By Steven Clark
EVEN without a rejuvenated Tiger Woods v the young pretender Rory McIlroy, the US Masters would be one of the highlights of the sporting year.
Thursday marks the start of the 76th Masters and I'm hoping to give you some pointers from a betting direction.
Firstly, I'm having a quick run through those the bookies reckon are the five main contenders for the famous Green Jacket.
Firms had Tiger Woods and Rory McIlroy pretty much neck and neck in the run-up but Tiger's stunning five shot victory at Bay Hill last week has seen his price slashed to a best 5-1 (various).
McIlroy opted to take a few weeks away from competitive play and is tucked in as second favourite, best priced at 9-1 (William Hill).
Watching Woods storm down the 18th at Bay Hill en route to lifting the trophy was a throwback to a decade ago.
Massive crowds flocking behind him on the fairway as he cut a fearsome figure in the unmistakable final-day attire of red polo shirt and black trousers and looking somewhat like the Tiger of old.
There are still question marks over his fitness and more so the short game. Even with the victory there have been some glaring misses on the greens in recent weeks which he’d have holed with his eyes shut in days gone.
There is no disputing he’s well on track but I still wouldn’t be too thrilled at such a short price. Paddy Power will return all losing outright bets up to £100 if Woods wins. Wow!
Last week's results also meant the odds drifting slightly for another Masters stalwart Phil Mickelson.
The California native’s record at Augusta is simply staggering – finishing outside the top 10 only twice since 1999.
In addition to his three previous victories this run includes two third-place finishes and another two fifth-place spots. Something about the course seems to click with Mickelson and he absolutely loves playing Augusta.
A lot of people see him as the biggest challenger to Tiger, even ahead of McIlroy, but the young Ulsterman’s scintillating performance at last year's US Open means he gets the nod from the bookmakers while my man Mickelson is 12-1 at William Hill, Ladbrokes and others.
Making up the rest of the top five are two Englishmen in the form of Luke Donald and Lee Westwood. There has been little between these two in recent years in terms of rankings.
Donald represents better value of the two in my opinion as he has the superior short game. Even if he does miss a target, which is inevitable at some stage with the tricky pin positions, he has the touch and craft around the greens to recover which is cemented by the fact he had both the best putting statistics in last year's Masters itself (finishing fourth) and also the lowest putting average of anyone on the PGA Tour for season 2011.
Tee to green Westwood is as good as anyone in the field and although his chipping has improved remarkably over the last two or three seasons I still think putting lets him down ever so slightly at the really crucial times.
Watch out for my look at each-way hopefuls coming soon