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Sunday, 21 October, 2018

Augusta specialist Spieth can exorcise his demons

Former champ looks best bet to upset Johnson

Jordan Spieth can make up for last year's Augusta disappointment
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Many punters are fascinated by statistics, so let me throw in a few Masters facts and figures you might not have factored into your Augusta staking plan.

The big talking points are:

  • Can the frighteningly gifted Dustin Johnson win his fourth tournament in a row and justify favouritism?
  • Is Jon Rahm, at 22, going to be the first debutant since Fuzzy Zoeller in 1979 to don the Green Jacket?
  • Can Jordan Spieth shrug off the scar tissue of last year's quadruple-bogey horror story at the 12th to bag his second Masters?
  • Is a bizarre preparation in which pretty well everything has gone wrong going to stop Rory McIlroy completing a career Grand Slam?
  • Could Phil Mickelson, at two months shy of his 47th birthday, become the oldest Masters winner?
  • With a record 11 representatives, could there be another English champion to follow Danny Willett, himself the first English winner this century?

Well, of course, DJ can do four on the spin. Tiger Woods did seven in a row in his pomp and Byron Nelson 11 in 1945 when many rivals were still involved in the war.

The problems will be mental rather than physical as this quiet man will be targeted by the media at every turn. Had Tiger been fit enough to compete, it would have removed some of that pressure.

But winning last year's US Open after blowing the one before was clear evidence of a strong mind.

Rahm is very special and capable of anything. Nerves won't beat him from what we've already seen.

He wouldn't be the youngest champion as Woods and Spieth were only 21. Only four golfers under 25 have done it, Seve Ballesteros and Jack Nicklaus, both 23, were the others.

Spieth is very strong mentally but has been putting up a smokescreen, saying he can't wait to get this Masters out of the way so that he won't have to keep answering questions about last year's dramatic collapse.

Ignore it. Remember he had already started to struggle before the final meltdown, his five-shot overnight lead down to one after bogeys at the tenth and 11th.

Don't forget he has the best course form in the three years he has competed (2-1-2) and fired in a record 28 birdies in his 2015 domination.

Missing the cut at Houston - his first weekend off since the Players Championship last May - was a shock but don't read too much into that. In the last 20 years, Jose Maris Olazabal, Mike Weir, Trevor Immelman and Angel Cabrera blew their previous start and it didn't stop them.

As Spieth says: "I think we know and the other players know we strike fear in others next week. So that's going to be my confidence level going in."

McIlroy has similar scar tissue from 2011 when he led by four going into Sunday and finished 15th after shooting 80, but people forget he then won the next major by eight shots.

He has won three more since then and had six years to get over the Masters that got away.

As for his bizarre preparation this year, a long layoff with a rib injury followed by a farcical week at the Match Play when he got to play only twice and failed to win either game, he can't see why it should affect his performance unduly. More to the point, does he putt well enough?

Nicklaus was 46 and 82 days when he won his 18th and final major in 1986, Mickelson would be 46 and ten months if he could pull it off.

Lefty is unquestionably one of the greatest players of Augusta there has ever been and the longest-lasting at top level. In the last 22 years, he's won three Green Jackets in 2004, 2006 and 2010, finished second once, third five times, fifth twice, sixth once, seventh twice and tenth once.

Only six over-40s have won the Masters. The others were Ben Hogan (40), Sam Snead (41), Gary Player (42), Ben Crenshaw (43) and Mark O'Meara (41).

Mickelson is peeved about being a non-winner since the 2013 Open at Muirfield, particularly as the golf he played in the last Open would have won most majors. He has played more than usual this year and much of it has been pretty good. He definitely cannot be ruled out.

England go mob-handed into battle with ten professionals and amateur champion Scott Gregory, their biggest team ever, but only Justin Rose (2013 US Open) and Willett have won majors.

Lee Westwood remembers 2001 when he was the only Englishman in the world's top 100. Now England has ten in the top 60 and father-figure Westwood rates his own chances on the course where he has finished runner-up to Mickelson and Willett - and in the top 11 in six of the last seven Masters.

"My game is on a different level to 12 months ago and I'm playing better than I have in a long time," he said, before starting double bogey, bogey, double bogey in Houston last week.

The 100-1 for Westwood is still of interest bearing in mind his course record but Rose and Tyrrell Hatton, a top-ten finisher in the last two majors who has kicked off his American dream with three consecutive top-tens, will be carrying my money.

With Rahm making the top-debutant market, Hatton will be at decent odds in that category.

Rose's strong 2017 form, continuing last week in Texas, makes him a sound outright bet as well as top English or top European contender. Five Augusta top tens from 11 visits (runner-up two years ago but he had a bigger chance in 2007). It's a pity he's not a more convincing putter.

It's hard to ignore Rickie Fowler who has had only one bad week this season and plenty of really good ones, including a victory at Honda.

He has one Masters top-five finish but this year has added consistency to his game. There's no way he should be five times Johnson's price.

So, with Justin Thomas and Hideki Matsuyama looking to have peaked too soon, the man to bring down DJ could be Spieth, himself  an early winner this year.

I love his record there, barring last year's savage Sunday and wide fairways will cover up any driving imperfections. So much of Augusta is the short game and he is the best.

It's a perfect course for his talents and his record there backs that up.

One final stat. The average age of a major champion is 32. Who is 32? Why, Dustin Johnson ... also Charl Schwartzel, Martin Kaymer, Jonny Vegas, Webb Simpson, Rafa Cabrera Bello and Gary Woodland.

Recommendations
J Spieth
2.5pts each-way at 9-1 Betfair, Betfred
J Rose
1pt each-way at 30-1 Betfred
R Fowler
1pt each-way at 25-1 Betfred
P Mickelson
1pt each-way at 35-1 Betfred
L Westwood
0.5pt each-way at 125-1 Betfair, Betfred
J Rose top Englishman
2pts 5-2 general
T Hatton top debutant
1pt each-way 11-2 BoyleSports

Wide fairways will cover up any driving imperfections. So much of Augusta is the short game and he is the best
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