The 2018 US Masters
Augusta National Golf Club
All four days live on Sky Sports
It's nice to take a break and we're still a couple of weeks away from the PGA Tour's 2018 opener in Hawaii - the Sentry Tournament of Champions - but it's also really good to look forward to next year and in particular, next year's four majors. I'm going to start with the obvious, and with the first major of the year - the US Masters.
The last two editions have produced spectacular finishes and European winners. Danny Willett profited from Jordan Spieth's monumental meltdown last year and Sergio Garcia edged out Justin Rose in April but they were the first back-to-back European winners since Bernard Langer and Jose Maria Olazabal in the early 90s so the stats suggest that could have been a two year blip.
The obvious place to start is with the favourite, Jordan Spieth, and I'm quite surprised to see one or two firms go as big as 8/1 about the reining Open Champion. Spieth dropped away disappointingly in April, finishing outside the top-ten with a jaded 75 on Sunday, but prior to that effort his Augusta pedigree was exemplary.
He hit odds-on in 2014 on debut before Bubba Watson assumed command on the back-nine, he won in emphatic fashion in 2015 and more than £1m was traded on the Texan at 1.121/8 and below before his infamous collapse last year. To say he likes the venue is an understatement and the only negative is the possibility of scar tissue. What happened to him on the 12th hole in 2016 will leave an indelible mark but he's more than capable of coping with that and if I had to name the winner now he'd be my man.
Dustin Johnson was in terrific form last spring and he was very well-fancied to win before he fell down the stairs and had to withdraw. Having struggled to get to grips with the venue, he finished sixth in rain-softened conditions in 2015 and fourth behind Willett in 2016 so the penny is starting to drop. DJ has a fantastic record at Riviera, a course that has proved a terrific guide year after year, but he's not for me at the current prices and neither is Rory McIlroy.
Like Spieth, McIlroy knows what it's like to lose the plot around Augusta. He shot 80 in round four in 2011 having led by four through 54 holes. He's finished inside the top-ten in each of the last four years but it's impossible to know how he's going to fare next year. His fourth in the Open Championship and his fast finishing second in the British Masters were the highlights of an injury-hit 2017 and knowing what to expect in 2018 is very much a guessing game.
Anyone wishing to paw through the stats to find the early value needs to consider Greens In Regulation and Scrambling. The last six winners have ranked inside the top-six for GIR and nine of the last ten have ranked inside the top-ten for Scrambling.
Don't back a debutant as they have a very poor record (Fuzzy Zoeller, in 1979, is still the only first-timer to win) and we have to go back 20 years to find the last winner in his 40s (Mark O'Meara in 1998). Course experience is important at Augusta though and although we haven't had a winner in his 40s in two decades, many a veteran places or contends and the average age of the winner is 32, so I'm happy to take a very small chance on someone with plenty of course form, who's just this side of 40.
Bubba Watson - available to back at 50/1 on the Sportsbook and 60.059/1 on the Exchange - has been falling down the world rankings like a stone this year. He ended 2014 and '15 as the fourth best player in the world and he ended last year as the 10th best but this year he languishes in 84th place. A young family, a lack of ambition, largely poor form and most importantly, a ridiculous change of ball, have all taken their toll and it's long odds-on that Bubba's best days are well and truly behind him but a period of reflection following his annus horribilis might just kick start a rejuvenation in 2018.
Of all the factors that resulted in such a poor year, his change to the coloured Volvik golf ball was in all likelihood his largest problem and now that he's free of that contract we could see an upturn in form.
Watson knows full well how poor he was last year and he had this to say when discussing the end of his Volvik contract: "My goals are to be better than that. It was a frustrating year when it came to the golf. It was a great year off the course, but a frustrating year."
At 39, the stats suggest time is running out for the mercurial Floridian but Bubba won the US Masters in both 2012 and 2014 and if he starts the year refreshed, rejuvenated and in form, he'll shorten up nicely from his current price and he might just win a third Green Jacket.
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