My father had a favorite grumble while watching the Masters Championship golf tournament every April.
“You’re rooting for Jack Nicklaus or Tiger Woods, and you think they’re doing pretty good,” he would say. “And then on Saturday it’s James Trippe from South Africa! Or someone else you’ve never heard of, and he’s 30 under par!”
I think most casual golf fans and even some dedicated links watchers have had that kind of experience while tuning-in on TV.
For one thing, it’s only in recent years that Augusta National started allowing full, panoramic coverage of each round of the tournament on both “9s”. Even now there’s no 18-hole coverage of all 4 rounds on the main CBS broadcasts. Getting to know the outward 9 holes was long-considered a privilege for Augusta patrons only. Leaderboards can change a lot over half of a round of golf.
Second, the nature of major tournaments help lesser-known professionals appear on the leaderboard. Not to say that whoever can hail from South Africa (or anywhere) and lead the pack at The Masters is likely to be unknown to golf junkies, pro handicappers, and fellow players. But there’s a much bigger TV audience – and a different TV audience – tuning into a major championship than compared to the Houston Open or the AT&T Pro-Am. The average fan watching The Masters might recognize 10 or 15 players enough to pull for them. Since the leaders aren’t likely to go low on Thursday and Friday, it’s easy enough for one of the other several dozen linksmen to get hot and pace the field.
Finally – and perhaps most crucially – by the time enough fans (the kind who watch major tournaments only) get familiar with a golfer he’s often in eclipse or not as dominant as he once was. It happens to late-blooming legends like Arnold Palmer, who continued to see heavy action on betting boards throughout the 70s despite blowing his last, best chance to win another major in 1966.
It happened to Woods early in his career when his streaks of dynamite golf came in waves.
But in his final years on Tour, the opposite may be true. Gamblers are remembering Tiger’s tragicomic years away from the course…instead of focusing on the here and now.
U.S. Masters: Comparing Tiger and Rory’s Roads to Magnolia Lane
Golf handicapping can be compared to horse racing tips. But Thoroughbred betting sites almost never interfere with betting odds for the Kentucky Derby and the Grand National. The action drives the lines. That makes playing the ponies just a little different than betting on human beings whose lines may be adjusted or withheld by a tricky bookmaker more often.
Another big difference between the 2 markets is that there are so many more “racehorses” in the pack at a major links championship.
The Masters is technically the easiest of the 4 annual titles to win because the field is smaller, and contains a few “ceremonial” favorites who won’t score under par. The United States Masters – as it is now known in Las Vegas and London – began as an informal Pro-Am in which golf celebrities were invited to entertain patrons on the finest private course in Georgia. Technically, it still is. The Masters is recognized as a “PGA Tour” and “Royal and Ancient” affiliated major alongside the U.S. Open, Open Championship and PGA Championship. But all that really means is that the governing bodies credit and rank players based on the results. To the big-shots in charge of Augusta, it’s still just their “toon-ament,” and they’ll keep a smaller field than the U.S. Open if they gol’ durn please.
They’ll also put blue dye in Rae’s Creek and expect nobody to notice or say anything.
Yet there are still so many players involved that the bell-curves of “average PGA pro on a hot streak” and “Tiger Woods having an ordinary day” can easily overlap. In other words, while Tiger or 2019 August favorite Rory McIlroy would be likely to beat Matt Kuchar in a 72-hole head-to-head match, the chances of any random golfer having a better tournament are pretty good when you consider the number of fellows swinging away. Unless Tiger and Rory have great weekends.
The 2 popular pros have taken disparate paths to Augusta in 2019. Rory is dominating futures betting action, with BetOnline currently giving the Englishman (+700) odds to wear a Green Jacket. It’s not as if gamblers are necessarily overreacting to McIlroy’s wins in the early-spring season either.
Rory is having just about the finest stretch of success you could ask for without having prevailed more than once. Wee Mac won The Players’ Championship at Sawgrass, pulverizing the field with birdies on Thursday and Friday before settling into an unflappable rhythm on the weekend. Other than that he’s just been more consistent than any other contender on the PGA or European circuit. Rory has made 8 out of 8 cut lines, finished in the top 10 an astounding 7 times, and fought Tiger Woods in a memorable match play showdown. His driver and putter are each working – the 2 most-important clubs in the bag.
Tiger is a 14-to-1 wager to put on his 5th career Green Jacket on Sunday. The 43-year-old legend hasn’t yet won in 2019, finishing only 5th in the match play tourney after threatening to take it over. But there are a couple of stats that make Woods’ slightly-longer-than-usual line-to-win intriguing. Tiger is 9th on the PGA Tour in ball-striking, his short game is sharp, and he’s 4th among American pros in GIR, or Greens-in-Regulation.
It’s the new Tiger Woods. He’s not the longest hitter anymore, but he’s more accurate, and he’s actually cured other facets of his game that were historically shaky. As is the case with Dustin Johnson and a few other top contenders, Tiger’s chances at Augusta will come down to whether his inconsistent putting will peak in efficiency on greens slicker than the floor of your garage.
Here’s a brief look at 5 other betting favorites to win this year’s toon-ament, er, tournament.
Dustin Johnson ((+1000) Odds-to-Win 2019 Masters Championship at BetOnline)
Johnson is like the race horse who everyone knows is a great mudder. All it takes is a pre-race thunder clap or 2 and suddenly there is a new true favorite, no matter what the betting public thinks.
D.J. is the perfect Augusta golfer in many respects. Massive, kingly drives and long irons ensure that even 475-yard Par 4s are nothing more than a drive-and-flick. His short game is solid and underrated. His lag putting is usually just fine.
But when he stands over a given 8-foot putt, he’s less likely to make it than a real expert with the flatstick would be. Like Adam Scott, or Tom Watson in his 40s, Dustin Johnson is a golfer whose ball striking is good enough to make him a threat to win any tournament. It’s just a matter of converting on the green and scoring well. The Cheetah gets from the tee to the green faster and easier than anybody, but can’t slow down and become The Jewelmaker when pure finesse is called for.
That’s usually bad news at Augusta, a course where the greens are more than just challenging. They’re a hazard.
Even when you’re 2 feet from the hole.
Maybe gamblers are afraid to speculate as to when D.J. might warm up with the putter. He’s 13th in putting on the PGA Tour this year, and 2nd in scoring average. At Pebble Beach, however, he shot 73-73 on Friday and Saturday as the birdies wouldn’t fall. That’s an important result because the only greens players have seen all year that are close to Augusta’s in severity and speed are at Pebble.
Justin Rose (+1400)
The lesser-heralded Englishman among the 2019 Masters betting favorites came tantalizingly close to winning a big futures bet for me last year, but I’m not in love with Rose as a 14-to-1 pick to prevail in the Azaleas this week.
Rose is missing a ton of greens and making a lot of birdies to make up for it. Making lots of birdies at Augusta National is great. A big part of winning the tournament is going low on at least 1 or 2 days out of 4, since The Masters is not often won with a (+1) or (-3) score as the U.S. Open or a windy and cold Open Championship might be.
Missing approach shots, however, is more painful at a major championship than on the PGA and European tours. Players have a better chance to recover around the green at the Anywhere in Spain Open than at a torture track with greens that can make a Stimpmeter look like a cannon. Rose must improve his short irons or miss the cut on Friday. That’s a tall order in short order and makes his real chances to win much longer than (+1400).
Jon Rahm (+1800)
Like Tiger Woods, Rahm’s best finish in 2019 is a 5th place. Any player at 18-to-1 who may have some type of marked advantage over the rest of the field is a futures pick to look at closely, though.
Rahm is absolutely striping the driver. The Spaniard’s shots-gained off the tee are rated 2nd on the PGA Tour behind Rory at #1, and his average knock of 305+ yards (counting lay-ups and iron shots on tiny Par 4s) could come in very handy at Augusta.
Distance and accuracy go hand-in-hand off Augusta’s tee boxes. Old-time pros used to call the woods to the left of the 8th hole “The Delta Airlines Ticket Counter,” because if you went into them, you were on your way out of the championship.
What’s more, if Rahm is often poised nice and peachy on the shaved grass 100 to 150 yards away, those are the kind of approach-shot scenarios that can make putting at Augusta easier by allowing the player to steer the ball into a safe position below the hole. He won’t have to gain as many strokes on the green if he’s already gained a lot on the field just getting there.
Justin Thomas (+1800)
Thomas would likely have a much-shorter futures line if not for the heavy Vegas action on Rory.
The still-youthful University of Alabama product has been knocking on the door. He finished 2nd in the 2019 Genesis Open (emceed by Phil Collins, of course…just kidding) and 3rd in another pair of tournaments. His FedEx Cup standing is Top 10.
Most-importantly Thomas might be the most impressive iron player on Tour right now considering that his beautiful approaches aren’t set up by the kind of towering drives that have characterized so many champions at Augusta. A consistent 4 days could win this year’s tournament considering that rain and wind could ravage the course late in the week and through Sunday.
Brooks Koepka (+2000)
Full disclosure – I’m skipping past Rickie Fowler at 18-to-1 odds, so this isn’t a linear preview of all futures lines for The Masters in order of length.
Why is Koepka more important to handicap? Well, firstly, Fowler has a dedicated fan club like a lot of long hitters (see: John Daly) and often enjoys a shorter betting line than he deserves. Koepka’s line isn’t as driven by the action but I’d take him to whip Rickie at Augusta if it was just the 2 of them.
Second, we’re talking about a golfer who won 2 major championships in 2019. In comparison, The Cheetah (only half the payout on a winner at 10-to-1) didn’t win any of them.
Finally – as mentioned above – the weather. I’ve talked about the importance of not overlooking Brooks’ line whenever the field is distracted by things beyond the players’ control. In a world of chest-beating passionate athletes, Koepka is a model of poise and temperament. Whenever there is controversy around a course or a tee-time scenario (or just bizarre and uncomfortable conditions that benefit some players’ styles while hurting other contenders) he’s got a leg up on the rest. No emotion. No complaining. No frustration. He’ll squeeze every last birdie out of all 4 rounds no matter what.
If the expected rain in Georgia disrupts all but the 1st round on Thursday, some golfers will get lucky breaks with suspensions-of-play or tee-time advantages while others get the shaft…not the club shaft. Just as he might on a debated new British Open layout later this year, the 28-year-old Floridian could out-last a cabal of frustrated stars who fail to overcome changing conditions and distractions.
Koepka has already won in 2019, and finished 2nd at the Honda Classic. The reason he’s at (+2000) odds is probably a lack of impressive stats, but the most important stats of all including eagles, birdies, and scoring average…and Koepka is killing it in all 3 of those categories.
He could be like Lee Trevino, undervalued by gamblers for the entire early stretch of his career due to unorthodox methods. Right now is the time to take advantage of that.
My Futures Picks for the Green Jacket in 2019
Dustin Johnson could also benefit from a rainy weekend at Augusta National. Rain would slow the ball down on the greens, not making it more likely that Johnson will putt well, but making it easier to take confident rolls at birdie putts without worrying about the knee-knockers coming back. A wet course would also bring Augusta’s trademark long length into play, with D.J.’s drives covering turf in the air that low-ball hitters are unable to surmount on the rolling Jones-MacKenzie track.
But I’m not feeling Johnson against his short odds. 10-to-1 doesn’t make sense for a player whose success at the 2019 Masters is still based on hypothetical “ifs” and “buts.”
Tiger Woods is not a bad wager at (+1400) given his laser-focus on majors at this point. You’ve got to take any aging legend’s PGA Tour results with a grain of salt, so long as he still looks alive on the 4 most-important weekends of the year.
But I’m liking Jon Rahm and Brooks Koepka against their odds more than any other markets. Rahm’s drives might wear down his opponent in a Sunday pairing, as the fellow contender and his caddie grow tired of seeing the Spanish professional standing in the middle of the fairway in wedge range.
Meanwhile, the potential nasty weather and disruptions make Koepka a marvelous choice at 20-to-1.