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Awesome Augusta

Ed Hawkins looks forward to the US Masters at Augusta, one of the most highly anticipated golf tournaments on the calendar. So anticipated in fact that we’ve made golf our front cover theme this month (calm down, Tiger). Augusta’s been a bookie’s dream in recent years, but there are certain fancied players who still can’t be ignored

The old saying that statistics are a like a drunk to a lamppost, for support rather than illumination, is trotted out time and time again by non-believers when it comes to the importance of facts and figures for sports betting. Alas the last three US Masters have sustained the snipers with three winners from the dark depths of the coupon.

Course form, recent form, greens in regulation, driving distances and scoring averages failed to shine a light on the names of the victorious. Zach Johnson and Trevor Immelman, the 2007 and 2008 champions respectively, were 150/1 shots and virtual skinners for the bookmakers. Last year’s wearer of the Green Jacket, the amiable Angel Cabrera, was larger still.

Like a fisherman boasting about his catch, there are some who tell tales late into the night about Cabrera’s price. “He was this big!”. And although only a handful of them truly backed the Argentine, it is true that he was no shorter than 80/1 before the off and reached the whopping highs of 350 in-running on the exchanges.

Cabrera at least had the booming drive that is often needed on such a lengthy course – the famous Augusta holes have been extended to try to make it Tiger-proof – but Johnson and Immelman both left form students dumbfounded and for the 74th edition they could be forgiven for frantically leafing through a pin-sticker’s guide.

It is a widely held belief that a player needs length from the tee and nerves of steel on the green to win at Augusta. But Johnson was a short striker and Immelman was unconvincing to say the least. In fact, so poor was he on the really testing holes that his fellow players may as well ask to stroke his jacket for luck.

Of course there is no point getting het up about it. Such a run of long odds-against winners cannot continue and we should keep the faith by burying our noses further into the record books. From 2000-2006 punter’s pals Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson won the tournament five times between them and the other two winners, Vijay Singh (2000) and Mike Weir (2003) were far from shocks.

Mickelson is 11/2 with William Hill to pick up a third championship and with our mantra about letting the stats do the work firmly to the forefront, then he has to be worth following. In his last 15 Masters starts, Mickelson’s CV lists 11 top-10 finishes, seven top-fives and, of course, two victories.

The 39-year-old Mickelson had a difficult start to 2010 when he was criticised by his peers for using a club that had banned U-shape grooves to impart spin on the ball and suffered indifferent form but, crucially, he has been striking the ball sweetly. On Augusta’s marathon, a top-five appearance in the driving distance standings allays any worries that he may be too short in every respect.

Of course, favourite for the Masters is Woods, who has suffered the indignity of being exposed as someone who has lived up his forename. Indiscretions aside, on pure golfing ability there is no one that can live with Woods at Augusta. The caveat is that Woods’ mind has to be right.

At as skinny as 5/2, it is not worth the risk. Woods has not only been not spotted on a golf course (at time of print) after the lurid revelations about his private life but barely in public as a whole. Indeed, we need only look back to last year’s tournament to find another reason not back him. After a lengthy hiatus because of knee surgery, Woods wasn’t himself and he limped in tied sixth. With more time on the sidelines preceding this year – he is as short as 1/25 to turn up – his price is a big no-no.

For an alternative to rival our man Mickelson, look no further than Steve Stricker. Fair enough, Stricker (at the time of writing) had only five victories dating back to 2007 but his surge is one that cannot be ignored. In 2009 he finished second on the money list and he began the new decade with a win in Los Angeles. Those friendly numbers even allow us to make a case that he is a better wager than Mickelson; last year he had more top-ten finishes.

We could go on, and we will. In February Stricker could be found in the top five standings of FedExCup points, scoring average, official world rankings, money leaders, top 10 finishes and scrambling. At 28/1 with Bodog it is a price to write home about. Stricker made the top ten at Augusta in 2001 and ended a run of three missed cuts with a tied sixth last year.

Stricker’s odds are as big as they are because of money for European fancies. Padraig Harrington (14/1 Coral), Lee Westwood (16/1 Paddy Power) and prodigy Rory McIlroy (20/1 Coral) appear to be as short because of weight of money rather than weight of genuine hopes. We can cut all three down by issuing a reminder that a European has not won the Masters since José María Olazábal in 1999. To go into more depth, Harrington’s form has dropped off amid swing changes, Westwood (43rd last year) has two missed cuts in the last five years at Augusta and McIlroy has been suffering from back problems.

Further down the coupon, one European who does catch the eye is Paul Casey. He has more than a shout at 33/1. Casey reckons that Augusta suits his game and that view would appear to be backed up by his sixth-place finish on debut in 2004 and three top 11 finishes in six outings. He was heavily backed last year but finished 19th.

To satisfy those craving another big-priced winner, we offer up the not exactly original selection of Chad Campbell. Beaten in a playoff along with Kenny Perry last year, the 80-1 Paddy Power offer (and a quarter of those odds to finish in the first five) might just have you swinging around the lampposts rather than holding on for dear life.

THE FRONT NINE

1 Tea Olive, 445 yards, par 4
Players who go past the green can forget about making par because of a slope that makes a chip shot too tricky

2 Pink Dogwood, 575 yards, par 5
Not one for the short hitters or those who go left off the tee, which brings the creek dangerously into play. The big hitters can get to the green in two

3 Flowering Peach, 350 yards, par 4
Don’t be fooled by the romantic name, this is a treacherous test. Four bunkers to the left, a triangular green that careers to the left to be gobbled up by a bunker

4 Flowering Crab Apple, 240 yards, par 3
In-running punters should frame their wagers on this hole around what the weather is up to, specifically the wind. A gust can cause chaos for players on another green with an alarming slope, this time from a wide back to a narrow front. The hardest of the short holes

5 Magnolia, 455 yards, par 4
The green is a bit like those stomach-somersaulting roads you get on innocuous village centre roads: speed bumps everywhere. This makes it a challenging putting surface and could expose those who can’t handle the stick

6 Juniper, 180 yards, par 3
Phil Mickelson gives a great insight into how this hole will play. “When the pin is back right, you can’t go long. More often than not you’ll leave the next shot short with your chip or putt, and you’ll probably be long with the next.”

7 Pampas, 450 yards, par 4
Extended in total by 85 yards over the past three years because of big hitters like Tiger Woods. Unforgiving to inaccurate drivers, the fairway is narrow leading to an elevated, heavily bunkered green

8 Yellow Jasmine, 570 yards, par 5
The knees of the older competitors will begin to knock as they yomp up this monster as the championship reaches a conclusion. Those that can reach the green in two are the ones most likely to be having a knees-up

9 Carolina Cherry, 460 yards, par 4
Esteemed golfing wordsmith Peter Allis has this one down as a hole for drama. “A ball lands just beside the pin and you think ‘that's a beauty’ – but then it takes an extra bit of spin, comes back off the green and ends up 50 yards short down the fairway.” Greg Norman suffered in exactly that way during his final-round implosion in 1996.

THE BACK NINE

10 Camellia, 495 yards, par 4
This one really is for the notebook. In 2007 Woods hit the right bunker and failed to make par, lost the lead and didn’t recover. It was the first time he lost a lead in the final round of a major and failed to regain it. Regarded as the toughest hole in Masters history

11 White Dogwood, 505 yards, par 4
Amen Corner starts here. The praying may start here, too. A left-to-right dogleg, opposite to the fairway

12 Golden Bell, 155 yards, par 3
Notorious because it looks so difficult but, in fact, it has been one of the easiest of the Augusta short holes. The 10-feet wide stream guards a narrow-in-depth green. Can find out the nervous

13 Azalea, 510 yards, par 5
No rough but pine needles can cause havoc with players fluffing their shot

14 Chinese Fir, 440 yards, par 4
This is the only hole on the course without a bunker. But don’t relax. The green has more ups and downs than Pete Doherty

15 Firethorn, 530 yards, par 5
More pine needles to worry about off the right side of the fairway but one for the birdies. Easy Tiger

16 Redbud, 170 yards, par 3
If the flag is back left, players can get away with a poor shot. If it’s front right, good shots can become bad. All down to the slope, you see

17 Nandina, 440 yards, par 4
Hit it straight and there should be no problems

18 Holly 465 yards, par 4
“The front area of this green is nicely moulded to receive a pitch and provide a good putt for a birdie when the hole is cut here,” says golf legend Bobby Jones, Augusta’s brainchild
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