Ready for the first major of the year? Dave Tindall previews this week's US Masters and picks out his three best bets...
"Spieth hit 75% GIR when he won in 2015 and topped 80% in Houston. Using the Strokes Gained stats, he was ranked 1st in SG: Approach-The-Green last week, gaining 8.652 shots on the field."
Main Bet: Back Jordan Spieth e.w. @ 10/1
Each-way terms: 1/5 odds, 8 places
Main Bet: Back Jordan Spieth e.w. @ 10/1
To be honest, I've spent most of the Masters build-up looking for one decisive sign. A performance that would lift a player above the seemingly numerous legitimate contenders at the front of the market.
At the Houston Open, Jordan Spieth provided it.
Spieth's record at Augusta National is extraordinary. He has one Green Jacket but it could have been four.
Runner-up on debut in 2014, he smashed the field by four shots in 2015 when matching Tiger Woods' 72-hole winning score of 18-under, was five shots clear in 2016 before a sudden and unexpected collapse left him runner-up and then just two off the lead after 54 holes last year before fading.
At a venue where you're meant to have five or six tries before fathoming things out, Spieth has Masters form of 2-1-2-11.
After a rather mixed season so far, Spieth went into the Houston Open trying to give himself the perfect springboard for another Green Jacket assault.
He did just that with rounds of 68-67-71-66 to finish third.
I happened to turn the TV on just as he drained a 30-foot putt at 18. Next Sunday, when the story of the 2018 Masters is being written, that putt could help set the scene.
Rather than an isolated putt, it seemed symbolic. A sign that the doubts over Spieth's putting - which weren't unfair given the stats - could be eased.
And, if so, to me he becomes the deserved favourite for the Masters.
Let's get something clear though. It's his tee-to-green play that elevates him above the vast majority of the field this week.
Hitting greens on what six-time Masters winner Jack Nicklaus has always insisted is a "second shot course" is imperative and, as I wrote in my stats preview, nine of the last 10 winners had hit 69.4% or higher of greens in regulation.
Spieth hit 75% when he won in 2015 and topped 80% in Houston. Using the Strokes Gained stats, he was ranked 1st in Approach-The-Green last week, gaining 8.652 shots on the field.
Scrambling is another key at Augusta National and Spieth was 9th in Houston with 78.6%.
One other hugely underrated stat at the US Masters is Bogey Avoidance. It actually has claims to be the best predictor of the lot as seven of the last 10 winners finished 1st in BA for the week and all 10 didn't let the bogey or worse count slip over +10.
Spieth is third in the season-long Bogey Avoidance stats (up from fifth after his Houston performance) so he really does seem to have all his ducks in a row.
After finishing up in Houston, the three-time major winner said: "I believe going into next week that I have an opportunity to win no matter how the state of my game is from the previous week. But the progress that was made in the last eight or nine days has been as much as I've made in eight or nine days in my career."
Second in Houston when he won the 2015 US Masters, Spieth can take a very similar path to victory this week.
Next Best: Back Phil Mickelson e.w. @ 16/1
As stated it's very easy to give big chances to so many players this year so, for me, it comes down to trust.
At this particular venue, who do I really trust to get over the line in front and the edge has to go to those who've already been there and done it.
The Masters has a history of throwing up repeat winners so it's a valid policy.
Here's a quick trawl through some of the market leaders and the doubts I have.
Rory McIlroy - the fallout from 2011, the added weight of completing the Grand Slam and the niggling feeling that Bay Hill was an outlier in a modest American campaign so far.
Justin Thomas - probably my top pick a couple of weeks ago but trying to get to No. 1 has got inside his head a bit and reading his quotes about Augusta National hints at him needing a few more tries to work it out.
Dustin Johnson - not in the same form as last year and has consistently made too many mistakes at Augusta National. Also, no No.1 has won the US Masters since Tiger in 2002.
Tiger Woods - he's been there and done it four times of course but has only won it once since 2002 and 12/1 is too short despite all the encouraging signs.
Jason Day - there are holes in his stats at Augusta National despite some big performances. I also don't think he's played enough this year (four times).
That leaves me with Bubba Watson, Justin Rose and Phil Mickelson.
Rose hasn't won but two second places in three years is enough to make 14/1 seem a fair each-way price.
Bubba is a two-time winner and back to form but has plenty of average Masters performances too.
By contrast, Mickelson has both elements - three wins and an endless list of high finishes. To be exact, 11 other top sevens which is pretty handy given Betfair's eight payout places this week.
The latest big show was tied second place in 2015 but the extra plus this year is that he heads into the Masters with a recent win under his belt for the first time since 2013.
Ending that five-year drought was massive. As he said himself: "It's important I think to have a win in a tournament, especially a big tournament like a World Golf Championship before the majors because you don't want to feel that type of pressure coming down the stretch of a major having not won in a while."
With finishes of 6-2-5 before that, Mickelson has been landing the each-way cash all season and a top 25 in Houston last week was a good enough prep, especially as he ended with a bogey-free 67.
Whilst always thinking of him as a maverick who litters his card with a bit of everything, Mickelson has really been limiting the errors and I'll hark back again to the importance of Bogey Avoidance at Augusta National.
He said in Houston on Sunday: "I have played a number of bogey-free rounds this year, I've played a lot more rounds stress free." This isn't anecdotal evidence; he's 11th in Bogey Avoidance.
"What is so great about playing this week is that I'm able to identify the areas that I need to work on, to focus on the days leading into Augusta.
"I'll continue on ball-striking and driving, trying to pick up some speed a little bit now, keeping my short game sharp, and I can't wait for the tournament to start. It's certainly my favorite tournament of the year."
If Mickelson plays the way he's been performing so far in 2018, a top eight seems a minimum ask. He's fourth in Strokes Gained: Approach-The-Green and second in SG: Putting.
But that win in Mexico suggests he could go all the way and match Tiger's tally of four Green Jackets.
Best Outsider: Back Kiradech Aphibarnrat e.w. @ 100/1
Having picked two players at the front end, I'll be more ambitious with my final selection.
In his last 22 worldwide starts, Kiradech Aphibarnrat has posted three wins, a further five top sixes and seven other top 25s.
Okay, they haven't always been in the highest grade but he reached the quarter-finals of the WGC-Dell Match Play last week and was also T5 in elite company at the WGC-Mexico Championship.
The Thai is now 30th in the world rankings and climbing by the week.
In Mexico he was ranked first in Strokes Gained: Around-The-Green so Aphibarnrat definitely has that bit of magic in the wrists which makes such a difference at Augusta National.
What really elevates him to each-way pick material is the fact that we have the added comfort of a tied 15th on his only Masters appearance in 2016.
Reading the quotes, he said he was very nervous that week and didn't quite feel he belonged. However, an eagle at 13 and back-nine 32 on day one helped him shoot par and a closing 70 was his best round of the week.
Looking at his numbers, he shot 9-under on the par 5s, was 25th for GIR and 10th for Scrambling. Given that Justin Thomas was T39 on his first look and DJ T30, to crack the top 15 was an excellent debut effort from Aphibarnrat.
The top five in Mexico was a huge confidence boost, while back-to-back top sixes at Bay Hill (2015 and 2016) give further weight to the idea that he can get in amongst it.
Also top 25 on his US PGA debut, the underrated Thai is worth an each-way poke at 100/1.
Others at three-figure prices I looked at were Russell Henley, Zach Johnson and Adam Hadwin.
Henley has progressive Masters form of MC-31-21-11 and was T8 in Houston last week.
Johnson is a former Green Jacket winner (also T9 in 2015) whose game doesn't look far away after T26 at Bay Hill and T16 in the Valspar.
Hadwin has strokeplay form of 6-9-12 and was a creditable T36 on his Masters debut last year.
Back nearer the front of the betting, Paul Casey is certainly an each-way shout at 22s and perhaps more than that after finally getting his first win on American soil since 2009 when landing the Valspar Championship.
Rickie Fowler and Marc Leishman fit best on the 10-year-trends and are worthy of inspection while who knows what Ian Poulter (three top 10s at Augusta) is capable of after booking his place with a win in Houston last week.
But you can't back them all and I'm happy to let Spieth and Mickelson lead the charge with Aphibarnrat playing the role of surprise contender.
Dave's 2017/18 PGA Tour P/L (based on £5 ew per selection outrights, £10 win top 5s/10s)
(After Houston Open)