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It’s all building up rather nicely...

The romantic among you may be drawn into backing our home grown talent in their bid to end 17 years of heartache at Augusta – and there are some attractive odds about. But with the likes of Mickelson and the putting machine that is Brandt Snedeker in form, the Americans hold the aces

The wait goes on... And we’re fed up with it! No European has won the Masters this century, no British player has won since Sir Nick Faldo in 1996. It’s getting ridiculous, considering Europe claims the best golfer in the world and a high percentage of the world’s top 15 – not to mention stand-out performances in the Ryder Cup.

We’re not the only ones fed up, either. Lee Westwood, Luke Donald and Justin Rose, all in the world’s top half-dozen, have had it up to here with people asking when, if ever, they’re going to win a major. So too, to a lesser degree, Sergio Garcia and Ian Poulter. Maybe they are all trying too hard.

The bookies, in the shape of BetVictor, reckon it’s 13-8 a European triumph at Augusta in April and 13-2 an English one. Yet for two decades we rubbed American and Australian noses in it on a regular basis, with the inimitable Seve Ballesteros leading the way in 1980 and ’83, followed by Bernhard Langer (’85 & ’93), Sandy Lyle (’88), Faldo three times (’89, ’90 and ’96), Woosie (’91) and Olazabal twice (’94 and ’99). It seemed easypeasy in those days.

Since then we’ve had some pretty ordinary winners in Mike Weir, Zach Johnson and Angel Cabrera, But no Europeans, although we’ve had a sniff of it more than once, most memorably when Rory McIlroy led by four shots with one round to go in 2011.

While there’s nothing ordinary about the last two champions, Charl Schwartzel and the somewhat bizarre Bubba Watson, they were at 50-1 or more to bring down those Augusta greats Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson. On both occasions, they proved that the Woods intimidation factor is a thing of the past.

Sadly, McIlroy came to earth two years ago with an almighty bump, a last-round 80 hurtling him all the way down to 15th place, a position which remains (after four attempts) the closest he has come. Disappointing for the current world No. 1 – but on the plus side he escaped his ordeal without any discernible scar tissue, and the following year won the US Open by eight shots before added the USPGA last summer. And so it’s no surprise to see his name up there among the favourites this year, alongside the four-time champion Woods, who is holding the call this year at 6-1, a point shorter than Rory and four points less than the man with the best recent record, Mickelson.

Those who honestly believe Augusta National was made for Tiger, that it is his patch in the same way he dominates St Andrews, Torrey Pines or Bay Hill, are barking up the wrong tree. Let’s not forget the seven losing Masters that have followed his last victory, back in 2005.

Sure, Tiger was once lord and master of Augusta, but the fact is that Mickelson has won there three times since Woods last did the business. The lengthening of the course and the gentle intrusion of a little rough have done what the powers-that-be wanted them to do, to Tiger-proof it a little. It is not as if they have stopped him contending as his form figures up to last year’s worst-ever finish (40th) show two second places, one third and two fourths since he last got his head in front. That came with that freak pitch-in at the 16th on the final day, followed by a playoff victory over the heavily out-gunned Chris DiMarco. What a long time ago that seems now!

But a second-time-out victory this campaign, his eighth in all at Torrey Pines, a course where he does genuinely hold the Indian sign over the opposition, persuaded the bookies to slash his Masters odds from 10-1 to 6-1 and much will depend on whether he or McIlroy wins something before April 11 but after we have gone to press as to who starts favourite on the day.

BetVictor narrowly fancy Woods at 4-5 to finish in front of McIlroy, who gets a 21-20 quote, when the Big Two square up in Georgia. Or you can have 16-1 that they finish level. And if you think that eventuality is unlikely, just hark back to last year’s result: both men finished tied 40th, fully 15 shots behind Bubba. If you are convinced Tiger or Rory is going to win but cannot make your mind up which, you can have both men on your side for 3-1.

But if a Brit is to win it at last, I would sooner go for someone with superior Augusta form to Rory’s. McIlroy fans will undoubtedly insist the lad from Holywood has proved he’s a wizard on the course, otherwise how could he have blown the field away for three days in building up that big lead in 2011? But the claims of Donald, twice a top-five finisher, Rose, fifth to Tiger eight years ago when nowhere near the confident talent he is today, and top-12 the past two years, and Westwood, second and third in two of the last three years, are probably more compelling to the form-book student.

There’s no use saying it’s just a matter of time before one of those fine Englishmen knocks off a major. There’s no ‘must’ about it. Everybody knows they are far more gifted than some past major champions, but we all know there’s no guarantee they are ever going to get that monkey of their backs.

Yet fingers are forever crossed, hope springs eternal and the prices for Donald (22-1), Rose (25- 1) and Westwood (25-1) are all attractive. Naysayers will insist that Donald doesn’t hit it far enough – but that never stopped Ollie, Mark O’Meara or Zach Johnson. Famously, the latter didn’t once take on a a par five in two on any of the four days in 2007 but still made more birdies on them, 11, than anybody. And Luke’s dexterity with wedge and putter is every bit as masterful as Johnson’s.

People will also crab Westwood for his putting and pitching but he has relocated to the States to increase his prospects, while Rose’s stroke with the flat stick sometimes does not inspire total confidence on those glass-fast Augusta greens. But, hey, nobody’s perfect. Tiger hits it sideways most of the time, while Mickelson often fails to engage his brain, but that hasn’t stopped them winning seven Masters between them.

Mickelson would almost certainly have equalled Tiger’s haul of four titles last year but for a crazy 15 minutes at the par-three fourth on the final day, a red-mist error of judgement that cost him three shots. And how many did he fail to make the Watson-Oosthuizen play-off by? Two. That was expensive, as he was carrying most of the Chapman fortune – but who am I to bare grudges?

Reinforced by that phenomenal performance in Phoenix, Phil is once again my idea of the winner. A new-found self-belief, courtesy of a more forgiving driver and a valuable putting tip from coach Butch Harmon, sees Mickelson in with a golden opportunity to add to his Masters tally – a chance that is second to none at 10-1, in my view. And I’d also say that Rose, Adam Scott (second two years ago and eighth in 2012), Donald and that eccentric talent that is Bubba are bigger threats than Woods or McIlroy.

The early-season form of one of the more refreshing players on tour, Brandt Snedeker, hasn’t been lost on the bookies, either. Victory at Pebble Beach at the start of February – following a brace of runners-up cheques and a third place in January – saw the man from Memphis elevate himself to No. 4 in the world rankings. In the process, the man with the putting touch saw his Augusta odds trimmed from 33-1 to 16-1. His Augusta form is decent enough – the question is will a player at his peak in January and February still be as hot in mid-April?

And wouldn’t it be wonderful if that all-timegreat, Ernie Els, finally got his Green Jacket? For one golden period between 2000 and 2004 the Big Easy never finished worse than sixth. He twice thought he had it licked but first Woods, then Mickelson snuffed him out. At 80-1 the reigning Open champion might just be worth a little tickle. It paid off at Royal Lytham last summer, so why not again?

Bring it on and we shall see!

Best prices (going into Accenture Match Play Championship): 6-1 Woods, 7-1 McIlroy, 10-1 Mickelson, 16-1 Snedeker, 22-1 Donald, 25-1 Rose, Westwood, 28-1 Schwartzel, D Johnson, 30-1 Scott, 33-1 Oosthuizen, Watson, 40-1 Garcia, 50-1 Poulter, Bradley, Kuchar, Dufner, Watney, Simpson, Fowler, 55-1 Day, 66-1 Kaymer, McDowell, Van Pelt, 80-1 Els, Furyk, P Hanson, Stricker, Z Johnson, 100-1 and upwards others.

March 2013

Reproduced with kind permission of Golf International Magazine


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