The 2016 Masters: The Punter's preview

Phil Mickelson playing the iconic 12th at Augusta National in 2015
Phil Mickelson playing the iconic 12th at Augusta National in 2015

In his comprehensive look at the US Masters, Steve takes a look at tournament and course history, what it will take to win the famous Green Jacket, all the major trends, in-play trading tactics, the main contenders and of course, his fancies for the year's first major. Read his in-depth preview here...


"At 45, Phil Mickelson's getting long in the tooth now and he hasn't won anywhere since winning the Open Championship in 2013 but you write off this Augusta specialist at your peril."

Tournament History

The US Masters begins on Thursday and it's always a special occasion, whoever goes on to take the title. It's the first major championship of the year and for me, it signifies the beginning of spring.

Horton Smith won the first US Masters back in 1934 but he didn't collect a famous Green Jacket. They weren't awarded to the tournament winner until 1949.

Looking back to more recent history, its exactly 20 years since Nick Faldo easily overhauled Greg Norman's six-stroke 54-hole lead and it's 30 years since Jack Nicklaus won his sixth title at the age of 46, to become the oldest and the most prolific Masters Champion.

And those records could stand for a very long time now that Tiger Woods has withdrawn from the event again this year. Woods and Arnold Palmer both have five titles to their name and as time ticks by, the chances of the former catching Jack become slimmer and slimmer.

It would be some story if another fan favourite, Phil Mickelson, could win his fourth Green Jacket, 30 years after Jack's sixth, but he's not 46 until June so the symmetry doesn't quite work perfectly.


Venue

Augusta National Golf Club, Augusta, Georgia.


Course Details

Par 72, 7,435 yards, stroke average in 2015 - 72.54

Originally the brainchild of Rees Jones, Augusta National was founded by him and Clifford Roberts - a wealthy New York investment banker. Designed by Jones and Alister Mackenzie, who died before the course was finished, Augusta National was built on the site of an old nursery and all the holes are named after a tree or shrub.

It officially opened in January 1933 and it's been evolving ever since and to such an extent recently that the original designers would barely recognise the place. The Bermuda greens were changed to bent grass and the fairways were tightened at the end of the last century before a major overhaul was orchestrated by Tom Fazio in 2002. Over half the holes were lengthened and tightened, and at almost 7,500 yards now, it's a very long course.

The greens are undulating and lightning fast but for details of each and every hole, please see Dave Tindall's fantastic guide, produced last year, with lots of stunning photos from his own collection.


Weather Forecast


TV Coverage

Sky Sports is the only place to see all four days live in the UK and their coverage is comprehensive. They have live bulletins from the range on Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday and the Par Three Tournament is live from 19:00 on Wednesday too.

Live coverage of the event itself begins at 19:00 on Thursday. There should also be some Red Button coverage on Sky before they go live each day.

There is also live coverage on BBC2 on Saturday and Sunday, and they also have Red Button coverage from mid-afternoon over the weekend, showing featured groups, Amen Corner, and holes 15 and 16.


Last Ten Winners

2015 - Jordan Spieth -18
2014 - Bubba Watson -8
2013 - Adam Scott -9 (playoff)
2012 - Bubba Watson -10 (playoff)
2011 - Charl Schwartzel -14
2010 - Phil Mickelson -16
2009 - Angel Cabrera -12 (playoff)
2008 - Trevor Immelman -8
2007 - Zach Johnson +1
2006 - Phil Mickelson -7


What Will it Take to Win The US Masters?

Conditions were very soft and easy 12 months ago and to a certain extent last year's stats have to be taken with a pinch of salt. Jordan Spieth set the lowest 36 and 54 hole scoring records and he equalled the 72 hole record. He made 28 birdies on the week - another record - and he became the first man in history to get to 19-under-par at Augusta. And had he not bogeyed the 72nd hole he'd have broken Tiger Woods' scoring record of -18, set in 1997. There was a sizable difference between Tiger's phenomenal 12-stroke demolition job in '97 and Spieth's win last year though.

Damp conditions before and during the event meant that the sub-air system couldn't dry the greens out to get them up to their usual speed and Phil Mickelson and Justin Rose both finished only four behind Spieth, with eight men in total beating the winning score of 2014. In 1997, Tiger was miles clear and playing a different game to the rest of the field. Spieth was incredibly impressive but the conditions had a lot to do with the performance.

Spieth ranked only 52nd for Driving Distance last year and that was unusual. Power off the tee is a huge advantage at Augusta. The 2014 winner, Bubba Watson, had ranked number one for DD and the 10 winners before Spieth had an average DD ranking of just 14.2.

With trees everywhere, Augusta can appear a little intimidating on TV but it's actually an easy driving course with wider than average fairways and far from penal rough. Driving Accuracy is the least important stat to consider and the last 10 winners have an average DA ranking of 29.5.

The first four home last year all ranked inside the top-seven for Greens In Regulation and the average GIR ranking of the last 10 winners is just 6.0. To be successful in this major you need to pound the greens with relentless accuracy and when you do miss them, you need to get up-and-down time after and time again. Spieth only ranked 10th for Scrambling and that was again slightly unusual as six of the previous seven winners had ranked no worse than sixth for that stat.

The experienced Augusta specialists were perhaps a little disadvantaged 12 months ago with the slower than normal greens but putting was again key. Spieth ranked number one for Putting Average and the average ranking for the winners for that stat over the last 10 years is just 10.4.

So, the secret to success here is to whack it miles off the tee, hit lots of greens and to scramble and putt really well. The only thing you don't need is relentless accuracy off the tee. But the real key to success at Augusta is scoring well on the four long holes. Here are the total scores to par for the last 10 winners on the par threes, fours and fives and I think it's more revealing than any other stat.

Par threes -2
Par 4s -9
Par5s -90


Mickelson finished runner-up last year despite playing the par threes in level par and the par fours in one-over. Incredibly, he played the par fives in 15-under-par on the week and the winner, Spieth, played them in 12-under-par. Four of the last ten winners have played the long holes in double-digits under-par.

Spieth made as many as eight bogeys and a double last year and yet again that was slightly unusual. In the previous 10 years, Trever Immelman had been the only winner to record a double-bogey and nobody has ever won the Masters having made a triple-bogey. Keeping mistakes to a minimum is imperative.


Other Stats And Trends To Consider

Although Spieth won last year on just his second visit to Augusta, previous course form is usually vital. Other than the first two winners of the event, Fuzzy Zoeller (in 1979) is still the only debutant to win the US Masters and most winners have been around Augusta National enough times to get to know it's unique nuances. On average, first time winners have played the event six times.

It's not just course experience you need - a weekend of Augusta employment 12 months earlier appears essential too. Every winner, apart from Tiger Woods in 1996, stretching all the way back to Zoeller's debut win in 1979, made the cut here in the year before they won.

And just having experience of the course isn't enough, you need to have shown an aptitude for it too - 23 of the last 25 winners had previously shot at least one round in the 60s at Augusta. That's another stat where Spieth bucked the trend. He'd shot rounds of 71, 70, 70 and 72 when runner-up on debut in 2014.

Past winners have a fine record and 17 different players have won the title more than once.

Although plenty of experience is a big plus and the average age of the winners is 32, age does seem to have been a barrier of late and it's now 18 years since we saw a winner in his 40s - although it's not a stat that I'm going to worry too much about. Both Kenny Perry in 2009 and Angel Cabrera three years ago lost in a play-off in their 40s and Spieth was the only man to finish in front of Lefty last year. And two years ago, Freddy Couples contended until the end and both Miguel Angel Jimenez and Bernard Langer finished inside the top-ten.

Much was made of the 'no Australian has won the Masters' stat before Adam Scott won here two years ago and I'd file the 'no winner in his 40s for 18 years' right alongside that one. I'd much prefer to back a veteran with plenty of course form over a debutant - especially in some of the side markets.


Other Possible Angles In

Form at the Northern Trust Open is worth more than a cursory glance. Following Bubba Watson's second victory at Riviera in February, a total of 11 Masters Champions have now won 21 editions of the NTO. Watson, Mickelson, Sam Snead, Ben Hogan & Tom Watson have now all won multiple PGA Tour events at both Riviera & Augusta so the courses clearly correlate quite nicely.

The draw may well prove pivotal and teeing it up Thursday afternoon has been advantageous of late. Even though the breeze picked up slightly as the day wore on last year, the afternoon starters on Thursday shot 0.65 strokes fewer than those who teed off in the morning and a late start on Thursday has proven very beneficial in recent years with the last five winners all starting the tournament late on Thursday.


In-Play Tactics

You need to be right up with the pace from early on to win the US Masters- Augusta National is NOT a catch-up course and a fast start is imperative. No year advertises that fact better than 2010, when Hunter Mahan, who finished tied 8th, was the only player to finish in the top-10 who hadn't been more than two shots off Couples' first round lead.

Spieth and Rose sat first and second after round one last year and that's how they finished the tournament with Spieth winning wire-to-wire.

Bubba took a very typical route to the title in 2014 when he sat in a tie for second, just one off the lead, after opening the event with a three-under par 69 and he was three clear at halfway after a second round 68. A slightly sticky 74 in round three saw him lose his outright advantage before he kicked three clear with a closing 69.

You can also look to 2012, when the first four names on the day one leaderboard - Lee Westwood, Louis Oosthuizen, Peter Hanson and Bubba were all in the first six at the finish.

Adam Scott's journey to victory in 2013 also followed a very typical route - he was never more than three off the lead but he wasn't in front too early. The ideal scenario is to be up with the pace but not in front too soon. Spieth and Immelman are the only first round leaders to win since Ben Crenshaw in 1984 and they're the only wire-to-wire winners since Seve Ballesteros achieved the feat in 1980.

Tiger and Phil repeatedly buck the trends at Augusta and they're the only two men to win the event having finished day one outside of the top-10 since Mark O'Meara won from tied 25th and five off the pace in 1998. Unless you're Woods or Mickelson, get a fast start or forget it.

And finally, the finish to the last two editions have been fairly predictable and even a bit dull but don't be surprised if we get a dramatic and exciting finale and make sure you lay back some profit if your pick looks like winning and goes odds-on.

Two of the last four renewals have had to be settled via a play-off and even when the event doesn't go to extra holes, most years we get a very tight and exciting finish with players trading at odds-on without winning.

Jason Day hit 1.75/7 three years ago but missed out on the play-off by two strokes and Cabrera, beaten by Scott in extra time, traded at 1.9110/11. In 2012, Louis Oosthuizen was a heavy odds-on shot when Bubba found the trees before that famous miracle recovery shot at the second play-off hole and there were all sorts of shenanigans in 2011.

Rory McIlroy began the final day four clear and a 1.84/5 shot but he could finish no better than tied 15th and Scott backers were cruelly denied after he'd been matched at just 1.374/11 when Charl Schwartzel birdied the last four holes to win.

Mickelson cruised to an emotional third victory in 2010 but a year earlier two players traded at odds-on before losing in a play-off. Kenny Perry, who bogeyed the last two holes, was matched at just 1.132/15 in-running and Chad Campbell, who bogeyed the first extra hole to be eliminated, touched odds-on when he found the fairway and Cabrera the trees.

And don't just look to oppose the odds-on favourites, look for outrageous and unjustified spikes in the market. Cabrera was matched at over 30.029/1 when he trailed by three with just three to play in 2010, and he was matched at 55.054/1 after his drive in the play-off. The first price was too big and the second was ridiculous.


Leading Contenders

Jason Day's form figures at Augusta, which read 2-WD-3-20-28, don't tell the whole story at all and he has a favourite's chance after back-to-back victories at the Arnold Palmer Invitational and the WGC-Dell Match Play.

He was beaten by just two strokes when runner-up on debut in 2011 and he traded at odds-on two years later before bogeys at 16 and 17 derailed his chance of glory so he's already come close to winning. He withdrew injured in-between those two efforts in 2012 and he wasn't fit when 20th in 2014. And last year's performance was just bizarre.

After opening up with a five-under-par 67, Day sat tied for second and he looked certain to push hard for his first major success but his chances derailed completely when he inexplicitly fired 74 in round two. He was never at the races after that and he finished the week in 28th. Whatever the reason for it, that was a very strange performance and it's one I'm prepared to dismiss. Day is now a major champion, after winning the USPGA Championship last year, and he's very rapidly developed into a ruthless closer. He's won six of his last 13 starts and he's a worthy favourite with a big chance.

Jordan Spieth upset a number of trends and broke all sorts of records last year and if he's to defend his title, he'll need to defy the odds again because defending champions have a terrible record. Jack Nicklaus (1965-66), Nick Faldo (1989-90), and Tiger Woods (2001-02) are the only three players that have managed to go back-to-back at Augusta. History is against him and that's not the only thing that puts me off. He was in incredible form this time last year and he arrived at Augusta with 2015 form figures reading 7-MC-7-4-17-1-2-2. In comparison, his 2016 figures read 1-5-2-21-MC-17-18-9-13.

Rory McIlroy already has four major titles to his name and he needs a Green Jacket to complete the career Grand Slam. As already stated, he had a great chance to win here in 2011 but he's not had a sniff since. He did finish fourth 12 months ago, when the soft conditions would have been very much in his favour, but he was always a long way behind Spieth and he made up a lot of ground with a final round 66. He's recently changed his putting grip in an attempt to improve his form on the greens but I'm not sure that's a plus just ahead of arguably the toughest putting examination in the world of golf.

He has the mental scars of 2011 to overcome, the pressure of the career Grand Slam accomplishment on his shoulders and he has just one worldwide victory to his name in the last 10 months. He's not for me at a single-figure price.

Two-time winner, Bubba Watson, hasn't defended the title at all well, on either occasion he's attempted it. Following victory in 2012, he finished 50th in 2013 and after doubling up in 2014 he finished a disappointing 38th last year. They were two poor efforts but if we can forgive those performances (and I can) he has an outstanding chance of winning his third Green Jacket in five years.

Bubba's game is perfectly suited to Augusta and he arrives in tip-top form. He failed to progress from his group at the WGC-Dell Match Play last time out but that wasn't a surprise. It's an event he's never really taken to but prior to that he was in fine fettle. He was narrowly beaten in to second by Adam Scott at the Cadillac Championship a fortnight after he'd won the Northern Trust Open and I fancy he'll be a serious contender again now he's not defending.

The 2013 winner, Adam Scott, will have his followers but I'm happy to leave him out at the prices. He's been in tremendous form this year, winning back-to-back tournaments after finishing runner-up to Bubba at Riviera but I just wonder if he's had his little run. Following victory at the Honda Classic, he failed to break the top-10 at the Arnold Palmer Invitational and he didn't exactly shine at the WGC-Dell Match Play where he too failed to get out of his group. I'm not going to read too much into that though, like Bubba, his record in that event is nothing to write home about.

I may be being a bit harsh on Scott but he's not a player that impresses me in-contention often and he nearly always appears too short in the market - as he does again here.

Rickie Fowler is the first of the market leaders still in search of his first major but that quest could easily end this week. His Augusta form figures reads an unspectacular 38-27-38-5-12 but he's been in cracking form throughout 2016 and he's impossible to ignore. He missed the cut at the Farmers Insurance Open the week after winning the Abu Dhabi Golf Championship but he finished second at the Phoenix Open, sixth at the Honda Classic and eighth at the Arnold Palmer Invitational. He's another that failed to progress from the group stage of the WGC-Dell Match Play but last week's tied 10th at the Shell Houston Open was a nice warm-up.

The money came for Dustin Johnson last week as he again performed well at the Shell Houston Open - eventually finishing third - but he's not for me at all. He finished sixth in the rain-softened easier conditions last year but that was his best effort at Augusta by some distance and I just don't think he has the guile, scrambling skills, or even the bottle to win here. He has the power and he's a fair putter but he's not the smartest golfer on the planet, his scrambling and sand save stats are diabolical, and he's messed up a number of chances to win a major already. I quite like D.J and I wouldn't mind him proving me wrong but he's too short given his previous.

Since dispensing with the services of long-time coach, Butch Harmon, at the end of last year, three-time winner, Phil Mickelson, has been rejuvenated. At 45, he's getting long in the tooth now and he hasn't won anywhere since winning the Open Championship in 2013 but you write off this Augusta specialist at your peril. He's in far better form than he was last year when he finished second and it would be no surprise to see him shine again at a venue that suits his game perfectly.


Selections

I've had Bubba Watson and Phil Mickelson onside for some time now and I also backed Brandt Snedeker at Christmas at a decent price. I'm not absolutely convinced Snedeker has the minerals to win a major but he's contended here a couple of times previously and he's a quite brilliant putter. He's already a winner this season, having won the Farmers Insurance Open when he shot one the best rounds of all time in disgusting conditions at Torrey Pines, and he's still a reasonable price at around 70.069/1.

Having backed those three months ago, I didn't know whether I'd be adding to the portfolio but two players caught my eye last week - Louis Oosthuizen and Angel Cabrera.

Oosthuizen was beaten by Bubba in the play-off in 2012, after three missed cuts on his first three visits to Augusta and he's not been great here since. He missed the cut again in 2013, was 25th in 2014, and he finished 19th last year but that near miss in 2012 shows he can play the course and he's been in great form of late.

Oosthuizen won the Perth International in style in February and he's finished seventh at the Valspar Championship and runner-up at the WGC-Dell Match Play since. He finished runner-up at both the US Open and the Open Championship last year so we know he can raise his game for the majors and he was simply too big a price on Friday at 42.041/1, after he'd missed the cut at the Shell Houston Open. That poor performance was totally understandable after the long week and the disappointing result in the final at the match play event and the drift was a complete overreaction.

Finally, I've thrown a few pounds at the enigmatic Argentine, Angel Cabrera, who comes to life when he gets to Augusta. The 2009 winner hasn't been in the best of form of late but with five other top-ten finishes here to his name, I couldn't resist him at 260.0259/1.


Selections:
Bubba Watson @ 18.017/1 (ante-post)
Phil Mickelson @ 25/1 (ante-post)
Brandt Snedeker @ 100/1 (ante-post)
Louis Oosthuizen @ 42.041/1
Angel Cabrera @ 260.0259/1


I'll be back over the next few days with a look at some of the many side markets and I'll kick off the in-Play Blog on Friday morning. To read the thoughts of my betting.betfair Golf colleagues and myself regarding the best US Masters Each-Way Tips then you can do so behind the link.


*You can follow me on Twitter @SteveThePunter


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