JUST five months after Tiger Woods slipped the Green Jacket on the broad shoulders of Dustin Johnson, Augusta is once more the only focus of the golfing world.
The best in the game – Woods aside – have assembled at the sport’s most famous venue with the aim of joining the most exclusive club around, that of Masters champions.
The Covid-19 pandemic ensured the 2020 renewal was played in November, the famous bright flowers giving way to an autumnal backdrop for one year only as Johnson swaggered to victory in a manner only he can.
We’re now back in the traditional April slot, and DJ is back to defend his title as the favourite, albeit an uneasy one.
Such was the fashion of his five-shot stroll in November that you could have been forgiven for thinking nobody else had a chance at Augusta for the foreseeable future.
Golf has a way of turning things round, however, and 9/1 shot Johnson is unlikely to be brimful of confidence as he makes his way up Magnolia Lane for tomorrow’s first round.
The world number one’s form has fallen away since winning in Saudi Arabia in February, and while he is clearly capable of finding his ‘A’ game quickly, he has a hungry pack of challengers snapping at his heels.
Five players – Johnson, Jordan Spieth, Bryson DeChambeau, Jon Rahm and Justin Thomas – are available at 12/1 or shorter this week, with Rory McIlroy leading the rest at 18s in places.
The neatest narrative would surely be a second Green Jacket for Spieth, not long ago in the pits of despair but now resurgent and coming in on the back of a victory in the Texas Open on Sunday night, his first since a memorable success at the 2017 Open Championship.
If the romantics aren’t siding with Spieth, surely they are with McIlroy, who once more tees it up at Augusta in search of a career Grand Slam, unbelievably 10 years on from letting a four-shot lead slip on a famously agonising Sunday.
If McIlroy is to win, the work he has done with swing coach Pete Cowen needs to have bedded in quickly, but he is no back number on a course where he has been placed in six of the last seven years, and the massive each-way terms available make him attractive enough at 18/1.
That said, there are others who are better placed for glory, with Rahm reluctantly overlooked after becoming a dad for the first time at the weekend.
The Spaniard has the magic to be a Masters champion, and it will happen one day, maybe even this weekend.
That said, my vote once more has to go to Justin Thomas, who did us a big turn when winning the Players Championship last month.
The world number two put on a clinic of iron play over the weekend at Sawgrass, and it is this strength that sees him picked out here.
He was also the selection when fourth at Augusta in November, my notes then calling him the ‘best second-shot player in the world’.
Spieth might argue that point at the minute, but Thomas is magical with his short irons, and has improved with each visit to Augusta.
If he is to better that fourth from a few months ago he just has to go very close here, and he is in a very positive frame of mind having dealt with a number of off-course issues earlier in the year.
I just can’t have him not being in the mix here and he ticks all the boxes in terms of form, and also Augusta trends.
Of the 21 players to have won the Masters this century, only two have been outside the top 30 in the world rankings, and 16 have claimed a title in the previous seven months.
Incidentally, three of the last seven victors have been world number 12 at the start of Masters week. Maybe McIlroy’s fall to 12th in the rankings isn’t such a bad thing after all.
Thomas is the man to side with, and his good friend Spieth will probably go well too.
I’m leaving him out of my outright plans simply because there is a better route to profit with him.
If he is to claim a fourth Major, the 2015 Masters champion is likely to be on the pace from the off, and he is appealing at 16/1 with eight places on offer in the first round leader market.
Spieth has led after day one in three of the last six renewals, and has been starting all of his events quickly of late so the price is very appealing, while the more loyal of his followers might also like the 80/1 quoted by Sky Bet about him going wire-to-wire.
Having put up a contender at a relatively short price in Thomas, I’ve searched for a bit of value elsewhere, which has led me to Patrick Reed again.
The 2018 winner is consistently overlooked by the layers, perhaps because they don’t have many punters wanting to back the most unpopular player around.
That said, he is officially the seventh best player in the world yet 12 players are ahead of him in the betting here.
Reed (inset) has already won in 2021, at Torrey Pines, and while his famed short game has been a little off-kilter lately, there is no doubt he will have worked furiously to be in tip-top shape for this week.
As well as winning three years ago, Reed was 10th here in November, and will relish a return to fast, firm conditions and tight lies around the putting surfaces.
I give him a great chance, while Paul Casey might never have a better one to claim a first Major at the age of 43.
Whether the Englishman really believes he can capture one of golf’s biggest prizes is open to debate, but his form is superb, having won the Dubai Desert Classic this year, just as Sergio Garcia and Danny Willett did in the year they tasted Masters success.
That is probably just a coincidence, but the confidence a victory gives to a player can’t be overlooked, and Casey is firing on all cylinders.
In six strokeplay outings this term he has been no worse than 12th, while his fifth at Sawgrass was very impressive given he dropped four shots in one visit to the famous 17th.
There are questions over his bottle in the heat of battle but, at the very least, Casey is an each-way contender and is possibly vying with Rahm to be the best of the European contingent, which makes him a good 10/1 bet to be top Euro.
He has finished in the top 10 five times at Augusta and led after day one in November, so Casey knows his way around.
Cameron Smith is only 2/1 to be top Australian, but it is probably value given his form, while I’ll put him up as my last outright contender at 33/1 with Paddy Power.
More than anything, I want someone who looks like an extra from Home and Away, mullet and all, to shake up the stuffiness of the winner’s ceremony, but Smith is also a serious player.
He was the first man in Masters history to shoot four sub-70 rounds on his way to a tie for second behind Johnson five months ago, following on from his fifth when a relative unknown in 2018.
Smith hasn’t won since January 2020 which is a slight negative, but at number 30 in the world he ticks one trend box, while he has been in very decent nick with a fourth at Riviera followed by top 20s at the WGC at Concession and in the Players.
Finally, in a nod to the copious specials markets in place, Bernhard Langer could just get the better of Phil Mickelson in the top senior race at 5/1.
The absence of Martin Kaymer means I’ll not be putting the annual top German pay-out into the pension pot, but Langer has it all figured out at Augusta and the
firm conditions can play to his strengths.
You know what you will get from him, which is not the case with Mickelson, while 13/8 about Langer making the cut for the fourth year on the bounce is worth a look.
He could well provide another intriguing storyline on the most famous stage in golf.
HAVE A MASTERS PUNT
Justin Thomas, e/w, 12/1 (William Hill)
Patrick Reed, e/w, 30/1 (William Hill)
Paul Casey, e/w, 30/1 (Sky Bet)
Cameron Smith, e/w, 33/1 (Paddy Power)
Jordan Spieth, first round leader, e/w, 16/1 (Paddy Power)
Thomas or Spieth to win Masters, 11/2 (William Hill)
Paul Casey, top European, e/w, 10/1 (General)
Patrick Reed, top former winner, e/w, 13/2 (William Hill)
Cameron Smith, top Australian, 2/1 (General); top Rest of the World, e/w, 15/2 (Boylesports)
Bernhard Langer, top senior, 5/1 (Bet365); to make cut, 13/8 (Bet365)