The 2017 US Masters Preview

April 6th, 2017 | Marten Julian's Guest Contributor News

Thursday sees the start of the 81st Masters, certainly, my favourite golf tournament of the year held, as always, at the magnificent Augusta National Course.

Weather conditions have not been kind this year and the course has been hit by torrential rain but the venue will still look spectacular.

Augusta has always favoured longer hitters and this year the course must play longer because there will be less run on the fairways which will increase their advantage. The greens may well be slightly slower than usual but every effort will be made by the Green Jackets, as the management are known, to use each green’s underground heating and aeration system to suck out the extra moisture to ensure every green is still fast. The ultra-fast greens are the course’s main defence and without them the challenge of the course would fundamentally change.

The character of the course and its unique challenge has been retained throughout its history.

Course changes have been made over the years with many holes being extended to combat players’ increased length, and in 1999 a first cut of relatively short rough, 1 and 3/8ths of an inch long, was introduced to provide some penalty for inaccurate driving.

Effectively players can’t impart as much backspin from the first cut and therefore have more difficulty stopping the ball on the greens. The players who can hit longer drives can play their approach shots from closer range with more lofted irons which makes it easier to stop the ball on the green and achieve closer proximity to the hole. Shorter hitters have won, but usually this only happens when the general course conditions are extremely fast and inevitably the winning score is higher.

Experience around Augusta is important, as it tests each player’s course management skills and to some extent a player’s intelligence.

Jordan Spieth has a great record at Augusta and part of the reason for his success is that he is clever and his course management is exceptional.

A player’s short game will be tested to the extreme – putting and chipping is always important but at Augusta their importance is magnified.

I can’t see Sergio Garcia, Lee Westwood or Adam Scott winning due to their putting, nor Martin Kaymer due to his chipping.

Phil Mickelson loves the course because these skills are his forte, as they are for Spieth.

Finding the winner is always difficult although you have slightly more chance at the Masters because of a smaller field and the course does favour certain players.

Dustin Johnson is the man in form and the world Number 1. He has just won three times on the PGA Tour and his game looks to suit the course. He is an extremely long hitter and his approach play is the key to his recent success. His short game is not a weakness and he is the rightful favourite at just over 6/1 on Betfair. His Augusta record is fair, but somehow he has not performed as well as might have been expected in previous years.

This is a course where ‘Horses for Courses’ applies to the extreme and therefore I cannot recommend backing him. I think his price is about right.

Rory McIlroy is second favourite at just under 9/1, 9.6 on Betfair. Again he has a reasonable record at Augusta and is at a similar level to Johnson from tee to green. I feel he doesn’t putt quite as well on fast greens and he can be streaky – it may be he will be suited by the fractionally lower greens at the beginning of the tournament but if he gets his confidence then maybe this is his chance. However I can’t recommend him at the price.

Jordan Spieth is trading at 9.8 and I think this is value. Last year he held a 5-shot lead going into the final round and sadly came apart on the back nine, which included an 8 on the par 3, 12th hole. It was sad to see and the warning signs were there because his iron play was so erratic throughout the tournament but he nearly overcome it by almost wondrous putting. In the end it couldn’t last, and sadly his errors caught up with him.

This year he comes to Augusta in better form, albeit not as strong as in 2015, but the challenge of the course suits him perfectly and he must have a chance. Possibly the slower fairways and fractionally slower greens may not be to his advantage but I’m still happy to back him at the price.

Jason Day comes into the tournament a bit below his best but I think this is due to his concern for mother’s health. She has received better news recently and possibly this may add to his determination this year. It will be hard for him to produce his best form this week and I prefer to leave him out from my short list.

Hideki Matsuyama and Rickie Fowler come into the tournament in good form. I prefer Matsuyama and he is gradually improving. I do like him and possibly he will win majors in time but at this stage he didn’t quite make my short list. I am not a fan of Fowler, he just loses too many tournaments from winning opportunities for my liking. I don’t doubt his talent but I prefer to lay him at his current odds around 25 on Betfair.

Henrik Stenson showed how good he is at our Open, but his record at Augusta isn’t great and therefore I can’t select him.

I like Phil Mickelson, he is brilliant to watch and he excels around Augusta National. The course is perfect for him in that it is not so severe on wayward driving and places more emphasis on the short game which is his strength.
He has three Green Jackets already and I couldn’t put people off backing him at around 33/1. He might just might get another one even at nearly 47 years old.

Louis Oosthuizen is a potential winner and his back doesn’t seem to be playing him up this year. At around 60 on Betfair he may represent value.

Justin Thomas is starting to confirm his promise and I think he will become a top player in time. He does have a chance this year but at this stage I prefer others.

As an outsider at around 250 on Betfair, I like Ross Fisher – he is long and has a good short game. He also did well on his last visit to the Masters and I have had a small investment on him.

There are several others British players who I haven’t mentioned as yet – established players like Justin Rose, Paul Casey and our defending champion Danny Willett, all of whom have good records around Augusta, together with the new brigade of Tyrell Hatton, Matthew Fitzpatrick, Andy Sullivan Chris Wood and Tommy Fleetwood. They form an impressive array of talent but I can’t recommend them.

After some thought, I came to my final three selections which I list in reverse order.

At 65 on Betfair I think Marc Leishman has a chance. He has challenged previously, and he comes into the tournament having won on the PGA Tour already this year. He has the game and I believe he will go through with his effort if his play gives him that chance to win.

I can’t leave out Jordan Spieth, whose putting is extraordinary on the lightning fast greens and although he isn’t at his very best I think he is playing well enough to win.

My selection will surprise many who have read my previous previews because course knowledge and experience does count and this player is making his debut at Augusta.
The Spaniard Jon Rahm looks ideally suited to the challenge, as he is massively long whilst retaining control of his driving and his short game is good.

Two weeks ago he reached the final of the World Match Play where he wasn’t overawed by Dustin Johnson when losing at the final hole. It might be a blessing that he finally lost because he still comes into this tournament slightly under the radar. At 30 on Betfair I am prepared to take a chance on his inexperience and hope he will match Fuzzy Zoeller to become the second post war player to wear the Green Jacket on his first visit.

Good luck and enjoy the tournament.

Paul Day