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Opinion & Analysis

The 23 golfers who can win the Masters

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As the world’s most popular golf tournament plays this week, I wanted to give a rundown of the Masters from a statistical perspective.

First, I want to discuss what I call the “Critical Holes” in a golf tournament. These are holes that based on tournament history are where the top finishers have gained the most strokes versus the field. For Augusta, they are Nos. 7, 12, 15, 17 and 18. So as you are tracking the tournament, I would key in on these particular holes as they have the largest influence on a golfer’s success at Augusta.

The neat thing about the Masters is it is a limited field, and we can immediately eliminate about one fifth of the field as not having a realistic chance of winning the tournament. I would put these as most of the past champions and the amateurs.

  • Ben Crenshaw
  • Bernhard Langer
  • Craig Stadler
  • Fred Couples
  • Ian Woosnam
  • Jose Maria Olazabal
  • Larry Mize
  • Mark O’Meara
  • Mike Weir
  • Sandy Lyle
  • Tom Watson
  • Alan Dunbar
  • Michael Weaver
  • Steven Fox
  • T. J. Vogel
  • Tianlang Guan
  • Nathan Smith

I would also eliminate the following:

  1. Players who are first-time invitees
  2. Players whose first Tour win came this year

Since 1935, only one winner has won The Masters in his first appearance; Fuzzy Zoeller in 1979. So I would shy away from picking these players:

  • Branden Grace
  • David Lynn
  • George Coetzee
  • Jamie Donaldson
  • John Huh
  • John Peterson
  • Nicolas Colsaerts
  • Russell Henley
  • Scott Piercy
  • Ted Potter Jr.
  • Thaworn Wiratchant
  • Thorbjørn Olesen
  • Kevin Streelman
  • John Merrick
No. 12 green at Augusta National

No. 12 at Augusta National, a par 3 that is one of Hunt’s “Critical Holes” for a Masters Champion.

I would also eliminate players who missed the cut at the Valero Open this past week:

  • David Toms
  • Gonzalo Fdez-Castano

I will also filter out the European Tour players that I do not have substantial data on:

  • Thomas Bjorn
  • Paul Lawrie
  • Richard Sterne
  • Francesco Molinari

Now, we start to get to the nitty-gritty of Augusta. Over the past 10 years, Augusta has heavily favored long hitters who hit the ball well from what I call “The Danger Zone.”

The Danger Zone is approach shots from 175- to 225 yards. This is the biggest key because without quality Danger Zone play at the Masters, the golfer will not be successful.

While Augusta National is known for its greens, the make percentage on putts is fairly high from inside 15 feet; likely due to the excellent putting surfaces. The real difficulty on the greens at Augusta is from longer than 20 feet away.

Between the undulations and the super-fast green speed, it becomes a task to not 3-putt on long putts at Augusta. The big reason why long hitters do so well at Augusta now is that the course plays like a par 68 for them, and that allows them to get away with putting worse. So, if a player is not long, they had been bring their putting and Danger Zone play with them. If a player is long, they can get away with lesser putting.

First, I will eliminate the players that I think are too short to play well at Augusta National:

  • Tim Clark
  • Brian Gay
  • Jim Furyk
  • Matteo Manassero
  • Ben Curtis
  • Kevin Na
  • Hiroyuki Fujita
  • Zach Johnson

I will also take out the players that have struggled from the Danger Zone this year.

  • Martin Kaymer
  • Ryan Moore
  • Ian Poulter
  • Steve Stricker
  • Hunter Mahan
  • Jason Dufner
  • Ryo Ishikawa
  • Fredrik Jacobson
  • Trevor Immelman
  • Jason Day

Also, Augusta National does not take too kindly to low ball hitters.

Graeme McDowell's only major championship win came at the 2010 U.S. Open at Pebble Beach, where hit low ball flight helped him control the ball in the wind.

Graeme McDowell’s only major championship win came at the 2010 U.S. Open at Pebble Beach, where his low ball flight helped him control the ball in the wind.

  • John Senden
  • Carl Pettersson
  • Graeme McDowell
  • Stewart Cink
  • D.A. Points

These players simply have not done much this season to warrant a pick:

  • Robert Garrigus
  • Lucas Glover
  • Retief Goosen
  • Peter Hanson
  • Padraig Harrington
  • Vijay Singh
  • Michael Thompson
  • Bo Van Pelt
  • Ernie Els
  • Webb Simpson

That brings us down to 23 players:

  • Keegan Bradley
  • Angel Cabrera
  • K.J. Choi
  • Luke Donald
  • Rickie Fowler
  • Sergio Garcia
  • Bill Haas
  • Dustin Johnson
  • Matt Kuchar
  • Martin Laird
  • Marc Leishman
  • Rory McIlroy
  • Phil Mickelson
  • Louis Oosthuizen
  • Justin Rose
  • Charl Schwartzel
  • Adam Scott
  • Brandt Snedeker
  • Henrik Stenson
  • Nick Watney
  • Bubba Watson
  • Lee Westwood
  • Tiger Woods

I don’t pick players that are better than 10/1 odds, so that means Tiger (7/2) and Rory McIlroy (8/1) are out. But, let’s take a look at Tiger’s key metrics so far this year:

  • Driving Effectiveness: 108th
  • Birdie Zone (75-125 yards): 41st
  • Safe Zone (125-175 yards): 46th
  • Danger Zone (175-225 yards): 43rd
  • Short Game (1-20 yards): 20th
  • Strokes Gained Putting: 1st

While Tiger has been extremely successful this year, his effectiveness of the tee should be a concern. Furthermore, he’s been much more conservative off the tee by leaving his driver in the bag more often than he was last year.

The reason for Tiger’s success this year is due to his putting. Not only is he making a lot of putts, but he’s No. 1 in putts made from 15- to 25 feet. Typically, putts made from more than 15 feet on Tour is a ‘volatile’ metric. Meaning, a player can rank well in putts made from longer than 15 feet one month and then rankly poorly the next month.

With Tiger’s conservative nature off the tee, he’s giving up a lot of yards to the elite players on Tour. But, between his strong iron play and incredible long putting, he is able to find the green and make putts.

Tiger Woods puts the Green Jacket on 2003 Masters winner Mike Weir.

His game reminds me a bit of Mike Weir’s game in 2003 when Weir was a mediocre driver of the ball, but a top-5 player from 125-200 yards and a top-5 putter in the world. However, Weir needed soft conditions to help him win a Green Jacket. While Tiger hits the ball much longer than Weir did in 2003, I just tend to think that he’s leaving too much to risk if he goes conservative off the tee. I can understand making Tiger a favorite, but I think he’s more realistically a 9/1 odds or so to win.

And with that, here are my top-10 picks (Rory and Tiger excluded):

Phil Mickelson (10/1)
Justin Rose (20/1)
Dustin Johnson (25/1)
Lee Westwood (25/1)
Louis Oosthuizen (25/1)
Keegan Bradley (28/1)
Rickie Fowler (45/1)
Henrik Stenson (50/1)
Nick Watney (50/1)
Bill Haas (75/1)

Now it’s time to sit back and enjoy the show.

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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

32 Comments

32 Comments

  1. gus Terranova

    Apr 15, 2013 at 6:26 pm

    Fowler will never win a major.

  2. harry

    Apr 15, 2013 at 8:15 am

    I’m impressed, 8 of the top 10 in your 23. Well played, and another 4 in the next 13. Please do this more often!

  3. Rimrock

    Apr 11, 2013 at 9:35 am

    Great post. However, too many times I have seen Mickelson fade in the last round especially his putting. Also, he is older and physically I don’t know if he is up to 72 holes especially if it gets hot. Justin Rose would be my pick.

    Glad to see you didn’t put Tiger in there.

    As we all know, anyone can breakout and play over their heads but with the pressure of “The Masters”, the weather and the media (not to exclude playing golf itself) for me it is anyones guess and all the stats go into a cocked hat.

  4. Chad

    Apr 10, 2013 at 11:41 pm

    Very good post. But how did Luke Donald escape your “too short to play well at Augusta” list?

    • Richie Hunt

      Apr 11, 2013 at 8:34 am

      The too short list is more about clubhead speed than actual distance. Luke is not long off the tee due to having a downward attack angle with the driver. But, he generates 110-111 mph of clubhead speed. Not super fast, but fast enough where he can contend.

      He is probably the most similar player to 2003 Mike Weir. Last year he struggled with his switch to new irons. But, if he can regain his iron play form from 2011, he has a shot with his putting and how forgiving the fairways and rough are at ANGC.

  5. Brad

    Apr 10, 2013 at 8:37 pm

    John Merrick has played twice in The Masters. He missed the cut in 2010, but he had a t-6 (-8)in 2009.

    • Richie Hunt

      Apr 11, 2013 at 8:36 am

      Merrick is in that part of the list (along with Streelman) because I grouped players who fit one of the following criteria:

      1. First time invitee

      or

      2. Won their first Tour even this year.

      Both Merrick and Streelman are #2. I understand…it wasn’t really worded clearly.

  6. Josh

    Apr 10, 2013 at 7:41 am

    Paddy Harrington has 2 top 10s in his last 2 starts worldwide. How can you claim he hasn’t done enough this year to qualify when Cabrera doesnt have a top 15 all yr

    • Richie Hunt

      Apr 10, 2013 at 9:54 am

      I didn’t put Cabrera in my top-10 either. But with Harrington his metrics haven’t been very strong in some key areas. I will say that I like where his game is headed from a statistical standpoint. Much better than it was a couple of years ago.

  7. Brad

    Apr 10, 2013 at 12:00 am

    Great column Rich. Well done. You don’t think Hanson is playing well enough? He ticks a lot of key boxes this week (Driving Distance, scoring average, scrambling, par 5 performance).

    You also selected Shrek. Is this based on his danger zone play? The rest of his stats or just okay, he’s not that long, and his form is in question no?

    Lastly, no room for Adam Scott and Charl in your top 10? Great stats and distance numbers.

    • Richie Hunt

      Apr 10, 2013 at 9:52 am

      Stenson is in my top-10. He’s played fantastic this year from a ballstriking perspective and hits it a mile. Westwood’s main strength is from what I call the Safe Zone (shots from 125-175 yards). He’s usually pretty good from the Danger Zone as well and a very good driver.

      Last year he struggled from the Danger Zone for a while and then eventually improved from there. But, it cost him big events, particularly the US Open.

      This year he seems to be on track except for the putter.

      I like Schwartzel’s game from a statistical perspective a lot. But this year he just hasn’t gotten it going. And he ranked 66th out of 120 players from the Valero Open in my Driving Effectiveness ranking. I just think he’s not playing all that great for him at this moment.

      I really considered both Schwartzel and Scott. But with Scott he is another guy that hasn’t logged in a lot of rounds this year so there’s insufficient data. That’s not always a problem if the rest of the group hasn’t shown me much.

      But, Rickie Fowler’s metrics are quite strong this year. Dustin Johnson has struggled from the Danger Zone, but I think that was the entire winning the 1st tournament of the year and dating Paulina Gretzky. I think he’s getting back close to form and the course fits him pretty well. In particular, he’s putting quite well this year which is a scary thought with his game.

  8. Alec Hilliard

    Apr 9, 2013 at 10:45 pm

    Id like sneds in the top 10, but thats just me, and im assuming that tiger and rory are in that top 10. (12) with them included

    • Richie Hunt

      Apr 11, 2013 at 8:40 am

      I liked Snedeker’s chances a few week ago, obviously. He’s a great putter and hits the ball high, which plays into Augusta. The problem for him is that he’s always been suspect from the Danger Zone and off the tee and that’s why I think he hasn’t won a major yet despite having the opportunity. We saw this at the Ryder Cup, particularly in the Furyk/Snedeker vs. Rory/McDowell 1st match. They tied it up and Sneds was teeing off #18 and put it into the woods. Somehow, Furyk got the blame for the loss.

      Anyway, he hasn’t played well since the rib injury and the courses he has played well at have fit his style (sans Torrey Pines, which he always plays well at for whatever reason).

      And yes, Tiger and Rory are included for a ‘top-12’, but the return on betting on them is too small for my tastes.

  9. Troy Vayanos

    Apr 9, 2013 at 5:28 pm

    Great post Rich,

    Yes I had my top 5 in that list as well. Tiger is the number one choice for me but I see dangers in Phil Mickelson, Matt Kuchar, Justin Rose and Louis Oosthuizen. I expect all of them to be thereabouts come Sunday.

    I have this feeling Matt Kuchar is going to be in the top 3 again this year!

  10. Socorr4

    Apr 9, 2013 at 5:03 pm

    Nerves aree fundamental for success at majors unless you’re lucky enough to slide in the back door. The big hitters have an advantage of putting for eagles on on par 5’s, but it’s rare to get the ball close enough for a realistic chance to pick up a stroke on the field on these four holes. The par 3’s are equal for all, so what the winner must do is hit consistently to within 20 feet on the par 4’s. Almost everyone will be using 7 irons or less to the majority of their second shots on these holes. Long hitters have an advantage because they’ll use shorter clubs to aim for the pin, but they sometimes lack the skills required to save par on any missed greens.

    As is almost always the case, it all comes down to putting, and whoever has the best reads throughout four days should win. You cast Tiger and Rory aside for a frivolous reason and at some risk. The next best putter on your list of 23 is Snedeker, and it’s not clear why you left him off the short list. Of those on the short list, I like Bradley unless the demons get to him, and especially DJ if he can keep his putting game under control.

    • Steven

      Apr 9, 2013 at 5:13 pm

      Snedeker has missed his last two cuts. He hasn’t been the same since his injury.

  11. Brad P.

    Apr 9, 2013 at 3:50 pm

    Good analysis. Who is actually going to win though? Kuchar. And he’s not in your “Top 10”

    • Richie Hunt

      Apr 9, 2013 at 4:31 pm

      Kuchar was in my top-10 last year and came in 2nd. This year it’s hard to tell because he hasn’t logged many rounds and when he has, he’s been rather unspectacular. That doesn’t mean he can’t win because as players like Kuchar become more success, they log in less rounds. However, I’d rather pick players who have more data from this year and have performed well at key spots.

  12. Gary Lewis

    Apr 9, 2013 at 1:01 pm

    I like your picks. I am hoping someone like Westwood will break through and win a major but always want Phil to win another one. If Tiger can drive the ball well enough he should have a good chance, but that has been a big problem for him of late. Should be very interesting, as it always is.

  13. Steve

    Apr 9, 2013 at 12:50 pm

    Hmm, certainly a lot of thought put into this. Having said that, the majors are a completely different animal from regular tour events and personally I feel need to be analyzed differently.

    Removing Zach Johnson from the mix due to his short length is a bit silly really, given that he’s a past champion, but that’s already been mentioned.

    Also, while I agree that players competing in the Masters for the first time are at a disadvantage, I wouldn’t throw David Lynn under the bus quite so quickly as you did. Second place finish to Rory at last years PGA with flashes of form recently whisper to me that he could be up there. While of course I doubt he can win it, he is long odds and, in my eyes, a perfect E/W.

    In summary, I like your top ten, however I would replace DJ with Zach Johnson. Stenson is another one who I’d be a bit wobbly about, but he does seem to like Augusta National.

    • Richie Hunt

      Apr 9, 2013 at 1:01 pm

      First, Zach has not played well this year. But ANGC simply no longer allows short but accurate hitters to truly contend unless something happens with the weather. Look at the top-10 finishers over the past 3 years. Essentially, the shortest hitters in the bunch have been either KJ Choi, Poulter or Matt Kuchar who are about average to slightly below average in length. They were also great Danger Zone players in those years. And none of them won.

      Dustin Johnson concerns me because he has struggled from the Danger Zone this year. But he has been a top-10 player from that Distance throughout his entire career. I chalk it up to the ‘Paulina Gretzky flu’, but I think he’ll regain his old form (and he’s been playing better recently).

  14. Rob

    Apr 9, 2013 at 12:44 pm

    Nice catch Ed! I agree with your comments about Tiger and his driving. That will be his downfall in the Masters and the other majors this year. I see another 0-4 record in 2013.

  15. Pingback: Happy Masters Week – Day #2 – Apps and Articles | The Rogers

  16. john

    Apr 9, 2013 at 12:20 pm

    You could have made it even easier and eliminated all but the one who is going to win it…Tiger, Tiger Woods yall!

  17. Ed

    Apr 9, 2013 at 12:19 pm

    Craig Stadler did not win in his first appearance, but his 6th. Fuzzy Zoeller is the only modern player to win in his first appearance.

    • Richie Hunt

      Apr 9, 2013 at 12:55 pm

      Thanks for pointing that out as I got the two mixed up on a bad error on my part. With that said, it still proves the point that first time invitees do not fare well in winning the Green Jacket as Zoeller won back in ’79.

  18. chris

    Apr 9, 2013 at 12:06 pm

    Nice job Rich. I would say you are spot on with the winner being…..Phil of course 🙂

  19. Jason

    Apr 9, 2013 at 12:02 pm

    I don’t like how he cut out players that are “too short” to win the masters including Zach Johnson. Zach proved you don’t have to be long to win. He didn’t go for a single par 5 in two the year he won.

    • Richie Hunt

      Apr 9, 2013 at 12:53 pm

      Zach won when there was record cold temperatures at Augusta. That made the par-5’s less reachable for the long hitters and they had to use more wedges into those greens so the advantage shifted back towards Zach. The weather is supposed to be nice this week in Augusta outside of some late showers on Friday, so this does not bode well for short hitters.

  20. Billy

    Apr 9, 2013 at 11:43 am

    Sorry missed Rickie in your top ten!

  21. Billy

    Apr 9, 2013 at 11:43 am

    Interesting analysis. I like your top-ten, but I would opt for Rickie over Westwood. While Rickie may have a few more loose shots in his bag, I’ll pick Rickie’s putting over Westwood’s everyday. If Westwood can putt this week he’ll have a good chance, but he’s liable to have terrible putting.

    • Nik

      Apr 10, 2013 at 1:51 pm

      Rickie’s not that good of a putter. He putted well at Bay Hill but it kind of an anomaly.

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Opinion & Analysis

The Wedge Guy: What makes a golf course ‘tough?’

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I found this past weekend’s golf to be some of the most entertaining and thought-provoking of the season. While the men of the PGA Tour found a challenging and tough Muirfield Village, the women of the LPGA were getting a taste of a true championship-caliber layout at Olympic Club, the sight of many historic U.S. Opens.

In both cases, the best players in the world found themselves up against courses that fought back against their extraordinary skills and talents. Though neither course appeared to present fairways that were ridiculously narrow, nor greens that were ultra-fast and diabolical, scoring was nowhere near the norms we’ve grown accustomed to seeing on the professional tours.

So, that begs the question – what is it exactly that makes a course tough for these elite players? And is that any different from those things that make a course tough for the rest of us?

From my observation, the big difference for both the ladies and the men was the simple fact that Muirfield Village and Olympic shared the same traits – deep rough alongside each fairway, deep bunkers, and heavy rough around the greens. In other words — unlike most of the venues these pros face each week, those two tracks put up severe penalties for their not-so-good shots — and their awful ones.

Setting aside the unfortunate turn of events for John Rahm – who appeared to be playing a different game for the first three days – only 18 of the best male players in the game managed to finish under par at Muirfield Village. That course offered up measurable penalties for missed fairways and greens, as it was nearly impossible to earn a GIR from the rough, and those magical short games were compromised a lot – Colin Morikawa even whiffed a short chip shot because the gnarly lie forced him to try to get “cute” with his first attempt. If you didn’t see it, he laid a sand wedge wide open and slid it completely under the ball — it didn’t move at all!

On the ladies’ side, these elite players were also challenged at the highest level, with errant drives often totally preventing a shot that had a chance of holding the green — or even reaching it. And the greenside rough and deep bunkers of Olympic Club somewhat neutralized their highly refined greenside scoring skills.

So, the take-away from both tournaments is the same, the way I see it.

If a course is set up to more severely penalize the poor drives and approaches — of which there are many by these players — and to make their magical short game skills more human-like, you will see these elite players struggle more like the rest of us.

So, I suggest all of you think about your last few rounds and see what makes your course(s) play tough. Does it penalize your not-so-good drives by making a GIR almost impossible, or is it too challenging around the greens for your scoring skills? Maybe the greens are so fast and diabolical that you don’t get as much out of your putting as you think you should? Or something else entirely?

My bet is that a thoughtful reflection on your last few rounds will guide you to what you should be working on as you come into the peak of the 2021 golf season.

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Club Junkie

Club Junkie: My 3-wood search, Mizuno ST-Z driver, and Srixon divide golf ball review

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I am on the search for a 3-wood this year and talk a little about my top 3 that I have been hitting. Hit on the pros and cons of each option and what might be in the bag next week. The Mizuno ST-Z was on the course and a really good driver for players who want forgiveness but don’t need any draw bias. The Srixon Q-Star Tour Divide is a cool 2-tone ball that makes short game practice more interesting.

 

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Golf's Perfect Imperfections

Golf’s Perfect Imperfections: How to turn technical thinking into task-based think in your golf game

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The mind can only be in one place at a time at 40 bits of information per second. To build a golf swing this way would be like an ant building New York City this way: a most impossible task. When you are task-based you are using the human self-preserving system, that works at 40 million bits per second, choose wisely.

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