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Opinion & Analysis

The 23 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 who are most likely to win the green jacket based on criteria that have strongly predicted outcomes at Augusta. I usually get the list down to roughly 20-25 players.

Last year, Dustin Johnson was one of my 21 players who could win the Masters. Dustin was at 9/1 odds. The other top finishers, like Cameron Smith and Sung Jae Im, were filtered out unlike previous years where players that were in contention were typically shortlisted. My theory on that is that due to the tournament being played in November, the course was not playing as firm and as fast as it normally does, and that allowed players who typically do not get through my filter to get into contention.

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.

This year, the projected critical holes are No. 8, 13, 14, and 15.

The 15th hole, Firethorn, should be considered the most pivotal hole on the course as over the last five Masters the top finishers in the event have gained 0.391 strokes per round on the hole.

Moving on to the tournament, I filtered out the amateurs and all first-time professional attendees. The Masters has only been won once by a first-time attendee: Fuzzy Zoeller in 1979 and Gene Sarazen in the inaugural event

  • Joe Long (a)
  • Robert MacIntyre
  • Carlos Ortiz
  • Charles Osborne (a)
  • Tyler Strafaci (a)
  • Will Zalatoris

Despite being first-time invitees, the data likes both Ortiz and Zalatoris as they would have gotten through all of the other filters to be selected as players that could win the Masters.

I also filtered out eight past champions I do not believe can contend at Augusta National anymore

  • Fred Couples
  • Bernhard Langer
  • Sandy Lyle
  • Larry Mize
  • Jose Maria Olazabal
  • Vijay Singh
  • Mike Weir
  • Ian Woosnam

The Zach Johnson debate

Every year I do my Masters picks, it’s always 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 5s, his strength.

This week the forecast is calling for high 70’s to low 80’s with winds topping out at only 10 mph. There are some scattered showers in the forecast that may soften up the greens and give shorter hitters more of a chance to win.

But I believe that it will not be enough to take the advantage away from the longer hitters.

Therefore I filtered out the following players.

  • Abraham Ancer
  • Brian Gay
  • Brian Harman
  • Mackenzie Hughes
  • Zach Johnson
  • Kevin Kisner
  • Matt Kuchar
  • Francesco Molinari
  • Kevin Na
  • C.T. Pan
  • Ian Poulter
  • Patrick Reed
  • Webb Simpson
  • Henrik Stenson
  • Robert Streb
  • Michael Thompson
  • Brendon Todd

A part of the game that is just as critical as distance is the trajectory height a player can create. Last year, I filtered out four players for hitting the ball too low. Out of those four players, the best finish was Patrick Reed at T10. I use a combination of max height, carry distance, and launch angle to determine if the following players hit the ball too low to win at Augusta.

  • Daniel Berger
  • Christian Bezuidenhout
  • Patrick Cantlay
  • Cameron Champ
  • Harris English
  • Matthew Fitzpatrick
  • Lanto Griffin
  • Jim Herman
  • Matt Jones
  • Sebastian Munoz
  • Victor Perez
  • Xander Schauffele
  • Bernd Wiesberger
  • Lee Westwood

Since the inauguration of the event, there have only been two winners of the Masters that have previously never made the cut: Fuzzy Zoeller in 1979 and Gene Sarazen in 1936. Let’s filter them out as well.

  • Max Homa
  • Jason Kokrak
  • Joaquin Niemann
  • Hudson Swafford
  • Matthew Wolff

I will also filter out the players who missed the cut at San Antonio. Historically, players that miss the cut the week prior have a substantially lower likelihood of winning the following week compared to the players that made the cut in the previous week or did not play at all.

  • Tony Finau
  • Phil Mickelson
  • Danny Willett

Lastly, I have filtered out the weak performers from the “Red Zone,” approach shots from 175-225 yards. While Augusta is known for its greens, the winners are determined mostly by the quality of their approach shots throughout the event. In fact, 11 of the last 12 champions have hit at least 49 greens in regulation during the week.

  • Jason Day
  • Tommy Fleetwood
  • Dylan Frittelli
  • Billy Horschel
  • Brooks Koepka
  • Martin Laird
  • Scottie Scheffler
  • Charl Schwartzel
  • Adam Scott
  • Cameron Smith
  • Jimmy Walker
  • Matt Wallace

That leaves the following 23 players who can win the Masters:

  • Paul Casey (45/1)
  • Stewart Cink (450/1)
  • Corey Conners (80/1)
  • Bryson DeChambeau (11/1)
  • Sergio Garcia (50/1)
  • Tyrrell Hatton (45/1)
  • Viktor Hovland (33/1)
  • Sungjae Im (40/1)
  • Dustin Johnson (9/1)
  • Si Woo Kim (125/1)
  • Marc Leishman (110/1)
  • Shane Lowry (110/1)
  • Hideki Matsuyama (45/1)
  • Rory McIlroy (18/1)
  • Collin Morikawa (30/1)
  • Louis Oosthuizen (75/1)
  • Ryan Palmer (150/1)
  • Jon Rahm (12/1)
  • Justin Rose (80/1)
  • Jordan Spieth (11/1)
  • Justin Thomas (12/1)
  • Bubba Watson (55/1)
  • Gary Woodland (150/1)

Here are my personal top-10 picks

  • Paul Casey (45/1)
  • Corey Conners (80/1)
  • Bryson Dechambeau (11/1)
  • Sergio Garcia (50/1)
  • Viktor Hovland (33/1)
  • Dustin Johnson (9/1)
  • Rory McIlroy (18/1)
  • Collin Morikawa (30/1)
  • Jon Rahm (12/1)
  • Jordan Spieth (11/1)
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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, 2018 Pro Golf Synopsis; the Moneyball Approach to the Game of Golf. He can be reached at [email protected] or on Twitter @Richie3Jack. GolfWRX Writer of the Month: March 2014 Purchase 2017 Pro Golf Synopsis E-book for $10

33 Comments

33 Comments

  1. Garrett

    Apr 13, 2021 at 12:13 pm

    Next year Ill just put 20 on each of those 23 players and there’s no way i can lose!!

  2. Joel

    Apr 11, 2021 at 10:04 pm

    Are we ever going to give this guy the credit he deserves? Holy moly. So many years of getting this right. I even told me buddy that this was the year he’d finally be wrong (I thought Schauffle would win) but nope.

    Huge congrats to both Hideki and R3J.

  3. Bruce Gordon

    Apr 7, 2021 at 8:01 pm

    Wrong. Lee Westwood will win this year, JT is 2nd.

  4. kevin

    Apr 7, 2021 at 9:07 am

    jon rahm is due

  5. Gordy

    Apr 7, 2021 at 8:17 am

    I think using trajectory is pretty good idea to filter out golfers. As someone who plays on a course that is very hilly like Augusta National, how high you hit your ball off the drives(especially up hill) really plays a factor. Or even down hill allows you to roll out even further. Clear advantage for folks who hi it higher and carry it further.

  6. Evan

    Apr 6, 2021 at 10:30 am

    Reed not long enough?! He’s longer than plenty of your potential winners.

    • Richie Hunt

      Apr 6, 2021 at 2:00 pm

      He’s lost considerable amount of distance this year. He’s ranked 150th in Adjusted Driving Distance on Measured Drives (where they use driver). He’s also hitting the ball much lower.

      • Evan

        Apr 6, 2021 at 3:10 pm

        Thanks Rich, that’s surprising – wouldn’t of put him down as a shorter hitter. Still, he’s a winner for sure and I think he’s got a chance.

    • Richie Hunt

      Apr 6, 2021 at 4:02 pm

      Reed currently ranks quite low in Adjusted Driving Distance for measured drives. His speed has slowed down considerably this year and he’s hitting the ball much lower.

  7. Phil Underhill

    Apr 6, 2021 at 9:53 am

    What club are you basing trajectory from? – Presumably driver. Which I think is a mistake, plenty of players hit their irons high but choose to play a lower lofted driver (or choose to hit with a negative angle of attack). I certainly don’t think hitting the ball low off of the tee is a disadvantage there

    • Richie Hunt

      Apr 6, 2021 at 2:02 pm

      It is based off the driver using carry distance, launch angle and max height to determine. I can just say that ever since I’ve been doing it I’ve had tremendous luck with it. If the conditions called for rain I would not use it for a filter.

    • Richie Hunt

      Apr 6, 2021 at 4:04 pm

      Here’s a list of the players I’ve filtered out for a low trajectory since I started doing this column in 2013. 50 players in total, 23 (46%) went on to miss the cut. Only 4 (8%) finished in the top-10 and only 1 (Jimenez in 2014) finished in the top-5.

      https://docs.google.com/spreadsheets/d/1GefucgTSKwoBSvTnsqY5KNBgRWAKz21fy5S4w3EHIUA/edit?usp=sharing

  8. freeze

    Apr 6, 2021 at 8:28 am

    Collin Morikawa is 126 in distance, why wasnt he eliminated? CT Pan out drives him and he was. The red zone isnt 175-225, its a 100 and in. Your list is a joke, you didnt even follow your own metrics

  9. Ryan

    Apr 6, 2021 at 5:35 am

    Do you use solely PGA tour data? Would be interesting to see if there is less predictive power for guys who play primarily on a different tour, which means they have less PGA tour rounds in stats. The more I think about this the more it makes sense though. Great stuff.

  10. jgpl001

    Apr 6, 2021 at 3:52 am

    Cink really? More chance of me winning this week, no disrespect to Cink who was a really good player, but he is long past his prime and totally incapable of competing at this level anymore

    • Richie Hunt

      Apr 6, 2021 at 2:13 pm

      Cink was the biggest surprise and him winning would make him the oldest winner in major championship history. However I don’t use age as a filter as players that get thru the filters, regardless of age, have routinely gotten into contention. The reason why older guys like Cink don’t get thru the filter very often is that when they get that age they tend to not hit the ball far enough, high enough or basically just aren’t very good anymore.

  11. Colin

    Apr 6, 2021 at 3:02 am

    Unclear why Molinari “can’t win” given that he led in the final round in 2019 and has improved his driving distance considerably in the past 3 years or so. Poor form aside, does he *really* have less chance than Cink??

    • Christian R

      Apr 6, 2021 at 7:11 am

      I agree.
      Cink can just loop for Frankie. Maybe.

    • Richie Hunt

      Apr 6, 2021 at 2:17 pm

      The problem with looking at the driving distance metrics on the Tour Web site is that they are not adjusted for schedule. Playing a course like Phoenix where the ball travels far is different than playing a course like Pebble Beach where the ball doesn’t travel nearly as far. I base my distance filter on Adjusted Driving Distance which factors in schedule and Molinari is *shorter* this year than he was 3 years ago. 3 year ago I also shortlisted Molinari and had him in my top-10. But this year he didn’t get thru the distance filter.

      I got this complaint a few years ago about Paul Casey who didn’t make it thru the trajectory filter despite playing well. And then he badly missed the cut.

  12. TacklingDummy

    Apr 5, 2021 at 10:26 pm

    Interesting reasons for filtering out. Personally, that wouldn’t be by criteria for filtering players. I would add to the possible win list along with most of the 23 players: Jason Day, Tommy Fleetwood, Billy Horschel, Brooks Koepka, Charl Schwartzel, Adam Scott, Xander Schauffele, Lee Westwood, Matt Kuchar, Francesco Molinari, Kevin Na, Patrick Reed, Webb Simpson, Henrik Stenson

    It is the Masters. There are so many top players that just find another gear at the Masters no matter how they have been playing of late.

    • Richie Hunt

      Apr 5, 2021 at 11:46 pm

      The filters are based on statistics and past trends of the last 25 Masters tournaments. They are not subjective filters, but objective filters. A player that did get filtered may overcome what based on history and trends has typically projected them to do poorly.

  13. DJ

    Apr 5, 2021 at 6:45 pm

    man you have some terrible short game (putting included)players in….si woo, Hideki, Hovland

    • Richie Hunt

      Apr 5, 2021 at 11:44 pm

      The Masters isn’t a putting course. It’s an approach shot play course. The long hitters can afford themselves some shorter shots into the green, but if their iron play is poor they are going to have tough road ahead of them even if they are hitting short approaches into the green. Short Game around the green usually doesn’t come into play, but if you’re not dead last and you strike the ball well you’re not going to have to worry about it. I think the course plays firm with a small breeze and will favor the longer hitters in the end.

    • TWick

      Apr 12, 2021 at 4:42 pm

      This aged poorly.

  14. Vic Hardy

    Apr 5, 2021 at 5:19 pm

    I’m not a golfer but live in Augusta and always watch the Masters, even attended it once.

    This is interesting from a statistician’s perspective. If I look at the world rankings, both Johnson and Rory are I believe in the top 10. Spieth is down in the 60’s but just had his first win in 4 years. Bryson is ripe for a win.

    I’d put my money on Johnson.

  15. paul

    Apr 5, 2021 at 1:01 pm

    Connors hits it so low….how did make it through?

    • Richie Hunt

      Apr 5, 2021 at 1:24 pm

      Connors currently ranks 136th out of 219 players in Apex Height and 121st in Carry Distance. He’s basically at the threshold of trajectory.

  16. Dpd901

    Apr 5, 2021 at 12:37 pm

    Gene Sarazen didn’t win the first Augusta National Invitational, Horton Smith did. Sarazen won the 2nd

    • Jake

      Apr 5, 2021 at 9:31 pm

      Sarazen won the first Masters.

      Prior to that it was Jones’ white man only event.

  17. Chuck

    Apr 5, 2021 at 12:18 pm

    Did you have Danny Willett as a possible in 2016?

    He’s a past champion, a top-100 OWGR player, and has shown at least some form this year (despite a MC last week). Yet you don’t even have him mentioned.

    • Eric

      Apr 5, 2021 at 12:38 pm

      Actually, he included Willett in the “Missed cut at San Antonio” group…

    • Richie Hunt

      Apr 5, 2021 at 1:28 pm

      I had Willett shortlisted in 2016. And Willett was filtered out for MC’ing at San Antonio.

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Much has been written and speculated about this question, both in popular media and by junior golfers and their parents and coaches. However, I wanted to get a more definitive answer.

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