How Unique is Each Masters?

April 5, 2017
Jake Nichols

As the only major championship that returns to the same course year after year, the Masters provides the golf community with an annual dose of tradition and familiarity.

This familiarity allows fans and pundits the luxury of identifying performance trends among regular competitors from season to season. Similarly, experienced players can apply their knowledge of the course to gain an edge over the less experienced, and – as analysts – we can identify factors that tend to signal success or failure at Augusta National.

The thing is, as familiar as Augusta may seem, the course does change from year to year. Sometimes those changes are the result of deliberate alterations by the membership, like the addition of the second cut in 1999, the gradual lengthening of the course during the 2000s, or the change to bentgrass greens in the early 1980s. Alternatively, relatively dramatic changes can be dictated by the playing conditions and weather. For example, in 2015 we saw a softer course with benign conditions that produced the second easiest-scoring Masters since 2001. Just a year later, wind and cool weather (and possibly conscious effort by the membership to not repeat 2015) saw firm and fast greens which held the winning score to the second lowest (-5) since 1989.

To get an idea of how conditions might influence the outcome at this year’s Masters, first we’ll examine the range of scoring conditions present over the last three decades at the tournament (with a specific focus on each hole since the latest lengthening in 2006). Next, we’ll take a look at which statistical factors have pointed to success or failure each year in the last decade. Finally, we’ll lay-out which players have the advantage this year if Masters conditions are similar to those found in each individual tournament since 2007.

In the last 30 tournaments, the scoring average for the field over four rounds has ranged from a low of 287.6 (1992) to a high of 303.5 (2007). Since the course was lengthened significantly in 2006, scores have only reached 289.1 (2011). In general, the difference between scoring from year to year has averaged 4.7 strokes per event, so there have been some clear differences in what the course demands in individual years.

On a hole to hole level, the holes that vary in difficulty the most are primarily the par 5 15th hole and also numbers 12, 13 and 14. The holes that show the least variance from year to year are the par 4 10th and 17th.

hole-differences-year-year

Taking a closer look at the stats, several numbers point to Masters success fairly consistently over the years. We’ve examined thirteen season-long statistical areas ranging from driving distance and accuracy, to approach play and putting performance from various lengths, to short game play from different types of lies. For each golfer over each Masters we’ve multiplied their performance versus the field with the over or under-performance on each stat throughout that season. So, for 2015, the areas where Jordan Spieth dominated statistically (medium and long putts, iron play, etc.) are weighted strongly as he was very successful at that tournament. Repeating that process for each player for each Masters produces the graph below:

masters-stat-importance-year

There’s obviously a lot of variance year to year both in terms of what points to success as well as random fluctuations regarding who plays well and who doesn’t. What is clear is that distance off the tee is rewarded and short iron/long iron play matters more than wedge play. However, only twice in ten years has accuracy been one of the three most important factors (2011 and 2015). The tough conditions in 2007 and 2008 rewarded short game play highly, but in only one year since then have any of the short game categories been one of the three most important factors for success.

We can also look back year by year to identify which players in 2017 play similarly to those who played well at each tournament. In other words, if the top five in 2007 was Zach Johnson, Tiger, Retief Goosen, Rory Sabbatini, Justin Rose and Jerry Kelly, which players from 2016-17 play similarly to that group?

Here are the five players most suited to succeeding this week if Augusta National plays similarly to how it played to each year from 2007 to 2016:

suitable-masters-by-year

So favor Rory or Dustin Johnson if the conditions from 2015 repeat, but if the tough conditions from 2007 repeat, look for elite guys with strong short games (Spieth, Reed, Dustin Johnson) to prevail.

As a bonus, these are statistically the most similar golfers in this week’s field to last ten green jacket winners:

2007: Kevin Kisner
2008: Jason Dufner
2009: Byeong Hun An
2010: Jimmy Walker
2011: Jhonattan Vegas
2012: Rory McIlroy
2013: Louis Oosthuizen
2014: Justin Thomas
2015: Patrick Reed
2016: Rafa Cabrera Bello

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