With less than a week to go until the first major of 2015, the excitement is building for the Masters. As ever, the tournament will be held at the Augusta National and will provide the sternest of tests for the world’s best players. The field for this year’s event will be as competitive as ever, with every player capable of putting in an outstanding performance, but the deciding factor will be consistency and mental strength. One good round is not enough to win the Masters. The Green jacket must be earned and, with the length and complexity of the course, players must keep up their concentration for the whole of the four days.
As recently as 2007, the Masters has been won with an over par score. Zach Johnson’s victory by two strokes, despite carding a one over par 289, shows just how challenging the course is. It is hard to see such a high score walking away with the title this year but the players will know that they need their wits about them if they are to do enough to win. On recent form, it is possible to suggest that a score of 10 under par would be sufficient to win the title. But, with three of the last six tournaments going to play-offs, it looks sure to be tight at the top of the leader board. With betfair paying out on seven places, an each way bet could offer punters the best possible value. In this article we look at some of the contenders for those top spots.
All eyes will be on 25-year-old Rory McIlroy going in to this year’s Masters. The Northern Irishman enjoyed a scintillating run of form throughout 2014 and will be desperately looking for it to continue into this year. McIlroy finished tied for eighth place in last year’s Masters but then went on to win the The Open Championship and the PGA Championship, leaving him just the Masters required to complete the career Grand Slam. Having burst on to the scene in the late 2000s, McIlroy’s prodigious talent has long been evident for golf fans to see and his rise to the top of the sport has surprised few.
In recent times, it appeared that McIlroy’s focus had shifted away from golf and a much-publicised split from tennis star Caroline Wozniacki seemed to hit his form. He also opted to take up a sponsorship deal with Nike which entailed him switching clubs and adapting to new equipment. With all of these factors taken into account, it was perhaps no surprise that McIlroy’s form dipped and, after winning the 2012 PGA Championship, he endured a difficult 2013, failing to make the cut at that year’s Open Championship. Thankfully for European golf fans, McIlroy is now back to his best and he was a pivotal member of last year’s Ryder Cup-winning team, taking three points as Europe stormed to victory. McIlroy arrives at Augusta having finished 11th at the recent Arnold Palmer Invitational and having won the Omega Dubai Desert Classic back in February. If he is in the mood at Augusta, then he will be the man to beat.
At just 21-years-old, Jordan Spieth is the new kid on the block when it comes to golf superstars but, despite his tender years, he is already making waves and he is well fancied to challenge for the Masters. Spieth is, by his own definition, enjoying something of a run of form of late, having won the Australian Open last November, then winning the Hero World Challenge in December and finishing tied for second in the recent Shell Houston Open. He could not be going to Augusta with much more confidence. His victory at the Valspar Championship in March made him the third youngest player in history to win multiple PGA Tour events, and expectations of what he could go on to achieve are rising rapidly.
Having only turned professional in December 2012, Spieth has only limited major experience, appearing three times in the US Open (once as an amateur), twice in the Open Championship, twice in the PGA Championship and once at the Masters. Spieth has so far failed to shine in all of the majors, barring the Masters. His best finish in the other three majors was a tie for 17th at last year’s US Open. At Augusta, however, Spieth seems to have found a home and in his only Masters appearance he finished tied for second behind Bubba Watson. Had Spieth managed to hold on to the lead that he held at one stage during the final round of last year’s tournament, he would have become the youngest champion in history. If Spieth can take the positives from his 2014 Masters experience and build on the confidence that he has gained, then he will take some stopping in this year’s Masters. If he can handle the weight of expectation from the home crowd and keep his mind focused on the job in hand, then he could be a great bet to win a memorable title.
If Spieth is golf’s great young hope of the moment, then Sergio Garcia was certainly its great young hope in the early 2000s. The mercurial Spaniard has been one of the PGA Tour’s most consistent performers over the last 15 years since turning professional in 1999 after shooting the lowest amateur score at that year’s Masters. Like Spieth, Garcia seems right at home at the Augusta National and even registered an albatross on the par five second during a practice round in 2002. He also began his career at lightning speed, winning the 1999 Irish Open, just his sixth tournament after turning professional, and becoming the youngest PGA Tour winner since Tiger Woods when he won the 2001 MasterCard Colonial aged just 21.
Spieth will most probably hope that the comparisons with Sergio Garcia end there. For all that the 35-year-old Spaniard has achieved on the Tour, he has 11 European Tour wins and eight PGA Tour wins to his name, he has yet to lift a major championship. Garcia, who will forever be popular with European crowds because of his achievements in winning the Ryder Cup five times, has made 47 appearances in major championships but can only boast four top-two finishes (two at the Open Championship and two at the PGA Championship). Garcia’s best result at the Masters came back in 2004 when he finished tied for fourth place. In last year’s event he failed to make the cut.
There is no doubt that Garcia has the ability to win the Masters but, having failed to win a major on so many occasions, it is possible that his temperament could be called into question. Prizes are not given out for consistency, or for effort, but if they were Garcia would surely be in line for a major. It has been said for many years that Garcia will win a major but the longer his drought continues the harder it is to see it happening. A win for Garcia may not be too popular with the Augusta crowd following his public spat with Woods, but few golf fans could deny that Garcia is worthy of being a major winner. The question is, can he deliver at Augusta? It seems a very long shot but stranger things have happened.
Defending champion Bubba Watson really has got the measure of the Augusta National course and, regardless of his current form, he will be a tough man to beat at the Masters. Watson won last year’s tournament by three strokes from Spieth and Sweden’s Jonas Blixt, showing great heart and spirit to reclaim the lead from Spieth during the final round. Renowned as one of the biggest hitters on the tour, Watson’s drive gives him a significant advantage at Augusta and has been one of the key factors in his success at the Masters over the years. As well as winning last year’s event, Watson was successful two years earlier and will go into this year’s tournament full of confidence.
Aside from the Masters, Watson’s record in Major Championships leaves a lot to be desired. Watson has made 22 appearances at the other three majors but has only made the cut on 12 occasions. Last year he missed the cut at both the US Open and the Open Championship and only finished in a tie for 64th place at the PGA Championship. Watson’s last tour victory came at the HSBC World Golf Championship in November. In his last tour appearance, the 36-year-old finished fourth at the Cadillac Championship in his native Florida.
Having worked hard to earn his tour card, and risen to prominence in the game slowly and without the kind of hype that surrounded Spieth, Garcia and McIlroy, it is easy to see why Watson may be popular with Augusta fans. Having played so much of his golf in the South Eastern United States, it is also easy to see why there may be some local support for the former University of Georgia student at the Masters. On the course, however, Watson is not such a popular character and a recent poll of pro golfers suggested that 25% of them would not help him in a fight. If there is one man that the whole field will be looking to beat at this year’s event, it is Watson. In the past, Watson may have thrived on this ill-feeling and used it to his advantage. If he is to win in 2015, he will have to do it all again and will receive no favours from his fellow pros.
All eyes will be on Woods at Augusta next weekend. The 39-year-old’s last tour victory may have been at the Bridgestone Invitational back in August 2013, and he may have suffered a huge loss of form and fitness in the weeks and months since then, but he has the quality and pedigree to make a real impression at Augusta. Woods is a 14-time major winner, the second highest total of any player behind Jack Nicklaus, and holds the record for the most consecutive weeks as the world’s number one golfer. With 79 PGA Tour wins and 40 European Tour wins to his name, Woods has one of the most formidable records in the game but in recent times his form has been on the decline.
Over the last few years, Woods has made the headlines for all the wrong reasons, allegations of infidelity and personal problems have overtaken news of his golfing achievements. In addition to this, the four-time Masters winner has also had to overcome significant injury problems, most recently a back complaint which resulted in him being granted a leave of absence from the tour. Woods’ absence, and his loss of form, has famously seen him drop out of the top 100 of the world golf rankings for the first time since 1996 – a year before he won the Masters for the first time. Woods has not won a major since the 2008 US Open and his best finish last year was a 69th place at the Open Championship.
If reports coming out of Augusta are to be believed, Woods is looking in great shape ahead of the tournament and has carded a number of impressive scores in the practice rounds. Given his lack of form, Woods will be down in the odds but he cannot be ignored and an each way bet could prove to be great value. Few players will want to find themselves paired with the Tiger in the closing stages of the competition. If he is playing his best golf and is in the right frame of mind, then he will be exceptionally hard to beat. If Woods cards a solid opening round, expect him to get stronger as the tournament goes on and he could record a fairytale fifth win at Augusta, ten years on from his last.