined around and on the greens. He’s in and out, but in my Betfair mix, he might bring pressure to bear on the portfolio’s profile. I can’t be having MCILROY, who was getting up a head of steam in the confident-even-jaunty stakes, but he will be thinking all the time about losing his swing again unless he is listening to a recording of Butch Harmon in his year. Besides, 10/1 is way too low. By the same token, HIDEKI MATSUYAMA at 16/1 has to be on the Betfair list. He also finished Valdero looking quietly pleased, and no player on the tour is playing the greens better than the man – with the possible exception of Denny McCarthy – but his brain will be frazzled by last weekend. He won here in 2021 and has two top-20s since then. I’d prefer to get 20s. CAMERON SMITH, at 33/1, is also on my list, and he has been like Jekyll and Hyde on the LIV with his frighteningly bad driving and his superb putting. However, when Cameron gets here, he can play well (2018 T5 – 2020 T2 – 2022 3), but maybe his Hyde only comes on-stream in even years! Finally, I’m sticking in JOAQUIN NIEMANN at 25/1 again from the LIV tour. He has played in nine LIV events in the last five months, with three wins and seven top-five finishes. His Augusta record is a little shy of top 10 finishes or even top 15 (0/4), but his current form suggests a Major bubbling away. Remember that my ticket shows the BF market price instead of the bookies’ price I indicated.

Finally, on the Top 10 finishers market, I think the following should be considered – not obviously in the entirety, but there are two or three there of interest: [Top 10 price] outright price

VIKTOR HOVLAND [11/4] 28/1

COLLIN MORIKAWA [4/1] 40/1—Is the outright price too big or the Top 10 too small?

WILL ZALATORIS [11/4] 30/1

WYNDHAM CLARK [13/5] 25/1

LUDVIG ABERG [5/2] 25/1

BRYSON DECHAMBEAU [4/1] 35/1

SI WOO KIM [6/1] 70/1

PHIL MICKELSON [14/1] 175/1… You think me barmy? Forgotten his T2 in 2023? Since 1991, Mickelson has been here 30 times – won three, finished in the top ten 15 times and only missed the cut in three of those 30 Masters. In the last three years, he has gained at least 2.9 shots on approach, and last year, he made up more than five strokes on the field with his putting.

HARRIS ENGLISH [10/1] 200/1

These last two are 100/1, with Bet365 for four places e/w to be Top American. That seems to be a very plausible play, given the rise and rise of the rest of the world’s players.

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