The 2020 Masters Un-Preview

April 7, 2020
Justin Ray

This April will be the first without a Masters Tournament since 1945. Though the more serious matters of the day certainly take precedent, the 15th Club Masters un-preview strives to provide a brief respite for golf fans from the real world. So, grab a sweet tea and join your fellow patrons for a stroll through the Georgia springtime. We’ll be back to analyzing, predicting and debating our favorite sport soon.

TIGER’S WIN, ONE YEAR LATER

An entire year after Tiger Woods finished authoring one of the greatest comebacks in sports history, it still feels a bit surreal. A quick rundown of some notes from that Sunday:

– At 43, Tiger was the oldest Masters champion since Jack Nicklaus won at age 46 in 1986.

Woods became the second player to win The Masters in three different decades, joining Nicklaus.

– He became the second player to win a major twenty years apart (22 to be exact) – joining, again, Nicklaus.

– His 11-year gap between sequential major wins (2008 U.S. Open – 2019 Masters) tied the longest such span in men’s golf history.

– It was the first of his 15 major wins in which he trailed entering the final round.

Yet, like all of the greatest moments in sports history, numbers won’t do what the lasting images can. Tiger gave the sports world a feeling that day that will resonate for decades.

FORGOTTEN THINGS FROM AN UNFORGETTABLE MASTERS

The outcome of last year’s Masters and jubilant celebration that followed was written into cement in our memories. But there were some storylines and numbers along the way that helped shape that Sunday’s final perfect stage.

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Brooks and Bryson: months before the practice-green confrontation and Instagram barbs, Brooks Koepka and Bryson DeChambeau shared the first round lead at the 2019 Masters. Other early contenders included Phil Mickelson, who was just one shot back after day one, and Jason Day, who shared the 36-hole co-lead.

Molinari the Machine: He was a golf robot for most of the week – at one point, he went 49 consecutive holes without a dropped shot, the second longest streak in Masters history. It wasn’t just this particular week at Augusta, though – entering the final round of the 2019 Masters, Francesco Molinari had made just six bogeys or worse in his previous 163 holes in major championships.

Third round scoring bonanza: The field scoring average on Saturday last year was 70.82, the second-lowest single round in the history of the Tournament. Three players – Tony Finau, Webb Simpson and Patrick Cantlay each shot 64 in the same day. There had never been another TOURNAMENT – the entire week – with multiple rounds of 64 or lower in Masters history before then!

Tiger’s iron play: The Masters winner gained more than 8.6 strokes on approach shots during the week, most of any player in the field. It continued a strong trend with that statistic in recent Masters: since 2015, the player to finish first in the field in strokes gained approach at Augusta National has finished first, first, second, third and first.

MAJOR APPRECIATION FOR BROOKS KOEPKA

Our last memories of Brooks Koepka on the golf course before the coronavirus hiatus were unfamiliar ones.

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Clearly still working his way back into form after a knee injury, Brooks had not finished in the top-15 in any of his last five worldwide starts. In the last completed golf tournament before the break, Koepka shot 81 in the third round of the Arnold Palmer Invitational, his worst score on the PGA Tour. Even in the brutally difficult conditions presented that day, a score that high for Koepka was difficult to fathom.

The more vivid recollections of Brooks’ play are different: as the most dominant major championship performer of the last three years.

Over his last dozen major starts, Koepka has more wins (four) than finishes worse than sixth (three). Brooks is a combined 70-under-par in majors since the beginning of 2016, forty-five strokes ahead of his nearest competitor in that span, Jordan Spieth (-25). Only three others – Henrik Stenson (-15), Tiger Woods (-12) and Rickie Fowler (-11) are within sixty shots of Koepka.

Koepka has led or co-led after 13 major championship rounds since the beginning of 2017. That is more than twice as many as anyone else in that span (Spieth and Kevin Kisner, 6 apiece). His 229 birdies/eagles and 31 rounds in the 60s in majors over the last four years also lead all players in that stretch. With his win at last year’s PGA Championship, he became the first player in men’s professional golf history to hold back-to-back major championship titles at the same time.

Brooks tied for second at Augusta National last year – the first leg of a major season where he didn’t finish worse than fourth. It was just the fourth instance of that happening in the modern era (since the first Masters in 1934), as Koepka joined Jack Nicklaus in 1973, Woods in 2005 and Spieth in 2015.

Koepka was second in the field in strokes gained tee-to-green last year at The Masters, trailing only Justin Thomas. This was due to extremely strong numbers off the tee (where he ranked first in strokes gained last year) and in his short game (ranked third).

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And while yes, his putting will need to improve at ANGC in order to win (he lost more than 1.5 strokes on the greens for the week), his iron play will need sharpening there, too. Brooks gained just 0.89 strokes on approach shots at the 2019 Masters – nearly eight fewer than the winner, Woods.

STROKES GAINED AUGUSTA

A year ago, we rolled out the results of a lengthy project that involved calculating the strokes gained total numbers for every round in the history of the Masters Tournament. We wanted to be able to more accurately compare players across eras – for example, a 66 for Gary Player may be more impressive relative to his peers than one shot fifty years later.

The easiest way to explain the value of this statistic is through the career of Ben Hogan. When just using raw scoring averages, Hogan is ranked 30th in Masters history in career scoring (72.38) among players with 20 or more rounds – right between Ian Poulter and Louis Oosthuizen. But when comparing the value of his scores against his peers – using strokes gained total – he’s ranked second all-time (2.52 per round).

Hogan owns the three most dominant five-year stretches in Masters history in terms of strokes gained. In the best run – from 1951 through 1955 – Ben gained 88.27 strokes against the field, meaning on average, he beat his Masters competitors’ average score by nearly four-and-a-half strokes per round during that time.

With the Masters of the 2010s ending in spectacular fashion last April, here’s a look at the strokes gained (per round) leaders by decade in The Masters. The caveat here is that this is among those with 16 or more rounds played:

– 1930s: Gene Sarazen, 2.62

– 1940s: Ben Hogan, 3.23

– 1950s: Ben Hogan, 3.34

– 1960s: Arnold Palmer, 3.12

– 1970s: Jack Nicklaus, 3.21

– 1980s: Seve Ballesteros, 2.59

– 1990s: Jose Maria Olazabal: 2.32

– 2000s: Tiger Woods, 3.04

– 2010s: Jordan Spieth: 2.89

Among players with at least twenty rounds at Augusta National, Spieth is the career leader in strokes gained per round. It’s a testament to the amazing run he put together in the Tournament from 2014 to 2016, when at one point he led the Tournament following seven consecutive rounds – a runner-up in his 2014 debut, a wire-to-wire win in 2015, and a lead into the second nine Sunday in ’16 before mistakes and a surging Danny Willett re-wrote history.

TRENDS AND TIE-INS

– Golf fans love to romanticize the Sunday charge, but truthfully, Augusta National has been a leader’s paradise throughout history. Consider this: there is only one instance in Tournament history of a player being outside the top-ten entering the final round and winning The Masters. That was Art Wall Jr., who in 1959 was tied for 13th place, six shots behind co-leaders Stan Leonard and Arnold Palmer.

– Going even further than that – each of the last thirty Masters winners were inside the top-five through 54 holes. 20 of the last 23 were at or within two shots of the lead entering Sunday.

– Every major championship held since the 2012 Masters – 32 straight – has been won by a player ranked in the world top-50. From 1999 through 2011, more than 20 percent of major winners were ranked 51st or worse entering that week.

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– Just for fun: the average World Ranking of the last 20 Masters winners is 15.9. The average age of the last 20 Masters winners is 31.8. World number 16 Tony Finau, who played with Tiger and Molinari in the final grouping this year, turns 31 in September.

Justin Thomas led all players in strokes gained tee-to-green at the 2019 Masters, gaining 13.14 strokes on the field. With just average putting, he likely would have been a force to be reckoned with that Sunday: he was third-to-last among those to make the cut in strokes gained on the greens (-6.06). He finished tied for 14th, his best at Augusta to date.

– Nobody has putted better at The Masters over the last five years than Rickie Fowler – his 1.61 strokes gained putting per round lead all players in that span. Last year, he ranked 6th for the week in that statistic, and finished tied for 12th in the Tournament.

– What would the prospects had been of Tiger going back-to-back this week? There is only one instance of a player winning major championships (as they are currently defined – Masters, U.S. Open, PGA and The Open) in consecutive years after turning 40 years old. That was Tom Morris Sr., who won The Open in 1861 and 1862 at ages 40 and 41. In 1862, The Open was three rounds, the course was 12 holes, and there were only 18 total players in the field.

TIGER WOODS STAT OF THE WEEK

Tiger has beat the field scoring average in 85% of his career Masters rounds. That is the highest career mark of any player with at least 20 rounds played.