One of the most exciting weeks in professional golf also leads to one of the most exciting times in making predictions about the tournament field.
March Madness is officially over, but that shouldn't stop you from placing your bets on the 77th edition of the Masters, scheduled to be held from April 11-14 at Augusta National Golf Club in Georgia.
Tiger Woods comes in as the tournament favorite (7-2 odds)—and why shouldn't he be?
Woods has already won three of his first five tournaments to open the 2013 season and has extensive experience at the Masters (four green jackets). Another win at Augusta would place Woods above the legendary Arnold Palmer when it comes to Masters wins and in position to tie Jack Nicklaus' iconic record of six Masters wins.
It won't be easy, though, as the course is never forgiving and the golfers that inhabit it over the next four days are even more cutthroat with a chance at the green jacket on the line.
Rory McIlroy is always a threat to Woods' throne, while Phil Mickelson, Justin Rose, Dustin Johnson and Keegan Bradley headline a group of golfers looking to supplant Bubba Watson as the Masters champion in 2013.
When looking at the tournament betting field, there are some favorable matchups that you should start playing right away. Here's a look at four tournament stars you should research and follow closely with a bet before Thursday's tee-off, as well as the odds that make them such attractive plays.
Note: All lines, odds and betting information courtesy of Bovada.
Phil Mickelson, +225 Odds to Finish in the Top 5
Over the years, Mickelson has been absolute money at Augusta.
In addition to being one of only eight golfers that has three green jackets, Mickelson has also finished in the top 10 an astounding 11 times in his past 13 Masters (since 2000), a number that doesn't include three other top-10 finishes before the turn of the century.
While his most recent win came in 2010, Mickelson also finished tied for third in 2012 and comes into this tournament with an abundance of Masters experience and a 2013 win (Waste Management Phoenix Open) already under his belt.
Simply put—it's hard to beat Phil at this course.
As such, he's an underdog to finish in the top five. That should get you a little bit excited, partially because of Mickelson's 14 top-10 finishes, 10 of which also include a top-five mark. Those are extremely good odds. If Phil is on, he's going to be in championship contention.
Fred Couples, 80-1 Odds to Lead After First Round
Whenever you claim Augusta National to be your own personal playground, you either have too much confidence or the chops to back it up.
It's hard to know which one of those statements describes Freddie Couples, but the oft-traveled golfer made headlines earlier in the week when telling CBS Sports that Augusta feels a little like playing in his back yard after all the experiences (good and bad) on the course.
Of all the majors Couples has played in over the years, the Masters is clearly his most consistent event.
Couples has graced the top-10 leaderboard after the final hole 11 times, including three straight performances in which he finished inside the top 15. Couples' only career victory also came at Augusta (1992), and it's the only major he's participated in over the last three years.
Notorious for finding himself in position to contend after the first day, Couples' odds are a win-win for you here. While 80-1 is a long shot at best, Couples is one of those golfers who could win one round for you at any time.
He's clearly coming down the stretch of his PGA career, but expect Couples to enjoy his playground enough to be in position for these odds on Thursday afternoon.
Rory McIlroy, 10-1 Odds to Shoot Lowest Round
If there's anything we've learned about McIlroy over the past few years during the rise of his career, it's that he's been better as a dark horse than as a World No. 1.
While being No. 2 on the World Golf Rankings certainly isn't a fall from grace, McIlroy has some demons to conquer at Augusta after his infamous collapse in 2010, poor start to the 2013 season, struggles with Nike equipment and his strange exit from the Honda Classic.
There's a lot riding on McIlroy's performance at Augusta this year.
That being said, the young star has always been somewhat of a frontrunner, feeding off the ability to get out and crush his opponents with low scores. Both of his past major championship wins (U.S. Open in 2011, PGA Championship in 2012) were by at least eight strokes, hinting that McIlroy gets in a groove and keeps on churning.
If he gets in a groove at Augusta this year, there's a good chance he could break out of his current slump and shoot the lowest round of the tournament. While McIlroy has struggled here over the years, he's coming off a No. 2 finish at the Texas Open and should be in touch with his equipment enough to forgo using it as a crutch anymore.
I like McIlroy to beat the odds on this bet, putting a zero behind whatever you wager on the second-best golfer on the planet right now.
Tiger Woods, 7-2 Odds to Win Tournament
This could be Tiger's moment to return to past glory.
The storyline is set up for a triumphant return to the jacket ceremony at the Masters this year, and Woods has done enough with his schedule this year to prove he's fully returned as the dominant force he once was in the sport.
With Palmer, Nicklaus and many other golf legends looking on, this will be a good gauge for how Tiger responds to pressure. Like McIlroy, Woods thrives on getting ahead and staying there, one of the reasons that his record when leading after 54 holes is so demeaning (14-1 going into the final round of a major with at least a share of the lead).
He's given 7-2 odds to win it all this year, and there's a good chance he won't disappoint. While the odds aren't great for a big payout without a big wager, this is vintage Woods we're talking about here, a man that no one would bet against several years ago.
Expect that fear to creep up again this year. Like the other stars on this list, Woods has a favorable chance to take home the green jacket, and maybe win you some extra payout cash in the process.
Let the Masters begin—it's going to be an epic weekend of golf.
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