Writers are generally pretty good at explaining why things have happened, but far worse at predicting how they'll unfold. Vegas betting sharps are generally the opposite; they're invested in predicting outcomes, not storylines. So us media types may miss some valuable knowledge if we ignore the statistically-driven betting markets in the lead-up to the gamble-happy Masters.
The goal of this (multi-part!) series is to learn a little more about the Masters by working our way through potential bets for the week. But as anyone who has ever set foot into a casino knows, there's only one way to have fun: winning. So let's do our very best to make sure we do just that, too.
In my first foray into the betting space, loyal followers were rewarded big time when we took on prop bets for Tony Romo's PGA Tour debut last week (turning an imaginary $1000 into an equally imaginary $1373.18!). That was probably the time to jump ship: while we were miraculously ahead. Still, we forge ahead — let's bet the Masters!
THE AUGUSTA DIFFERENCE
I've enlisted the help of Brady Kannon, a Vegas golf vet who has covered golf gambling for several different outlets over the years and currently writes and does radio for VSiN and Point Spread Weekly, each a part of Brent Musberger's new media company.
"What's unique about betting The Masters is that it is not unique," Kannon says. What he's referring to is Augusta National, the only major championship site that remains the same year to year. That consistency is part of what enthralls us about the year's first major every spring, and for handicappers it means there are decades of trends that can be sorted through. There have been changes to Augusta, but Kannon says it has played essentially the same since the 70s. Players that have done well have some things in common.
That leads us to this year's big question: Who's going to win the Masters? I asked Kannon how he'd go about picking a winner. He advised against it.
"I do often come up with a handful of guys that I like to win the tournament outright... and I may sprinkle a few pennies on some shots to win it all," he says. "But I feel your money is better spent in focusing in on the match-ups. For me it's easier to handicap Player A vs. Player B than guess who is going to win the event out of 150-some players."
Well, shoot — this year it's only 87 players, the smallest field in years! So, we're going to try it anyway; we can tackle Kannon's matchups when pairings come out on Tuesday. We might not figure out who WILL win the Masters, but we can start with who probably WON'T, and go from there.
1. NO OLD-TIMERS!
No offense, Messrs. Lyle, Mize, Woosnam, Olazabal, O'Meara, Singh, Langer, Cabrera, and Couples (although those last three names give me a bit of pause), but if you're older than 45 and you ain't Phil Mickelson, I don't see it happening. The Masters has been a relatively young man's game, with no winners over 40 since Mark O'Meara in 1998. Already down to 78 players!
2. NO AMS!
Apologies to Bobby Jones, who always dreamed of an amateur champion, but no ams have finished in the top 10 for over 50 years — this won't be the year for Jones' wish. That means no 17-year-old Lin, firefighter Parziale, U.S. Am rivals Ghim and Redman, or pros-to-be Ellis and Niemann. No sweat still. 72 players remaining.
3. NO DAMAGED FORMER WINNERS!
Willett? Weir? Immelman? Nah. The Masters graciously extends invites for life to former champions, but a few aren't currently in form. (Shoutout to Mike Weir, though, who just made his first cut since 2014!)
Let's throw in some other major winners who are exempt but aren't in full form: Martin Kaymer and Jimmy Walker haven't been fully healthy (Not to mention Brooks Koepka, who has withdrawn with a wrist injury). The Players isn't a major, but Si Woo Kim is exempt thanks to his win there, and won't win here either. 66 players left.
4. NO ROOKIES!
"A lot of what has been true here for 30-40 years is still true today," Kannon says. "For example, first-timers don't win. Fuzzy Zoeller was the last to do it 39 years ago." He points out that many recent winners have played Augusta six or more times before taking the title; it's painful (and potentially risky) to eliminate Finau and Schauffele, but so be it. This also ends the chances of Haotong Li, Satoshi Kodaira, Patton Kizzire, Shubhankar Sharma, Dylan Frittelli, Austin Cook, Yusaku Miyazato, and Wesley Bryan. 56 players left.
5. GOOD COURSE FORM!
"You want to see how a player has performed at a particular course over the years," Kannon says, noting that experience may matter extra at Augusta, where even the surprise winner's have shown signs of life before their wins. Take Trevor Immelman, who threw down a T5 three years before claiming the title, or Angel Cabrera, who had four top 15s in the eight years before his win. We're taking out every player without a top 30 finish. This system would have missed Willett's surprise 2016 win (he only had a T38), but whatever — I'm sticking with it. That means no room for Chez Reavie, Tommy Fleetwood, Ted Potter Jr., Alex Noren, Kevin Kisner, Jhonny Vegas, Kyle Stanley, Cameron Smith, Tyrrell Hatton, Brian Harman, Adam Hadwin, Patrick Cantlay. We've cut half the field — 43 remain!
6. NO TIGER!
This is where we get into the talk of "value." I know, taking Tiger is the most fun, but everyone wants to bet Tiger, so Kannon says we should look at the bright side: "If Tiger continues to get bet and we see his odds continue to shrink, this will only create more value throughout the rest of the field as their odds go up in response to Tiger's going down," Kannon says. The average public bettor loves Tiger, which means we (the newly refined, un-average bettors) have to stay away. 42 players remain.
7. NO OTHER FAVORITES, EITHER!
Similar to the outsized odds on Woods winning, Kannon advises against picking anyone at 10-1 or better, and I'm going to expand that to include 12-1 for our sakes. Every fan wants to bet on the world's best players; think of their inflated odds as a tax on that public instinct. This means a painful chop of the game's best: DJ, JT, Rory, and Spieth. 38 men left.
8. WHO'S HOT?
"You want to assess how well or poorly they are playing currently," Kannon says, and looking at results from previous years, what Kannon calls "current form" seems important. Augusta is no place to go searching for your game, so we want guys who have been in the mix, even if they haven't won yet this year. With that in mind, let's toss out anyone without two top 15s in 2018.
That means it won't be the year for Hideki Matsuyama, Matt Kuchar, Louis Oosthuizen, Adam Scott, Charley Hoffman, Charl Schwartzel, Zach Johnson, Matthew Fitzpatrick, Jason Dufner, Pat Perez, Russell Henley, Francesco Molinari, Brendan Steele, Bernd Wiesberger, Billy Horschel, Ross Fisher, and Yuta Ikeda. Wow. This ended up way more devastating than I thought, but good news: 21 players left.
8. WHERE'S THE VALUE?
"Much of the value on the board for The Masters is gone," Kannon says. Oh well. Let's follow our hearts. Let's kill the recency bias and take Bubba Watson off the board. Let's figure Phil's odds are skewed by public desire. And is Sergio really going to repeat? I say nay. 18 players left.
9. FOLLOW YOUR GUT
"Do some research, but don't overdo it," Kannon said. "There's a lot to be said about one's initial reaction or "gut" instinct. Apply those initial thoughts on who you like and some of the studying you've done, and bet accordingly."
I love this advice. Looking at the remaining list, here's my instinct:
Can't get excited about Justin Rose winning — feels like last year was his chance. Jon Rahm is a smasher, but I don't love his game for Augusta. Paul Casey came from way back at Valspar but hasn't been great in the Sunday fire. Henrik Stenson has never had a top 10 at the Masters. Bryson's not ready. I don't believe in Webb Simpson's comeback. I love Kevin Chappell's chances if he's healthy — but can't take that chance since he just withdrew from the Match Play.
That leaves us with this list of 10 players:
Jason Day 16/1
Rickie Fowler 18/1
Marc Leishman 40/1
Patrick Reed 40/1
Thomas Pieters 60/1
Branden Grace 100/1
Daniel Berger 125/1
Rafa Cabrera Bello 125/1
Ryan Moore 125/1
Gary Woodland 150/1
10. GOT THE GAME FOR AUGUSTA?
There's a ton of noise in the data trends at Augusta, and winners have demonstrated a variety of different ways of getting the job done. But a few tendencies stand out: Players who can work the ball both ways, but particularly right-to-left, have an advantage. Lefties have played well of late. Putting is obviously important, but good putting isn't especially predictive, so can almost be ignored. Same with driving accuracy, which is fairly irrelevant as long as you keep it in play: Masters champions generally make no worse than bogey on any hole throughout the week.
Two stats stand out to show a slight advantage: Driving distance and greens in regulation, the basic idea is that having a short iron into Augusta's difficult greens is a distinct advantage.
That leads us to our first flyer: Gary Woodland doesn't have good history at Augusta (two missed cuts and a WD in five starts) but he's an impressive 9th in driving distance and 3rd in GIR this season. He hasn't done much since his win in Phoenix — but is this the week he rebounds? At 150/1, he's worth a shot, and also at some good prices for top 10 and top 20 finishes (which Kannon prefers over betting a straight winner).
Rafa Cabrera-Bello has slipped under the radar since he hasn't been winning, but hardly ever plays his way out of a tournament. He's hitting a ton of greens in his PGA Tour starts (T6), has finished in the top 30 in 10 of his last 12 stroke-play events, contended in Mexico, and is well worth the price at 125/1.
Thomas Pieters finished 4th in his Masters debut last year; he has the game for Augusta and hasn't been on his best form but remains an attractive option at 60/1. Still, as we move further up the list I have to feel good about Rickie Fowler. The spotlight is as far away from Fowler as it has been for years, which might be the perfect time for him to sneak into contention. Final-round struggles sent him out of the mix at Augusta in 2013, 2014, and 2017, but he's certainly had success here. Is this the week Fowler finishes it off?
"If you are not efficiently managing your money and how much you are betting on one player versus another, you're not efficiently positioning yourself for profit and/or minimal loss," Kannon says. "Most of all, have fun. I always maintain the golden rule of never messing around with more than you can afford to lose."
With that in mind, we're going with the same budget as last week — 1000 imaginary internet dollars — and laying down a few plays.
$50 on Woodland to win
$50 on Cabrera-Bello to win
$100 on Fowler to win
As for the other $800? As we get into the next week, any number of matchups, props and top finishes will become available. We'll check back in for part two.