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Opinion & Analysis

The 20 Players Who Can Win The Masters

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Each year for the Masters, I create a filtering process to help determine the players that are most likely to win the Green Jacket based on criteria that has strongly predicted outcomes at Augusta. I usually get the list down to roughly 23 players. Last year, I filtered out Jordan Spieth due to poor iron play during that season. Spieth proved me wrong, but he also proved me right as he didn’t win due to the infamous iron shots he had on the 12th hole. On the other hand, Danny Willett was in my list of players that could win the Masters and he became the new champion.

Before I discuss my picks for this year’s Masters, I want to go over what I call the “critical holes” for Augusta National. The critical holes in any tournament are the ones where the top finishers typically gain the most strokes on the field, as well as where the greatest deviation in scores exist. One of the interesting aspects about critical holes is that they often change over time due to changes in the course conditions, course design or a change in player strategy, which can create a smaller deviation in scores.

Just like last year, the critical holes at Augusta are still projected to be Nos. 7, 12, 14, 15 and 18. One of the beauties of Augusta is its finishing hole is the most critical hole in the event statistically, while you have all these other holes that are much more picturesque and memorable.

Moving on to the tournament, I filtered out all first-time attendees. The Masters was only won once by a first-time attendee, Fuzzy Zoeller, in 1979. These 17 players include:

  • Brad Dalke
  • Toto Gana
  • Scott Gregory
  • Stewart Hagestad
  • Curtis Luck
  • Adam Hadwin
  • Tyrrell Hatton
  • Si Woo-Kim
  • William McGirt
  • Alex Noren
  • Thomas Pieters
  • Jon Rahm
  • Brian Stuard
  • Daniel Summerhays
  • Hudson Swafford
  • Mackenzie Hughes
  • Billy Hurley III

I think this is a good list of first-time players, particularly Rahm, Pieters and Noren. But it’s pretty clear that if a golfer has never played in the Masters, he is at a sizable disadvantage.

I also filtered out past champions that I do not believe can compete anymore. These 10 players include:

  • Angel Cabrera
  • Fred Couples
  • Trevor Immelman
  • Bernhard Langer
  • Sandy Lyle
  • Larry Mize
  • Mark O’Meara
  • Jose Maria Olazabal
  • Mike Weir
  • Ian Woosnam

The Zach Johnson Debate

Every year I do my Masters picks, it’s always get pointed out that I do not pick former Masters Champion Zach Johnson due to his lack of length off the tee. Augusta National greatly favors long-ball hitters. They can play the par-5s more like par-4s, and typically the longer hitters can also hit the ball higher so they can get their long approach shots to hold the green more easily.

When Johnson won the Masters in 2007, the event featured record-low temperatures in the mid-40s and wind gusts of 33 mph. This made it very hard for any player to reach the par-5s in two shots and allowed Johnson to get into a wedge contest on the par-5’s, his strength. The temperatures are predicted to be in the high-60s and mid-70s this year and unless that changes by 30+ degrees and the wind gusts double I don’t see him having a very good chance to win the event. Along with Johnson, I would also eliminate these short hitters:

  • Rafael Cabrera Bello
  • Soren Kjeldsen
  • Brandt Snedeker
  • Jim Furyk
  • Steve Stricker
  • Roberto Castro
  • Matt Kuchar

Even more damning is the players who hit the ball too low, a stat that can be tracked with the PGA Tour’s Apex Height measurement (it’s determined with Trackman). Last year, I eliminated five players who I thought had a trajectory that was too low to win at Augusta. Only one of the five players made the cut, Kevin Na (T55). This year, I’m ruling out these nine players: 

  • Rod Pampling
  • Russell Knox
  • Daniel Berger
  • Ryan Moore
  • Kevin Na
  • Paul Casey
  • Branden Grace
  • Jason Dufner
  • Webb Simpson

Furthermore, since the inauguration of the event, there have only been two winners of the Masters who had previously never made the cut: Fuzzy Zoeller in 1979 and Gene Sarazen in 1936. Let’s rule them out as well. They are:

  • Andy Sullivan
  • Byeong Hun-An
  • Jhonattan Vegas
  • Brendan Steele

I will also filter out the players that missed the cut at Houston. Missing the cut the week prior to an event greatly reduces the odds of winning, as well as finishing in the top-10, the top-25 and even making the cut regardless of the event.

  • Adam Scott
  • J.B. Holmes
  • Henrik Stenson
  • Lee Westwood
  • Jordan Spieth

Spieth is a hard one to filter out… again. He’s been downright incredible at Augusta National, and his missed cut at Houston seemed more like a fluke than a trend of poor play. I cannot just randomly ignore the fact that he did miss the cut and how traditionally that has greatly reduced the odds of performing well the next week, however, regardless of the golfer.

I also need to filter out players that have performed poorly from the Red Zone (175-225 yards) this year. Simply put, Augusta National is an approach-shot course. For all of the attention the greens and putting gets at Augusta, the winner is usually one of the best approach-shot performers at the event. So, I will eliminate these players:

  • Danny Willett
  • Ernie Els
  • Jason Day
  • Vijay Singh
  • James Hahn
  • Pat Perez
  • Kevin Kisner
  • Phil Mickelson
  • Patrick Reed
  • Brooks Koepka
  • Scott Piercy
  • Kevin Chappell
  • Bill Haas
  • Chris Wood
  • Francesco Molinari
  • Marc Leishman
  • Yuta Ikeda

There are a lot of names that are difficult to filter out, including Mickelson, Adam Scott and Jason Day, but they have to be filtered out as possible winners given their poor performance this year in the area of the game that really defines winning at Augusta. 

That leaves us with 20 players that can win The Masters.  I’ve also put their betting odds for winning next to their name:

  • Matthew Fitzpatrick (+6,600)
  • Rickie Fowler (+2,000)
  • Sergio Garcia (+4,000)
  • Emiliano Grillo (+12,500)
  • Russell Henley (+10,000)
  • Charley Hoffman (+12,500)
  • Dustin Johnson (+550)
  • Martin Kaymer (+12,500)
  • Shane Lowry (+12.500)
  • Hideki Matsuyama (+1,800)
  • Rory McIlroy (+800)
  • Sean O’Hair (+30,000)
  • Louis Oosthuizen (+5,500)
  • Justin Rose (+2,500)
  • Charl Schwartzel (+6,600)
  • Justin Thomas (+2,500)
  • Jimmy Walker (+10,000)
  • Bubba Watson (+4,000)
  • Bernd Wiesberger (+15,000)
  • Gary Woodland (+10,000)

My Top-10 Picks

  • Rickie Fowler (+2,000)
  • Russell Henley (+10,000)
  • Dustin Johnson (+550)
  • Hideki Matsuyama (+1,800)
  • Rory McIlroy (+800)
  • Louis Oosthuizen (+5,500)
  • Justin Rose (+2,500)
  • Charl Schwartzel (+6,600)
  • Justin Thomas (+2,500)
  • Bernd Wiesberger (+15,000)

Related: The Full List of 2017 Masters Odds

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Richie Hunt is a statistician whose clients include PGA Tour players, their caddies and instructors in order to more accurately assess their games. He is also the author of the recently published e-book, 2017 Pro Golf Synopsis; the Moneyball Approach to the Game of Golf. He can be reached at ProGolfSynopsis@yahoo.com or on Twitter @Richie3Jack. GolfWRX Writer of the Month: March 2014 Purchase 2017 Pro Golf Synopsis E-book for $10

51 Comments

51 Comments

  1. Scott

    Apr 10, 2017 at 9:56 am

    Your list worked out pretty well.

  2. JNZ

    Apr 8, 2017 at 2:44 am

    Apart from DJ for obvious reasons, all your top 10 picks made the cut. Pretty impressive!

  3. Miramar

    Apr 5, 2017 at 8:54 pm

    Jon Rahm, Thomas Pieters, Henryk Stenson, Jordan Spieth, Jason Day, Phil Mickelson, Brooks Koepka, Kevin Kisner, Vijay Singh, Paul Casey

  4. Kurtis

    Apr 5, 2017 at 7:41 pm

    Has there been a noticeable drop in Paul Casey’s ball flight or is this only based on rounds measured? Asking because I saw he was in last years 20 but not this years.

  5. andrew

    Apr 5, 2017 at 4:18 pm

    Hey Richie,

    Do any/which of the guys making their debuts fit the mold of someone who would statistically play well at Augusta? I can’t help but think Hudson Swafford has a nice game for Augusta.

    • Richie Hunt

      Apr 7, 2017 at 2:07 pm

      Rahm, McGirt (very underrated iron player), Pieters and Swafford. Not a ton of data on Noren to really tell for sure.

  6. Progolfer

    Apr 5, 2017 at 4:17 pm

    I normally disagree with Rich’s work (sorry Rich!), but I strongly AGREE with this assessment. Spieth isn’t playing well and has scar tissue from last year, Day’s game isn’t in shape, and let’s face it– Dustin Johnson is going to win.

  7. andrew

    Apr 5, 2017 at 3:31 pm

    I don’t see tommy fleetwood in here

  8. Miramar

    Apr 5, 2017 at 7:36 am

    “Numbers are essentially lying.” — Kierkegaard

  9. That Guy

    Apr 5, 2017 at 5:56 am

    Rich – Rafa averages 296 off the tee in 2017, with previous season averages being 290+. Short hitter? Were you using PGA stats and not Euro Tour stats?

    • Richie Hunt

      Apr 5, 2017 at 10:30 am

      He’s currently 156th in driving distance on the PGA Tour and his current club speed in competition has been measured at 110.81 mph.

  10. Crash Test Dummy

    Apr 5, 2017 at 4:08 am

    Personally, I wouldn’t rule out Spieth, Scott, and Stenson. All those guys are very familiar with the course and have played well there in the past.

    • Richie Hunt

      Apr 5, 2017 at 10:32 am

      I don’t take pleasure in ruling out any of those guys as I’m a fan of each. I feel more comfortable ruling out Stenson and Scott (both are struggling). Spieth I feel less comfortable with, but I can’t ignore the vast history of missing the cut the week before has on the following week’s success. You could argue that Spieth missed the cut because of the flukey weather at Houston…but, it’s the same weather we are likely to get at ANGC on Thursday and Friday.

  11. Steven

    Apr 4, 2017 at 5:33 pm

    The fact that you left Jordan Spieth out of the possible winners invalidates your entire article.

  12. Brad T

    Apr 4, 2017 at 4:09 pm

    sergio cant putt and kaymer cant chip. dont see how augusta suits that.

    • Richie Hunt

      Apr 5, 2017 at 10:35 am

      ANGC is an approach shot course. If you can’t hit it close, you’re way behind the 8-ball no matter how good of a putter you are. Bubba, Cabrera and even Phil have won the Masters when they had terrible years putting. The same goes with chipping.

      Typically, you need to hit at least 50 GIR to win at ANGC. With the wind, that may change this week. But make no mistake, this is an approach shot course.

  13. Jonnythec

    Apr 4, 2017 at 2:27 pm

    Can’t rule out Paul Casey. Guy is a serious dark horse and is playing great this year. He has a great chance and I’m the only one who sees it.

  14. GC

    Apr 4, 2017 at 9:56 am

    Hey Rich, thanks for the great article.

    From what I’m reading the weather suggests winds of over 20 mph on Thursday and over 15 mph on Friday. Both days in the high 40s through low 60s. Neither day with any chance of rain so I don’t imagine there will be delays. So it looks to me as if wind will be a factor for the first two days before it mellows out.

    I know you said above in a different comment that you are not in the habit of predicting weather, which I understand, but if hypothetically the weather DOES play out like that…what changes in terms of players you like and stats you look at? Are you hoping these 20 guys ride the tougher conditions and then charge in more stat-fitting weekend conditions? Do you instead look for complete players? I kind of feel this favors guys like Rickie who can do both? Maybe even some of the Aussies/strong Texas course players?

    Don’t have to go through and re-write the article but if you could reply with what players you like and new statistics you’re looking at with the above hypothetical weather scenario playing out, I’d appreciate it. Thanks again for the article.

    • Richie Hunt

      Apr 5, 2017 at 10:39 am

      You forget about with the wind and ANGC slick greens, they may have to delay rounds because the ball won’t stay on the green when you’re putting.

      Windy weather at ANGC typically shifts the advantage more towards good wedge players and short game (around the green) artists. Those guys are usually shorter off the tee. That’s how Zach won…record low temps and high wind gusts. So many of the bombers couldn’t reach the par-5’s in two and now Zach was at an advantage. And the GIR goes down with the high winds, so now you have to get up-and-down more.

      The difference is that Zach’s win the weather was awful all 4 days. This week it’s supposed to be poor on Thursday and Friday and then nice on the weekend.

  15. Tony P

    Apr 4, 2017 at 1:51 am

    I remember hearing one of the commentators say the Masters favors draw hitters. Think Baba (he fades the ball, but he is a lefty) and Jordan. So i would lower Matsuyama and DJ’s chance a little bit if that is true.

    • Richie Hunt

      Apr 5, 2017 at 10:42 am

      Given Nicklaus won there more than anybody, I don’t think it favors the draw. The draw is nice to have on #10, #13 and #15. But #18 is a more ‘critical’ hole and that clearly favors a fade. And even with 13 and 15, if you hit it high enough and long enough, you can play those holes brilliantly

  16. mixxedbag

    Apr 3, 2017 at 11:43 pm

    Where’s Tanihara?

  17. Sean

    Apr 3, 2017 at 9:21 pm

    Which is why I have always thought that the Masters is the “easiest” of all majors to win. The field is extremely limited.

  18. Andy B

    Apr 3, 2017 at 7:48 pm

    Hi Richie,
    Apologies if I missed him on your list, but…
    Ross Fisher?
    Cheers,
    AB (pommie pro in OZ)

  19. Bigputt18

    Apr 3, 2017 at 6:30 pm

    Great article! I’ll bet you were a very good math student.

  20. Ray Bennett

    Apr 3, 2017 at 6:17 pm

    Rich, where does putting stats factor into your predictions?

    • Richie Hunt

      Apr 4, 2017 at 1:31 am

      When it comes to predicting a winner of a tournament, putting is almost always worthless. It’s too difficult to predict how well somebody will putt from event to event and historical performance by a player means far less than recent performance. So if a player has putted well at a certain course, it has some value,but not as much as playing poorly the week before (i.e. Spieth). Plus, the vast amount of tournaments are won primarily by ballstriking. ANGC is a great example…if you don’t get your approach shots close, you’re cooked.

  21. Lucky

    Apr 3, 2017 at 4:25 pm

    Richie, hope you didn’t bet on your predictions.

  22. golfraven

    Apr 3, 2017 at 3:35 pm

    I am putting the beer on ice but hanging on to my pennies. I beliebe it will be a tight call between Rory and Justin Thomas. I would not rule out the Iceman (Stenson) but that is because I like his chances and he is sharp with his irons.

  23. K dawg

    Apr 3, 2017 at 3:30 pm

    Rich I was pretty sure last year Danny Willet was just outside your 20? Thought I remember you tweeting as such?

  24. CM

    Apr 3, 2017 at 3:06 pm

    Rich, do the strong westerly winds forecast for Thursday and Friday change your predictions in anyway?

    • Richie Hunt

      Apr 3, 2017 at 4:27 pm

      I won’t change my predictions because I can’t predict weather. I will say that when the winds pick up, it does change ANGC. This means shorter hitters have more of a chance, especially if they have good short games around the greens. Think of Zach when he won…record cold temps and very windy. However, this weekend is supposed to be perfect weather with no real wind. Rounds 1 and 2 are usually more important in any event, so I would still say that the shorter hitters have better chances if it’s windy on Thursday and Saturday.

      The problem is you don’t know what the weather could do. It could be so bad on Thursday or Friday that they have to suspend play until the weekend when it’s nice out. So when you think the weather starts to give shorter hitters more of a chance, a delay could throw that out the window.

  25. Geoffrey

    Apr 3, 2017 at 12:33 pm

    Rich, how to you come up with your rating for red zone performance? Is it a mixture of proximity from the fairway and greens in regulation from those distances? Is proximity from the rough included at all? I see Scott Piercy as 61st in proximity from the fairway from 175-200, and 81st in proximity from the fairway from 200-225. That should have him as average to slightly above average.

    • Richie Hunt

      Apr 3, 2017 at 2:49 pm

      RZ performance also considers the rough and the level of difficulty of the courses the golfer has played in. For instance, you may have 2 golfers that are hitting RZ shots to 40-feet. But golfer A may be playing in fields where the avg. proximity to the cup is 30 feet. And golfer B may be playing in fields where the proximity to the cup is 45 feet. So while they have the total year end equal prox 2 cup, golfer B is clearly the better performer from the RZ.

      • Geoffrey

        Apr 3, 2017 at 3:23 pm

        Where do you get that kind of data for the each tourney, or is it something you track yourself with shotlink? I can’t find tournament data on pgatour.com

        • Richie Hunt

          Apr 3, 2017 at 4:22 pm

          I use ShotLink, but I get the data on a weekly basis, myself.

  26. Post Malone

    Apr 3, 2017 at 12:13 pm

    um… Sergio and Rickie hit the ball super low….

    • Richie Hunt

      Apr 3, 2017 at 2:51 pm

      Fowler is 54th out of 209 golfers in Max Height. Sergio is 49th.

      • Post Malone

        Apr 3, 2017 at 3:56 pm

        surprising, but thanks for info. Watched that wgc at mexico and they kept talking about disadvantage they had not be able to go over trees that justin thomas was easily getting over. Maybe just hit lower drivers?

        • Richie Hunt

          Apr 3, 2017 at 4:23 pm

          Years ago I was surprised because I thought Sergio hit it low as well. But, you have to account for how long a golfer hits it and how much club speed. If they hit it long, odds are they are hitting it very high. And some guys really fool you because they may launch it low, but it ends up flying high when you measure the apex height.

  27. robert

    Apr 3, 2017 at 11:20 am

    as the last 15 years or so, we are beting also on this tournament with a group of friends. Jordan was also a rookie when he was T2 in his first start. As we bet on 5 Players with the highest Prizemoney i think Pieters has a good chance of not only making the cut and i expect bim in the Top20.
    Also Casey is always good at the Masters.
    The rest of your prognose is very good and i agree.

    • Robert

      Apr 6, 2017 at 12:43 pm

      A couple of holes to go…
      I like my pick Pieters ????

  28. H

    Apr 3, 2017 at 10:56 am

    RCB a short hitter!?

    • H

      Apr 3, 2017 at 10:57 am

      Fitzpatrick is pretty short as well

      • mario

        Apr 3, 2017 at 11:08 am

        Exactly… 7 yards shorter than Rafa who at 296y should not blush too much. Great value bet.
        Interesting to see that Martin Kaymer passes all the filters but has a game that really doesn’t suit Augusta. Still a good value bet as well

    • Richie Hunt

      Apr 3, 2017 at 2:52 pm

      RCB is 153rd in driving distance this year and has been measured at 110.81 mph in club speed this year. That’s not very long.

      • jd57

        Apr 4, 2017 at 9:39 am

        Not very long.*

        *Relative to PGA Tour long hitters.

  29. Holden Wisener

    Apr 3, 2017 at 9:45 am

    Blasphemy, Jordan will win

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Mizuno’s Chief Engineer Chris Voshall speaks on how Brooks Koepka was the one that almost got away, and why Mizuno irons are still secretly the most popular on Tour. Also, a couple of Tiger/Rory nuggets that may surprise a few people. It’s an hour geek-out with one of the true gems in the club biz. Enjoy!

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Opinion & Analysis

Hear It, Feel It, Believe It: A Better Bunker Method

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The following is an excerpt from Mike Dowd‘s upcoming novel, “Coming Home.” 

After picking the last of the balls on the driving range, Tyler cornered Mack as he hit a few shots from the old practice bunker to wind down at the end of the day. Mack was hitting one after another, alternating between the three flags on the practice green and tossing them up about as softly as if he was actually lobbing them each up there underhanded.

Tyler just stood there, mesmerized at first by the mindless ease with which Mack executed the shot. Bunker shots, Tyler silently lamented, were likely the biggest hole in his game, and so after Mack had holed his third ball in a couple of dozen, Tyler finally decided he had to ask him a question.

“What are you thinking about on that shot, Mack?” Tyler interrupted him suddenly.

Mack hit one more that just lipped out of the closest hole, paused a few seconds, and then looked up at his protégé in what Tyler could only interpret as a look of confusion.

“What am I thinking about?” he finally replied. “I don’t know, Tyler… I’d hate to think how I’d be hittin’ ‘em if I actually started thinking.”

Tyler gave Mack a slightly exasperated look and put his hands on his hips as he shook his head. “You know what I mean. Your technique. I guess I should have said what exactly are you doing there from a mechanics standpoint? How do you get it to just land so softly and roll out without checking?”

Mack seemed to be genuinely considering Tyler’s more elaborately articulated question, and after a moment began, more slowly this time, as if he was simplifying his response for the benefit of a slightly thick-headed young student who wasn’t getting his point.

“You can’t think about technique, Tyler… at least not while you’re playing,” Mack replied. “There’s no quicker path back to your father’s garage than to start thinking while you’re swinging, especially thinking about technique. That’s my job.”

“Mack,” Tyler insisted, “How am I supposed to learn to hit that shot without understanding the technique? I’ve got to do something different than what I’m doing now. I’m putting too much spin on my shots, and I can’t always tell when it’s going to check and when it’s going to release a little. How do I fix that?”

“Well, not by thinking, certainly,” Mack fired right back as if it was the most ridiculous line of inquiry he’d ever heard. “A good bunker shot can be heard, Tyler, and felt, but you can’t do either of those if you’re focused on your technique. You feel it inside of you before you even think about actually hitting it. Watch, and listen.”

With that Mack swung down at the sand and made a thump sound as his club went through the soft upper layer of sand and bounced on the firmer sand below.

“You hear that?” Mack asked. “That’s what a good bunker shot sounds like. If you can hear it, then you can feel it. If you can feel it, then you can make it, but you can’t make that sound until you hear it first. Your body takes care o’ the rest. You don’t have to actually tell it what to do.”

Tyler still looked puzzled, but, knowing Mack as he did, this was the kind of explanation he knew he should have expected. Coach Pohl would have gone into an eight-part dissertation on grip, stance, club path, release points, weight transfer, and so forth, and Tyler suddenly realized how much he’d come to adopt his college coach’s way of thinking in the past four years. Mack though? He just said you’ve got to hear it.

“Get in here,” Mack said suddenly, gesturing to the bunker and offering the wedge to Tyler. “Now close your eyes.”

“What?!” Tyler almost protested.

“Just do it, will ya’?” Mack insisted.

“Okay, okay,” Tyler replied, humoring his coach.

“Can you hear it?” Mack asked.

“Hear what?” Tyler answered. “All I hear is you.”

“Hear that sound, that thump.” It was Mack’s turn to be exasperated now. “It was only moments ago when I made it for you. Can’t you still hear it?”

“Oh, remember it you mean,” Tyler said. “Okay, I know what you mean now. I remember it.”

“No, you obviously don’t know what I mean,” Mack replied. “I wanted to know if you can hear it, in your mind, hear the actual sound. Not remember that I’d made it. There’s a big difference.”

Tyler suddenly did feel kind of dumb. He wasn’t picking up what Mack was getting at, at least not exactly how he wanted him to get it, and so he sat there with his eyes closed and gripped the club like he was going to hit a shot, waggled it a bit as if he was getting ready, and then opened his eyes again.

“Okay,” he said suddenly. “I think I can hear it now.”

“Don’t open your eyes,” Mack almost hissed. “Now make it, make that sound. Make that thump.”

Tyler swung down sharply and buried the head of the wedge into the sand where it almost stopped before exiting.

“That’s not a thump,” Mack said shaking his head. “That’s a thud. You can’t even get the ball out with that pitiful effort. Give me that!”

He took the wedge back from Tyler and said, “Now watch and listen.”

Mack made a handful of swings at the sand, each one resulting in a soft thump as the club bottomed out and then deposited a handful of sand out of the bunker. Tyler watched each time as the head of the club came up sharply, went down again, hit the sand, and came back up abruptly in a slightly abbreviated elliptical arc. Each time Tyler listened to the sound, embedding it as he studied how the club entered and exited the sand. Mack stopped suddenly and handed the club back to Tyler.

“Now you make that sound,” he said, “and as you do remember how it feels in your hands, your forearms, your chest, and most importantly in your head.”

“What?” Tyler asked, looking back up at Mack, confused at his last comment.

“Just do it,” Mack said. “Hear it, feel it, then do it, but don’t do it before you can hear it and feel it. Now close your eyes.”

Tyler did as he was told, closing his eyes and then settling his feet in as he tried to picture in his mind what Mack had been doing. At first, he just stood there waggling the club until he could see the image in his mind of Mack hitting the sand repeatedly, and then he could hear the soft thump as the club hit the sand. He started to swing but was interrupted by Mack’s voice.

“Can you feel it?” Mack said. “Don’t go until you can feel it.”

“Well, at first I could see the image in my mind of you hitting that shot over and over again,” Tyler said, opening his eyes and looking at Mack, “and then I could hear it. It sort of followed right in behind it.”

“Ah, the image is a good starting point, but you can’t just see it and hear it, you need to feel it,” Mack replied, pointing to his head. “Feel it in here, and then you can feel it here,” he continued, putting his hands together like he was gripping a club. “Now close your eyes again.”

“Okay,” Tyler said, not sure he was getting it, but finally bought in. He settled in again and began waggling the club until he could see Mack swinging and hear the subtle thump of the sand. He let it just loop in his mind, over and over again, until suddenly he could feel it like he was the one doing it, and then he swung.

Thump came the sound as the flange of his wedge hit the sand. It was his swing, but it was different, maybe not to the naked eye, but in the speed, the level of tension, and the release. He opened his eyes again, almost tentatively, and looked at Mack with a combination of curiosity and amazement.

“I felt it that time,” Tyler said in a voice that seemed to resonate within from somewhere in the past. It almost sounded like Jackie’s in its exuberance.

“Yes… good,” Mack replied patiently. “Now close your eyes and do it again, but make sure you can feel it before you pull the trigger.”

Tyler settled in again, waited until, like the last time, he could see it, hear it, and then finally feel it… Thump… Something was slightly different this time, though, and Tyler opened his eyes to notice Mack kneeling down next to him. He had quietly deposited a ball into the place where Tyler had swung. Tyler looked up in the direction of the green and the target flag he had been aiming toward just in time to see a ball slow to a gentle stop about four inches from the flag.

“How’d you do that?” Tyler said, almost in wonder now.

“I didn’t,” Mack replied. “You did. You just had to stop thinking. See it, hear it, and feel it. Once you feel it, you can believe it. Anything more is more than we need. Any questions?”

As Mack turned to walk up out of the bunker, Tyler just stood there shaking his head a moment, looking at the spot in the sand, and then back up at the green as if to confirm the ball he’d seen roll to stop was still there. “I guess I’ve still got a lot to learn.”

“Well… yes and no,” Mack said cryptically as he turned back to look at him. “You pretty much know how to hit all the shots, Tyler. You’ve hit every one of them at one time or another. You’ve just got to learn how to empty your head of all those instructions so you can focus on finding the shot you need when you need it. It’s in there somewhere.”

“It’s hard to explain,” Tyler said, “but a lot of times I walk up and think I somehow just instinctively know what shot to hit without even thinking about it. I just kind of see it and feel it. It’s when I start to analyze things a bit more closely, factoring in all the things I know are important to consider like the wind, keeping away from the short side, where I want to putt from, and the best trajectory or shot shape for the situation, that I often start to second guess that feeling.”

“Ever heard the saying paralysis from analysis?” Mack asked. “It pretty much describes those moments.”

“Yeah, I get it,” Tyler replied, “but all that information is important. You have to consider everything and not just make a rash decision.”

“Sure, information is important, but you can’t get lost in it,” Mack countered. “Whether it’s golf, or just about anything else in life, Tyler, you need to learn to trust your gut. You’ve hit hundreds of thousands of shots in your life, Tyler. All those shots leave a mark. They leave an indelible little mark that gets filed away in your brain subconsciously, getting stacked one on top of the other. And after years of playing the game, those stacks and stacks of shots create an instinctive reaction to each situation. It’s like gravity. It pulls you in a certain direction so much that most of the time you almost know what club you should hit before you even know the yardage. Trust that, Tyler. Go with it, and know that first instinct comes from experience. There’s more wisdom in those gut reactions than just about anything else.”

“Thank you,” Tyler said after considering it a moment. “I think that’ll really help.”

“You’re welcome,” Mack replied. “Now rake that bunker for me and clean the balls off the green. I want to get things closed up before dark.”

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Opinion & Analysis

5 things we learned on Saturday at the 2018 U.S. Open

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Whoops, we did it again. While not as dramatic as the 7th hole concern of 2004, the Saturday of 2018 seemed eerily familiar. The commentators were divided on the question of whether the USGA was pleased with the playing conditions. The suggestion was, the grass in the rough was higher than necessary, and the cuts of the fairway and greens were just a bit too close of a shave. No matter, everyone finished and the band played on. The hashtag #KeepShinnyWeird didn’t trend, but Saturday the 16th was certainly not ordinary. Five weird things we learned, on the way.

5) Phil’s breaking point

It wasn’t violent. No outburst or hysteria. We’d seen Phil leap in triumph at Augusta. Now we’ve seen the Mickelson jog, albeit under most different circumstances. Near as we can determine, for a moment Phil forgot that he was playing a U.S. Open. After belting a downhill, sliding bogey putt well past the mark, the left-handed one discerned that the orb would not come to rest for quite some time: a lower tier beckoned. As if dancing a Tarantella, Phil sprang toward the ball and gave it a spank while still it moved. Just like that, his quadruple-bogey 8 become a 10, thanks to the 2 strokes for striking a moving ball penalty. In true warrior fashion, Mickelson accepted the penalty without questions, intimating that it saved him another stroke or two in the end. Yeesh. Phil, we feel you.

4) DJ’s front-nine free fall

Just as unlikely as Phil’s whack-and-walk was Dustin Johnson’s front nine of 41. The cool gunslinger of Thursday-Friday faced the same turmoil as the other 66 golfers remaining, and the outward nine did not go according to his plan. DJ got past the opening hole with par, after making bogey there on Friday. Number two was another story. Double bogey on the long par three was followed by 4 bogeys in 5 holes, beginning with the 4th. The irony once again was, Johnson struggled on holes that the field did not necessarily find difficult. Hole No. 2 was the 10th-ranked hole for difficulty on day 3, while 4 and 7 were 13th and 11th-ranked, respectively. Hole No. 6 and 8 did fall in the more difficult half, but not by much. At day’s end, however, the tall drink of water remained in contention for his second U.S. Open title.

3) The firm of Berger and Finau

Each likely anticipated no more than a top-15 placing after 3 days, despite posting the two low rounds of the day, 4-under 66. Those efforts brought them from +7 to +3 for the tournament, but Johnson and the other leaders had yet to tee off. Every indication was lower and deeper; then the winds picked up, blustery like the 100 acre wood of Winnie The Pooh. Both golfers posted 6 birdies against 2 bogeys, to play themselves into the cauldron of contention. Berger has one top-10 finish in major events, while Finau has 2. None of those three came in a U.S. Open, so a win tomorrow by either golfer would qualify as an absolute shock.

2) Recent winners fared well

In addition to Johnson, the 2016 champion, Justin Rose (2013) and Brooks Koepka (2017) found themselves near or in the lead for most of the afternoon. Since Shinnecock Hills offers much of what characterizes links golf, it should come as no surprise that 2016 British Open champion Henrik Stenson is also within a handful of strokes of the top spot. Rose played the best tee-to-green golf of the leaders on Saturday, but was unable to coax legitimate birdie efforts from his putter. Koepka was the most impressive putter of the day, making up to 60-feet bombs and consistently holing the clutch par saves. On another note, given his victories at Chambers Bay (2015 U.S. Open) and Royal Birkdale (2017 British Open), the missed cut by Jordan Spieth was the week’s biggest surprise.

1) The wind

The most unpredictable of nature’s weapons, the winds of Shinnecock Hills exposed flaws in the course preparation. Areas that would have held off-line putts, were dried out enough to escort those efforts off the shortest grass, into the runoff compartments. The zephyrs pushed tee balls and approach shots just far enough astray to bring all the danger zones into the recipe. Prediction for tomorrow is, any golfer within 5 shots of the lead has a chance at the title. A Miller-esque round of 63 would bring anyone into contention, if the wind continues to blow. No event appreciates drama more than the U.S. Open, and Sunday at Shinnecock promises plenty of it.

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