Mickelson’s the Master, but Aussie Aaron appeals

THE MASTERS 2011
STARTS TODAY - 7PM, SKY SPORTS

HANDS up who can spot the difference at the top of the US Masters betting list this year? At first glance it has a highly familiar look about it. PHIL MICKELSON and Tiger Woods again head the field although this time 12/1-shot Tiger - who has teed-off as the favourite at Augusta for the last 11 years consecutively - is playing second fiddle to Mickelson, who is available at 13/2 with Paddy Power.

The bookies’ caution regarding ‘Lefty’ and Tiger is perfectly understandable. Mickelson has won three titles here; his natural left-handed fade, power and exquisite short game are all perfectly suited to the track. Woods has won four times previously and still holds the 270-stroke 72-hole course record he set in 1997.

Although the Green Jacket has not graced Woods’ back since 2005, his Masters record since is still impressive; going backwards from 2010, he has finished fourth, sixth, second, second and third.

Even so, I wouldn’t touch Tiger with a barge pole this time. He hasn’t won a tournament in well over a year, the implemented changes to his swing have been a hindrance to his game and his normally dependable putting stroke deserted him on the lightning greens of Augusta last year.

Mickelson, on the other hand, has apparently timed his resurgence to perfection. On the PGA Tour, he appeared out of sorts until cruising to victory in the Shell Houston Open last weekend, his first tournament triumph since beating Lee Westwood to last year’s Masters title. That victory would not have been a surprise to anyone who had heard reports of Mickelson’s performances on the range and I hope they backed him for Augusta success before last weekend. His odds have contracted considerably since, but backing a winner at short odds is better than not backing a winner at all. Phil Mickelson cannot be ignored.

For those looking for superior value, it pays to bypass Europe - in the last three years, the only Europeans to have featured in the top-10 are Westwood, Ian Poulter, Padraig Harrington and Miguel Angel Jimenez - and go Down Under. Australian AARON BADDELEY has every chance to follow in the footsteps of fellow Ryder Cup ineligibles Angel Cabrera, Trevor Immelman and Mike Weir, all Masters winners in the last decade. This year has seen Baddeley revert to his old swing and, consequently, has also ushered in a sensational return to form.

He is a much better player than when he finished 17th on his last visit two years ago and when he tees off at 1.51pm local time tomorrow he will do so with the self-belief of a recent Tour winner. He triumphed at the Northern Trust Open in February and will have done his confidence no harm when tying for fourth, thanks in part to a second round 65 and a third round 66, at the Augusta-a-like Redstone last weekend. He has power, is a good striker of the ball and can putt - all the right ingredients for a happy weekend at Augusta - so Baddeley is a strong each-way recommendation, at 55/1 with Paddy Power, who are paying six places, quarter the odds.

Consistency and a proven track record at the course are two other factors that should be valued for the Masters, leading to two final outright tips. Not many pundits have mentioned MATT KUCHAR’s name in the build-up, presumably because his low-ish shot trajectory is not ideal at Augusta. That said, one cannot argue with six top-10 finishes in his eight starts this year and one of the best short games in the world. A sound temperament could be an important additional asset and I suggest selling the finishing position of the graduate of nearby Georgia Tech at 30 with Sporting Index.

Of the old school set, Fijian veteran VIJAY SINGH looks likeliest to turn back the years. Although he missed the cut last time, his overall record at Augusta is outstanding. After winning the Green Jacket in 2000, between 2002 and 2006 he finished in the top-10 for five consecutive years. Importantly, he has also shown form this season finishing third in the Phoenix Open and second, behind Baddeley, in the Northern Trust Open. Back him each-way at 100/1 with Victor Chandler - he’s as short as 70/1 elsewhere.