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The 2015 Masters: Thirteen Contenders

It’s the eve of the Masters, and the pairings for the first two rounds have been announced, which means that it’s time to try and pick a winner. In any golf tournament, that’s very difficult. There are so many closely matched competitors, and so much variability in performances from week to week, that betting on the outcome tends to benefit only the bookmakers. But the Masters is slightly different. Because it’s played on the same course every year, Augusta National, we can look back and see what types of players do well there. At least in theory, that should help us narrow the field.

Over the years, however, the nature of the course, which was designed by Alister MacKenzie, a fellow Yorkshireman, has changed. Until about 2000, the undulating and tree-lined Augusta favored precision players, such as Nick Faldo, José María Olazábal, and Bernhard Langer, who could hit the right spots on the course’s fairways and precarious greens. But it was also short enough so that “bombers” like Jack Nicklaus and Tiger Woods could, if their games were on, overpower the competition. (Nicklaus won the Masters six times; Woods has won four.) In essence, it was a fair test for everybody. But after Woods shot eighteen under par in 1997 and then fourteen under par in 2001, the ruling committee at Augusta set out to lengthen the course and make it more resistant to low scoring.

Ironically, the result was to put even more of a premium on the ability to hit the ball a mile. At seven thousand four hundred and thirty-five yards, Augusta isn’t the longest of courses. But, particularly on the back nine, it features a series of holes that favor long, high shots that move from right to left in the air. As evidenced by the victories of Zach Johnson, in 2007, and Trevor Immelman, in 2008, shorter hitters can still compete if they pitch and putt well. But they need a bit of help from the elements. In 2007, Augusta was rain-sodden, which kept the bombers in check; a year later, it was windswept, which made life equally difficult for everybody. In the final round, Immelman shot seventy-five, three over par, and still won.

With that background in mind, here is my breakdown of the likely contenders, with their current odds at the bookmakers. I’ve divided it into players who hit the ball ultra-long, those who hit it long enough, and precision golfers.

The Bombers

Rory McIlroy (6/1): Like Woods in his prime, McIlroy, of Northern Ireland, has the ball-striking ability, the confidence, and the mental strength to break away from the competition. His long, high draw should be perfect for Augusta. The caveats are his recent form, which hasn’t been great, and his Masters record: in six starts, his best finish was eighth, last year. However, McIlroy did win the two most recent majors, last summer’s British Open and P.G.A. Championship. He deserves to be the favorite this week, but the bookmakers’ odds are too stingy.

Bubba Watson (11/1): Having won the tournament twice in the past three years, and having scored a tour victory this year, Watson, a hard-swinging Floridian, should be the favorite. As he showed in 2013, he can drive the ball over the trees on the back nine’s two pivotal par fives, the thirteenth and fifteenth holes, leaving himself with wedge shots to the greens where others must hit long irons or lay up. That’s a huge advantage. He’s a volatile fellow, though, so you can never be quite sure how he’ll perform.

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