Favorites, sleepers and betting the 2021 Masters

AUGUSTA, Ga. — The Masters is back! Time for another golf roundtable, featuring Yahoo Sports senior golf writer Jay Busbee and Yahoo Sports fantasy impresario Scott Pianowski. Topics today: Jordan Spieth's return, Bryson DeChambeau's wizardry, and what it takes to win at Augusta in April. All odds from BetMGM.

BUSBEE: Scott, my friend, nature is healing. And by "nature," I mean the azaleas that once again bloom along Augusta's fairways. The autumn Masters was nice, but this tournament belongs in the springtime. Your initial thoughts, my friend, on the first April Masters in two (!) years?

PIANOWSKI: Man, I need it. Most of my existence has been Life in a Northern Town, where spring is our hero. Spring is our hope. Spring is our sign that our dreams can be actualized.

There are two juggernaut cycles in the sporting calendar — one of them is in September, and one of them is right now. The college basketball tournaments, the return of baseball, and the yearly trip to Augusta, all tucked together like Amen Corner. If this doesn't make the hair stand on the back of your neck, you're already dead.

The 2021 golf season is off to a strong start, a nice mix of relatable stories and star power. Brooks Koepka, Collin Morikawa, Bryson DeChambeau and Justin Thomas have already bagged wins; Koepka at the yearly Super Bowl party, Morikawa at a WGC, Bryson at Arnie's place, and Thomas at the TPC. One of the little secrets of golf is that fans love Cinderella on Thursday, but they want the stars to lift the trophy on Sunday. We've seen plenty of that.

Of course, Augusta is a tough ticket for everyone — pros included. It's the smallest major every year, the most exclusive. A lot of times you'll hear "what a great leaderboard at the Masters," but it almost has to be; merely qualifying is an honor. There aren't many slippers to be found, unless you like one of the past champions to surprise. Nobody ever calls it this, but the Masters truly is golf's All-Star Game.

It's been the longest winter; it almost feels like a year, when you consider everything that's happened. So yeah, amigo, I need this.

BUSBEE: Then let's get it on. Tiger's obviously out, Rickie Fowler’s out, but everybody else is rolling back in, and with varying degrees of success and form. DJ's always a threat, Rory seems like a mess, Spieth might just have what it takes ... which way do we go?

You're first off the tee, sir. Give me your best bet, and your player you're interested to watch (whether or not you think he can win).

PIANOWSKI: This is the hardest major to get cute with a winner. As stated, you don't have that many choices. The field is so small. But the shorter hitters have almost no chance here. If you're approaching with long irons or hybrids while the bombers have short irons or even wedges in their hands, you're already out of the tournament.

Of course this will never be a mindless driving range. The greens are so delicate; it's a tournament about power, sure, but it's also about playable misses, nerves and creativity around the greens, and being patient. It feels like you can attack about 40 percent of the course, and you wind up playing defense everywhere else.

I'm going to watch every Jordan Spieth shot Thursday. It's lovely to see his confidence back. He has the putter to win here — I'm starting to think Rory's putter will always block him at the Masters — and he generally plays within himself. Patience won't be a problem. He just needs a little momentum.

Dustin Johnson is the deserved favorite, now that he's figured out this place. Hits it forever and hits it sky high, which works here. He didn't just win in November, he has a run of five straight Top 10s here. He was T2 in Tiger's glorious comeback year; I can't remember a T2 finish that saw less Sunday airtime, by the way. But how do we make money on DJ at 9-1?

So Xander Schauffele at 20-1 is my first punch. His stat profile is angelic; he's only great at everything. Most importantly, he's a superb putter and he has the right temperament for majors. His four-year resume in the big events is a yellow-brick road, with Top 10s everywhere (he tied DJ back in 2019).

The best X props might be driven to Top 5s or 10s, which I don't see posted yet. But let's get this party started with $20 on Xander to win, 20-1.

It's that time again. (Photo by Patrick Smith/Getty Images)
It's that time again. (Photo by Patrick Smith/Getty Images)

BUSBEE: I do love the X-Man, but he’s not my pick. We’ll get to that in a second.

In Augusta, April flowers bring, uh, April showers, and despite an earlier forecast that called for a dry Masters, it appears we may have a little moisture headed this way sometime around Friday afternoon-Saturday morning. (Rain always makes the cut, unfortunately.) Between the warmer temps and Augusta’s SubAir system around the greens, rain won’t slow down the course to November levels, when DJ picked the place apart. But it’s still likely to slow some rolls off the tee and give dart-throwers a better chance of sticking the green. A faint prayer rather than no hope at all, let’s say.

Bryson DeChambeau is talking like an auto mechanic who knows exactly what’s wrong with your car and he’ll be able to fix it for you pronto, but Augusta isn’t quite so easy to master. It’s more like trying to do a Rubik’s Cube in the dark, and DeChambeau may not be quite as close as he’s telling the world he is. He’s playing better than anyone on the planet right now, but playing well beyond Washington Road only goes so far inside the gates of Augusta National.

Feel-good story of the year would be Jon Rahm winning the Masters just days after his wife gave birth to their first child. Can he do it with his heart in two places, or will the joy and relief of new fatherhood lighten his spiritual load?

I’m liking Justin Thomas this week. He has a big recent win on his resume in The Players (sorry, THE PLAYERS), he’s fifth on Tour in total shots gained, and most importantly: He’s improved his position literally every single one of the five years he’s played here. That suggests he’s getting close to a veteran level of deciphering Augusta. Last time around he finished fourth, which suggests there’s not much more upward mobility without adding to his wardrobe. Put $20 on JT for me …

… which brings us to our new major tradition: Where would you spend $100 in entirely hypothetical coin? You’ve got $20 in the kitty already, where’s the rest going?

PIANOWSKI: Let’s play a little process of elimination.

I can’t bet on DJ — the gods won’t let someone win two Masters in six months. And who wants to bet on the favorite?

I can’t back Rahm, this fresh after the baby. I’m all for family joy, but sleep is essential.

I can’t dial up Brooks Koekpa given the recent knee surgery.

I love Webb Simpson on so many courses, but he doesn’t have enough power for this major.

Maybe Phil Mickelson has a Tom Watson 2009 percolating in him, but not the way he’s hitting it right now. If someone texts you, “Did you see what Phil just did”? — you know that could be a 2 or an 11. But there’s too much zig-zag on his shot chart. I can’t get sentimental.

I can’t pick one of the three Fs to win — Finau, Fitzpatrick, Fleetwood. They’re all so overdue. But this isn’t the place where the snakebitten find antidotes.

I’ll be watching to see if DeChambeau can overwhelm the course, if Jordan Spieth can solve the course, and if Rory McIlroy can make peace with the course.

Although it was a great story, I wish Spieth hadn’t won last week — it tramples the odds. Jordan doesn’t bomb the ball, but he comes in uber-confident — he was even hitting driver when he didn’t have to Sunday at San Antonio. Of course, staring down Charlie Hoffman isn’t the same as staring down a Masters field (I will miss The Hoff this week; he usually plays well here), but it’s a blast to think along with Spieth as he delicately negotiates the challenges here. He’s always been a lovely chipper of the ball, and his nerves are back on the green. Spieth should be a four-day story, but unfortunately the value has evaporated. He's too hot, and a little too popular.

I would be shocked if DeChambeau doesn’t win this tournament in the next five years. His power is an absurd advantage and this is the type of course where it’s rewarded — and more importantly, where wayward drives can be overcome. You need to be delicate on your approaches to the green, of course, but it’s such an advantage to be hitting wedges when others need mid-irons or even hybrids. And he’s become a much better putter in the last couple of years.

I have $100 to spend, and I’m always going to lean empath. A few years ago, that meant McIlroy — the most approachable star in the game, the most honest, the most thoughtful. But I think it’s time for Schauffele to have his big moment. He has every shot, tee to green, and perhaps most importantly, the equanimity.

Sign me up for this, all odds from Bet MGM:

$20 on DeChambeau to win, +1100

$20 on Xander to win, +2200

$30 on Xander to finish Top 10, +180

$10 on Fred Couples to make the cut, +190 (I don’t even care if I lose this, he’s still the king of cool.)

$20 on Phil to miss the cut (sorry, I’m a capitalist), +110

Hopefully I have enough left for a pimento sandwich.

BUSBEE: Sun’s getting low behind the pines, so let’s wrap this up. I agree with your assessments on most of these cats, though I’ll diversify a bit:

$20 on JT to win, +1100

$20 on DJ to repeat, +900

$10 on the feel-good Rahm story, +1100

$10 apiece on some “long” shots to finish top 10: Collin Morikawa (+250), Corey Connors (+400), and Will Zalatoris (+450)

$10 on the Big Five (DJ, Rahm, JT, Spieth, Bryson) against the field, +125

And because I like drama on Sunday … $5 on a playoff (+350) and $5 on the winner not coming from the final grouping.

And away we go! Enjoy the tournament!


Jay Busbee is a writer for Yahoo Sports. Follow him on Twitter at @jaybusbee or contact him at jay.busbee@yahoo.com.

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