Can a Masters Rookie Win?
It’s become almost cliché to say a Masters rookie cannot win the event. Not since 1979 when American Fuzzy Zoeller won has a rookie worn the green jacket. However, in recent seasons both Jason Day and Jordan Spieth have made runs at winning, ultimately both finishing T2 in their Masters debuts. Of course, Spieth returned last year and finished the job with a record setting four stroke victory.
If stars like Spieth and Day failed to get the job done as rookies, the question must be asked: can a Masters rookie win? Could it happen this year?
Of course, it makes sense that Masters rookies will suffer a penalty of some size. Augusta National is extremely exclusive; it’s unlikely that many Tour players will have the chance to play the course prior to competing in the Masters. With only a few rounds to prepare for such a difficult test, past results show that first-timers play about 0.25 strokes worse per round at the Masters than in their other PGA Tour or European Tour rounds. That’s not an enormous penalty, but it means that rookies have to find a way to make-up a full stroke throughout the week just to reach their normal level; they must raise their game even further to reach the level required to win a major championship.
So there is some penalty for first-timers, but not anything that disqualifies them from contention. What is more important and why first-timers rarely win is that the best golfers in the game rarely make their Masters debuts as elite players.
Consider top amateurs who win the U.S. Amateur or Amateur Championship and receive Masters invites. Major winners like Tiger Woods, Phil Mickelson, and Justin Leonard all played the Masters as amateurs – when they were clearly not fully developed as top players. Multiple tour winners like Matt Kuchar, Ryan Moore, and Sergio Garcia made their first trips here as amateurs, as did next generation studs like Ben An and Matt Fitzpatrick. A large number of future stars appear at Augusta without a realistic shot at winning, taking them out of the pool of future first-time winners. Someone like Bryson DeChambeau probably fits this mold; his odds of winning this week are very long, but if he would make his debut three years from now they would likely be much shorter.
Even if they’re not debuting as amateurs, most future stars are not at their peak when they play the Masters for this first time. In the last twenty years, only a handful of golfers (including Rory McIlroy and Jordan Spieth) entered the Masters ranked inside the top 20 in the world, but even the highest ranked at the time (Webb Simpson at 9th best) had relatively long odds of winning. Win probabilities in majors and other events are highest for the top handful of elite golfers and decline quickly to 2-3% for the next 10-15 best players. No Masters rookie has entered as one of those truly elite golfers; the odds are stacked against a rookie winning even if they don’t naturally struggle in their first trip around the course.
The ideal scenario for a first-time winner is a situation like 2014 when a phenom like Jordan Spieth debuted as a top player with experience at least winning on the PGA Tour and playing in major championships. Unfortunately, phenoms are rare (both McIlroy and Spieth missed out and Tiger and Sergio debuted as amateurs) so we could be waiting a while for the next rookie to win.
That is the test, so how does this year’s crop of rookies look?
Unfortunately this year and last year don’t have the top level talent of a Spieth or McIlroy, but seven golfers rank inside the top 50 on 15th Club’s Performance Index (a rating aimed at measuring a golfer’s true performance adjusted for the field across all worldwide tours). Nine rank in the top 50 in the Official World Ranking. Only three years since 1997 have seen more Masters rookies in the top 50 in Performance Index entering the event. Betting odds like Rafa Cabrera-Bello best of all rookies and give the whole rookie class a 6-7% chance of donning the green jacket.
Outside of winning, there is certainly an opportunity for rookies like Andy Sullivan, Justin Thomas, and Rafa Cabrera Bello to make their mark on this year’s event. In the last twenty years, the average top finish for a Masters rookie in each field has been 10th place and four years have seen a rookie in the top three. The mark these rookies are chasing to avoid the worst top finish by a group of rookies is T30 (achieved by the 2007 group of 18 rookies, with only one top 50 quality golfer).