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Lawrence Donegan: Why the stars will shine at the US Masters and a 80/1 value tip in the Houston Open

Acclaimed author and the Guardian’s former golf correspondent Lawrence Donegan gives us the PGA Tour low-down ahead of Augusta and some big-priced fancies this week.

by Sean Goff | March 31, 2014

There is a widely held belief among those who couldn’t tell the difference between a five-iron and a broomstick that that world of professional golf  is entering an age of equality, an era when any Tom, Dick or Patrick Reed  can rise up out of the undergrowth of anonymity and win on the PGA Tour.

Even Golf Digest, the closest the sport has got to a bible, recently invited its readers to ponder: “Is it time to look beyond Tiger and Phil?”

The latest piece of evidence to support this  notion arrived on Sunday afternoon, when Steven Bowditch prevailed in 72-hole  festival of slow play called the Valero Texas Open, shooting a closing round 74 – the highest winning score on the PGA Tour since Kajagoogoo were hot to trot.

Bowditch is a fine player (and a good lad) but he isn’t about to be  mobbed at the airport any time soon.

The same can be said about other very recent winners in the States, the likes of Matt Every, John Senden, Russell Henley and Reed (twice). All good players, all deserving winners, all (in the eyes of Joe Public) complete non-entities.

Adam Scott 840

Throw in injury doubts for Tiger Woods, who hasn’t played competitively since the Cadillac Championship at Doral  three weeks ago and Phil Mickelson, who withdrew from the Valero Open after two holes of his round on Sunday. Even with Paddy Power paying six places we are left with the most wide-open edition of the Masters for 20 years.

This is an persuasive theory. It is also almost certainly wrong. Let me explain why.

Flawed masterpiece

Donald Trump’s much-heralded remodelling of the ‘Blue Monster’ at Doral didn’t prove to be the masterpiece he claimed it to be.

In fact, it was  something of an embarrassment, with players privately bemoaning the fact that good shots to the middle of greens were ending up in the water. It was was goofy golf and the problem with goofy golf courses is they often produced winners of less than stellar quality.

This isn’t to say that Patrick Reed, who won at Doral, isn’t a very good player – he is. But he is not of the quality of champion the old Blue Monster produced. There is a reason Tiger Woods had won there four times. The old model Doral had a habit of identifying the best.

Which brings us neatly to Augusta National, which along with the Old Course at St Andrews identifies only the very best as winners.

Tiger Woods & Phil Mickelson 840

Sure, there have been a couple of  what could called be “second-tier” Masters  winners over the last decade in Trevor Immelman and Zach Johnson (although we may soon have to  re-grade Johnson, who has turned into a hell of a player).

But there  was a reason for that. The course set-up had been foolishly altered in a way that didn’t allow the best players to separate themselves. Those mistakes will not be repeated again this year, when you can expect only the cream to rise.

That means the players who hit the ball  further and higher, who can shape their approach shots either way, who have deft short games and putt like God. Oh yes, and have a champion’s winning mentality.

Gambler’s spirit

It’s not known if Tiger will be fit enough to tee it up on Thursday week – but if he does it expect him to contend on Sunday afternoon. The same goes for Mickelson, whose game and gambler’s spirit might have designed specifically with the Masters in mind.

There will be a dozen other contenders too come Sunday afternoon. A couple will be surprises, no doubt, but you can reel off the names without too much bother: Rory McIlroy, Adam Scott, Jason Day, Henrik Stenson, Justin Rose. The usual crew, in other words.

No offence to Every and Bowditch but they won’t be stepping out on the town in a Green Jacket. Not this year.

It’s Augusta National. It’s the Masters. It’s time for the world’s best players to reassert themselves.

Masters Golf Ball 840

Houston Open betting preview

The Golf Club On Houston is more than a few azaleas short of being one of golf’s more picturesque spots – but the venue for this  week’s Shell Houston Open does a great job of impersonating Augusta National in other ways.

The fairways are wide, the chipping areas tight and the greens are as slick as a barrel  full of Brylcreem.  In other words it is the perfect place for those golfers who want to combine the preparation for the Masters with high-level competition.

That has been the intention of the tournament organisers over the last few years and that is why this event, unlike so many others on the PGA Tour, it always succeeds in attracting a high-quality field.

Mickelson ( a previous winner), Dustin Johnson and McIlroy will be fancied – but a word to the wise for those looking for value.

The likes of Mickelson, Johnson and McIlroy are in Houston as much for the preparation as for the competition; they would love to win come Sunday but equally they would like to round into peak form next week rather than this week.

Others will have different motivation. They will just want to win. This is easier said than done, of course – both winning, and identifying potential winners.  The list of past champions suggests  a course that favours big hitters who also possess a deft short game.

Keegan Bradley 840

The likes of Paul Casey (2009), Adam Scott (2007) and  in 2010, Anthony Kim (remember him?). Someone like Keegan Bradley (25/1) or Robert Garrigus, (80/1) both of whom hit it miles and  have enjoyed decent form recently, are in the same mould as those three and can go close.

As for an each-way bet, you could do a lot worse than former US Open champion Geoff Ogilvy (80/1), who had his best finish of the year at the Valero Open on Sunday, a tied 11th place.

The Aussie loves Augusta National with a rare passion – but isn’t  in the field for the Masters. His  only chance of getting there is to win this week. His game might not yet be back to where it once but his desire might carry  him a long way up the leaderboard in Houston where Paddy Power is paying the first six places.

Lawrence Donegan is the Guardian’s former golf correspondent. He is also author of the acclaimed book, Four Iron for the Soul, based on his experiences caddying for tour pro Ross Drummond. In the 1980s he was a bassist for the Bluebells and Lloyd Cole And The Commotions. Follow him on Twitter here.

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