Welcome to Virtual Insanity, Masters edition, where we spend virtual money to try and win virtual money on golf betting. It's that simple!
Winners at 80/1, 66/1 and 25/1 and our fair share of losers means that profit for this feature is at 14.5% so far for 2022. That's healthy enough in the round, so it's a case of staying there and bettering that figure. We finished 2021 with a profit of 46.5%.
The virtual pot is at €1145 from €1000 entering golf's first major tournament of the year, the Masters at Augusta National in Georgia.
I watched my first Masters as an 8 year old in 1987 with my late Dad, curtains closed as the images of this beautiful place in America were beamed through the small television into our living room in an Ireland where the Masters and Dallas on TV were exotic creatures. None of us had any money then, but at least house prices were cheap. Larry Mize chipped in from off the green on the second play off hole to win the green jacket and I was transfixed. Later I would learn of Jack Nicklaus and his 18 majors, including six Masters titles - and I would discover the genius that was Seve Ballesteros, the first European winner of the tournament in 1980.
To me, golf is so fascinating to watch every Sunday night and Augusta National is the most charismatic of venues, its risk and reward holes providing the platform for human triumph and failure in the most hallowed of cathedrals.
Augusta National may not have enjoyed the greatest history when it comes to being progressive around race and gender, but in modern times the Masters has got everything spot on in terms of the course set up, television entertainment and sporting prestige. It's become the most coveted prize in golf.
As the only major played at the same venue each year, the incredible moments rest easy in our memory bank so it's natural for us to crave more of them; we remember the Greg Norman meltdown in 1996, Tiger winning by 12 shots in 1997, the Tiger Slam completed in 2001, Phil Mickelson's winning putt in 2004, Rory McIlroy's hopes evaporating in 2011; Bubba Watson's miracle shot in 2012, Jordan Spieth finding the water twice in 2016 and Tiger's comeback for the ages in 2019.
This was also the event in which there were seven European winners in nine years between 1988 and 1996 (Sandy Lyle, Nick Faldo, Ian Woosnam, Bernhard Langer and Jose Maria Olazabal) which made the Masters appointment viewing in Ireland before Woods changed everything.
And boy does golf need Tiger Woods right now. There can be as many incentives as the PGA Tour likes for players to connect with the public, but one cannot fake aura. There is only one Tiger.
The decision of the 15 time major champion and five time green jacket winner to play this week is utter box office. He suffered a serious leg injury in a car accident only 14 months ago and it's captivating to see the 46 year old return to Augusta. I don't know how he does it after all the back surgeries and knee injuries. Whether you think Jack Nicklaus or Tiger Woods is the greatest player to have picked up a club, Tiger is arguably the most resilient athlete in the history of sport.
Augusta National is a par 72 which measures 7,510 yards. It requires strong iron play and a deft short game. Longer hitters do have an advantage if they can drive the ball straight, while a pure putting stroke on the slick contoured greens and mental strength are key requisites for the win.
In terms of the weather forecast, after a potentially wet Thursday, it's expected to be dry for the rest of the week with only moderate breezes. It may suit the power hitters who can attack the par 5 holes and land their approaches in the right areas.
The tournament starts at 1pm Thursday, Irish time.
There are a quartet of Irish players in the field; Rory McIlroy, Shane Lowry, Seamus Power and Padraig Harrington. I have McIlroy and Lowry in my recommendations. It's Power's first appearance at Augusta, and it's well known that a rookie hasn't won the Masters since Fuzzy Zoeller in 1979. I just hope Power enjoys it and the same sentiment applies to Harrington, who played well on the Champions Tour last weekend. Now 50 years of age, I wouldn't be shocked if Harrington had a good Thursday, but it's probably too much of a stretch to expect him to win.
In terms of the host of top names I am not tipping this week, I respect Xander Schauffele, who has nine top 10 finishes in 18 major starts, including a tie for second and a tie for third at Augusta. He is a serious contender, but you can't pick them all. I also believe Justin Thomas having Phil Mickelson's former caddie Bones Mackay on the bag this week is a serious boon to his chances. Thomas has won 14 times on the PGA Tour and if his putter co-operates, he could be very hard to beat. When it comes to world number one Scottie Scheffler and Players champion Cameron Smith, both must be respected, but it's both hard to win and peak all of the time. With Dustin Johnson and Brooks Koepka, the talent is unquestionably there, but are their appetites ravenous to simply flick the switch and win? I am unsure if Collin Morikawa has enough recent form in the locker, while Viktor Hovland will need a good week around the greens with his chipping clubs, because it's a weakness in his exciting game and there's a premium on scrambling at Augusta. As for Tiger, well, let's hope he gives us something to shout about. Can I see him performing to his vintage best for 72 holes after 17 months away from the arena and admitting that he is still in pain? No, but we'll all be glued to it.
So when it comes to 'Virtual Insanity' - be sure to shop around with the bookmakers, as William Hill are offering 1/5 the odds for your pick to get into the top nine places, Paddy Power and Betfair are going 10 places, and SKY Bet and Boyle Sports are going 11 places. Other bookmakers are offering less places, but better odds. My judgement of the best value recommendation is beside each pick.
I have more bets than normal listed below and bigger virtual stakes than normal a) because we are playing with virtual house money and b) because with 91 players, some of whom that don't have a realistic chance, the Masters is one of the best sporting events to bet on all year with the each way terms on offer. This is a losing week mathematically for bookmakers, but they are generous with their odds to attract new customers. At last week's Texas Open, there were 144 players in the field. Be sure to bet less at home.
Our headline selection is Patrick Cantlay for €20 each way at 22/1. (1/5 the odds the first 9 places, William Hill).
In 2019, when Tiger Woods won the Masters, American Patrick Cantlay shot 64 on Saturday and was then closing fast on Sunday, six under par through 15, before fading with two bogeys. If he'd played those final three holes in one under par, he would have been in a play off. That's natural talent. The unassuming Cantlay was once the best amateur golfer in the world, and he's battled back from a serious back injury and the loss of a close friend to fulfil his early potential. He's won the prestigious Memorial Tournament twice, has a fine long game, and is an assured putter, especially on fast greens, which he will encounter this week. He was my main selection in the Masters last year and missed the cut, but subsequently won three times, including the Tour Championship and was crowned FedEx Cup champion. He was also voted the PGA Tour Player of the Year. Cantlay started 2022 with four top ten finishes, losing in a play off to Scottie Scheffler in Phoenix. He's gone off the boil a little since then, but I don't see the ebbs and flows of golf as a reason to rule him out as others have. Ten years ago, Patrick Cantlay sat in the Butler Cabin as the low amateur and I believe he will return there this Sunday to wear the green jacket.
Our second selection is Thomas Pieters for €10 each way at 80/1. (1/5 the odds the first 11 places, SKY Bet).
In January I tweeted the following. "Thomas Pieters has always been seriously talented. A controlled performance in Abu Dhabi. There are worse outsiders for the Masters." I maintain that view about the Belgian, who won the prestigious HSBC Championship for his second victory in three starts on the DP World Tour. 30 year old Pieters is beginning to show the form which saw him lead the European team as a rookie in terms of points earned at the 2016 Ryder Cup. The following April, on his debut at the Masters, he ended in a tie for fourth. He hits it a mile, he is good at finding greens and makes plenty of birdies. Pieters was one of the top college golfers in America and one thing about him is that I don't believe he will wilt under pressure if he gets into contention. He's over priced because his form in America as a professional has been patchy, but he did play well at the Match Play. You must always back talent over statistical analysis and Pieters strikes me as the best outsider in this field.
Our third selection is Rory McIlroy for €8 each way at 18/1. (1/5 the odds the first 10 places, Paddy Power, Betfair).
Ireland's Rory McIlroy may never win the Masters, but this game is about profit, not winners or losers. McIlroy has finished in the top ten in six of his last eight appearances at Augusta National. If he does so again, we make a profit alone on backing him at 18/1 each way with the odds on offer. There are legitimate concerns around McIlroy; he missed the cut in Texas last weekend, he is making too many bogeys for my liking and his current approach play probably falls short of the standard necessary to win this week. There's also the pressure of becoming only the sixth golfer to win the 'Career Grand Slam'. In the credit column, he is arguably the most naturally gifted player in the field, he's a brilliant driver of the ball, the weather conditions may suit a high ball flight this week and I do believe his talent allows him to shake off poor performances. Only two years ago McIlroy was ranked number one in the world. He has 20 PGA Tour titles and four major championships to his name and at 32, he's young enough to win many more. A victory would be a surprise and wonderful for Irish golf, but a top ten for someone who has shot 14 rounds in the 60's at Augusta would not be a surprise. Do I win the devil's advocacy gold medal?
Our fourth selection is Shane Lowry for €4 each way at 40/1. (1/5 the odds the first 8 places, Ladbrokes, Bet 365).
There's every reason to believe that Portrush changed Shane Lowry as a golfer, in that he'll never need to prove anything to anyone ever again! To win the Irish Open as an amateur and then the Open Championship on the island of Ireland by six shots is magical. Lowry told me before how much a green jacket would mean and perhaps it's the only thing which would equal or rival the 'Clara jug'. Offaly's finest is in form, entering the Masters with a second at the recent Honda Classic and two top 15 finishes at the Players Championship and Valspar Championship to his name. Lowry is getting the hang of Augusta - his last two finishes have been his best ones; a tie for 25th in 2020 followed by a tie for 21st last year. He is 11th in strokes gained approach this season. We know he has brilliant hands and he could handle the putting surfaces of Oakmont during his 2016 US Open near miss. He's certainly capable of contending on Sunday. Like McIlroy, Harrington and Power, we wish him the best of luck.
Our fifth selection is Marc Leishman for €4 each way at 70/1. (1/5 the odds the first 8 places, Bet 365).
This is the horses for courses experience pick; 38 year old Australian Marc Leishman loves it around Augusta; he has three top ten finishes in nine starts; including a tie for fifth last year. He is happy with his game and he has the skill set with his irons and putting to contend. Leishman has won six times on the PGA Tour and those wins include big events at the Farmers Insurance Open and Arnold Palmer Invitational. He lost in a play off at the 2015 Open Championship and I feel he's comfortable in the surroundings of a Masters Sunday.
Our final outright selection is Si Woo Kim for €4 each way at 90/1. (1/5 the odds the first 8 places, Bet 365).
Korea's Si Woo Kim has talent to burn, we just don't know when he's going to show it. Think about it; he won his PGA Tour card at the age of 17 and five years ago he became the youngest ever winner of the Players Championship at the tender age of 21. His form can be erratic, but his victory at Sawgrass was testament to staying in the moment. Si Woo Kim won last year's American Express Championship and his Masters record is quietly impressive - he's made the top 25 on three occasions in five starts at Augusta - with a tie for 12th last year his best finish. Si Woo Kim drives down Magnolia Lane off the back of a tie for 13th in Texas last week. He's a strong driver of the golf ball and if he can keep his temperament in check, he has the ability to be a part of the Sunday conversation.
So that's €100 wagered virtually on this week's Masters. Make sure you bet less at home! A euro each way will do!
Please gamble responsibly, never bet more than you can afford, and good luck.
Enjoy the 2022 Masters!