The Masters (Thurs 11th – Sun 14th April)
Augusta National, Georgia
Growing up, you readily accept the reality with which you’re presented. Turn on the TV in early April during the Eighties, and you’d half-expect to bump into a European player donning the coveted Green Jacket at Augusta National. In fact, the odds were no better than 50-50 in a trend that extended till the end of the Nineties. During those 20 years, Europeans captured 11 out of 20 Masters titles.
Just six different players shared those spoils: Messrs Faldo, Ballesteros, Langer, Olazabal, Woosnam and Lyle. Two decades of decadence for European fans. Like computers with cassette-players and mobiles the size of toasters, it was just the way it was. No big deal. Why would it ever change, eh?
Well, change it did. And just as there were no European winners prior to 1980, there was another 17 years of hurt before Danny Willett turned the tide in 2016. And the Englishman was swiftly followed home by that Spanish El Nino, Sergio Garcia, 12 months later. However, Patrick Reed restored normal service last year, battering fellow Americans Rickie Fowler and Jordan Spieth red, white and blue, and the FSB Blog expects that stateside dominance to continue here, especially with an over-correction in the market as to the supposed strength of the European challenge, led by career-slam chasing Rory McIroy, current world number-one Justin Rose and the impeccable Augusta credentials of Jon Rahm.
Yet, in truth, despite a resounding Ryder Cup win in Paris, these Europeans have little to crow about, with 12 of the past 17 majors going to the stars in the stripes. Further, despite their dazzling combined gifts, McIlroy had won just won worldwide tournament since 2016 before his victory in last month’s “fifth major” (and has notoriously struggled to close the deal in the first); Rose has one major triumph in 21 years as a pro; while Rahm’s embryonic CV is still to register a top-three at golf’s top table. The rash Spaniard is also top in tantrums on Tour.
That may sound like a harsh dissection of the home continent’s top contingent, but the recent wins-to-runs ratio and track bias for the perennial challenge of Augusta National reside very much on the other side of the pond where fearless bombers, with right-to-left ball flights, and soaring trajectories (vital to accessing these pivotal pin positions, which are moored on the sharp shelves of most greens) are in abundance. Of course, on these linoleum-like putting surfaces, a silky putting stroke is also a key component in demystifying the rapid reads of these unique greens – and while you could certainly have attributed such skills to the likes of Seve, Ollie and Sir Nick, you wouldn’t to copybook ball-strikers such as Rors, J-Ro and Rahmbo.
Dustin Johnson 10-1
After his 11-1 procession in WGC–Mexico victory, we said we’d keep our powder drop on DJ before going to war with him again at The Masters, and he can reward our patience by heading the staking plan this Thursday. Johnson’s knockout combo of club-head speed and bullseye putting may not align every week, but when they do he’s nigh on unbeatable. Both those facets are prized commodities at Augusta and, at 34, the time is right for his late bloom to stardom amid the azaleas. Johnson looks very attractive at 10-1, having been half that price two years ago before his tumble down the rental home stairs. His agent has rented him a bungalow this week.
Bubba Watson 35-1
Big-hitting Bubba can shape the ball any which way to devastating effect. Indeed, he eloquently proved as much here during the play-off against Louis Oosthuizen in 2012 with his “shot of a lifetime” boomerang from the trees and pine-straw. Watson was fitted for another green jacket in 2014, and is showing glimpses of a return to peak performance at one of his favourite courses. As a leftie, Bubba can hit soaring cuts at Augusta all day long, which even gives him an advantage over right-handed drawers who can struggle to control their hook-spin on these treacherous target areas. In a field of more fancied, fashionable runners, the 35-1 on him joining an elite-band of three-time winners makes plenty of appeal.
Jason Day 30-1
Greg Norman, for so long the standard-bearer of Australian golf, always came up a whisker shy of Masters glory. And it’s been a similar story so far for Jason Day who had to sit patiently while compatriot Adam Scott finally shook the major monkey on his back nine in 2013. Both he and Scott also came up agonisingly shy in a share of second here in 2011. Trouble was: they ran into the best closing finish in Masters history from Charl Schwartzel, who birdied the final four holes. No shame there, then. And now that Day’s chiro has apparently clicked his dodgy back into place, he may have been overlooked in the betting lists at 30-1. Sure, his capricious form may flicker and switch like the winds around Amen Corner. But when he’s fit, he’s elite.
Patrick Cantlay 80-1
Time was when Cantlay was America’s next big thing from the collegiate ranks, even rated ahead of Augusta course specialist Jordan Spieth. Then injury and the tragic loss of a close friend struck a brace of hammer blows. In recent campaigns, though, Cantlay has rebuilt and rebounded to top form. A pure striker both off the tee and on the greens, his textbook swing is tailor-made for standing up under pressure as Sunday’s back nine unravels. Who knows, he may even he may even prove a better long-term prospect than Spieth!
Gary Woodland 90-1
Few heavy artillery players fly it past Woodland who has threatened to make the leap from good to great in recent campaigns. A raw athlete, talented enough to have made it as a pro in the NBA, Woodland has already recorded two runner-up spots this term and, despite an aggressively average recent run, can reignite the magic at a layout which appears tailor-made to his strengths. He even has some decent course buried in there (-6 for 12 holes in 2014 when the winning score was only -8) so pay no heed to three missed cuts since 2015 when he was retooling his game. Working with Phil Kenyon, the modern-day Dave Pelz of putting, will only aid his cause this week.
Lay of the week:
Rory McIlroy 7-1
McIlroy somehow managed to win The Players despite some mediocre putting stats over Sawgrass’ straightforward surfaces – and matters are hardly likely to improve at Augusta. Along with DJ, he may well be the planet’s form horse but his strike-rate pales by comparison with the world number-two. And yet he’s three or four points shorter in the better around a course which holds more scar tissue than warm and fuzzies for the Northern Irishman. Just remember last year’s ineffectual final-round whimper (despite being only one shot behind an unproven Reed with 16 holes to play), or recall his unbridled choke in 2011 which prompted Lee Westwood to muse over Rors’ hook-reflex when under the gun. Such painful memories, coupled to the added media scrutiny of completing a career slam, could see him crumble under the favourite’s tag again.
The FSB blog will return for Wells Fargo Championship (2nd – 5th May)