• Betting Bunker

Rory ready for Augusta redemption

Josh Williams April 4, 2012
Quiet Please: ESPN picks out the ones to watch at Augusta

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The hype machine whirrs into overdrive as we approach Augusta, with Rory McIlroy and Tiger Woods expected to battle it out for both the green jacket and golfing superstardom. Indeed, some of the more hysterical commentators would have us believe that the tournament is set to usher in the next great era of golf.

But even viewed through the fog of hot air, the 76th iteration of The Masters really is a tantalising prospect, particularly as some of the game's other leading lights - Luke Donald and Phil Mickelson, for instance - are fit and firing ahead of the event.

Last year, it looked like McIlroy had the tournament under his spell until pressure forced him into a meltdown that was as dramatic as it was difficult to watch. The skeletons will be rattling their chains as McIlroy, who frittered away a four-shot final-day lead, returns to the scene of his collapse, and once again plays alongside Angel Cabrera (for the first two days, at least), who was his companion on the final day in 2011.

However, after the subsequent US Open, which McIlroy won at a canter, there is now no reason to doubt his resolve. That was a breathtaking triumph, not just because of the quality of his golf, but also because it came so soon after he capitulated at Augusta: technical brilliance allied to mental toughness.

Faced with the choice between McIlroy and Woods, it's the European player I'd take every time. Yes, Woods has a terrific record round Augusta, with four Masters titles, and yes he was a winner at Bay Hill recently - but consistency remains elusive, particularly in comparison with McIlroy, and having gone so long without a PGA Tour title, I can't see him now taking two in a row. It should also be noted that he hasn't claimed a green jacket since 2005.

Williams' wagers

  • Rory McIlroy win only - 13/2 at bet365
    Lee Westwood E/W - 22/1 at bet365
    Steve Stricker E/W - 45/1 at bet365
    Bo Van Pelt E/W - 70/1 at bet365

McIlroy has posted top fives in 12 of his last 13 starts (if you include the unofficial Shanghai Masters), and as he's putting better than ever, he possesses exactly the right sort of game to conquer Augusta. Really, you need to have it all round this course: length from the tee, accurate iron play and, probably most importantly, confident putting in order to tame the sloping, complex greens.

The 22-year-old is a brilliant ball-striker, no-one needs convincing of that, and his putting and recovery shots have improved massively over the past 12 months - indeed, he's top of the PGA Tour scrambling standings, which is crucial because avoiding bogeys on the rash of long par-fours is going to be key. He's also top of the holes-per-eagle ranking, indicating he'll be able to make the most of the par-fives.

So, with apologies for an unexciting opening pick, my advice would be a confident win-only bet on McIlroy - but I'd also say that the short odds being offered on both him and Woods have presented some fine each-way opportunities elsewhere.

To my mind, top of that list is Lee Westwood, who's being offered at 22/1. Westwood's record at the majors since 2009 is excellent, with five top-three finishes in his last nine starts, including second at the 2010 Masters (a third-round 74 shunted him down to 11th last year, in what was otherwise a respectable showing). As always, his work on and around the greens is a slight concern at Augusta - but that's less of a problem if his iron play is razor-sharp, allowing him to swing the short stick from the optimal position on the putting surface.

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For that reason, it's encouraging to see him second on the PGA Tour greens in regulation standings, and I'd also add that only 15 players have been better at avoiding three-putts - so, combining those, there's no reason to expect many bogeys. He's got form on his side as well, with a couple of solo fourth-places from four starts Stateside.

Meanwhile, Steve Stricker ended 2011 with the second-lowest aggregate score across the four majors (behind Masters winner Charl Schwartzel), and the American veteran has carried that momentum on, grabbing one win and two top tens from five PGA Tour appearances in 2012. He only hits it a shade over 275 yards on average, but recent winners Zach Johnson and Trevor Immelman have proved that a lack of power is no obstacle to success - and Stricker's strengths lie with his iron play and putting.

He's also riding in on a wave of experience, having tackled Augusta plenty of times in the past, recording two top-tens in the process (and 11th last year, alongside Westwood). Nothing will fluster him, that's for sure, and the stats regarding his approach play make for impressive reading: he's sixth when it comes to closeness to the hole of his iron shots, and third on the GIR charts. If he can get himself in range consistently, then you'd back him to convert the chances, given his putting skill.

Finally, Bo Van Pelt, who has been backed into 70/1, having been close to three figures not all that long ago. He's got four top-tens from seven PGA Tour events this year, and tied eighth at The Masters in 2011. Salvaging par isn't his biggest strength, but the rest of the game is there: as well as consistently touching 300 yards from the tee, he's top of the birdie average and well ahead of the field when it comes to strokes gained through putting. Really, really good each-way value.

Please note that odds are correct at time of publication and are subject to change.

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Josh Williams is an assistant editor of ESPN.co.uk