McIlroy is ready to banish memories of Augusta nightmare

U.S. MASTERS
From today, 3.45pm – Sky Sports 1, from 7pm

TALK of the 76th US Masters being the best ever before a ball has even been struck is a tad optimistic but the ingredients are nevertheless all there for a classic tournament. All the big names seem to have peaked at precisely the right time.

Tiger Woods, 15 years on from the moment he won his first green jacket, is in the best form since his personal life became headline news over two years ago. Paddy Power and Coral make him 5/1 favourite for a fifth victory at the Augusta National. His arch-rival, 12/1 shot Phil Mickelson, looks like he is also in the mood for a fourth Masters title.

These two share top-billing with Rory McIlroy, who seemed destined to win here in 2011 until the 10th hole of his final round. Leading by four shots after round three, the Northern Irishman imploded in spectacular fashion and ended the Sunday by posting a score of 80 and finishing 10 shots behind eventual winner Charl Schwartzel.

As lessons go, that is one of the harshest for a professional sportsman, but the experience has made McIlroy a better player and is part of the reason he is my top tip, at 6/1 with Coral. Should he lead after round three but not win the Masters like last year, Coral will refund your bet.

Like Woods, McIlroy has the perfect game for Augusta. He hits the ball for miles, naturally shapes it right-to-left and the high trajectory of his iron shots will negate the challenges of the course’s hard and fast greens. He wasted no time at all in banishing any demons from 12 months ago, winning the US Open in emphatic style, and he now possesses the self-belief and indomitable aura that once exclusively belonged to McIlroy’s boyhood hero Woods. If you still require convincing that Mclroy is the man to beat, his worst finish this year is fifth. His other results are third, two seconds and first.

Debutants rarely succeed at Augusta – only one rookie has slipped on a green jacket since the tournament’s early days. But, if ever there was a player capable of winning on his first visit, it is American Keegan Bradley. He won the PGA Championship last August on his first major outing and few of those in the know would be surprised to see the 25-year-old go two-from-two. He boasts many of the same attributes as McIlroy – he is a long, high hitter and a really gritty competitor – exactly what is required to tame the course and beat your peers to the top of the leaderboard. Selling Bradley’s finishing position at 28 with Sporting Index is recommended.

An interesting outsider is Scotland’s Martin Laird. He finished a respectable 20th on his Masters debut, two weeks after victory at the Arnold Palmer Invitational, last year. While he hasn’t enjoyed quite the same success in the build up this time, he is playing steadily and showed he can compete with the best when he shot a third-round 66 at the WGC-Cadillac Championship last month. You have the option to back him each-way the first five places at 150/1 with Coral, but I prefer Paddy Power’s offer of six places each-way at 125/1.

Pointers…

Rory McIlroy at 6/1 with Coral
Sell Keegan Bradley’s finishing position at 28 with Sporting Index
Martin Laird e/w at 125/1 with Paddy Power