It was a disappointing week for us at The Valero Texas Open as although the majority of our picks played well in patches none were able to string the four rounds together we really needed with ultimately Robbie Shelton our best performer finishing 15th.
The event in the end was won by Corey Conners who bagged his second PGA Tour title four years after the first, which also came at this venue. Credit to the Canadian who produced a flawless display on Sunday to walk through the door opened by 54 hole leader Patrick Rodgers who unfortunately faltered on the final day.
Regular readers will know I am a big fan of Rodgers’ so with no disrespect to Conners I was rooting for him to get the job done even though we had no ‘skin in the game’. Sadly though it wasn’t his week, however he is knocking on the door more and more now and I am optimistic his breakthrough will finally come at some point this year.
Anyway we move on and what a week it promises to be as we head in to one of the most eagerly anticipated weeks of the year in the golfing calendar, Masters week.
As always the course will be looking resplendent with the Azaleas in full spring bloom and the greens perfectly manicured.
Regular PGA Tour golf watchers will also be able to relax and enjoy the golf knowing that no ‘patron’ will dare shout “Mashed Potato” or “Bababooey” as Bryson Dechambeau launches one off the 13th tee [as if they do they will be very quickly evicted from the premises and never allowed to return].
In addition seasoned golf watchers can enjoy our annual game of ‘golf commentator cliché bingo’. Yes you know the ones, “No winner of the Par 3 competition has ever gone on to win the Masters”, “It’s like putting down a marble staircase” and of course the classic “The Masters doesn’t start till the back nine on Sunday”, [which needless to say is complete and utter nonsense!]
The spectacle and history we will be presented with this week are of course matched by the cast and storylines we have coming in.
Scottie Scheffler, Rory McIlroy and Jon Rahm vie for favouritism. Can anyone break the ‘Big Three’s’ dominance?
Will it finally be time for Rory to put it all together at Augusta and complete the Grand Slam?
Can Cantlay, Schauffele or Hovland make their Major breakthrough, or…dare I even whisper it will one of the LIV Golf ‘rebels’ crash the party and land a huge blow for the breakaway tour?
Then of course we have Tiger. Can he build on his promising Riviera performance to stick around here for all four days? Anything beyond that is surely beyond the wildest of dreams…
The betting market as one would expect is dominated by the ‘big three’ with at the time of writing nothing to split Scottie Scheffler and Rory McIlroy who just edge Jon Rahm. All three though are firmly entrenched at single figures with Rahm marginally behind the front two.
Augusta National is a Par 72 which last year after some tinkering will officially played to 7510with 30yds or so added.
The two holes that saw the most significant changes last year were the 11th which had 15 yards added and some trees removed on the right hand side of the fairway. The aim was to stop players simply bailing out right off the tee while still having a decent look at their second shot in as errant tee shots became faced with additional faster running landing areas, with players blocked out for their second shot behind the trees further down the right hand side.
The other main change last year saw the par five 15th hole have 20yds added meaning players have to put a bit more thought in to their second shots with regards to carrying the water.
Move on 12 months and this year has seen some further changes made with the lengthening of the par five 13th hole the change, which has garnered the most publicity. The tweak here has seen a new tee box installed adding a potential 35yds in length. The result being a bit like the change to the 15th last year that the ‘risk v the reward’ of going for it in two will become greater.
As a result of this change we are now looking at a course, which can play to 7545yds.
The course was designed by Alister MacKenzie and Bobby Jones and was opened for play in 1933 before undergoing a redesign in 2008.
The greens are Bentgrass and tend to run at 13+ on the stimpmeter.
The key to success at Augusta is twofold. Firstly, you have to take advantage of the four Par 5’s, particularly, even with their greater length, the 13th and 15th and secondly you have to minimise your mistakes on the par 4’s. Strong iron play is imperative to find the right spots on the greens.
Find yourself on the wrong level on green and it can be almost impossible to get down in two and make par.
So let’s take a look at the last ten winners.
2022 Scottie Scheffler
2021 Hideki Matsuyama
2020 Dustin Johnson [played in November conditions].
2019 Tiger Woods
2018 Patrick Reed
2017 Sergio Garcia
2016 Danny Willett
2015 Jordan Spieth
2014 Bubba Watson
2013 Adam Scott
So what does this tell us? Well interestingly and perhaps unexpectedly players right at the top of the market have a poor record here over recent years with regards to winning with the champion tending to come from that ‘just below the leading pack’ section. For example last years winner Hideki Matsuyama was a 45/1 chance while the 2018 winner Patrick Reed was a 50/1 shot, Sergio was a 40/1+ shot whilst the previous year Danny Willett was a 66-1 shot.
The 2019, 2020 and 2022 winners did somewhat buck this trend though as in 2019 Tiger Woods arrived here as a 16-1 shot while Dustin Johnson went off as a 9/1 November 2020 with Bryson Dechambeau marginally pipping him to favouritism, while last years Champion Scheffler was of course a well fancied 16/1 shot but none were favourites..
Five of the last ten winners had already won an event that calendar year with Matsuyama, Woods, Reed and Adam Scott being the most recent not to have done so.
As we know some experience of the course here is vital with no rookie having won here for many, many years with Fuzzy Zoeller way back in 1979 the most recent to manage that achievement.
There is recent precedent of winning here after just one start though with Willett, Spieth and Schwartzel all doing it over recent years.
It is important to note though that all of these three had finished inside the top 40 on their Masters debut the previous year, with Spieth finishing 2nd the year before. In fact all of the last ten winners here had posted a previous top forty finish in the event.
As for recent form coming in to the event this historically can also be seen as quite key with nine of the last ten winners of April Masters having posted a top fifteen finish on Tour in March or April, while Dustin Johnson tee’d it up in November on the back of a run of 2 1 2 1 6 2!
Meanwhile last years winner Scheffler gave us the most obvious recent April example of how ‘hot form’ is key as he triumphed here on the back of three wins and a seventh in his previous five starts!
Equally though it is not, if history is anything to go by, essential the winner arrives here in peak form and the 2021 champion Matsuyama who is the odd one out in this category with regards to a top 15 finish, had posted finishes of 30 42 MC 18 in his March and April tour starts. He did though finish 15th at the WGC Concession in his previous start, which finished on the 28th Feb!
Dustin Johnson also broke the hoodoo in 2020, which had seen none of the previous ten editions won by the player who had started the week as the number one ranked golfer in the world.
Looking at the winning score over the past ten years and if we put to one side Johnson’s 20- under total in softer November conditions, a week, which also saw Cameron Smith become the first player in Masters History to shoot all four rounds in the 60s, and the lowest winning total since 2010 was posted by Jordan Spieth in 2015 on 18- under, while the highest was from Danny Willett on 5- under in 2016.
As you can see this spans quite a range with somewhere around 9- under to 14- under tending to be the mark while the last two champions Matsuyama and Scheffler have both triumphed on a 10- under total.
After a reasonably pleasant build up in the early part of the week unfortunately the weather gods look set to throw a spanner in the works for the week just as the tournament gets under way with all four days showing the potential for some storm disruptions.
Temperatures are warm and muggy in the mid to high 80s for the early part of the week and on Thursday, however things then cool down from Friday onwards and by the weekend they will barely top 60 degrees.
Wind also looks like it could play its part with after a calmer Thursday the rest of the week showing the potential for 20mph gusts.
As I always so though this could all change!
I have gone with five players this week as follows;
JORDAN SPIETH – 16/1 – 2.5pts e/w – 1/5 odds 1st 8 - FINISHED 4th
Needless to say the ‘big three’ who have separated themselves in the game of late and in the betting market at single figure odds are the most likely winners here with barely any holes in the cases for each of them. The issue is though of course that at the odds on offer it is hard to side with any of them each way and with the task of picking between them, particularly the top two, also a pretty impossible one I will take a more circumspect approach in the each way market starting with Jordan Spieth.
While the case as noted for the ‘big three’ is rock solid the case for Spieth is not far behind them.
A former champion here of course in 2015 this week will mark Spieth’s tenth visit to Augusta and along with the win he has four further top three finishes here and an 11th. Basically in those nine visits Jordan has only failed to deliver on three occasions, in 2019 when he was 21st, in the November 2020 edition when he was 46th and last year when he missed the cut.
Interestingly though if we look in more detail at those years where he hasn’t been in the hunt here, in 2019 he was well and truly in to his slump and without a top 30 in stroke play since the previous September meaning his 21st was his best result in seven months, while similarly in the November 2020 edition he arrived here on the back of just two top 20s since the resumption from the covid pandemic and none since July, while last year after finishing second at Pebble Beach earlier in the year he had failed to crack the top 25 in his five previous starts to arriving here.
Simply put then when Jordan arrives in Augusta in any kind of half decent nick he is a huge threat.
On to this year then and Spieth heads up Magnolia Lane in far better shape then in any of those years mentioned above as he has notched three top six finishes in his last five stroke play starts including his most recent one when third at the Valspar.
There is no doubt that Spieth will view that week at the Copperhead as one that got away as he was in great shape as he stood on the 16th tee before finding the water and if you add that to the fact that it is almost 12 months since his last win at the Heritage that could be a cause for slight concern. Ultimately though with 13 PGA Tour wins to his name including three Majors there is no doubting Jordan’s winning pedigree. In addition of course having won just prior to the Masters in Texas in 2021 we saw how hard it is to maintain that and win back to back when he came up just short in third that year, so it may well be a blessing in disguise that he hasn’t quite peaked yet.
Looking more closely at Jordan’s stats this year and the other big positive is that his approach play, so key at Augusta, is firing nicely as he sits 41st in that category on the season and 25th from tee to green while at the Valspar he was seventh on the week from tee to green and tenth in approach play.
To sum up Spieth obviously loves Augusta, knows how to find his way around here and has never not been a threat when in good form coming in to the week. From that point of view then he looks a rock solid proposition this week and I am happy to jump on board.
XANDER SCHAUFFELE – 22/1 – 2pts e/w - 1/5 odds 1st 10 - FINISHED T10th
Next up for me this week is Xander Schauffele.
Heading in to Augusta last year Schauffele had earned a reputation as a player who consistently produced the goods in the Majors but was unable to get over the line either in the biggest of events or indeed on the PGA Tour at all more recently since his last win at the beginning of 2019.
Last year though the latter point changed as Xander bagged two wins in successive starts at the Travelers and then the Genesis Scottish Open to show he had rediscovered the winning knack. Conversely though in the Majors he had his quietest year for some time as he missed the cut here while posting three solid but unspectacular top 15 finishes in the other three ‘big ones’.
Roll on to 2023 though and what is different with regards to last year in the Majors is that, with the exception of his 15th place at the Open, which came straight after the back to back wins and by when he had surely ‘peaked’, all of the other three came prior to him getting the ‘monkey off his back’ re the long winless drought. This year though I expect Xander to return to being the player whose all round game is perfect for the biggest of events with the extra confidence those wins have given him.
Looking at that Major record of the Californian’s and prior to last year he had posted eight top ten finishes in 14 Majors since the start of 2018, very impressive indeed. In addition his Masters record boasts two top three finishes in five starts.
Looking more closely at Xander’s form this year and while he hasn’t hit the heights yet of last summer he has been ticking along very nicely since he had to withdraw from the years opener at Kapalua with a back issue. Since then he has made every cut finishing no worse than 39th at the API, while last time out at the Matchplay he produced another really solid week before losing at narrowly to Rory McIlroy in the quarter finals.
Finally if we look at Schauffele’s stats for the season we will see that he ranks ninth in approach play, 20th from tee to green and 20th in putting, so all the key components are working well.
Schauffele has long been seen as a player who can bag one of the games biggest events, however this year he comes in slightly under the radar compared to those above him in the market, which may just suit him and I feel this week represents a massive opportunity for him to bag his first Major title.
SUNGJAE IM – 33/1 – 1pt e/w - 1/5 odds 1st 10 - FINISHED 16th
Next cab off the rank this week for me is Sungjae Im.
Similarly to Schauffele Im’s 2023 so far has seen some strong performances without him quite having that one week where he puts it all together to go home with the trophy. This is reflected in the fact that he has three top six finishes in his last six starts with no missed cuts since the Sony Open in January.
This week will mark Sungjae’s fourth visit to Augusta and having missed the cut the second time around he showed last year when finishing eighth that his November runner up spot on debut was no fluke in the different conditions and that the track really does suit him. It’s also worth noting that that eighth place finish last year came on the back of nothing better than 20th place in over two months and obviously it is a different story this year.
A look at Sungjae’s long game stats for the season show us that he is currently ranked 13th from tee to green for the season while he also shows up strongly in the ‘strokes gained around the green’ stats, another key area for here, ranked 30th.
Furthermore with par five scoring so key here it is encouraging that Im sits third in the Par five scoring averages on the season.
All in all rather like Schauffele the South Korean is another with the strong all round game required for a Major test and with his price having good each way appeal I am happy to jump on board.
JUSTIN ROSE – 66/1 - 1pt E/W - 1/5 odds 1st 10 - FINISHED 16th
Next up for me this week is Justin Rose.
The more I look at Rose’s credentials this week the more he appeals. To put it bluntly Rose has pretty much everything we are looking for this week starting with the obvious major two pointers, course form in abundance and current form.
Looking first at the current form and while many from his era have chosen to take the money and run to an easier life Rose has to be hugely admired for choosing to put in the hard graft required to rediscover his form and as a result win again on the PGA Tour.
Justin hit the winners enclosure at Pebble Beach in February and having posted four straight top 30 finishes on the PGA Tour prior to that including an 18th place in his previous start at Torrey Pines it can’t be said the win came out of the blue. What particularly impressed me that week though was when Rose got a sniff of victory he never faltered showing that even though it had been four years since his previous triumph he hadn’t lost the ability to close out a win when it matters.
Furthermore since that win at Pebble Justin has gone on to finish sixth at the Players a couple of starts ago so we know his form is continuing to hold up.
An elite ball striker when on form if we move on to Rose’s history at Augusta and other than maybe one or two he knows this course as well as anyone teeing it up this week and, perhaps crucially for the anticipated conditions, will have seen it play wet and windy and will have the experience to handle the anticipated weather delays. In fact lets not forget while obviously a very different test Rose’s win at Pebble came in wet, weather delayed, conditions.
To expand further on Justin’s Augusta record and his last ten trips up Magnolia Lane have yielded six top 14 finishes including four top tens the most recent of, which came just two years ago when seventh. Let’s not forget also of course that he narrowly missed out on landing the Green Jacket in 2017 when losing out to Garcia in a play-off.
Well and truly back in the worlds top 50 and almost certain now to be a part of his good friend Luke Donald’s Ryder Cup team in the Autumn, there is clear motivation for Rose to keep this new momentum going and I can see him producing a big performance this week.
DANNY WILLETT – 175/1 – 1pt e/w – 1/5 odds 1st 10 - FINISHED MC
Finally I will wrap things up this week by chancing Danny Willett at very generous each way odds.
Let’s be clear there is a time and a place for rolling the dice on big three figure odds selections and as a rule Augusta is neither the time nor the place.
In Willett though we have a player who not only has landed the Green Jacket before back in 2016 but also showed last year when finishing twelfth that he has what it takes to still compete around here. Furthermore of course Willett is hardly a ‘one hit wonder’ as he also six other big DP World Tour titles to his name with the most recent coming in 2021 at the Dunhill Links.
So we know then that Danny has what it takes to win at this level but what of his form coming in this week?
Well the good news is that since, in all honesty, blowing the Fortinet Championship last Fall when his name was all but engraved on the trophy, Danny hasn’t wilted and in fact has continued to play nicely making his last five cuts on the PGA Tour and finishing no worse than 41st at Pebble Beach.
Furthermore a look at his stats for the season show us that he ranks strongly around the greens and sits third in good old fashioned scrambling, key areas this week.
In addition and similarly to Rose you wouldn’t expect Willett who hails from Yorkshire to be put off by any wet conditions this week.
Still only 35 Willett Certainly has plenty of big wins left in him and in a week where experience counts he could easily bag a place if not more at big odds.
UPDATED 5th APRIL
FIRST ROUND LEADER JON RAHM 16/1- FINISHED T1st With 2 Others - & JASON DAY 33/1 - BOTH 1pt E/W 1/5 1st 8. - FINISHED 4th
With so much uncertainty around the weather this week I'll take one from the AM wave and one from the PM wave to hedge my bets here.
From the AM wave I will take Jon Rahm who tee's off at 10.42am local time.
Rahm has been a machine on Thursday's this year posting two 64s and two 65s in six starts, while four top tens in his past five visits to Augusta speak for his level of comfort here.
While the Spaniard wasn't for me at single figures in the outright market I am more than happy to chance him at the odds to get out of the gates quickly once more.
Day meanwhile returns to Augusta having finished no worse than 19th this year. Winless since 2018 it may be too big an ask for him to bag the Green Jacket this week in addition to, which the cooler wet conditions over the weekend may well not be ideal for his back.
Having missed out on the drive up Magnolia Lane last year though I expect him to be chomping at the bit to get started and I can see him going well on Thursday from his 12.48pm tee time.