Several big-names look well up against it this week. Sergio Garcia started 2009 as the challenger-elect to Tiger, but that reputation is slipping further with every bad week. I’m sure he still has a part to play in this year’s story, but highly doubt it will be at Augusta. With just two, non-challenging, top-10s from ten appearances, this is by far his weakest major. And unless his putting improves miraculously, it will remain that way.
 
Ernie Els may well turn out to be the best player never to win at Augusta, (Greg Norman being the other obvious candidate for that title). Back in his peak, Ernie was a banker for the top-5 here, but a once great course record has been ruined by four consecutive failures. Like Sergio Garcia, Ernie’s putting just doesn’t inspire confidence anymore. At 66/1, Vijay Singh starts at his biggest Augusta odds for well over a decade, but is impossible to make any sort of case for the 2000 champion on this year’s troubled efforts.
 
In contrast, another former member of the ‘Big-5’ has shown strong hints of a return to form lately. RETIEF GOOSEN looked finished at the highest level twelve months ago, but has fought his way back with a series of wins, initially at lower levels, culminating in his first Stateside win in four years at the recent Transitions Championship. With four top-3s in the past seven years and never out of the top-20 in that period, Goosen clearly loves Augusta and looks bound to be there or thereabouts once again.
 
Among the US challenge besides Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson, youth is preferred over experience. Jim Furyk has only rarely featured strongly on this long course, and couldn’t be fancied on his last two efforts anyway. Though they’ve all been consistently impressive this year, its hard to make any sort of case for Kenny Perry, Steve Stricker or Justin Leonard on the basis of their previous Augusta experiences.
 
With Anthony Kim overlooked on his debut, the strongest home challenge could come from a quarter of twenty-somethings; Zach Johnson, Hunter Mahan, Sean O’Hair and NICK WATNEY. A case could be made for all four of them, and separating them was no easy task, with very marginal preference for the last-named.
 
2006 champion Johnson must always enter calculations in Georgia, as he also has a great record at nearby Sugarloaf. Zach’s form over the last six months has been exemplary, with the latest 3rd place at Bay Hill amongst the best of a run that also includes two titles. The only slight negative for Johnson is his comparative lack of driving distance. When he won his Masters, conditions were unusually cold and the ball wasn’t travelling as far as usual; which meant a greater emphasis on accuracy. There’s no hint of such weather conditions this year, and he may just get left behind off the tee.
 
Mahan, who has carried this column’s money so many times this year without return, could easily have made the staking plan. His tee to green stats were outstanding again at the weekend, where he finished one shot out of the money in 6th place. Mahan made the top-30 here as an amateur here back in 2003, which now appears as a very useful bit of course form, but having disappointed on his professional course debut last year, others are marginally preferred.
 
O’Hair showed much promise to finish 14th on only his second visit last year, and seems to have improved in the meantime. He was outstanding for three rounds last time at Bay Hill, and while he certainly ‘bottled’ the final day, he’s not the first and won’t be the last leader to wilt under the full force of a charging Tiger Woods. Provided his confidence hasn’t taken too much of a knock, Sean should register another high finish.
 
Likewise, Watney has made big strides this year. There’s been no more consistent player in recent weeks, with Watney winning the Buick Invitational and also making the places behind Phil Mickelson at Doral, and Woods at Bay Hill. 11th place last year was a superb debut effort, and promised much to come over the years ahead. While Watney has yet to experience the pressure cooker atmosphere of a major weekend near the head of the leaderboard, his recent consistency does point to another week in contention. Furthermore, as one of the longest hitters around, he could make hay on the all-important par-5s.
 
As always, there’s some decent value knocking around in the top nationality markets. Though I do fancy some of the obvious candidates in the top European market, MIGUEL-ANGEL JIMINEZ is simply too big to ignore at 33/1. Considering he’s made the top-11 four times in the past seven years, these odds are an insult, especially compared to numerous others unproven at Augusta who are shorter or around the same mark. I’m thinking particularly of the likes of Lee Westwood, Luke Donald and Ian Poulter, whose Augusta records are plainly inferior to the evergreen Spaniard.
 
The price may reflect the fact that Jiminez hasn’t really peaked this season, but he hasn’t exactly been terrible. Consecutive top-10s in the Gulf were high-class efforts, and 14th place on his latest start can hardly be described as a disaster. Back at a course that favours his immaculate long-iron play, and where his experience counts for plenty, Jiminez is no forlorn hope.
 
Good Luck!