Steve Palmer's Masters tips: Justin Thomas poised for Augusta National glory
American superstar to build on Sawgrass success by claiming first Green Jacket
Golf tips, best bets and player analysis for The Masters at Augusta National, Georgia.
Where to watch
Live on Sky Sports Main Event and Golf from 2pm on Thursday
5pts each-way 12-1 Hills
2pts each-way 40-1 Sporting Index
1pt each-way 125-1 bet365, Betfred
1pt each-way 100-1 bet365, Betfred
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The rite of spring returns - the Masters is back where it belongs on the calendar as the turf firms and azaleas bloom - and several gripping storylines have been married to the improved course conditions. The humdrum one-off November edition, which saw balls stopping dead on soft greens at a patronless course, can be consigned to history.
Dustin Johnson is defending the title he won in record-breaking fashion five months ago, Jordan Spieth ended his victory drought on Sunday and is expected to contend for a second Green Jacket, Jon Rahm has just become a father and could be inspired to make a Major breakthrough, Rory McIlroy is still seeking the final leg of a career Grand Slam, while Bryson DeChambeau will have another go at trying to overpower Augusta.
Steve Palmer's top tip
Justin Thomas 12-1
The top of the Masters market has become incredibly bunched, with an out-of-form favourite drifting and most of his main rivals shortening just behind him, and bookmakers seem assured of a dreamy spread of business as they head into Grand National weekend.
Rahm at 12-1 is the most appealing of those already mentioned. The Spaniard, agitated and irritable on the course this year, has brought a becalmed mind to Augusta and could freewheel to something special. At the same odds, though, the best bet in the tournament is surely Justin Thomas, who won the Players Championship last month and can follow up with the prize he craves above all others.
Thomas is already a Major champion, having won the 2017 US PGA by two shots, so he has comfortably jumped the enormous psychological hurdle facing Rahm this week. Thomas has also triumphed in two WGCs, in addition to that 'Fifth Major' success at Sawgrass, so has massively proved himself in elite fields.
Augusta is an assignment Thomas relishes because he is one of the best iron-players in the history of the sport. Accuracy on approach is the key to success in the Masters and JT has ended the last five PGA Tour seasons with strokes-gained-on-approach rankings of 20th, sixth, fourth, second and first. This term, he lies third in the list (behind Collin Morikawa and Justin Suh), so can be relied upon to find the right sections of the notoriously undulating Augusta dancefloors.
Progressive Masters form figures of 39-22-17-12-4 are even more encouraging when you consider how cold a putter Thomas has carried for the vast majority of his time at the Cathedral of Pines. Tee-to-green he has destroyed Augusta - the Kentucky man is ultra-comfortable with the dimensions of the layout - but failure to hole his fair share on the greens has been costly. A warming of the flat-stick this week and the Jacket could easily be Justin's. Considering he has halved his Tour putting ranking this season (112th in 2020, 56th in 2021), there is every reason to believe this is his moment.
The start of this year proved challenging and distracting for Thomas - a series of setbacks included the death of his beloved grandfather - but there was a sense at Sawgrass that he had drawn a line under it all and was ready to fully showcase his talents again.
Next best bet
Cameron Smith 40-1
Form from the November Masters may not be worth as much as that from previous April gatherings, but Cameron Smith has proved he can perform at Augusta no matter what the month or weather. In November he tied for second place, becoming the first player in history to card four rounds in the 60s in the Masters, and in 2018 he finished fifth.
Smith has teed up in the Masters four times and is yet to miss a cut - and fourth place on his Major debut in the 2015 US Open quickly showed that this gritty Aussie is tough enough for the biggest mental tests on the schedule.
Smith's last three strokeplay outings - fourth place in the Genesis Invitational, 11th in the WGC-Workday Championship and 17th at Sawgrass - were followed by a tie for second in a tough WGC-Match Play group featuring McIlroy and Ian Poulter.
Smith's short-game has developed into a thing of beauty - on and around the greens he is deadly - and a dry Augusta is the perfect stage for the Presidents Cup star to show off his skills.
Phil Mickelson 125-1
Brian Harman 100-1
Tiger Woods will be greatly missed from this championship as he recovers from his car crash, but the stage could be set for another living legend of the game to deliver one last hurrah. Woods used all his experience and tactical nous to triumph at Augusta two years ago - and this could be the turn of Phil Mickelson to do likewise.
Former champions have a habit of featuring on the Masters leaderboard to defy the passage of time - Jack Nicklaus won the tournament aged 46 - and Mickelson is not teeing up this week just to make up the numbers. Nobody in this field has been more successful in the Masters.
The three-time Augusta champion, who has 28 Masters appearances under his belt, was pleased with his golf last month at Sawgrass, where he tied for 35th place, then in the Honda Classic, where he finished 25th. He has admitted that a lack of focus has been to blame for his scores not being better - a quintuple-bogey ten at the final hole of round one in Texas last week being a case in point - but a second-round 69 at TPC San Antonio on Friday provided plenty of encouragement before he left for Georgia. Maximum concentration is assured this week.
Mickelson is still one of the longest drivers on Tour. If he can find enough fairways and his notoriously magical short-game purs, a famous victory at age 50 does not seem beyond Lefty, who insists he feels fitter than ever these days.
Left-handers have won six of the last 18 Masters - their faded drives a significant asset on many holes at Augusta - and Mickelson could be joined on the leaderboard by Brian Harman. The Georgia man found form at the ideal time to secure a spot at his home-state Major - and he is playing too well to be left out the staking plan.
Harman followed third place at Sawgrass with a run to the quarter-finals of the WGC-Dell Technologies Match Play, where Hideki Matsuyama and Bubba Watson were among his victims. Harman made an eagle and 16 birdies in the group stages, then eight birdies in a row in the middle of his match against Watson. The two-time PGA Tour champion even carded six birdies in his defeat to Matt Kuchar.
Harman, the 2017 US Open runner-up, is blessed with short-game class, which can make up for this being only his third Masters start. Mike Weir was Masters champion in 2003 and Harman is a similar player who can make a similar impact.
Augusta course guide
Course Augusta National, Augusta, Georgia
Prize money $11.5m ($2.070m to the winner)
Length 7,475 yards
Course records - 72 holes 268 Dustin Johnson (2020) 18 holes 63 Nick Price (1986), Greg Norman (1996)
The cut The top 50 players (plus ties) qualify for the final 36 holes, along with anyone within ten shots of the lead
Course winners taking part Bernhard Langer (twice), Larry Mize, Sandy Lyle, Ian Woosnam, Fred Couples, Jose Maria Olazabal (twice), Vijay Singh, Mike Weir, Phil Mickelson (three times), Zach Johnson, Charl Schwartzel, Bubba Watson (twice), Adam Scott, Jordan Spieth, Danny Willett, Sergio Garcia, Patrick Reed, Dustin Johnson
When to bet By 1pm on Thursday
When to watch Live on Sky Sports Main Event and Golf from 2pm on Thursday
Time difference Georgia is five hours behind the UK and Ireland
Last week - Texas Open 1 J Spieth (12-1), 2 C Hoffman (33-1), 3 M Wallace (100-1), 4 L Glover (100-1), 5 A Lahiri (400-1), T6 B Snedeker (250-1), C Kirk (40-1), G Woodland (80-1)
Course type Parkland
Course overview Home of the Masters since 1934, Augusta is the only Major venue which is used every season, typically in the spring. The yardage increased in the early noughties in an attempt to combat technological advances. In 2001, the course measured 6,925 yards from the championship tees, but that had been extended to 7,270 yards by 2002, reaching 7,445 yards by 2006. Last year was the first time the Masters had been staged in November, delayed by the coronavirus pandemic. Generous fairways and token rough (known only as the 'second cut' by Augusta officials) encourage aggressive driving, but the course demands accurate iron-shots to the fastest greens in golf. Avoiding three-putts on the dancefloors is hugely challenging given the pace and severity of the undulations. Sound course management is required to find the easiest spots from which to putt. The two short par-fives on the back-nine, the 13th and 15th, are classic risk-reward holes where the Masters is often won or lost. Eagles are achievable, but greenside water hazards are lurking to punish mishit approaches. A particularly dry build-up to this edition has made the course extremely firm and fast, so it will play much more difficult than it did for November's birdiefest.
Story of last year Dustin Johnson revelled in rain-softened November conditions, which allowed balls to stop dead on the greens, and raced to a record-breaking 20-under-par total to join the Green Jacket club. Sungjae Im enjoyed a wonderful debut to finish tied for second, five shots behind, alongside Cameron Smith.
Weather forecast Temperatures in the low-to-mid 20s throughout. Dry for the majority of the event, but there is a significant thunderstorm threat for Friday which could impact course conditions. Light to moderate breezes throughout.
Type of player suited to the challenge Length off the tee is traditionally a significant advantage, with long, rolling terrain and relatively wide fairways flanked by thin trees. Only two of the last 20 Masters have been won by a short hitter (Mike Weir in 2003 and Zach Johnson in 2007). Powerhouses are able to attack the small targets with loft in hand. Accurate approaches are the key to success, while a recent dry spell adds difficulty to scrambling, favouring those with plenty of Augusta experience.
Key attribute Accuracy
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