A Look at the 2005 Masters

By: Tony Dear

Bookmakers arenít stupid. Well, not when it comes to compiling odds theyíre not. Few people know sport, what the Christmas No. 1 will be or who shot J.R. better than they do. Their in-depth knowledge, coupled with extensive research, results in tempting but realistic odds that help turn over a very tidy profit.

So why on earth have nine of the UKís top online agencies already installed Tiger Woods as favorite for next yearís Masters?

Sure heís supremely talented and will, in all likelihood, emerge from the slump heís currently enduring sooner rather than later. But the fact is heís nowhere near the golfer he was four years ago, and lately heís provided only fleeting glimpses of what he was once capable of.

So it is a slump now then?

Possibly . . . maybe . . . okay, yes.

Last year, I basically spent 1,000 words accusing back-page headline writers of wanton hysteria after prematurely adopting the term to describe Woodsís apparent loss of form. He certainly wasnít at his best, failing to add to his list of major titles, but he did capture five other top-quality tournaments and was voted the PGA Tourís Player of the Year. He also clung to a significant lead Ė 4.81 points Ė over Vijay Singh in the world rankings through the end of December.

This season, however, the occasional drip of unsatisfactory play has developed into a more sustained flow, one which requires serious attention if he is ever to regain his once impregnable position at the top of the pile.

Of course, the journeyman at 125th on the money list would kill for a year like Woods just had. But Tiger is a different animal and was meant for so much more than sporadic wins and a steady accumulation of top-ten finishes.

He didnít win a single stroke-play event in 2004 and, at one point, even dropped to No. 3 in the world. In May, he lost two successive tournaments after holding the 36-hole lead, and at the Tour Championship in November he failed to capitalize on a 54-hole lead for the first time since the same tournament in 2000.

Hitting just 56.1% of fairways after pushing and hooking his way to 182nd in the driving accuracy charts was unfamiliar territory, too. And recording only one lousy top-ten in the Majors (a tie for ninth at that) Ė well, thatís just plain weird.

Naturally, every Tom, Jack and Arnie has a theory on the source of Woodsís waywardness, each probably as inaccurate as one of his drives. But you really donít have to be Butch Harmon to perceive the considerable differences between Tigerís present swing and that which he used to cover himself in glory, back in the day. He stubbornly refuses to re-commission Harmon, the coach that helped him to eight major titles, however, a move many believe will only prolong the agony.

But, like I say, bookies arenít dumb. They think a player who won the U.S. Open by 15 strokes as recently as 2000 can probably still play a bit. They think a guy thatís won all those majors and 32 other tournaments on the PGA Tour before his 29th birthday can still evoke fear in the minds of his rivals. They think someone who just married a former model from Sweden is probably very content with life at home. And, most importantly, they know how perfectly suited his game is to Augusta National.

ďItís the perfect course for him,Ē says Ross Phillips, a golf-odds compiler at Power Paddy. ďHeís obviously got the length to cope with the extra yardage they created three years ago and heís a great strategist which you have to be to win at Augusta. We know his driving has been a bit off recently, but the need for accuracy at the Masters isnít as great as it is at the other majors.Ē

Iím not convinced. Augusta may not require the same degree of accuracy as U.S. Open venues, but it has never succumbed to wild and reckless drivers who fail to find the correct portion of the fairway. Itís well known that in order to attack an Augusta pin you simply have to position your ball judiciously off the tee. Look at Phil Mickelson. He won only after trading in some of those aimless 320-yard cannons for a more measured approach.

Like Ladbrokes, one of only two firms to list the new world No. 1 as favorite, my top pick is Vijay Singh who, letís not forget, already has one green jacket stashed away in his Ponte Vedra Beach closet.

ďTiger just hasnít done it of late,Ē says Robin Hutchison, a spokesman for the company. ĒSingh is the best player in the world right now and we expect his unbelievably good form to carry over into next season.Ē

If Singh doesnít win then I suspect Els, Goosen, Mickelson or possibly Garcia will Ė just not Woods. Unless he makes the necessary changes to his swing in the off-season, heíll not have sufficient confidence or momentum to beat the now-formidable competition which has finally conquered the inferiority complex it harboured for so long.

Mind you, Iíve been wrong about this sort of thing before.

Where My Moneyís Headed

Vijay Singh

How could you not bet on the guy? The winner in 2000, Singh is as well suited to Augusta as Woods. But, whereas Tigerís confidence could get lost in his pocket, Singh needs a couple of large sacks to carry his.

Last five years: T6-T6-7-T18-1 Current odds: Paddy Power 11/2, Ladbrokes 6/1

Ernie Els

The South African was absolutely gutted after Mickelson dropped that 20-footer on the 72nd green last April, so you know he will be doubly committed to winning next year. Five top-six finishes in his last five tries confirm he knows his way around Augusta as well as anyone.

Last five years: 2-T6-T5-T6-2. Current odds: Paddy Power 7/1, Ladbrokes 8/1

Padraig Harrington

By becoming a member of the PGA Tour Harrington is making it clear he wants to compete with the best more often and improve his chances of winning majors. One of the gameís hardest workers and a man driven to succeed, he needs a major to confirm his class.

Last five years: T13-MC-T5-T27-T19. Current odds: Paddy Power 33/1, Ladbrokes 40/1

Paul Casey

Itís hard to see an area of the game where Casey is lacking, except perhaps experience. He picked up plenty of that last year, however, in finishing sixth on his first Masters trip. Powerful striker of the ball, great clutch putter and excellent value at 100/1.

Last five years: T6 last year in debut appearance. Current odds: Paddy Power 100/1, Ladbrokes 50/1

Zach Johnson

Augustaís unique demands make it tough for Masters debutants to score well. Only three first-timers have ever won the tournament and itís doubtful long-shot Johnson will become the fourth. But, after a very solid rookie year on the PGA Tour, he is a star in the making and possibly worth a few quid at 150/1.

Last five years: Makes his debut in 2005. Current odds: Paddy Power 150/1, Ladbrokes 80/1

(odds as of November 15, 2004)