Paul Day’s 2015 Masters Preview

February 24th, 2015 | Marten Julian's Guest Contributor News

Paul Day’s 2015 Masters Update

The 9th of April sees the start of the world’s greatest golf tournament, The Masters, played on the truly magnificent Augusta National Course. The course will be manicured to perfection and you can be sure the whole setting will be perfectly prepared; no stone is left unturned as they ensure that this revered piece of Georgia looks at its very best when the eyes of the golfing world focus on their club. The classic scene of the fleet of mowers will be reproduced every morning and evening to guarantee that every fairway is perfectly cut and prepared.

Rae’s Creek will be dyed so the water is blue, and an army of green keepers will be out before and after play each with his own specific tasks, undoubtedly including hand-trimming bunkers using scissors. Every facet of the course will be shown at its best. The crowds – or the Patrons as they are known by the Club – return year after year, and are always exceptionally well-behaved. That is the tradition of Augusta National. It is the best golf course for viewing I have ever visited. For all sports fans, not simply those who enjoy golf, this is a tournament that is a ‘must’ to visit once in your lifetime.

Over the years, the Committee has made changes to the course to ensure the nature of the challenge is maintained in spite of improvement in equipment technology and in the players’ general standard. The holes, with the exception of the two most famous par 3s—the 12th and the 16th—have been lengthened to increase the challenge, given that players are now able to hit the ball further. The introduction of rough in 1999 was probably the most significant change to be made, and this was likely due to the young Tiger Woods’s dominance of the course when making his record score of 18 under par in 1997. The rough – or the second cut, as the patrons refer to it – is set at exactly 1.375 inches with the aim to reduce a player’s ability to control the spin if he strays from the fairway. The greens have always been the course’s main defence and they are always firm and fast: it is a defining feature of The Masters. Moreover, every green has underground heating so the Committee can control the moisture and the speed the greens run.

The course has always offered an advantage to the longer hitters. It can be argued these players have an advantage on every course, but it is exaggerated on this one. Playing your second shot into a firm, fast green with shorter irons and higher ball flight is a significant advantage. Furthermore, two of the par 5s – the 2nd and the 8th  – are only reachable in two shots by the longer hitters. They also have reduced risk on the two par 5s on the back nine, the 13th and the 15th, when their second shots are able to be played from closer range over water onto the green. You may remember during the final round last year Bubba Watson used his extraordinary power to drive over the trees on the corner of the 13th rather than playing it as a dogleg with a dangerous, long second shot from a sloped fairway over Rae’s Creek. Bubba left himself just a short iron into the green for a certain birdie.

The player’s ability to cope with the super-fast greens when chipping and putting is essential too; the player must have the touch and feel around the greens if they want to win the tournament.

The course will test every aspect of a player’s game, but most notably his temperament as the pressure mounts on the final day. Course knowledge, strategy and possibly intelligence to a degree are also tested.

I am sure players will study every hole and know the optimum strategy, but inevitably players will get out of position and it is in these moments that the choice of shot and strategy become critical. Players can easily drop additional shots if the wrong option is taken. A few short hitters have won the title, Zach Johnson was the last in 2007 but conditions were faster and even more difficult than usual that year (winning score 1 over par), and most notably Sir Nick Faldo who won three Green Jackets – both players were exceptional around the greens. I suspect they excelled in course strategy too. Certainly this was true in the case of Faldo, and it was never more evident than in the famous final round when he chased down the more exuberant Greg Norman.

When trying to assess the potential winners, I think it is best to first look at course form. Then take account of the player’s length, the quality of their short game, their current form, course management skills and finally temperament – because holding your nerve on the back nine on Sunday is too much for most.

Bubba Watson is the defending champion, twice a winner, and he has a game that is perfectly suited for Augusta. He is virtually the longest hitter, and he is blessed with great touch and an excellent short game. His temperament is not perfect, as he is inconsistent and has lost leads in several tournaments on the PGA Tour, including recently at Doral, but he held himself together brilliantly last year, keeping calm with few anxious moments closing out the victory. His current form is good, although he did pull out of Bay Hill due to the death of a friend; however I do not think that will be a disadvantage to him in this tournament. He was one of my three selections last year, and he did not disappoint. At 12.5/1 he is shorter than I had hoped, but I think he still has a better chance than the price represents, and he is one of my selections again.

The betting favourite is Rory McIlroy, and he is the rightful favourite as he is the world’s best player.

His ball striking is exceptional and the way he controlled himself to win the dual with Fowler and Mickelson in last year’s PGA Championship proves he has the temperament to match his skills. The one concern I have is his putting; he is slightly streaky and, in my opinion, has never looked perfectly at ease on the super quick greens of Augusta. It would not be a surprise if he were to win, however at 6.8 on Betfair I would prefer to lay him rather than back him.

Phil Mickleson has won three times, and he loves the course and the challenge it poses. He is long, he has a brilliant short game and he has a chance. His current form is reasonable, although he has not really contended in the PGA Tour events this year. He may be on the decline as he approaches his 45th birthday, and he is currently available at 37/1. It is probably about the right price.

Jason Day, who played with an injured thumb last year and disappointed, is a favourite of mine. He has challenged in previous years and he is playing quite well having recently won on the PGA Tour at Torrey Pines. He is trading at 15.5/16 which is quite short, but I like him and he does have a chance.

Louis Oosthuizen has been a selection of mine in the past and he has challenged, most notably when losing a play-off to Bubba Watson for his first win. Like Day, Oosthuizen has also suffered injury, a more serious back problem, but he now appears to be fit and getting back to his best. I had hoped he would be over 100/1, but the market has recognised the improvement in his form and he currently trades at 65/70 on Betfair. He plays Augusta well and I did consider making him my third selection since he still has a better chance than his odds indicate. After some thought he is now my fourth choice.

There are several players I would oppose for various reasons. Sadly – since I loved watching him when he was on top form – the one whom I would be most against is Tiger Woods. I cannot see how he can recover his form, particularly with such woes surrounding his chipping. At 50/55 he is a massive lay in my view. I would be surprised if he makes the cut, if he does opt to play. Tiger is a fighter and he will do his utmost to regain form. My heart would love him to; my head tells me he will not.

Ian Poulter has shown good recent form and putting is his strength. However, he does not hit the ball far enough to contend at Augusta; the same applies to Luke Donald, Greame McDowell and Jimmy Furyk. I oppose Lee Westwood and Sergio Garcia based on their ability to putt under pressure. I also oppose the players who have changed from the, soon to be outlawed, long putters to the more standard short one. They include former champion Adam Scott and the relatively young, former major winner, Keegan Bradley. I oppose the current US Open champion Martin Kaymer on account of his slight weakness in chipping.

The most in-form players approaching the tournament are Dustin Johnson and Henrik Stenson. Both are long hitters and their games should be well suited to Augusta, but for some reason their records at the course have been disappointing. They are both relatively short at 17.5/1 and 19/1, and at these prices I would prefer to lay them.

Rickie Fowler played beautifully in all the Majors last year, and he may well go close again, but his current form has been slightly below his normal standard, and, therefore, I have not included him on my short list.

Patrick Reed is a determined young American who first came to prominence when, after winning his first PGA Tour event, declared himself one of the best five players in the world. He may be brash, but I like him, and I hope he will become a star in the future. He is a natural drawer of the ball which experts claim to be an advantage at Augusta as seven of the holes are slight doglegs right to left. He missed the cut last year, and, therefore, I cannot include him on my short list, but I believe he will be a contender in Majors over the next few years. I expect Brooks Koepka, another young American, to become a top player too. He hits the ball a distance, and when he had a chance to win he played with the calm assured confidence of a man who believed he belonged at the top of the game. It is Brooks’s first visit to Augusta, and only three players in history – Fuzzy Zoeller being the last in 1979 – to have won on his first visit, so it would be a surprise if he won on this occasion. Watch out for both these young players.

I ought to give a mention to three other former winners – Charl Schwartzel, Angel Cabrera and Zach Johnson. They should be respected, and Zach Johnson, in particular, did show good form at Doral. However, I do not think they are strong enough to win this year.

Jimmy Walker leads the Fedex standings after excellent early season form. He is a sound player with multiple wins on the PGA Tour but I do not think he has the game to win a Masters.

I have left the player I fancy most until last. It is the young American, only 21 years old, Jordan Speith. I do not see any weaknesses in his game. On his first visit to Augusta last year he was tied for the lead with Bubba Watson on the back nine on Sunday before coming to grief in Rae’s Creek on the short 12th hole. I sense this player is extremely clever; his course management was exceptional last year. Moreover, he is in good form having won at Copperhead, and although he is relatively short in the betting at 13.5/1, I think he has a fantastic chance.

To conclude, my selections are Jordan Speith at 13.5/1, Bubba Watson at 12.5/1 and Jason Day at 15/1, whom I marginally prefer over the longer priced Louis Oosthuizen.

Enjoy the tournament!

Paul Day