15th Club Previews the 2019 Masters
Rory’s ball-striking prowess and trends to keep an eye on this week
Rarely has a Masters week seemed so teeming with intriguing storylines.
For the first time since the World Rankings began in 1986, no past champion is ranked in the top-ten – yet legends like Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson figure to play a prominent role as the week unfolds.
Rory McIlroy, the only player to finish in the top-ten in each of the last five Masters, makes a fifth attempt at completing the grand slam in Georgia. Justin Rose has done everything he can at Augusta National but win, making more birdies than anyone the last eight years here. And dozens of worthy contenders seek major championship validation for the first time – including last year’s runner-up, Rickie Fowler.
Strokes Gained Analysis at The Masters
There is now four years of complete, shot-by-shot strokes gained data pulled together at Augusta National Golf Club – a large enough sample size to draw a conclusion or two – and maybe help predict who will be fitted for a Green Jacket on Sunday.
One thing that immediately comes into focus when analyzing this data is the importance of strokes gained approach. Three players have gained, on average, a stroke or more per round on approach shots at The Masters the previous four years: Jordan Spieth, Rose and Paul Casey. Those three players are first, second and fourth in cumulative score to par at The Masters during that same time span. The players to lead the field in strokes gained approach the last four years have finished first, first, second and fourth, respectively.
The 2015 Masters is a perfect example of the importance of this statistic. That year, Dustin Johnson led the field in both strokes gained off-the-tee (not surprising) and strokes gained putting (surprising). Despite that, he finished nine shots behind Spieth. Jordan gained more than nine strokes against the field on his approach shots, by far the best for the week, and won the Tournament despite losing strokes to the field off the tee (-0.15 per round).
No player has been better, tee-to-green, over the last four years than Rory McIlroy. Rory has gained 2.23 strokes per round on the field tee-to-green. The next four names on that statistical leaderboard are Rose (1.97), Casey (1.76), Hideki Matsuyama (1.75) and Dustin Johnson (1.73).
Last year, Patrick Reed used a virtuoso performance on and around the greens to claim his first major title. Reed gained an incredible 13 strokes on the field around the green and putting. Rickie Fowler was second in that statistic at 7.3 strokes gained. Reed ranked 18th for the week in strokes gained off the tee and on approach – still well above average (0.84 per round) – but nowhere near some of his closest chasers. Fowler gained 2 full strokes per round on the field in that category.
Speaking of Fowler, he has been the most consistent putter at Augusta National over the previous four years according to the strokes gained metric, gaining 1.64 per round on the greens. Among players with ten or more rounds played since 2015, the rest of that top-five reads: Russell Henley (1.44), Jordan Spieth (1.39), Justin Rose (0.97) and Dustin Johnson (0.96).
There are 70 players with at least eight rounds played at The Masters over the previous four years. Of that group, Rose is the clear-cut leader in strokes gained in the long game (off the tee + approach green), gaining 1.97 strokes per round during that span. Couple that with the fact Rose is 6th during that span in strokes gained putting, and it would be no surprise if he becomes the third different European Masters winner in the last four years.
If Brooks Koepka can improve his performance on and around the greens this week, he’ll undoubtedly be a factor. Koepka has gained 19.9 strokes on the field on tee and approach shots since 2015 at The Masters – but he’s lost 7.9 to the field chipping and putting. That difference of 2.3 strokes per round (he’s played 12 in that span) is the largest of any player.
Inversely, 1987 champion Larry Mize has put on a short game clinic in recent years at Augusta National, gaining more than 13 full shots on the field chipping and putting. That performance has led to a pair of made cuts at The Masters in the previous four years – a remarkable achievement considering Mize has lost 42 strokes to the field on tee and approach shots in that same span.
Among players with ten or more rounds at Augusta National the last four years, Casey has averaged the most strokes gained around the greens, gaining 0.62 per round in that span. Casey is 41 – the only player to win his first career major championship at Augusta after turning 40 was Mark O’Meara in 1998.
Impact Holes for Champions
Since Tiger’s famous triumph in 1997, the 15th, 3rd and 13th holes have been where Masters winners have most outperformed the field. On average, winners have played the two back nine par fives more than half-a-stroke better per round than the field has. Champions have made birdie or better on 13 and 15 about 49 percent of the time in that span.
One other interesting note: if your pick to win makes bogey out of the gate, don’t tear up your betting slip. Masters winners have played the opening hole at Augusta National over par since 1997.
Tracking Trends at The National
Perhaps no course in golf rewards experience quite like The Masters does. Repetitions help with virtually everything at Augusta, from the legendary putting surface nuances, to benefitting from the experience of playing on the most revered stage in the sport. Some helpful numbers from recent years past:
*Only one player in the last eighty years has won in his Masters debut: Fuzzy Zoeller in 1979. The last fifteen Masters champions had made an average of 8.3 starts in their respective Tournament careers.
*That doesn’t mean that success for debutants is impossible: five of the last six years, a player making his Masters debut finished in the top-ten. Notable players making Masters debuts this year include Matt Wallace, Lucas Bjerregaard and Aaron Wise.
*The average World Ranking of the last seven Masters champions is 12.3. All seven of those players were ranked in the top-25 in the world that week. Over the last 20 years, the average World Ranking of the Masters winner is 17.0.
*Jordan Spieth is a combined 39-under-par at The Masters since 2014, 12 strokes better than any other player in that span. Rose (-27), McIlroy (-23), Casey (-19) and Fowler (-14) round out that top-five.
*More on Spieth: among every player in Masters history with at least 20 career rounds, Jordan is the all-time leader in scoring average (70.05) and strokes gained per round (3.26). Tiger Woods is second in each of those statistics.
*Woods has not won this Tournament in 14 years, but since then, has been one of the event’s most consistently great performers. Since 2006, Tiger is tied for first (with Spieth) in score to par at -39, second in scoring average (71.0) and second in strokes gained per round (2.24)
*Tiger does not have time on his side, however. If Woods wins this week, he would be the oldest winner since Jack Nicklaus won the 1986 Masters at age 46. Ben Crenshaw was 43 when he won in 1995 – but a few months younger than Tiger is today.
*Rose has led all players in percentage of greens hit in regulation at The Masters since 2010, at 72.9. Rose is the only player in that span to play 16 or more rounds and hit 70 percent of his greens or more.
*With 1.78 strokes gained per round in his Masters career, Rose is second all-time among players to never win a Green Jacket. Lloyd Mangrum, at 2.16 per round, holds that distinction.
*After playing the first 18 rounds of his Masters career in 12 strokes over par, Dustin Johnson is 17-under in this tournament since 2015. DJ has gained an average of 2.49 strokes on the field per round in that span, fourth-best among players with double-digit rounds played.
*Justin Thomas – who is ranked in the top-five this season in strokes gained approach and strokes gained tee to green – does not have a top-ten finish in any of his previous three Masters appearances. For all the emphasis on past form, however, that isn’t a reason to write JT off this week. The previous three Masters winners – Willett, Garcia and Reed – combined to have just three top-ten finishes in their previous 23 Masters appearances before breaking through with victories.
*Casey has finished 15th or better each of the last four years at August National. In that span, he ranks in the top-six among all players in strokes gained tee-to-green, score to par, birdies made, one-putts and greens in regulation.
*The numbers suggest Phil Mickelson is underrated all-time as a Masters performer. Lefty has 41 career Masters rounds gaining three or more strokes on the field – only Nicklaus, Hogan and Snead have more. Phil also lays claim to the second-best five-year run of strokes gained total at the Masters since 1980: his 66.9 strokes gained total from 2000 through 2004 is second-best in that span, trailing only Woods from 1997 through 2001. Mickelson has 30 rounds in the 60s in his Masters career, second-most all-time. Nicklaus has 39 such rounds.
Wednesday: a 15th Club roundtable discussion on how to select a Masters champion.