15th Club Roundtable: Picking a Masters Champion

April 10, 2019
Ben Wackett

What pieces of information can best predict who will win this week at Augusta National? To answer that question, 15th Club presents our first roundtable discussion – Head of Golf Intelligence Jake Nichols, Quantitative Analyst Dylan Beirne, and Head of Content Justin Ray discuss the factors they are weighing when it comes to making picks this week at The Masters.

JR: I have to start with one of the most telling numbers, to me, since strokes gained data has become available: the players to lead the field in strokes gained approach since 2015 have been Jordan Spieth (2015, won), Danny Willett (2016, won), Justin Rose (2017, lost playoff), and Spieth again (2018, third place). Do you both think that iron play is the most determining factor in who wins at Augusta National?

Jake: That stat is very compelling. Some context, across all Tours events the median finishing position for #1 ranked SG Approach player is 6th. So assuming your crystal ball gives you the SG Approach leader you could do a lot worse than blindly picking that name.

Finish Position for #1 ranked in each SG category

Strokes Gained Area     Median Finish Position Tour    Median Finish Position Masters
SG Approach 6th 1.5th
SG Putting 8th 10th
SG Driving 13th 8th
SG Around Green 18th 22nd


Digging deeper, we can look at why Augusta National favors ball-striking so strongly:

1) You hit many of the same short to mid-iron shots hole after hole. This is not a course where you’re pulling 52 degree or 56 degree wedges on that many shots. Likewise – unlike in San Antonio this past week –  the par 5s are generally reachable, often without fairway woods. You’ll have PW to 3 Iron in your hands on almost every par 3 or 2nd shot.

2) Everyone who watches the Masters knows good shots are rewarded by funneling to the hole, poor shots are punished. Many of the pin positions here take good shots which normally would go to 15 feet and make them great shots. We all know the famous Sunday pins at 7th, 16th, and 18th holes. At the same time, the short grass surrounds and sloped greens mean a shot that would just miss the green and hang up in the rough at most courses can easily roll 10 yards off the putting surface for a tricky up-and-down.

DB: No question, approach play has been key for winners then. Not only that, but pre-event it’s been a key indicator coming into the Masters, too. On average, the last 10 winners were gaining +0.62 strokes per round on approach in the year they won, with only Garcia and Schwartzel gaining less than 0.55 strokes per round. However, given the current conditions at Augusta and the level of rainfall they’ve got already, soft fairways are undoubtedly going to be a factor.

The last time I recall significant rainfall in the days leading into the Masters was 2014, which of course was won by the one of the longest hitters around in Bubba. You would suspect that the key requirement may shift this week slightly more towards longer drives and/or longer approaches, but that remains to be seen.

JR: It’s impossible  to ignore the hottest player in the world – Rory McIlroy. He’s 12th on Tour this season in strokes gained approach after finishing 56th in that statistic last year. Over the last four years, Rory leads all players in strokes gained tee-to-green per round at Augusta National. What has kept Rory from completing the career grand slam here – and can that change this week?

Jake: I wrote before 2015 Masters about how McIlroy had been snake-bitten on the par 5s so far in his Masters career. To that point, he’d scored 4.76 on average vs 4.70 by the field – an unbelievably poor stat for the best par 5 player of his generation. Since, he’s scored 4.38 on average (-40 under in 16 rounds) on the par 5s and has run off another 4 top 10s in a row. Clearly there’s nothing holding him back from winning this event except getting the right breaks to win.

It seems McIlroy has come around to a similar way of thinking heading into this year’s event. He realizes he has the ability to play this course very well and is content to play another 10-20 tournaments and take his chances. McIlroy ranks 2nd in our predictive Performance Index rankings going into the event and 1st in terms of performance just in 2019. It’s an understatement to say that I like his chances.

DB: Unquestionably, approach play has been a key factor in success or failure at Augusta, but the key deciding factor between top 10 finishes and winners has been putting. The winners over the past 4 years have on average gained almost 7 strokes over the event on the greens, with Garcia the lowest at +3.3 SG putting. Rory, however, hasn’t got to that figure in any of his recorded events here, with last year being closest at +3.25.

It won’t come as a surprise to anyone that that has been the area holding him back the past few years, but is this year different? He enters this years event gaining 0.32 strokes per round on the greens in 2019, his highest since 2016 (+0.39). He’s gained strokes in 5 of 6 events so far this year, with 2 of them being 2.5 strokes or more. We can generally rely on his long game showing up and being excellent, so it’s unlikely he’ll need a red hot putter to get over the line. I suspect if he gets somewhere near that +3.3 mark of Sergio on the greens then he’ll be very very difficult to catch.

JN: The real question is what do we think of Jordan Spieth this week? He has fallen from 3rd to 45th in our Performance Index rankings since last year’s Masters – sandwiched between Zach Johnson and Aaron Wise. And yet, he has some of the best course history in the field and has ranked 1st in SG Approach and 2nd in SG Putting since 2015 at Augusta National.

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Where would you rank Spieth’s chances to win this week?

JR: Jordan has had, by strokes gained, the most successful first twenty career rounds ever at The Masters. But I have to separate the player he was the previous five years entering this event to the player he is now. Jordan has shown glimpses of his old self recently – he was ninth in the field on Thursday in San Antonio in strokes gained tee to green – but he’s 172nd this season in that statistic for a reason.

Spieth doesn’t have a top-ten worldwide since The Open, and hasn’t finished in the top-25 in a stroke play event yet in 2019. Still, I have seen his odds at 16-to-1, the same as Justin Thomas, and better than Francesco Molinari (20-to-1). That alone is a testament to how well Jordan has played here historically.

DB: Course history is generally quite a divisive topic, particularly between people who tend to side with stats rather than opinions. No matter what way we look at it at it from a statistical point of view, course history seems to have at most a 10% effect on a players future performance at the course. With that in mind, I’m going to have to side against Spieth this week. The remarkable improvement in his performance that we saw at Augusta over previous years would be unlikely to last over time in any case, but as you rightly say Justin, right now he’s not in the same place he previously was coming into the Masters. However having said that, he’s still ranking top 50 in the performance charts, and given his memories here a strong performance is more than possible, but for me a win feels slightly out of reach for him right now.

JR: Who is a player you are bullish on who hasn’t garnered much attention leading into this week? For me, it’s Hideki Matsuyama.

He’s 2nd on the PGA Tour this season in strokes gained approach and 3rd in strokes gained tee to green. Over the last four years, only McIlroy, Casey and Rose have had better strokes gained tee to green per round at Augusta National. He’s finished in the top-20 each of the previous four years at The Masters. I think he’s a great value at 35-to-1.

Jake: It would be fantastic theatre to watch such a poor putter try to convert 5-footers for par in the last three holes.

We have Justin Thomas ranked along with McIlroy and Rose as the 2nd-4th best in the world heading into the week. Both of those other players have loads of success at this tournament, while JT has three pedestrian made cuts. That goes a long way towards explaining the lack of chatter around his name, but he’s ticks a lot of boxes that I look at with elite power off the tee, fantastic approach play, and no clear weakness on or around the greens. And on his 4th start – and after rubbing shoulders with Spieth, Tiger, Couples, and other Augusta savants in practice rounds – his course knowledge could be dialed in this year.

I know Dylan likes him, but who else are you looking at?

DB: I’m definitely a big JT fan this week, but looking slightly deeper into the field the name that popped up for me (and not many other people it seems) is Xander Schauffele. And elite ball striker, ranking top 30 in both SG Off the Tee and Approach so far this year, and throw in the fact he’s a solid putter I can’t for the life of me see why he’s 40/1. He’s got all the tools, and a history of performing well and winning and top class, smaller field events. I suspect the reason he hasn’t been tipped up by tipsters is a) they can’t spell his name or b) they can’t say it, who knows?

Jake: Schauffele certainly fits the bill. He’s gone close in three of his seven majors (plus another close finish at the Players) AND he’s been the 4th best player in the world to start 2019 as well, just trailing Rory, DJ, and JT.

sbtf-2019

Speaking of DJ, I feel like we need to at least mention his name. Oddsmakers have him decidedly 2nd favorite behind Rory, but our Performance Index and other quantitative models have him clearly the best player in the world. Head to head, I think I take DJ, but maybe Rory’s ceiling right now is so high the market is right to think DJ is second best. Then again, DJ finished 2nd SG Tee to Green and 1st SG Putting in a tournament less than two months ago!

JR: One other thing on Schauffele – anecdotally speaking, nobody is going to confuse Maui for Georgia, but Xander’s win earlier this year at The Plantation Course featured a large number of approach shots from uneven lies. Maybe some positive mental imagery he can take with him on the contoured fairways of Augusta National.

For fun, I’m going to toss out a stat that means absolutely nothing, but will get the people going. The average World Ranking of the last seven Masters winners is 12.2. World number 12 this week… is Tiger Woods! Seriously, though, do you see Tiger as a legitimate contender this week? He sits at 6th on the PGA Tour right now in strokes gained total, 9th tee to green, and 16th in approach.

Jake: Of course he can win, but for the majority of casual golf fans though it’s a matter of perspective in terms of how likely he is to win. During his heyday, he would enter major championship with a 1 in 4 chance of winning as the clearly best player in the world. If you see him as somewhere between 5th and 10th best in the world now – like I do – that’s still really good, but he’s an order of magnitude less likely to win than a decade ago.

Tiger’s last win here was in 2005. What’s the biggest difference between Tiger of 2019 and Tiger of 2005? He’s getting much less of an advantage with his power off the tee. He ranked 2nd in driving distance on Tour in 2005 versus 32nd and 44th in 2018 and 2019. This is a different course when you’re not 20 yards past everyone like Tiger was in 1997.

DB: I like that stat JR! And that’s probably a good place to start my Tiger analysis. It’s worth pointing out initially that Tiger’s World Ranking is still being held down by his number of events played, as it stands he’s comfortably performing at a top 10 level in terms of rankings, in line with Jake’s assessment. That’s a factor in his favour, and among the other positives for him are his performance in the last 2 majors (2, T6), and the fact that his approach play has been elite this year. Obviously nobody can question his ability to win around here, so for all of those reasons, I can see a clear justification for having him at the top end of the market.

As Jake mentioned, Tigers distance edge has long disappeared in 2019, and his win at a rain soaked Augusta in 2005 won’t be repeated in the same manner this time around. Soft fairways look likely again, so he will likely find himself 20yds behind his counterparts on more than one occasion this week, meaning his approach play will need to be exceptional to make that up. We’d all love to see it, and he’s justified in being one of the top 5 in betting markets, but he’s not my pick for this week.

JR: Time for picks. How about a sleeper, and your winner.

Jake: I love Tony Finau as the “Guy Who Never Wins,” who does win. As for the winner, Dustin Johnson. He’s (probably) the best in the world with none of the Grand Slam baggage or Masters back nine demons to slay.

DB: I’m going to take JT as the winner, Schauffele as a bit of a sleeper, and Corey Conners as a deep deep sleeper.

JR: Matsuyama is my sleeper. I’ve got Rory to win.