Story-Lines and Predictions headed into the Masters

Ahhh The Masters… my favorite sporting event of the year. It’s FINALLY here! It really is a tradition unlike any other, with views of Magnolia Lane, the beautiful azaleas, Amen Corner, the classic 16th hole, and the presentation of the Green Jacket awarded to the winner on Sunday night. These are images forever ingrained in my head and sights I cannot wait to see this week. As always there are dozens of major story-lines heading into the week. Here are a few that I’m really keeping an eye on…

Can Jordan Spieth find his form?

Jordan Spieth

Photo credit:  NYT

Personally, I think this is the most intriguing story-line headed into the 1st major of the year. We all know the affinity Jordan Spieth has for The Masters. He’s had some of the most unforgettable moments at Augusta over the last several years. From his breakthrough win at 21 years old, to his collapse on the 13th hole in 2016, and his final round 64 (-8 under par) to almost force a playoff last year. But for those who haven’t been paying attention to the tour lately, Spieth has been a disaster the last 9 months. His last top 10 came all the way back in the Open Championship last July. He didn’t finish inside the top 30 in the FedEx Cup rankings last year, meaning he didn’t make it to the Tour Championship which is the final event of the golf season. His best finish to date this year is T24 and he has fallen all the way down to 33rd in the world golf rankings, a far cry from occupying the 3rd spot after last year’s Masters. The reason for his struggles… well Spieth cannot seem to hit his driver with any accuracy anymore. He’s ranked in the 200s on the tour in strokes gained off the tee and he’s continuously missing putts from inside 5 feet. He’s had some good rounds this year but constantly has one blow up hole or round to take him out of contention.
So is Augusta the place where he turns his game around? While Spieth has never struggled with his game to this degree heading into the Masters before, he’s had questions going into the first major of the year… and always proves the doubters wrong…

Spieth Masters

Yes you’re reading that right, Spieth’s worst finish in 5 Masters appearances is a T11. I’ve made the mistake of doubting him here before… and I promised myself I won’t make it again (memo to self DON’T FADE SPIETH AT THE MASTERS!). I’m not sure we’ve ever seen a player navigate his way around Augusta like we have with Spieth. There’s something special about this course for him and I think he’s going to be in contention this week. Right now Spieth’s odds sit around 16-1 or 18-1 to win the tournament.

Is Rory ready to complete the career Grand Slam?

Rory 2018

Photo credit: Golf Digest

Rory McIlroy is arguably the hottest golfer on the tour right now. He made a concerted effort to play in the United States earlier than he has in the past and to play more on the PGA Tour this year (he hasn’t renewed his European Tour membership yet which is a story in its own). McIlroy started the 2019 calendar year at the Tournament of Champions (the first tournament of the new calendar year), an event he’s had the chance to play in just about every year of his career. This was his first time participating in the TOC. Rory has played in 7 events since the start of the new year and has 7 top 10 finishes including a win at the Players Championship. He’s driving the ball as straight and far as he ever has, ranking 1st on tour in Strokes Gained Off the Tee. His putting has looked improved, and it can be argued that this is the best he’s ever been playing heading into his 5th chance at completing the Career Grand Slam. He’s the odds on favorite (7-1) to receive the green jacket Sunday night. He was 2nd headed into Sunday at last year’s tournament before faltering to a round of +2 and finishing a “disappointing” T5.

Rory knows he’s going to be getting questions about whether or not he can complete the Career Grand Slam all week. The real question is can he handle the pressure. I don’t care if you’re Tiger Woods, Rory McIlroy, or MJ DeDonato, if you’re in contention on the back 9 of any golf tournament, never mind The Masters and going for the Career Grand Slam, you’re going to feel the pressure. I expect Rory to be there on Sunday as his length off the tee and around the green game (2 of the most important traits to succeed at this tournament) have always helped him in the past at Augusta. Am I convinced he’ll be able to handle the pressure and slip-on the green jacket… well you’ll have to keep reading to find out.

Does Tiger actually have a chance to win his first major since 2008?

Tiger golf

Photo Credit: Golf.com

Now that Tiger got the monkey off his back winning the Tour Championship, his first win on the tour since 2013, his main focus is on winning majors. All the tournaments he’s played in this season, are to gear himself up to compete and win the tournament that means the most to him; The Masters. I’ve said before that I doubted his ability to really compete for a major win ever again. He obviously proved me wrong after his electric performances last year at The Open (T6) and the PGA Championship (Solo 2nd). Augusta is a ball-strikers course. Tiger’s strength these days is his iron game. He’s still one of the best iron players on tour. Woods ranks 3rd in strokes gained approach over the last 50 rounds, amongst all players in the field (87).
The biggest question for Woods since the start of last year is constantly his driver/game off the tee. It was a big issue for him last year heading into the Masters and it let him down at times as he finished the tournament at +1 and a tie for 32nd. His driver has been a little more consistent as of late. Woods has gained strokes off the tee in 7 of his last 8 tournaments, a very good sign heading into the week as Strokes Gained Off the Tee is constantly one of the best indicators for success at Augusta. Should Woods drive the ball far and straight this week, he should be in contention come Sunday. Everyone loves Tiger and wants to see him recapture his magic at The Masters. If he does falter this year, this will still be an amazing tournament, so don’t be one of those fair weather golf fans who taps out on the tournament… nothing beats The Masters!

Top 5 Predictions

5. Hideki Matsuyama – My friends know that… HIDEKIIIII is one of my favorite golfers on the tour. He’s been absolute hot fire with his irons the last several months. He has the course history, current form, and tee to green game to be in the running late Sunday afternoon. Unfortunately, he also has the entire country of Japan on his back as no Japanese golfer has ever won a major and I expect those pressures to be too much for him to actually win at Augusta this year. (Odds to win 35-1 via Westgate Las Vegas)

4. Rory McIlroy – As I mentioned above, Rory is arguably the hottest golfer on tour. He’s the best driver in the field and has the length to dominate Augusta. If Rory tees off in the final group on Sunday, this could hurt his chances to win. It adds to the pressure of trying to complete the Grand Slam. If he tees off in the penultimate twosome or 3rd to last, I think this would help lessen the pressure and give him a better chance to wear the green jacket come Sunday night. (Odds to win 7/1 via Westgate Las Vegas)

3. Francesco Molinari – The casual golf fan may not be familiar with this name, but they should be. Molinari won the Open Championship last year, becomingthe first Italian to ever win a major (making all us fellow Italians proud). He then proceeded to finish 6th at the PGA Championship last August, the final major of the year. Simply put, Molinari has been a stone-cold assassin on the golf course the last several months. He’s coming in with scorching hot form, winning the Arnold Palmer Invitational last month and finishing 3rd in the WGC Match-Play a little over a week ago. Molinari seems to never find himself in trouble off the tee and never makes a  big number on a hole. He’s as consistent as a golfer you find on the tour, missing just 2 cuts over the last year. The big con against Molinari is his course history. His best finish ever at Augusta was T19 back in 2012. He also had a solid showing last year as he finished T20. I’m willing to overlook Molinari’s spotty course history because quite frankly he’s a different golfer today than he was a year ago, nevermind the last several years. Do yourself a favor and do not overlook Molinari! (odds to win 20-1 via Westgate Las Vegas)

2. Dustin Johnson – Between Rory’s hot run, Tiger being Tiger, Fan favorite Rickie Fowler winning this year, it seems as if DJ has become somewhat of a forgotten man. I’m not totally sure why, as DJ has already won once on the PGA Tour this year and once in Europe. He’s coming in with 4 straight Top 10’s and his stats check out as good as anyone in the field, ranking 4th in strokes gained off the tee, 3rd in approach, and 2nd in strokes gained tee-to green. DJ is also great in the wind due to his low ball flight. We’ve seen the wind pick up at Augusta in the past (i.e. 2016 when Danny Willett won at -5). Should the wind become a factor, DJ’s game might be best suited amongst all the big guns. (Odds to win 10-1 via Westgate Las Vegas)

Justin Rose

Photo Credit: Heavy.com

1. Justin Rose – Your 2019 Masters Champion will be none other than #TeamRose (He loves putting that in all his Instagram posts) aka Justin Rose. It’s been a long time coming for Rose. His course history at Augusta is as good as anyone without a win. He has 5 top 10’s including two 2nd place finishes. He’s never missed a cut in 13 appearances. He has 11 top 25 finishes, and has never finished worse than 39th (which was all the way back in 2003, his first start ever at Augusta). Course history has proved year in and year out to have more significance at Augusta than anywhere else on the PGA Tour. Rose has already won on tour this year and similar to Tiger, is really concerned with trying to win majors first and foremost at this point in his career. He has the length off the tee, the iron game, game around the greens, and has been rolling the ball on the green as well as he ever has over the past year. Rose also has a U.S. Open victory to his name, so we know he can deal with the pressure of the back 9 of a major on a Sunday. As I mentioned, this has been a long-time coming for Rose and he feels destined to finally breakthrough and receive his first green jacket come Sunday afternoon. (Odds to win 12-1 via Westgate Las Vegas)

Buckle up everyone it’s going to be one helluva week. Feel free to reach out to me for any advice in your pools (if I’m not in it), betting advice, and DraftKings. Hopefully you enjoy the tournament and win a little money while doing it!

2018 Masters Preview

The best sports week of the year is finally here. It’s Masters week and I couldn’t be more excited. For those of you who don’t know me, I’m like a kid on Christmas morning throughout this entire week. Don’t bother trying to reach me between the hours of 8 a.m. and 6 p.m. Thursday-Sunday, unless it’s about the tournament. Per usual, I took off Friday at work to watch all day. That really is “a tradition like no other” for myself.

What makes the Masters so great you may ask? It’s the beautiful course viewed through your HD TV, the birds chirping in the distance, the non-stop coverage on the Masters website through their exceptional shot tracker, featured group coverage, and the coverage of Amen’s corner. It’s the tradition of legends Jack Nicklaus, Gary Player, and Arnold Palmer (R.I.P. King) showing up every single year to hit the ceremonial opening tee shot. It’s the memories Tiger Woods has created over the years and the thought of him finally getting a chance to add a new one this week. The list goes on and on.

Let’s talk a little about how golfers succeed at Augusta National. First things first, experience plays a major role at Augusta.  This is true more than any other course/ tournament on the PGA Tour. The last time a first-timer won at the Masters was 1979. It’s only been done 3 times in history. Take note of this when picking guys on your betting list, Masters pools, and DraftKings teams this week.

We constantly see the same names, with years of experience, show up near the top of the leaderboard every year. The Jordan Spieth’s, Tiger Woods’, Paul Casey’s and Bubba Watson’s of the world always seem to play well at Augusta National, due to their knowledge of the track over the years.

Beyond experience, driving distance and Par 5 scoring play a huge factor. This course has four Par 5’s and that’s where you can make a lot of your hay in trying to score. When you look back at some of the winners/guys near the top of the leaderboard over the years, many of them are long hitters. Bubba Watson (who led the field in driving distance when he won back in 2014), Adam Scott, Sergio Garcia, Tiger Woods, etc. These are some of the longer hitters on tour and all finished around the top 15 in Par 5 scoring in their victories.

The rough off the fairways is short compared to other courses on tour. This helps play in the bombers favor. As long as you’re not wild and hitting your drives into the woods on every tee shot, missing fairways usually aren’t too costly.

Now I’m not saying average to shorter hitters can’t win here. It’s happened over the years (i.e. Zach Johnson, Jordan Spieth, and Danny Willet.) All 3 of them have characteristics that help make up for their lack of distance off the tee. They’re phenomenal iron players (Willet was when he won but is trash now), putters, and excel in their short game around the greens. If you’re a strong iron player, this usually means you’re hitting greens in regulation, which means you’re giving yourself birdie looks on the greens instead of trying to scramble around the difficult Augusta greens.

Let’s dig into the field. There are 76 players in the field. The top 50 and ties, along with anyone who’s within 10 shots of the leader will make the cut and play through the weekend. Here’s a list of all 87 players and how they qualified. http://golfweek.com/2018/03/26/2018-masters-field-list-and-how-each-player-qualified/

I’m going to do an in-depth analysis on Tiger, then I’ll give you a quick hit on all the top guns after that. Here we are in 2018 and on most betting websites Tiger Woods is once again the favorite to don the green jacket come Sunday at Augusta National. It would be an absolutely incredible story…it gives me the goosebumps just imagining him winning as I sit here and type this out.

With that said, there’s one huge reason why I won’t be backing Tiger’s betting odds or DraftKings price of $10k this week. Tiger’s success this season has for the large part been at tighter golf courses, that don’t demand you to hit driver off the tee and allow you to club down with a fairway metal or iron. This won’t be the case at Augusta. You’ll pretty much need to pull out driver on every Par 4 or Par 5. The driver has been Tiger’s downfall in his return. He ranks 149th out of 214 golfers in Strokes Gained Off the Tee on tour, which essentially is a statistic displaying how you hit the ball off the tee compared to the rest of the golfers. If Tiger is wayward with his driver this week, and hitting it into the woods forcing himself to constantly scramble around Augusta, then he will have little to no chance to win. I’m not saying I don’t think he can win and fix his driver problem, but I think it’s a lot to combine that along with the pressure of competing at a major on the back 9 on a Sunday. We haven’t seen Tiger do it for almost 10 years and I’m not sure he’s to that point yet.

Let’s talk about the rest of the top tier of the field…

  • Dustin Johnson 10-1 – A forgotten man over the last few months. DJ came into the Masters as the betting favorite last year and then had an incident where he fell down a flight of stairs (nobody believes that’s what actually happened) and had to withdraw before the tournament. Now DJ is not getting a lot of hype going into Thursday but I wouldn’t sleep on him. He’s the longest hitter on tour, ranking #1 in Strokes Gained off the Tee and is quietly having the best putting season of his career. Mix that with the fact that he finished T4 in 2016 and T6 in 2015 at Augusta, I for one am not sleeping on DJ.
  • Justin Thomas 10-1  – The hottest golfer on the tour the last 6-9 months, Justin Thomas is a popular name to win heading into the tournament. Thomas has a few starts at Augusta with his best finish being T22 last year. I think it’s safe to say he’s a much better player today than a year ago. With that said, I have a weird feeling he may not be mentally tough enough to take down a green jacket yet. I could be eating those words big time come Sunday.
  • Rory McIlroy 10-1  – I’m one of those people who just can’t quit Rory. Up until his win at the Arnold Palmer a few weeks ago, Rory had been hot garbage this year… in large part due to his dismal putting. He got some tips prior to the Arnold Palmer from former pro Brad Faxon, one of the best putters the tour has ever seen. Rory went on to have the best putting performance of his career. We know he has the distance, and short game (22nd on tour in scrambling) to pick up the career Grand Slam and finally win the Masters. If he continues his hot putting he could be the one receiving a green jacket from Sergio come Sunday night.
  • Justin Rose 12-1 – I listened to a Masters preview podcast the other day. They asked about 25 people who their pick to win was. About half of them said Justin Rose. Rose is confident too, saying earlier this week, “I’m where I want to be, knowing I’m going in as one of the favorites and it’s my time really to do it.” Rose has come SO close at Augusta over the years. Take a look at his results below…

Justin Rose Masters

Photo credit: Wikipedia

On top of his fantastic past form at the Masters, Rose is coming in to the event in amazing form over the last several months. It would be pretty surprising if he isn’t in the running to win come Sunday afternoon.

  • Jordan Spieth 12-1 – The golden boy Jordan Spieth. How could we ever forget his improbable win as a 21 year old at Augusta back in 2015…or his stunning collapse the next year in which he threw away another green jacket. I was on record saying Spieth would rid all of his demons from the collapse and win last year. He gave himself a chance but had a very stagnant Sunday. Now here we are again. Spieth hasn’t won on tour this year, unlike years past, but his game is in a weird place right now. Statistically speaking he’s basically been the best golfer on tour in Strokes Gained Tee to Green the last several months. At the same time he’s been absolutely atrocious putting this year which is insane considering putting is his forte. If he putts well this week I think Spieth will win. That’s a big IF right now though. This past weekend at the Houston Open, Spieth was once again #1 in the field in SG Tee to Green… but 109th in SG putting.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Y93wiRllAD0

  • Bubba Watson 14-1 – Well Bubba is back! It was just a few months ago you could bet Bubba 50 or 60 to 1 on many websites. Fast forward a few months later and he’s won 2 events this season and is one of the favorites to win. Bubba always has to be taken seriously at Augusta due to his course history (former 2 time winner), length off the tee, and ability to shape shots around a course that requires some imagination in hitting approach shots. Obviously Bubba needs to be taken as a threat to win and I think we’ll know by the end of Thursday whether he has a real shot to compete. If he gets out to a solid start, then Bubba will be in what us golf fans call “his happy place”… but if he struggles and gets out to a slow start, Bubba has never really been known to grind and fight back.
  • Phil Mickelson 16-1 – What an unbelievable world we live in to see Tiger Woods and Phil Mickleson both come into The Masters as favorites to win after all these years. We all know Phil has a great track record at Augusta with 3 Green Jackets, but I can’t see him winning it this year. Yes – he won at WGC Mexico last month, a tournament with many of the best golfers in the world, but this was Phil’s first win since 2013. I just can’t picture him out-dueling the young guns and winning 2 times in a month’s span.
  • Jason Day 16-1 – It wasn’t that long ago that Jason Day was the #1 golfer in the world. He had a down 2017 season due to some off the course issues with his family. He has looked better in 2018 and already won the Farmer’s Insurance Open. Here’s my issue with Jason Day this week/this year. He has been carried by an extremely hot putter. He ranks #1 in Strokes Gained Putting. On the other hand he ranks 185th on tour in Strokes Gained Approach to the Green and has had 5 consecutive tournaments in which he’s lost strokes in this category. This is a good indicator that he’s not hitting his irons well and while he’s a superb player around the greens, it just seems like too much needs to go right for him to have a chance to win this week.
  • Rickie Fowler 18-1 – For the first time in a few years Rickie actually comes into the Masters a little under the radar and not feeling as much pressure as years past. This is in large part due to Tiger’s return and the other top end golfers winning this year. With that said, it’s been a bit of a disappointing year for Rickie. He doesn’t have a top 10 since January and has had a few “blow-up” Saturdays and Sundays to play himself out of contention. It’s hard for me to imagine he’s finally going to put it all together and deal with the pressure of a back 9 at Augusta. After all Rickie has never won a major.w
  • Jon Rahm 18-1 – Rahm is similar to Jason Day. He has a win under his belt but has struggled with his irons for most of the year. He’s ranked 137th in SG Approach and has been a very strong putter throughout the season. The reason I have some optimism for Rahm is he is so dynamic off the tee… ranking second in SG Off the Tee. He is one of the best drivers of the golf ball on tour and could feast on these Par 5’s throughout the week. Rahm is similar to Bubba in the way he wears his emotions on his sleeve. If he starts slow it could spell trouble (see his 2017 US Open), but if he starts out fast, I see him competing on the back 9 on Sunday.
  • Sergio Garcia 25-1 – I can’t recall any golfer going from such a villain to beloved by golf fans like Sergio has. People used to hate him when Tiger was in his prime. Now after finding love in his life and winning the Masters, who doesn’t like Sergio!? He recently had his first child and named her Azalea after the beautiful flowers all around Augusta National and name of the 13th hole on the course. The guy even wore his green jacket in his wedding dance last July which is absolute swag! He’s one of the best ball-strikers on tour from tee to green and has clearly shown he can now win at Augusta. I bet a lot of people think he’ll be content after last years win and won’t compete, but I actually have high hopes for Sergio this year. I’m not sure I would bet on him to win, but at only $8.6k on DraftKings he makes for a great play.
  • Paul Casey 25-1 – Another guy who has a pristine track record at Augusta, finishing T6, T4, and 6th the last 3 years. He’s also of the Sergio mold as one of the best ball-strikes on tour. Casey ranks second on the tour in SG Tee to Green. I can’t look past the fact that Casey has won 1 time (a few weeks ago at Valspar) over the last several years. He’s also never won a major, but if Sergio could do it last year… maybe it’s Casey’s turn this year?

Now for my list of sleepers:

Hideki Matsuyama 35-1: One of my favorite golfers on tour. People who know me well may remember back in 2015 when I attended TPC Boston, I was following Hideki around just yelling “Hidekiiiiii” anytime he’d walk by me. He gave me a puzzled look like why is this random American fan cheering for me… little did he know I’m just a huge fan of his game! This was back when he was far less known by golf fans. Hideki has had a slow start to 2018. Part of this was due to a wrist injury he developed back in February at the Waste Management Phoenix Open. He returned a few weeks ago and while he didn’t have any top finishes in his 2 starts, he’s looked healthy. Hideki’s last 3 finishes at Augusta are T11, 7th, and 5th. His biggest downfall this year has been his off the tee game as he’s currently ranked 133rd on tour in SG Off the Tee.  This is a far cry from his 26th ranking last year. Other then that, all his strengths remain between his exceptional short game and strong iron play. Hideki has long been known for his strong game off the tee and I expect him to find it this week. I’m projecting a top 5 finish for Hideki and will have an outright bet on him to win.  Let’s not forget this is still the 6th ranked golfer in the world. 

Alex Noren 40-1/Tyrell Hatton 55-1: I’m grouping these 2 guys together since they both primarily play on the European Tour (although Noren has played in the US a lot more this year). They’re both of the same mold. Great Tee-to-Green game and can putt lights out if their putters get hot. I expect to see both of these names on the European Ryder Cup team come September. Both made their first appearance at Augusta last year, and missed the cut. Now with a year of experience on the course and good current form, they are worth keeping an very close eye on.

Adam Scott 55-1: A former green jacket winner, Scott has underwhelmed over the last year or so. Scott won the green jacket back in 2013 with an anchored putter (long putter), they have since prohibited these on the tour and Scott’s putting is the source of his downfall over the last year. It is EXTREMELY painful to watch him putt sometimes. I truthfully think I’m better than him standing over a 5 foot putt. Still I look at guys like Rory and Paul Casey who have had their own problems putting, and both found a way to catch a hot putter and win this year. Scott has the length off the tee, ball-striking skills, and is a former winner… if he somehow gets a hot putter this week, then watch out.

Gary Woodland 125-1: Woodland has missed his last 2 cuts at Augusta and never finished better than 22nd at a major. On the reverse side, he’s playing the best golf of his career, winning the Waste Management Phoenix Open back in February, and his best major finish (22nd) came back in August in his last major, the PGA Championship. I do worry about his around the green play, as he’s 167th on tour in Stroke Gained Around the Green. Still all the other aspects of his game are checking out as good-to-great between his driving, putting, and iron play. He’s one of the longer hitters on tour and could do damage on the Par 5’s. At the very least he’s worth some good exposure on DraftKings at a price of $7,200.

My prediction to win the Green Jacket is…

Rory

Photo Credit: USA Totday

Winner: Rory McIlroy

Rory has 4 straight top 10’s at Augusta. Some people would say “he never was truly in contention” but top 10’s at The Masters are nothing to scoff at. I think he really found something in his putting a few weeks ago at The Arnold Palmer Invitational. If he can just have a solid to good putting week, there’s no reason he won’t be in the running come Sunday afternoon. On top of that, if I had to pick one guy to step up and make a birdie at a Par 5 on the tour I’m picking Rory or Dustin Johnson.  Rory will use his distance off the tee to his advantage and feast on the four Par 5’s. Although he hasn’t won a major since 2014, we’ve seen him close on the back 9 at a major before. The only major Rory hasn’t won is The Masters and I think that’s added motivation this week. Rory will be the one to receive the green jacket from Sergio come Sunday night and finally complete the Career Grand Slam in winning all 4 majors!