Having waited 19 months for the 84th edition of the US Masters, following Tiger Woods' glorious victory in 2019, the 85th renewal tees off on Thursday, just five months after Dustin Johnson won his first Green Jacket with a record-breaking 20-under-par total in November.
Played at the iconic and stunning Augusta National, the US Masters is the only one of the major championships played at the same venue every year and having been the last major of 2020, it's the first of the year again in 2021, back in it's usually April slot.
Augusta National was founded at the start of the Great Depression and when the first edition of what was originally called the Augusta National Invitation Tournament was staged in 1934, the club had just 76 paid up members. That was someway short of the planned 1,800 and the inaugural winner, Horton Smith, along with all the top finishers, had to wait for 17 members to club together to raise the purse before he received his winnings.
Augusta National Golf Club, Augusta, Georgia.
Par 72, 7,475 yards, stroke average in 2020 - 71.75
Originally the brainchild of Bobby 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. More than half the holes were lengthened and tightened and at just under 7,500 yards now, it's a long course.
The last change to the course was a surprising one as they lengthened the already long par four fifth by 40 yards. It was the sixth hardest hole in 2018 and historically it's been the fifth hardest, but it's now been the toughest hole on the course in each of the last two renewals - averaging 4.34 in 2019 and 4.27 in November.
Augusta plays even longer than its already demanding yardage because the fairways are all cut in the same direction - towards the tee-boxes - so balls tend to land and stop fairly quickly.
As was the case in November, Wednesday's Par Three Competition has been cancelled for obvious reasons but Sky Sports will still be live from Augusta on Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday and live of the tournament begins on Thursday at 14:00 UK time.
Coverage begins at 14:00 again on Friday, at 20:00 on Saturday and at 19:00 on Sunday.
Last 12 Winners with Pre-event Exchange Prices
2020- Dustin Johnson -20 9.89/1
2019 - Tiger Woods -13 22.021/1
2018 - Patrick Reed -15 70.069/1
2017 - Sergio Garcia -9 50.049/1 (playoff)
2016 - Danny Willett -5 70.069/1
2015 - Jordan Spieth -18 13.012/1
2014 - Bubba Watson -8 28.027/1
2013 - Adam Scott -9 28.027/1 (playoff)
2012 - Bubba Watson -10 55.054/1 (playoff)
2011 - Charl Schwartzel -14 90.089/1
2010 - Phil Mickelson -16 11.010/1
2009 - Angel Cabrera -12 150.0149/1 (playoff)
How different to the norm was the November edition?
Before I begin with looking at what's required to win the US Masters it's worth just touching on the November edition to see how cautious we need to be when assessing that renewal.
At first glance, it appears to have played quite a bit easier. Dustin Johnson's 20-under-par 268 winning aggregate total was a tournament record and Cameron Smith, who finished alongside tournament debutant, Sungjae Im, in second place became the first man in history to shoot all four rounds in the 60s at Augusta National (DJ won by five but shot 70 in round two) but if we dig a bit deeper, I'm not convinced it was much different to a spring edition when the course has been damp and the winds light.
As Dave Tindall highlights in his excellent trends piece, as many as seven of the top-ten in November had previously finished inside the top-five at Augusta so there's certainly evidence that the course didn't play vastly different to how it plays in April but the stormy weather on Thursday morning definitely affected the tournament.
A three-hour delay on the first morning resulted in the PM starters having to return to the course on Friday to finish off their opening rounds before beginning their second rounds, whereas those drawn AM-PM had a big gap between the end of round one and the start of round two and they didn't get to reach the halfway stage of the tournament until Saturday morning.
The scoring was really good over the first two days and it was the first time in US Masters history that the average score on Thursday (71.41) bettered the par of 72. It averaged 71.81 on Friday and the course did eventually dry out over the weekend.
As it transpired, the winner, Dustin Johnson, like many a winner here, had been drawn PM-AM (more on that below) so that was business as normal really and by the end of the event, Augusta averaged 71.75 for the week, just fractionally less than the 71.87 it averaged in April 2019.
In summary, the 2020 edition wasn't dissimilar enough to previous editions to start disregarding the stats and I'm happy to treat it like any other renewal.
What Will it Take to Win the US Masters?
To provide an at-a-glance picture of what's required at Augusta, here are the average ratings for the last 12 winners in all the key stats.
Driving Accuracy - 29.17
Driving Distance - 18.51
G.I.R - 6.66
Scrambling - 9.8
Putting Average - 11.0
Although Augusta is tree-lined, Driving Accuracy is the least important stat to consider. The trees are well-established, and the branches are high so errant drives aren't always punished. Length of the tee is advantageous and historically much more important than accuracy but it hasn't been an absolute imperative.
Jordan Spieth, Danny Willett, Charl Schwartzel and Tiger Woods have all won here in the last 10 years with Driving Distance rankings of 52nd, 32nd, 40th and 44th respectively but they're the exceptions. DJ in November and the two winners before Tiger all ranked sixth for DD, six of the last 12 winners have ranked inside the top-six and Bubba Watson hit it further than anyone off the tee when he won his second Green Jacket in 2014.
The last two winners have both ranked number one for Greens In Regulation and nine of the last 12 winners have ranked sixth or better so that's obviously a key stat and so too is Scrambling.
The 2019 winner, Woods, only ranked 47th for Scrambling but the last 12 winners have still averaged only 9.8. The first three home in November ranked tied-fifth, tied-fifth and third the players ranked one to eight for Scrambling in 2019 all finished inside the top- 12.
A fabulous short game and the ability to get up-and-down repeatedly is vital.
Reed topped the Putting Average stats three ago but only one of the last 12 winners have ranked inside the top-12 for that stat and amongst the list of winners above are a number of players that have had their fair share of woes on the greens.
Canada's Corey Conners is a notoriously poor putter but he finished tied for 10th in November and it's a venue at which a below-average putter can occasionally prosper. The fast, sloppy, often treacherous, glass-like surfaces are hard for everyone and it almost levels the field out a bit.
The two playoff protagonists in 2017, Sergio Garcia and Justin Rose, ended the 2017 season ranking 112th and 168th for Strokes Gained Putting so although I wouldn't go out of my way to find a poor putter, it's perhaps a bit of myth that only the best putters win here.
Those stats show that the secrets to success here are to find plenty of greens and to get up-and-down successfully when one is missed but what's often the most important factor is how you play the long holes.
Here are the total scores to par for the last 12 winners on the par threes, fours and fives.
Par threes: -13
Par fours: -27
Par fives: -107
The fact that Danny Willett won here in 2016 having played the long holes in just level par is astounding and it must be viewed as an anomaly. Sergio only played them in seven-under-par in 2017 and even that was an unusually low score. Reed smashed them up three years ago -playing them in 13 under-par despite failing to pick up a shot on any of the four on Sunday - and that's far more usual.
Phil Mickelson played them in 13-under-par in 2006 and yet his winning total was just seven-under and even when relatively short hitter, Zach Johnson, won with an over par winning total 14 years ago, he still played the long holes in a dozen under-par despite not once attempting to reach the greens in two.
The first three home in November all played them in 11-under-par for the week and if you're only going to look at one stat before the off, Par 5 performance would be the one I'd suggest.
Angles In & Augusta Trends
Patrick Reed's course form coming in to the championship, reading MC-22-49-MC, was pretty poor in 2018, and he was the first winner since Tiger Woods in 1997 to have missed the cut the previous year. They're the only two to have achieved that feat since Fuzzy Zoeller won on debut in 1979 so not playing over the weekend on your previous visit is a significant negative.
Another no-no used to be backing anyone yet to break 70 around. Up until 2015, 23 of the previous 24 winners had all previously shot a round in the 60s but following Reed's win, and the victories of Jordan Spieth in 2015 and Danny Willett in 2016, three of the last six winners had failed to break 70 before they won. And they hadn't played in the tournament as often as most winners either.
Both Spieth and Willett had only played Augusta once before they won and that really went against the grain given 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 its unique nuisances. On average, first time winners have played the event six times and I loved the way Ernie Els highlighted how much of a knowledge bank gets collected over the years when he said after round one four years ago that conditions had reminded him of the third round in 2000!
Although plenty of experience is a big plus and the average age of the winners is 32, age had been a bit of a barrier until 2019. Prior to Tiger's win at the age of 43, Mark O'Meara, who took the title at the age of 41 back in 1998, had been the last man to win in his 40s.
Hot recent form a big plus
Course form stands up really well and past winners have a fine record, with as many as 17 different players having won the title more than once, but over the last decade, strong current form has been an essential prerequisite.
Since Phil Mickelson won his third title in 2010, having produced just one top-ten from seven previous starts that year (eighth at the AT&T Pebble Beach), every winner has telegraphed their wellbeing.
As many as six of the ten winners had won a tournament earlier in the year and the four that hadn't lifted a trophy still produced at least one eye-catching recent performance.
Prior to his first victory in 2012, Bubba Watson had finished runner-up in the WGC - Cadillac Championship at Doral (now the WGC - Mexico Championship), Adam Scott was third in that event at Doral 12 months later before winning here in 2013, Patrick Reed finished second at the Valspar Championship in 2018, and having won the Tour Championship in his final start in 2018, Tiger finished inside the top-ten at the WGC in Mexico and he played well at the WGC Matchplay in his final start, winning his group and knocking out Rory McIlroy before losing in the quarter-finals.
Riviera form a huge pointer
The WGC-Mexico Championship, formerly the Cadillac, and this year named the WGC-Workday and staged at the Concession Club in Florida because of the pandemic, looks a brilliant guide. All four renewals at the Club de Golf Chapultepec have been won by a US Masters winner and the last four editions at Doral were won by a US Masters winner. And it could easily have been the last five.
Justin Rose, who traded at long odds-on before losing in extra time to Sergio Garcia in the 2017 US Masters, won the 2012 edition at Doral but form at Riviera is arguably the best correlating course angle in.
Following DJ's victory in November, a total of 12 Masters Champions have now won 24 editions of the Genesis Open and Bubba, Mickelson, Sam Snead, Ben Hogan and Tom Watson have all won multiple PGA Tour events at both Riviera and Augusta, so the courses obviously correlate quite nicely.
DJ had previously won the US Open and Tiger Woods won the US Masters for a fifth time in 2019 but the four winners before him, and seven of the last ten US Masters winners were winning their first major championship and that's a general trend across the majors.
As many as 14 of the last 20 (70%) major championships have gone to a first-time major winner so don't be surprised if we get another but do expect them to feature fairly highly in the Official World Rankings because the last 35 majors have been won by someone inside the world's top-50. And as Dave Tindall highlights in his terrific 10-year trends piece, seven of the last ten winners of the US Masters were winning their first major.
Last Eight Winner's Position and Exchange Price Pre-Round Four
2020 - Dustin Johnson - led by four 1.422/5
2019 - Tiger Woods - tied second, trailed by two 4.94/1
2018 - Patrick Reed - led by three strokes 2.265/4
2017 - Sergio Garcia - tied for the lead with Justin Rose 6.05/1
2016 - Danny Willett - tied for fifth, trailing by three 22.021/1
2015 - Jordan Spieth - led by four 1.51/2
2014 - Bubba Watson - tied for the lead with Jordan Spieth 4.67/2
2013 - Adam Scott - solo third, trailing by one 5.14/1
Up with the pace is the place to be at Augusta. DJ led or co-led after every round in November, Spieth also won wire-to-wire in 2015, and five of the last seven winners have led after both rounds two and three.
Tiger sat tied for 11th and four of the lead after the opening round in 2019 but that was the first time any winner had sat outside the top-ten since he sat tied for 33rd and seven off the lead in 2005.
Augusta National is NOT a catch-up course and a fast start is imperative. No year advertises that better than 2010, when Hunter Mahan, who finished tied 8th, was the only player to finish in the top-11 places that hadn't been within two shots off Fred Couples' first round lead. He'd sat tied for 22nd and was five back after round one.
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 places at the finish.
Tiger and Mickelson 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 23 years ago.
As hinted at earlier, a late start on Thursday is beneficial. DJ was drawn in the afternoon on day one in November and he was eighth winner to be assigned a PM tee-time in 10 years. Tiger Woods was drawn late in the morning (11:04) for his opening round in 2019 and Reed was the first winner in eight years to be drawn in the morning on day one in 2018, but he too teed off late in the morning, at 11:15.
Reed was one of only a few early starters to thrive on Thursday in 2018 and all things considered, an early start on Thursday can probably be viewed as a negative.
And finally, make sure you lay back some profit if your pick looks like winning and goes odds-on. Francesco Molinari was matched at 1.68/13 in 2019, Justin Rose hit a low of 1.171/6 four years ago, as Sergio took a penalty drop on the par five 13th, but they're far from the first long odds-on shots to get beat. It's almost an annual occurance!
Spieth was five clear at the turn on Sunday four years ago and he was matched at a low of 1.091/11 before his infamous debacle at the par three 12th on Sunday. A renewal I wrote about at length during the first lockdown. Jason Day hit 1.75/7 in 2013 but missed out on the play-off by two strokes and Angel Cabrera, beaten by Scott in extra time, traded at 1.9110/11.
In 2012, 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 1.331/3 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.
Augusta is famous for its drama on the back-nine on Sunday and laying back some profit at odds-on is definitely the sensible thing to do if you get the chance.
November's contenders might be best swerved
Although course form stands up well and multiple winners are fairly common, Jack Nicklaus, Nick Faldo and Tiger Woods are the only players to win the US Masters back-to-back and something I've touched on in previous years is the poor performances often put up by players that contended the year before.
A number of 2019 contenders were in-the-mix in November and DJ had finished tied for second behind Tiger but there was 19 months between the two renewals and that many have been a factor.
Ordinarily, the contenders at the previous renewal tend to struggle and I suspect it's something to do with mindset. Having held a chance to win the year before, expectations are no doubt higher the following year and that may explain why so many fail to figure. As a demonstration, here's the top-10s from 2017 and 2018, with their finishing positions the following year in brackets.
1 Sergio Garcia (MC)
2 Justin Rose (12th)
3 Charl Schwartzel (MC)
T4 Matt Kuchar (28th)
T4 Thomas Pieters DNP
6 Paul Casey (15th)
T7 Rory McIlroy (5th)
T7 Kevin Chappell DNP
T9 Ryan Moore DNP
T9 Adam Scott (32nd)
1 Patrick Reed (T36)
2 Rickie Fowler (T9)
3 Jordan Spieth (T21)
4 Jon Rahm (T9)
5 Rory McIlroy (T21)
5 Cameron Smith (T51)
5 Henrik Stenson (T36)
5 Bubba Watson (T12)
9 Marc Leishman (T49)
10 Tony Finau (T5)
10 Dustin Johnson (T2)
None of the first nine form 2018 finished inside the top-eight in 2019 and the two players that finished tied for 10th were the only two to improve their positions.
Another thing to consider this year is how hard it will be for those that made their debut at Augusta in November. The course will play significantly different to how it played in November and that may hinder the likes of Sungjae Im and C.T Pan, who finished second and seventh on debut five months ago.
The omens don't look great for the defending champion, world number one, and favourite, Dustin Johnson. As highlighted above, defending champions don't have a great record and since his victory in November, Johnson's form hasn't been great, with an eighth place at Riviera, that should have been so much better, the highlight.
Bryson DeChambeau went off favourite for the November edition but he was never at the races. The US Open champ is yet to finish inside the top-20 in four previous visits to Augusta and although he's been in great form of late, winning the Arnold Palmer Invitational before finishing third in the Players Championship, he's one I'm happy to oppose at the price.
The Players Champion, Justin Thomas, has improving Augusta figures reading 39-22-17-12-4 and following his Sawgrass success, he looks nicely primed for a strong challenge. I picked out Thomas for the tournament at Christmas and my opinion hasn't changed. He looks highly likely to contend but he can't be described as a value price.
At the time of writing, Jordan Spieth is tied for the lead with a round to go at the Valero Texas Open and so his price is almost certain to move, depending on how the fourth round materialises.
Spieth has returned to form nicely and with Augusta form figures reading 2-1-2-11-3-21-46, it's hard to see him not contending now he's back on song. He finished second in his home state, in the Houston Open, before winning the 2015 edition of the US Masters, so one could argue defeat later won't be a bad thing given only four players have won the week before winning the US Masters and nobody's come close since Mickelson won in 2006, a week after winning the now defunct BellSouth Classic.
Jon Rahm traded at a low of 3.814/5 in-running in November before going on to finish seventh and that wasn't a bad effort given he was on the wrong side of the draw.
The Spaniard's form hasn't been spectacular in 2021, with a fifth in the Genesis Open the highlight, but with he and his wife, Kelly, expecting their firstborn, he's had a good excuse for the very slight drop off.
The baby boy arrived very early on Sunday morning so having threatened to withdraw should Kelley go into labour, he's now, I assume, a definite runner.
Rahm has an outstanding chance and the distraction of the new arrival may even work in his favour. With Augusta form figures reading 27-4-9-7, the world number three, who's yet to win a major, looks a great bet with ten places on offer with the Sportsbook at the industry-best of 12/1. And he now has the added boost of the Nappy Factor!
I wouldn't ordinarily go anywhere near a player in a major that's just changed his coach, especially if they've been playing as poorly as Rory McIlroy has of late, but the Irishman is a very special talent and he's starting to look a tempting price at 20.019/1. Very low expectations could be a big plus and I wouldn't put it passed this special talent completing the Grand Slam just when nobody's expecting him to.
This is always a great event to trade in-running so I'm keeping most of my powder dry for now but I have backed four before the off.
As already stated, Justin Thomas was backed at Christmas and I backed Paul Casey two weeks ago, before the WGC Matchplay.
At 40, the stats say he's a bit too old, but he's been playing very nicely this year and his victory in the Dubai Desert Classic in January bodes well given both Sergio and Willett won that event before winning the US Masters.
With Augusta figures reading 6-MC-10-11-20-MC-38-MC-6-4-6-15-MC-38, he has a wealth of experience here and playing with a bit more confidence following that recent success, he may fare a bit better than he did in November should he start nicely again. Casey was tied for the lead after the opening round five months ago before falling away to finish 38th.
I can't say I fancy anyone strongly before the off but two players that have to be backed, purely on price, are the prolific pair - Collin Morikawa and Patrick Reed.
Having played here just once, in the soft conditions in November, when he shot rounds of 70-74-70-74 to finish 44th, 24-year-old Morikawa can't be described as a great fit according to the trends but he's just too good to leave out of the portfolio at 38.037/1.
Morikawa has everything apart from a consistently good putter but when the flatstick works he tends to win and in his last 20 starts he's won the Workday Charity Open at Muirfield Village, the USPGA Championship and the WGC - Workday so he's far from frightened to win big events. He's simply too big at 38.037/1 and so too is Reed at 42.041/1.
The 2018 US Masters champ has also won this year, at the Farmers Insurance Open in January and although his usually excellent short game hasn't been on point of late, I can't leave him out at that price.
Justin Thomas 16.015/1 (ante-post)
Collin Morikawa @ 38.037/1
Patrick Reed @ 42.041/1
Paul Casey @ 55.054/1
Having backed the runner-up in November, Cam Smith, at 140.0139/1, I'll be hoping to go one better with one of my Find Me a 100 Winner picks and I'll also take a look at the side markets so look out for those two pieces during the week.
*You can follow me on Twitter @SteveThePunter