Using Data to Simulate the Masters

April 10, 2020
Justin Ray

The sports world has been doing its best to fill the immense void left by a postponed Masters Tournament. While there’s clearly no substitution equivalent to the real thing, 15th Club wanted to run the numbers to see what might have happened if the Tournament was taking place in Georgia this week. Why not, right?

15th Club Quantitative Analyst Dylan Bierne ran our simulations, and succinctly explained the process like this:

  1. We created a scoring distribution for each player on each hole, using the historical scoring on the hole, and how good each player is relative to the quality of players who played it before. Distribution just uses the overall variance in scoring on that hole historically.

  1. Using that for each player-hole, we randomly generated a number from the distribution.

Basically, using a combination of player performance in past Masters and data about their individual skillsets, we simulated many different possible hole-by-hole outcomes for the 2020 Masters, had it been played this week.

But we wanted to take it a step further for golf fans, so we asked them what outcome they wanted to see explained. We picked four of the most interesting finishes the simulations came up with. On Twitter, I presented four choices (you can see them here), and let fans tell us what they wanted to see explained.

The Justin Thomas victory – ‘selection A’ on the poll – would have been complete insanity: in that simulation, JT starts the final round nine shots off the lead of Hideki Matsuyama. But Hideki plays the first five holes of the final round in six-over, opening the floodgates for a litany of contenders. After a disappointing bogey at 11, Thomas makes hole-in-one at 12, the first made there in competition in 32 years. JT posts 6-under for the week (firing a Sunday 66) and has to wait for what seems like an eternity.

One by one, the pressure of Sunday at Augusta eats away at players’ hopes. Brooks Koepka bogeys 17 and 18. Lee Westwood, Chez Reavie and Jon Rahm each bogey 17, too, while seeking their first major championship victory. Xander Schauffele creates a lifelong Masters memory by holing out for eagle on the 72nd hole, but he finishes one back. In the end, Thomas hangs on by one shot, with a staggering seven players finishing tied for second (Westwood, Reavie, Louis Oosthuizen, Tommy Fleetwood, Koepka, Rahm and Schauffele). It would be the most players to tie for second in any major all-time.

But the people have spoken – and that’s not the simulation we’ll be breaking down for you.

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It is April 9, 2020, in an alternate universe where COVID-19 does not exist.

Hideki Matusyama rode the hottest putting performance of his career to victory at TPC Sawgrass, becoming the first player from Japan to win the Tour’s flagship event.

Paul Casey made a valiant effort at a three-peat at the Valspar but finished two back of a resurgent Daniel Berger, who had four straight top-ten finishes entering the event.

Corey Conners battled nasty weather all week in San Antonio to win the Valero Texas Open back-to-back, becoming the first player to win the event in consecutive years since Zach Johnson in 2008 & 2009.

The sports world has turned its attention to Georgia, where Tiger Woods is defending champion in a major for the first time since the 2009 U.S. Open. World number one Rory McIlroy, red-hot Jon Rahm and major machine Brooks Koepka headline oddsmakers’ picks to take the Green Jacket. Perfect temperatures and docile winds set Thursday’s stage at Augusta National Golf Club.

ROUND ONE

For the second year in a row, Bryson DeChambeau has the opening round lead at Augusta National. Bryson hits 16 greens in regulation and plays the second nine in four-under-par to shoot a stellar 65. Two-time Masters champion Bubba Watson joins him at the top – his 65 is four strokes lower than any of his previous opening rounds at Augusta.

An array of big names put themselves in early contention, including Masters first-timers Collin Morikawa (opening with 67) and Sungjae Im (69). Rory bookends his opening round with bogeys but makes four putts outside of ten feet on the second nine and posts 69. Justin Thomas, Jon Rahm and Rickie Fowler are among the group at two-under, while Tiger begins his title defense with 73.

First round leaders:

-7            Bryson DeChambeau

                Bubba Watson

-5            Collin Morikawa

                Sung Kang

-4            Justin Rose

                Tommy Fleetwood

ROUND TWO

A finish of 3-3-3 buoys a wild second round for Bryson, who shoots 69 despite hitting only ten greens in regulation. Bubba struggles throughout his round and fades with a Friday 77. Rory McIlroy moves up the leaderboard with 67 – he birdies both par 3’s on the second nine, nearly holing out on each tee shot.

Sungjae Im quickly becomes a favorite of the patrons, not hiding his elation after a hole out eagle to open his second round. He’ll be in the second-to-last pairing Saturday at the Masters in his Tournament debut. Woods has made the cut but is nine shots behind Bryson after 36 holes.

Second round leaders:

-10          Bryson DeChambeau

-8            Rory McIlroy

-7            Sungjae Im

-6            Cameron Smith

                Sung Kang

-5            Marc Leishman

                Lanto Griffin

ROUND THREE

A birdie at the last gives Bryson a round of 71 and a three-shot lead entering the final round. It will be the first 54-hole lead or co-lead in a major for DeChambeau, who leads the field in strokes gained off the tee through three rounds. 17 of the previous 26 players to lead the Masters by three or more went on to win the Tournament.

Sungjae will be in the final pairing with him, trying to become the first player to win in his Masters debut since Fuzzy Zoeller in 1979. Rory sits four shots back – he led entering the final round in each of his four major victories. Collin Morikawa, the field leader through three rounds in strokes gained approach, will be with Fowler in the third-to-last pairing, six off the lead.

Third round leaders:

-11          Bryson DeChambeau

-8            Sungjae Im

-7            Rory McIlroy

-6            Justin Rose

-5            Collin Morikawa

                Rickie Fowler

FINAL ROUND

According to our simulation, the final round was not short on drama.

Two quick bogeys to begin the final round leave a shell-shocked DeChambeau clinging to his lead. When Rory makes birdie at the sixth hole, that lead is gone. Bryson’s day in a major will likely come, but not today – he’s an afterthought down the stretch, shooting 42 on the second nine.

Rickie and Rose may have been the more likely chasers to begin the day, but it’s Morikawa who surges to the top down the stretch, making birdie at 15 and 16 to take a one-shot lead. Collin is in position to post 9-under for the week but misses a six-foot par putt on the final hole and finishes at 8-under. Now, he waits.

With the grand slam as close as it’s ever been, McIlroy makes a two-putt birdie at the 15th to get to -8. He has birdie chances at 17 and 18 but narrowly misses both putts. He’s also 8-under-par.

Artboard 4

Sungjae hits an incredible approach shot at 15, sticking it inside 5 feet. But after the kick-in eagle to get to -9, he three putts at the 16th. On the 72nd hole, he needs par to join the playoff with McIlroy and Morikawa. The 22-year-old South Korean, who ranks 181st for the season on Tour putting from 15 to 20 feet, drills a 16 footer for par. Three-man playoff.

The playoff begins on the 18th tee, where Morikawa misses left with his drive. Collin cannot recover and is eliminated after the first playoff hole. Rory and Sungjae advance, each making par.

Nine years before this moment, the tenth hole was where it completely unraveled for Rory. A triple bogey at the 10th started a back nine 43, turning a four-shot 54-hole lead into a tie for 15th place. Now, he could finish the grand slam on that same hole, vanquishing those demons forever.

Sungjae doesn’t do him any favors, drilling a drive and putting his approach onto the green. Rory does the same, leaving his about a foot closer than Im. After Sungjae narrowly misses, McIlroy lips in his birdie putt.

“Golf’s greatest group has a new member! Rory completes the grand slam!”

The last man to join golf’s most prestigious club, Tiger Woods, puts the jacket on McIlroy, who claims his first major victory in nearly six years. That previous major – the 2014 PGA – was also the last time a sitting world number one won a major championship.

In about a month, TPC Harding Park will host the PGA, where Brooks Koepka tries to become the first to win any major three straight years since Peter Thomson. The U.S. Open, Open Championship and Olympic Games will follow.

If only it were more than just a simulation.