For golf fans it is Mecca – a paradise carved into the Georgian turf and hidden by trees, laced with creeks and lined by treacherous, balance-impeding pine-needles.
The first major of the year is unique simply because it isn’t at all. It’s the same, every year.
Augusta National is the most recognisable set of fairways and greens on planet golf and, for one week in April, this place holds sway as the hottest sporting auditorium in the world.
Here are some thoughts to consider before staking on the latest Green Jacket wearer.
Ever since he ventured left of the 10th fairway and into a front garden in 2011, the Northern Irishman has ‘got history’ with this storied place. Such is his ability and tailor-made game for this test, some consider a matter of ‘when’ and not ‘if’ McIlroy will grace the Butler Cabin. The longer the wait goes on, the more it becomes the elephant in the Azaleas for the four-time major winner.
The facts suggest he’s building up a suitcase full of mental baggage in his attempts to complete the career Grand Slam of golfs biggest events. Last year he partnered Patrick Reed in the final pairing, but missed a simple putt for eagle on the par-five second hole and appeared to fall apart in that instant, beset by the mental anguish of trying to get his putter to match his astonishing irons.
McIlroy, however, has been nigh-on flawless in the early part of 2019, completing the ideal prep for this by winning the Players Championship at Sawgrass and ending his vaunted Sunday hoodoo when he did. In the last five years he has posted placings of 8-4-10-7-5 as his Augusta podium finishes mount up.
A month shy of his 30th birthday and playing his best golf in some considerable time, including his putting, it can now be McIlroy’s time.
Casey’s form here is also standout and, more than any other event in the world, course form at Augusta National is absolute gold dust. As noted earlier, the challenge doesn’t change year on year, so if you can play this track well, you can repeat it.
The Englishman now has eight top-20 finishes in this event to his name and arguably, if he’s going to make the major breakthrough, then it will be here. His recent figures are McIlroy-esque, with 6-4-6-15 being his last four Masters finishes.
He comes here on the back of a redemptive Ryder Cup with Europe in Paris last year and has recent defended his crown at the Valspar Championship, notching his fourth podium finish from seven tournament starts lately.
His power means he can expect to carve up the par-fives, the key to scoring on this golf course. Fellow Englishmen Justin Rose and Tommy Fleetwood are attracting plenty of attention, the former with solid reasoning, but Casey too has sound credentials and is a much juicier price than Rose (12/1).
Ever since he starred as an amateur here, Japan’s Hideki Matsuyama has had the feeling of pre-ordained Masters winner-in-waiting. It’s approaching two years since his last win on Tour, however, and he might be worth taking on as odds-on favourite in Top Asian Player market.
Haotong Li showed his prowess under pressure when fighting off McIlroy to win the Omega Dubai Desert Classic last year, steadfast under the pressure. He’s also finished third at an Open Championship in 2017 and posted a top-20 at his first US Open last summer.
Previous to that, he was tied-32nd on Augusta debut, a more than credible start at 22 years of age. He posted a round in the 60s in that debut showing and that bodes well; plenty of Augusta regulars and well-to-dos in this event don’t break 70 at all. In a field of six, Li is the value bet in the Top Asian market if he build on last years’ experience.
Whatever it is about this place, Spieth gets it as his finishes of 2-1-2-11-3 demonstrate. The 2015 champion has been top of the leaderboard after nine of his 20 rounds in The Masters.
His form is questionable, at best, so far in 2019 but there were just some minor signs last week in Texas that he’s close to turning the corner.
The problem for Spieth this year has largely been his driving but this course lends itself to being forgiving in that regard, so he could go well, even allowing for a slightly erratic performance from the tee.
In the last five years Spieth’s cumulative score at this event is 39-under par, that’s a whopping 12 shots better than anybody else. He’s worth considering for a second Green Jacket and could easily come out guns firing on Thursday – don’t leave yourself sitting watching on television asking ‘how did I not see this coming?’ if he does. Backing him to finish top-10 again at 7/4 is not as mad as his recent form suggests.
The American boasts five top-20 finishes from 10 trips up Magnolia Lane. He was third here in 2008 and sixth in 2013, both renewals he’ll look back at wondering ‘what if’. After a pair of decent efforts in 2016 and 2017, Snedeker missed out completely last year.
He’s recapturing his form recently, with a couple of top-10 finishes in PGA Tour events, most recently in the Players Championship at Sawgrass. That’s the sort of form that made him a solid contender around here for a good number of years and he’s capable of getting in the mix once more.
He’s an 80/1 shout to don the Green Jacket come Sunday evening, which might prove beyond him, but he has enough momentum to be in the mix.