IT’S almost time, folks. For the golfers it has already started, of course, as they make their way up Magnolia Drive. The past champions are slipping on green jackets, the amateurs are checking out the bounce of the beds in the Crow’s Nest (high up in the clubhouse), Hideki Matsuyama might be fine-tuning the Champions’ Dinner menu, and the patrons (not spectators) will be content with scoffing a pimento cheese sandwich from the concession stand.
They are all, of course, traditions like no other because everything about the Masters is splendid and completely bonkers at the same time.
Nothing captures this curiosity better than the final day: five or six hours of compelling drama on a course tweaked to play havoc with the nerve-endings of the world’s finest performers, followed by a green jacket ceremony in the Butler Cabin that never fails to astound with its levels of compelling awkwardness. The worldwide audience graduates from biting fingernails to chewing fists in one stupefied fell swoop (and we would have it no other way).
Wonderful stuff, but who might be accepting those crazily earnest plaudits from TV’s Jim Nantz? Let’s see if we can build on the success of 2020 pick Dustin Johnson and the near-miss from last year’s selection Xander Schauffele.
It’s easy to see why so many of the world’s elite are priced 25/1 or less. Winners of green jackets in recent times tend to be under 40 years of age (unless called Tiger Woods), in the world’s top 30, in good form, and have already finished in the top 25 at the Masters. It’s well-known that rookies have a poor record winning (although not so poor at placing) and that both defending champions and reigning World No. 1’s don’t fare too well either.
The trouble is, such parameters don’t really knock that many players out of the reckoning from the top end of the market. I maintain that contending in recent majors and/or World Golf Championship strokeplay events is almost essential. Each of the last 10 winners at Augusta National had finished top six in such events in the previous 15 months. I’d almost go further and prefer that they were top six with 18 holes to play and didn’t win (something all of those 10 did). Why? Because they’ve been getting in the mix, feeding their hunger, learning what to do (and also what not to do).
"My main priority, really, was just to hang out with them, and golf was second for these few weeks."
A special win for Cameron Smith and his family ❤️ pic.twitter.com/oYt4SwMgiY
— PGA TOUR (@PGATOUR) March 16, 2022
It still leaves plenty of quality performers on the short-list but I find myself most liking the chances of two players in red-hot form and hunting a major championship breakthrough. And Cameron Smith narrowly gets the nod over Scottie Scheffler. The Australian opened the year with victory in the Tournament of Champions and last month added a second win in THE PLAYERS Championship. Spin it back to his last elite level strokeplay start and he was fifth at the WGC St Jude after heading into the final round placed second.
This week will be his sixth visit to the tournament and he’s yet to miss a cut. He was fifth in 2018, second in 2020 and 10th last year. Will this year’s green jacket have a mullet spilling over its collar? It might do. Smith has always impressed on and around the greens, and in the last 15 months he has never been better approaching them. That combination is ideal at Augusta.
Corey Conners is already in our good books, courtesy of finishing third in last month’s WGC – Dell Match Play when tipped at 50/1 – and I say keep a few of those chips on the table. The straightforward reason for liking the Canadian’s chance are that he has both great current form and excellent course form. In the former, he contended at both the Arnold Palmer Invitational and PLAYERS Championship ahead of the WGC third. And in the latter he’s finished tenth and eighth in the last two Masters, ranking 11th and third for Greens in Regulation.
But I also like that he’s been superb in elite company during the last 18 months. In addition to those results already mentioned, he was seventh in last year’s PLAYERS, 17th in the PGA Championship (when first after 18 holes) and 15th at the Open (when fourth after three rounds).
— The Masters (@TheMasters) April 3, 2022
Each Way – Shane Lowry at 33/1
“I’m 34 now and when I get to the big weeks, I know what happens,” Shane Lowry said last year. “You have tough runs and then, when you have the good runs, you have to take advantage. Contending in majors. That’s the buzz and why I get up every morning. Hopefully I can give myself more chances in the next couple of years.”
He finished top five in the PGA Championship last year and was T12th on defence of his Open title (after a poor start). He had early problems with the Masters test, missing three cuts in his first four visits. But in finishing T25th and T21st the last two years he has recorded comfortably his best Greens in Regulation numbers and last year his best putting numbers (even if we only have old fashioned stats to go by).
And then there’s his form. He hasn’t finished outside the top 25 in his last seven strokeplay starts, with six of those efforts top 15 (when never outside the top 20 for Strokes Gained Approach). I’m no fashion expert so have no idea of claret and green go together. But in the case of jugs and jackets? The Open-Masters double is quite a common one and Lowry can add his name to the list of those who have achieved it.