THE MASTERS

Golf punters have generally suffered this year at the hands of huge-priced, shock winners, of which the triumph of Spanish amateur Pablo Martin-Benevides in Portugal on Sunday must rate the biggest. Thankfully, normal service can be expected to resume this week with the first Major championship of the year, the US Masters from Augusta.

As the only Major played at the same venue every year, course form trends at Augusta are so strong that there are few if any more predictable tournaments than the Masters. In the last 20 years, the closest we?ve had to upsets were wins for Ben Crenshaw and Mark O?Meara. Both were available at very large odds, but they were also both well-established top-class players in another league to shock winners of other Majors such as Curtis, Hamilton, Micheel and Lawrie. There are rarely massive fluctuations on the leaderboard

in-running. The last 16 winners have come from the final group on Sunday.

Before I get to the action at Augusta, a quick word about our long-term bets. Obviously this is a very big week as far as the various money lists are concerned. In the European Tour?s Order of Merit race, I?m very confident about Henrik Stenson?s chances of landing our 10/1 bet, though there is a very long way to go. Stenson will need to perform well this week to maintain a big advantage over the likes of Els, Goosen, Casey and Harrington who all

have strong claims of their own at Augusta.

Asides Stenson, we?ve also got a massive interest here in terms of our bets on Tiger Woods to win 3 or more Majors in 2007. Since I placed the bet, it has become apparent that Woods? participation in either of both of the US and British Opens could be in jeopardy due to the birth of his first child. In hindsight I?d rather not have that bet, but nothing is decided yet and he may still play in all 4 Majors. If he does, he holds an outstanding chance of landing a unique and historic Grand Slam. Whereas the Slam used to seem like the one truly impossible sporting achievement, Tiger is not like other human beings and this is well within his compass. He has after all held all four Majors at once in 2001, a Grand Slam in all but name. And in doing so, only David Duval and Bob May gave him any sort of fright. Since last summer, when he landed the final two 2006 Majors, Tiger has again looked pretty much

invincible when it matters.

This time last year, all the talk was of the ?Big-5? who were all closely matched and set to carve up the Majors between themselves in what would become a classic, competitive era. Woods has since put all that talk to bed and re-established himself as a player operating in his own super-human sphere. If there?s anything resembling a ?showdown? here, it would be

between Tiger and defending champion PHIL MICKELSON, who has since established himself as clearly the next best. Ernie Els, Retief Goosen and Vijay Singh, the other ?big-5? players, have enjoyed sporadic success at best since.

There is an obvious advantage at Augusta for the longer hitters that plays right to Woods and Mickelson?s strengths and it is no wonder they?ve won six of the last ten Masters between them. The rough is rarely penal and, with control on the greens so important, being able to use a shorter iron for the approach shot is a massive advantage. But despite this well-worn Masters rule, Augusta is about a lot more than length. The dominance of the top players is as much a consequence of the need for a world-class short game as the need for length. The very best iron players also generally prosper here, such as Jose-Maria Olazabal and Jim Furyk. Short and straight Tim Clark finished second last year. Usually in recent years the greens have been softened by rain, but if conditions are dry and greens at their fastest, control will be of even greater importance.

While I?ll be cheering Woods on as far as the long-term bets are concerned, I can?t justify a bet at very skinny odds. I?ll be faintly surprised if Tiger doesn?t ease a little closer to Jack Nicklaus? record with Major win number 13, but I?ll also be surprised if larger odds than 6/4 aren’t available at some stage in-running. Compare that 6/4 to the 5/2 available at Doral at fortnight ago. Like Augusta, Doral is a course that particularly suits Woods? talents. But unlike Doral, where all his main rivals have indifferent records, Woods is not the only golfing superstar usually seen to best effect at Augusta.

Mickelson actually has a slightly more consistent Augusta record recently than Woods. Though he has two green jackets to Tiger?s four, Lefty has won two of the last three Masters. He also has four other Augusta top-3 finishes to his name and has made the top-10 eight years in a row. Its become customary for Mickelson to prepare exclusively for Majors so I wouldn?t read anything into some recent disappointments. In February, he looked in

magnificent form, blitzing a top-class field at Pebble Beach and looking certain to repeat at Riviera the following week before a not uncharacteristic blip handed the title to Charles Howell. So while Woods remains a firm favourite, at odds of 8/1 Mickelson is worth a sporting bet to retain his title and spark a new round of rivalry for the game?s top

spot.

There are others with outstanding claims on their Augusta form. Vijay Singh, winner in 2000, has made the top-8 five years in a row. Ernie Els, one of the best players never to win the Masters, finished in the top-6 five years in a row from 2000 – 2004. Retief Goosen has made the top-3 three times and has been no worse than 13th in the last five years. But none of them is in peak form or expected to finish ahead of Woods where they?ve failed in the past, and as usual the best betting markets to play here are the ones that exclude the favourite. Most firms are offering ?Betting without Woods?, but of equal interest are Skybet and Tote?s ?Betting without the Big 4?, Betfred?s ?Without the Big 5? and the usual plethora of nationality markets.

Rather than the game being dominated by five players, the battle is now on amongst a big group of players under the age of 30 to establish themselves as the main challengers to Woods. Week in, week out, there?s not much to choose between Adam Scott, Geoff Ogilvy, Henrik Stenson, Charles Howell III, Paul Casey, Trevor Immelman, Sergio Garcia and Luke Donald. All look well suited to Augusta, and Garcia, Donald and Immelman all have placed efforts to their name there already.

The one from that group of young contenders I fancy most this week is the current US Open champion, GEOFF OGILVY. That triumph at Winged Foot was the pinnacle of a fine portfolio of high finishes built up in Majors and World Golf Championships. Ogilvy is improving all the time, and looked right at his best when 2nd and 3rd in the recent two World Golf Championships. His first visit to Augusta resulted in a very respectable 16th place, impressive for a debutant who has since shown bags of improvement. Overall, he looks to

have perfect game and temperament to challenge in Majors, and bound to be there or thereabouts over the weekend. Take your pick of the best market to support him in. I suggest the best value is Betfred?s ?Without the Big 5? at 16/1.

If Woods and Mickelson can somehow be beaten, there?s a very good chance we could see the first European Major winner for 8 years. Garcia, Casey and Donald all have claims, but our best bet in my view is PADRAIG HARRINGTON. A great iron player who generally prospers on ?second-shot? courses, Harrington also possesses the perfect short-game required for Major golf courses, but has generally underperformed in them since an excellent 2002 campaign. Having finally landed the Order of Merit last autumn after several

near-misses, I think this could be the year the Irishman moves up another level and establishes himself as a Major winner. Previously, he has been known to peak too early, winning or contending in the weeks approaching a Major. It could be significant that Harrington may have timed this year?s run into form to perfection, with a series of solid but low-key efforts in recent weeks.

In the top American without Woods market, AARON OBERHOLSER may represent a spot of each-way value at 33/1. This market seems less competitive with every year as the number of genuinely top-class Americans has decreased. Mickelson naturally dominates the market, but below him there?s nobody to particularly fear. Jim Furyk is a candidate as long as the recurrance of a wrist injury doesn?t hamper him, while Charles Howell and Chris Dimarco are also lively contenders. I?ve felt for a while that Oberholser had the game to make his mark in a Major, and took the eye returning to form with two sub-70 rounds to finish at the weekend. Like Ogilvy, Oberholser did well on his Augusta debut last year, managing a highly respectable 14th. There could be better to come.

In the top-European market, MIGUEL-ANGEL JIMINEZ could be overpriced at odds of at least 25/1. There are obviously Europeans with stronger claims such as the ones I?ve mentioned, but Jiminez doesn?t deserve to be four times the price of the likes of Garcia. Three of Jiminez?s last five Masters have resulted in top-11 finishes, solid course form by anyone?s standards and while ?The Mechanic? has lost a little consistency in recent years at his

best he remains a class act. Again with four places available and barely more than a dozen realistic contenders, this looks a good market to play.

As I mentioned above, this can be a very predictable tournament with strong course records. Several players have tremendously consistent records, others just never get the hang of Augusta. The list of players yet to prove themselves at Augusta is impressive. Stuart Appleby?s best finish from 10 visits is 19th. Robert Allenby?s best is 22nd from 7. Former US Open champion Michael Campbell has missed all six Masters cuts. Even regular

contenders like Adam Scott and David Toms have records that are patchy at best. The field is already restricted, and once you strip it down its hard to find more than 20 players for consideration. The result is the speciality markets can seem something of a goldmine, with the top-10 much easier to predict than in the usual Tour events.

The top-10 finish is my favourite golf market at the moment. It seems likely that Woods, Mickelson and at least two more of the top players will make the top-10 this week, but there are a number of decent-priced alternatives to fill the other places. Take the example of KJ CHOI, available at a massive 15/2. From nine starts in 2007, the consistent Korean has finished in the top-20 six times, including three top-10s. In itself this represents better

stats than the odds imply, but then factor in his 3rd place in the 2004 Masters and a solid 15th on his 2003 debut. Choi is usually seen at his best on the toughest golf courses, in particular those that reward his superb iron play which explains a good overall Majors record.

In the same market, ANGEL CABRERA looks interesting at 13/2. The talented Argentinian has an impressive four top-15 finishes at Augusta. Cabrera?s suitability to Augusta mainly stems from his massive distance with the driver, but is also due to a subtle touch around the greens. From a frequently light schedule, he often comes into form at this time of year and has been noted over the past fortnight registering solid, never in contention top-20 finishes.

Augusta also regularly brings out the best in former champions, seemingly past their best but capable of rolling back the years on this unique layout. Jack Nicklaus even managed to finish 6th in the 1998 renewal at the age of 58. Last year it was the turn of Fred Couples, who was bang in contention until the putter let him down on Sunday?s back-nine. This time I?m banking on twice champion BERNHARD LANGER to repeat his heroics of 2004 and feature on the leaderboard. That year, the German legend was a serious final-day contender, and while that level may be just beyond him now a top-10 finish is a very realistic target. He?s made that mark in two of his last four US Tour events, neither of which were remotely as favourable as to Langer as Augusta.

Finally for a bit of fun in the ‘Top Debutant’ market, CAMILO VILLEGAS looks worth a crack at around the 7/1 mark. Augusta is no place for debutants generally, and only 8 of the 18 in this market have any hope of a high finish in my view. Of those 8, Villegas is by far the best long-term prospect and is expected to have many a memorable Masters appearance in future. Furthermore, unlike all the other debutants, he tends to reserve his best for the toughest golf courses, especially those that emphasise iron play.

Good Luck!

ADVISED BETS

THE MASTERS

OUTRIGHT

4pts PHIL MICKELSON @ 8/1 (GENERALLY AVAILABLE)

BETTING WITHOUT TIGER WOODS

2pts ew GEOFF OGILVY @ 22/1 (GENERAL,OR 16/1 BETFRED IN ?W/O BIG 5?)

2pts ew PADRAIG HARRINGTON @ 33/1 (BET365, BETDIRECT, STAN JAMES)

TOP US PLAYER WITHOUT TIGER WOODS

1.5pts ew AARON OBERHOLSER @ 33/1 (BOYLESPORTS, STAN JAMES)

TOP EUROPEAN

1.5pts ew MIGUEL ANGEL-JIMINEZ @ 25/1 (GENERAL, 33/1 WITH SPORTING ODDS)

TOP-10 FINISH

4pts ANGEL CABRERA @ 13/2 (BOYLESPORTS)

4pts KJ CHOI @ 15/2 (SKYBET)

2pts BERNHARD LANGER @ 11/1 (BET365, BOYLESPORTS)

TOP DEBUTANT

4pts CAMILO VILLEGAS @ 15/2 (BOYLESPORTS, SPORTING ODDS)

2006/2007 STATS: +0.5pts

2005/2006 STATS: +144pts

ANTE-POST ALREADY ADVISED

VOLVO ORDER OF MERIT

5pts PADRAIG HARRINGTON @ 7/1

5pts HENRIK STENSON @ 10/1

3pts TIGER WOODS TO WIN GRAND SLAM IN 2007@ 40/1

10pts TIGER WOODS TO WIN 3 MAJORS IN 2007 @ 8/1

US MONEY LIST W/O TIGER WOODS

2pts ew TREVOR IMMELMAN @ 20/1