News & Opinion

On eve of Masters, some last-minute tips

AUGUSTA, Ga. – This is it. You’re definitely not a millennial if you still identify the famous Kenny Loggins song with that title as basketball music. It was the NCAA Final Four theme used by NBC in 1980 and ‘81. It was catchy, timely and hard to forget:

“This is it. Make no mistake where you are. This is it. Your back’s to the corner …”

Masters Tournament week is here. So, as Loggins and co-writer Michael McDonald pointed out, This is it.

This is what? This is the end of gambling season for most of us amateurs, at least until next season begins – and by next season, I mean when college football and the National Football League return to action.

This is a fairly grand finale. Masters week always starts with the NCAA basketball championship on Monday night, one of the big betting events of the year – not only the game itself for the more serious wagerer but, of course, the conclusion of millions of office bracket pools that most of us were knocked out of contention on the first weekend when the Cal-Irvine Anteaters advanced and Iowa State, Marquette and Wisconsin didn’t. But I’m not bitter.

The Masters pool is likely your last good office pool until football. Sure, there are Kentucky Derby pools in May, but those are usually just pulling horse names out of a hat. There’s no skill involved because most of us can’t distinguish between one horse’s head and another, although we all know a horse’s ass when we see one. Plus, you’ve got to wade through hours of tedious pre-race coverage about the percentage of moisture in the track dirt or the wife of the son of some horse owner who’s battling to overcome a case of diphtheria or something and then, finally, the race is over in two minutes while you were taking a bathroom break.

So, this is it, fellow hacks (and Mr. Loggins), your last chance to enjoy some just-for-fun, no-actual-money-changing-hands wagering. (That last part is in print, Mr. Internal Revenue Service auditor, so it must be true.)

You can go the pro route on a Masters pool. That means DraftKings.com. The site is running a pool with a $4 million purse, of which $1 million will go to the winner. Draft Kings lets you “buy” six players. Each player has a listed purchase price – Justin Rose, for example, was $10,600. Tiger Woods and Rory McIlroy were on sale in the $11,000 range. (How do I know this? For purposes of researching this story – and only for research – I filed an entry.)

You, the bettor, have a $50,000 budget, so choose wisely. Ask your golf friends for advice. Check with Yoda. Use the Force. Whatever.

Odds are, you’ll win nothing. A friendly office pool is more fun.

You can do a Calcutta pool, in which each golfer is auctioned off to the highest bidder. This requires getting everyone in the pool together at one time (not a good idea, because they just won’t shut up!) and a considerable amount of time to complete. I vote thumbs down, even though I once mopped up in a certain golf magazine’s Calcutta pool in ’92 when I bought Fred Couples and Raymond Floyd, and they finished 1-2.

You also can do a draft. It has the same problems as the Calcutta pool. Everyone has to show up, and it takes time to get it done. So, three thumbs down.

You can pull names out of a hat. This works, and it allows non-golfers in on the fun. But do you really want the inevitable non-golfer to win the pool and ask, “Who did you say I had again?” Uh, Tiger Woods. “How’d he do?” He won, Irma. “Oh! Yeah!”

So, run your Masters pool this way: Each entrant selects two five-man teams. No player may be used twice. Like a college golf tournament, each team takes the four best scores among its five players each round. The lowest team total after four rounds is the winner.

Note, if a team has two players miss the cut and is down to only three players, that team is eliminated from the competition.

If two teams tie for first? Come up with your own tiebreaker. I prefer dueling, like Aaron Burr and Alexander Hamilton, but go your own way – for example, which team scored lower in the final round. Or, who had the best-looking outfits. It’s your call.

I happen to be in just such a pool, minus the dueling tiebreaker. Again, I’m in it only for purposes of research. (Which makes the entry fee tax deductible, in my opinion.)

I’m not going to give away my two five-man lineups, but here are some key players whom any Masters poolster should consider and/or avoid:

Rory McIlroy: He’s the betting favorite, but can he really putt these adventurous greens? Taking him on your team is a good way to play defense, though. Most poolsters will have him, so if you take him, too, you won’t lose ground if he does well, and it won’t kill you if he does poorly. It’s a wash.

Dustin Johnson: Much the same as McIlroy except Johnson has better memories of Augusta National and says he likes big-breaking putts. He’s ranked No. 2 in the world, so, again, he’s a play-it-safe pick.

Tiger Woods: I have changed my mind on Woods. His victory at the Tour Championship last fall didn’t do it, but his putting performance at the WGC Dell Match Play, along with brushing off McIlroy head-to-head, did. His driver swing looked its best in more than a decade. His putting stroke also looked familiar. He didn’t falter under the gun last August at the PGA Championship and made eventual winner Brooks Koepka beat him. I’m thinking Tiger, believe it or not.

Justin Rose: Sure, he’s No. 1 in the world, so he’s an obvious pick. I’m taking him because his track record at Augusta is so good – many good finishes and low rounds.

Louis Oosthuizen: The former British Open champion has been playing well of late and, even bigger, putting well. Remember that he lost a playoff to Bubba Watson here. People forget about him.

Patrick Reed: He’s a big-game hunter, pretty good putter and an excellent chipper on these big, quick greens. He’s a right-to-left player, and this is mostly a right-to-left golf course. But as the defending champion, he’ll be on most entries, too, so factor that into your strategy.

Rickie Fowler: His gutsy finish last year gives me confidence that he can pull off winning the Masters, or any other major. If he does, I hate to think how many TV commercials he’s going to be in. He’s already challenging Peyton Manning in that category.

Keith Mitchell: The Honda Classic winner hits it long, putts well and has a lot of game. He also has played this course a number of times when he was at the University of Georgia. A strong sleeper pick.

Xander Schauffele: He owns a good all-around game and often gets overlooked. Anybody remember that he won the Tour Championship in 2017? Didn’t think so.

Francesco Molinari: A wonderful ball-striker who is putting better than ever, hence his British Open title and impressive Ryder Cup showing last year. Don’t overlook him.

Jordan Spieth: You saw it last year. Spieth was slumping, but he turned it on in the final round and nearly pulled out a victory. Putting rules at Augusta National, and he’s still among the best.

Bryson DeChambeau: Maybe you think he’s a nut, but I like his search for knowledge. He’s a proven winner already and too good to pass up.

Next up after the Masters, betting-wise? The Canadian Football League.

So, this is it.

Gary Van Sickle has covered golf since 1980 for Sports Illustrated and Golf.com, Golf World and The Milwaukee Journal. Email: gvansick@aol.com; Twitter: @GaryVanSickle