The first sign of spring is here. Robins? Groundhogs? March Madness pools?
No, it's CBS bombarding us with Masters commercials where birds chirp at perfect audio levels, fairways are emerald paintings and bunkers are immaculately raked as if by artists.
Admit it, you're already daydreaming about Amen Corner. Don't fight it. Let's plunge right in. Here is your Early Bird Masters Tournament Gambling Guide.
A professional bettor contributed on the condition of anonymity and the pledge that if contacted by the IRS, I would confirm that he died in a fiery 2012 car crash in Roswell, N.M. Heed his advice at your own risk.
Gary Van Sickle: What should the average fan understand about the betting the Masters?
Anonymous Gambler: Wagering on golf is a sucker bet, just so you know. The odds do not remotely reflect the likelihood of winning. Tiger Woods went 14-for-64 in major championships from 1997 through 2013, the last year that he faintly resembled himself. That's a .218 batting average but still miles ahead of every other player. Picking the winner is a long shot. But the bookmakers don't give you long odds.
GVS: So who's your early Masters favorite?
Anonymous Gambler: The betting line had Jordan Spieth at 5 to 1, but I think Rory McIlroy will ultimately be the favorite. He was 6 to 1 before Riviera, he's busting his ass this year and I wouldn't be surprised if he wins twice before Augusta, including the Match Play. Plus, the Brits love him. He's their Tiger Woods, and they're big punters (wagerers) on golf. They'll bet him down to 2 to 1 or 3 to 1 by the Masters.
GVS: So is Rory your pick?
Anonymous Gambler: Did I say that, buddy? All I said was Rory is going to be the betting-line favorite. That's got nothing to do with winning.
GVS: My apologies. Who are you betting to win?
Anonymous Gambler: That's proprietary info. It'll cost you extra. But it's not Rory. He's an obvious choice, of course. He's got the power, the high traj, the right-to-left shot, but I'm not convinced he can handle the greens. His major wins have come on soft, medium-speed greens. Rory can win a Masters, yes, but the fact that he needs it to complete the career Grand Slam is that one extra wafer-thin slice of pressure that may keep him from doing it. I can see him winning six PGAs before he gets one Masters. I'm half-tempted to bet he never wins at Augusta.
GVS: That would be a gutsy call.
Anonymous Gambler: Yeah, plus the odds would be large for a crazy prop bet like that. But I can't tie up cash for 20 years waiting to collect.
GVS: What about Spieth?
Anonymous Gambler: The thing that makes the Masters the best major to bet is the data. It's the only major played at the same course every year, so we've got numbers we can crunch. The Kid, as I call him, has played two Masters -- second once, ties the all-time scoring record in the other. He is the game's best putter, and there aren't three other players as good with a wedge. It's that simple. Plus, the Kid has found a system with his caddie to out-prepare the other guys, the way Jack Nicklaus used to. I love, love, love that. Except the Kid messed up this winter. He jetted all over the planet; he's pooped. He needs three weeks off, no golf, but that's not going to happen in March. O.K., he's 22; he's resilient. I'm just afraid he strained his back hauling all those dirhams, yuans and Aussie-Singapore dollars to the bank. I'm laying off him… for now.
GVS: So which players do you like?
Anonymous Gambler: Jason Day scares me in a good way. With a little better luck, he could be sitting on four majors, just like Rory. He played the most impressive golf last year. Day has had two good runs at Augusta. He's part of what you media parasites call the Big Three, and I think he has a chance to be the lead dog. At 8 to 1, he's on my top-secret short list.
GVS: Is Phil Mickelson on that list?
Anonymous Gambler: Funny you should ask. Phil has fumbled away twice as many majors as Greg Norman ever did. He should have 15 majors. If there's one place Lefty still has a shot, it's Augusta. I'm not sure he can close the deal, though, but that's been true for 25 years. His short game and putting look better than they have in five years. I find that extremely exciting, along with his 20-to-1 price.
GVS: Can you give me some other names you like?
Anonymous Gambler: Well, you've gotta have Bubba Watson in your fantasy lineup. He's got three or four courses where he doesn't feel like a stork in a cage full of jaguars -- Riviera and Augusta are two of them. He makes some mistakes on the greens, but nobody gives him credit for his outstanding touch, a crucial skill at Augusta. I got a piece of Hideki Matsuyama at 33 to 1, and he's the complete package. All he needs is Masters experience. Rickie Fowler reminds me a little of Fred Couples in that he's unfettered by complicated thoughts; he can't wait to hit the next shot and kick your butt. Rickie isn't as good as he's going to be in another year or two, but he's top-five material and I want him on my quinella, trifecta and superfecta wagers. Ditto for Justin Rose, who has quietly shot a lot of low rounds at Augusta. Golf's most underrated player is Aussie Marc Leishman, who had brushes with the Masters and the British Open. At 80 to 1, he's a good play to finish top four (and pay 20 to 1). Zach Johnson is going to be a Hall of Famer. He can putt with anyone. Except maybe Spieth. So can Brandt Snedeker, who can win this thing with his putter, which not many guys can do, and he's 40 to 1. What's not to like?
GVS: Any players you plan to avoid?
Anonymous Gambler: Now you're getting into classified stuff. I don't see Dustin Johnson deciphering Augusta's greens in this lifetime. I like Patrick Reed's ruthless streak, but he seems emotionally fragile. One critical book excerpt about him last year and his game vanished. Adam Scott shows signs of surviving the anchored-putting ban, but I'll have to see it to believe it on Augusta's treacherous surfaces.
GVS: You haven't mentioned Tiger Woods. Your thoughts?
Anonymous Gambler: I don't have enough information about Tiger's condition. I hope he's able to play, but I wouldn't count on it.
GVS: Any real sleeper bets?
Anonymous Gambler: You're killing me, bud. Well, since you're paying, I'll give you this: I've got two underdogs picks. One is the best player in the world whose name rhymes with skillet. The other is a Ryder Cup captain who won a tourney last year at 51. I love that he still plays young. I love it more that he's 500 to 1. If you get it, bet it. May luck guide our fortunes.