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Look for the short-game magic

Nick Faldo's average drive in 1990, the year he conquered Augusta for the second of his three Masters titles, was just 249.5 yards – and of the last nine Masters, the name of Tiger Woods appears just once on the honours board. What have these two pieces of apparently unrelated golfing trivia got to do with finding the most likely winner of this year’s green jacket?

Well, for a start the first fact may encourage punters to latch on to the chances of world No. 1 Luke Donald, or indeed any of the so-called short hitters in the elite line-up. Donald hits it around 280 yards yet is regarded by all and sundry as a “shorty” these much-changed days. That’s well over 10% longer than Faldo (and all of it attributable to modern technology).

The argument, of course, is that, 22 years on, Augusta is barely recognisable from the 6,905-yards that Faldo tamed so clinically. But even at 7,435 yards, its length for this year’s renewal, it has been incremented by only 7%, less than the evolution of the golf club, golf fitness and the golf swing demands if it is to hold its own.

The proof of the pudding comes with the eating: the winning scores are generally no higher, usually lower. Phil Mickelson’s 272 two years ago was beaten only by Tiger’s 270 in the 1990s and by no-one in the next decade. Mickelson apart, Charl Schwartzel’s 274 last year was the lowest for a decade. Yes, you will say, but Lefty and Charl are bombers, smashing the ball around 20 yards further than poor little Luke. And so do the players who finished right on Schwartzel’s tail – Adam Scott, Jason Day, Tiger himself. But look who’s there alongside Woods. Why, it’s our man Donald, with a 278 that would have won in five of the previous eight years.

There are few golf courses around today where hitting the ball long and straight does not give a player the edge over short and straight. And Augusta is not one of the few. But “straight” is often the operative word, although less relevant at Augusta with its relative lack of rough. Hence, the domination of Woods and Mickelson, two golfers with scant regard for fairways, who have slugged their way through the trees to seven of the last 15 green jackets.

Well, that’s not quite fair on Woods, whose 12-shot victory back in 1997 was wondrous to behold. But we are not talking about that Woods, are we? We’re discussing the Woods who hit so few fairways and greens on the Sunday of the Abu Dhabi Championship that he couldn’t finish under par in spite of requiring only 24 putts. It was so reminscent of Woods at last year’s Masters, where he had all his rivals shaking early Sunday afternoon with his majestic stride up the leaderboard only to run out of birdies on a downbeat back nine. When push came to shove in Abu Dhabi, Woods was a similarly birdie-free zone and it was a tribute to his fighting heart that his closing 72 did not contain at least five more bogeys. Bookmakers, so impressed with his first three rounds, slashed his Masters odds to just 100-30 but his inability to finish things off, or even look like challenging, forced a re-think out to 9-2. Even that price would not tempt me with a counterfeit fiver unless his play at Doral and Bay Hill – two courses he almost owns – produce more clear-cut evidence that his nerve and method are good enough to win another major.

Tiger has won only one of the last nine Masters – a fact that reminds you his domination is long over. As my accompanying 12-year form chart reveals he has put in several strong showings – runner-up twice, third once, fourth the twice, and between 15th and 22nd on the other three occasions. So the Masters is not the cakewalk bookmakers would often have you believe. A decade ago the powers-that-be took steps to Tiger-proof Augusta and, for the most part, it seems to have worked. And it’s worth pointing out that Woods has not won there since the course was extended to its current length in 2006.

Strange but true. It seems that when the winning score is relatively high and conditions difficult, the shorter-hitters end up coming out on top. Mike Weir, the 2003 champion, finished 195th out of 195 on last year’s PGA Tour driving stats but his 281 was one of only five scores of 280 or above since 1990 that have been successful. Three of those came via well-belowaverage drivers, Weir, Zach Johnson and José Maria Olazábal, while 2008 winner, Trevor Immelman, was only 66th in the long-driving league that year. So when the going gets tough, maybe those who have to think their way round and play the par-fives as fives prosper where the bombers who suddenly can’t make their guaranteed birdies at the long holes panic and perish. Johnson, for example, couldn’t, or didn’t try to, reach any of the fives in 2007 but ended up with the most birdies on them, 11 out of 16, courtesy of phenomenal wedge play and putting. The same went for Weir four years earlier. And our man Donald is in a different league to either of those two journeymen when it comes to wedge-and-putt golf.

That’s the theory I’m clinging on to anyway, biased as I am with my 18-1 voucher safely in a drawer, but of course there are other contenders, not least Rory McIlroy who had Augusta by the short and curlies for three rounds last year before imploding so dramatically on Sunday (only to pick himself up, dust himself down and heroically win the US Open).

Lee Westwood got close two years ago and was imperious at the back-end of last year in Sun City and Thailand. Ball-striking wise, he’s genuine Masters material – along with McIlroy, he simply needs the putter to wake up and smell the magnolias.

World No. 4 Martin Kaymer must hate the place, having missed all four cuts there; No. 5 Steve Stricker has never finished in the top five, and there’s no reason to think that at 44 he’s going to do so now. Sergio Garcia’s Augusta record is unconvincing, Retief Goosen's record of two seconds and two thirds from 2002-7 is eye-catching but he doesn’t seem to bring his best on Sundays any more – so that really leaves just the young, or younger, bucks.

On last year’s evidence, McIlroy still leads the brat pack, but there are a gang of them, the men who are taking over the baton: Schwartzel, Scott, Jason Day and maybe Nick Watney, who has two good Augusta finishes under his belt. England is represented by Paul Casey, if he gets fit enough to do himself justice after his snowboarding accident, and Justin Rose, who came close in 2007 and wasn’t too shabby in finishing in 11th place last year.

Or somebody else altogether? Gary Woodland maybe, lucky Torrey Pines winner Brandt Snedeker certainly putts well enough and is attractive at 80-1. Phil Mickelson? He’s in the mood following his 40th PGA Tour title at Pebble. Bubba Watson? Would be worth watching if he could get it all together and mount a charge.

If the winner hasn’t been mentioned yet, why not have a bit each-way on KJ Choi at a big price. The Korean has been eighth and fourth the last two years, was third earlier in the century, and as reigning Players champion knows how to win the big ones. Anyone fancy a bit of 66-1?

Best prices as at February 1: 9-2 Woods, 8 McIlroy, 16 Westwood, 18 Donald, Mickelson, 33 Scott, Watney, Day, 40 Garcia, D Johnson, Simpson, Mahan, Stricker, Kaymer, 50 Kuchar, B Watson, 66 Choi, Ogilvy, A Kim, Rose, Poulter, McDowell, 80 Snedeker, Casey, Furyk, 90 Goosen, 100 Els, Woodland, Haas, Z Johnson, Cabrera, Baddeley, Karlsson.

Against All Odds

The world of golf is still talking about the incredible last-hole collapse of poor Kyle Stanley in the Farmers Insurance Open at Torrey Pines but his misfortune was sweet music to the ears of four Betfair punters who obtained odds of 999-1 about the winner, Brandt Snedeker, as Stanley stood safely in the middle of the 72nd fairway needing to get down in only six more shots to be crowned champion.

It seemed impossible the 24-year-old would falter after showing impressive nerve all day but the seven-shot lead he had at one stage had been cut to three, and he was clearly starting to think about it over the closing holes His third shot at the par-five looked all over a winner, pitching nicely past the flag – but sadly for him not far enough. The spin-back brought the ball back 15 yards into the guarding pond. Badly shaken, he went through the green with his next, then three-stabbed – his yard putt for his first tour victory never even touching the hole.

Another Stanley bogey at the second extra hole left Snedeker the surprised winner and the betting-exchange punters who had wagered a total of £23.51 on the "impossible" result had between them accumulated over £23,000. And the punter, or punters, who had offered that brave price was/were left footing the bill.

The shock turnaround was an even bigger boon to one Bet365 client who had a £25 each-way double on Robert Rock at 125-1 for the Abu Dhabi Championship which finished earlier the same day and Snedeker at 25-1 in San Diego. The bet won him £87,695. Happy days for some – and incredibly it would be for Kyle Stanley just a week later in Phoenix, where he put those last-hole demons behind him with a closing round of 65 for his maiden victory.

March 2012

Reproduced with kind permission of Golf International Magazine


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