What this weekend can tell us about Augusta National

November 4, 2020
Justin Ray

Before it shifted to the fall, the Houston Open was contested the week before the Masters eleven times from 2007 through 2018. Golf Club of Houston found some identity as a tune-up for the season’s first major, and many years its field perked up a bit thanks to its spot on the schedule.

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Thanks to the unprecedented calendar shifts of 2020, the Houston Open finds itself again as the PGA Tour event immediately preceding The Masters. The host course has changed – from Golf Club of Houston to Memorial Park GC – but how impactful has been previous week performance when picking a Masters winner? The truth is, while it may impact a player’s perception as he heads to Augusta, it hasn’t been very predictive.

– Since 2000, 12 of 20 Masters champions did not play anywhere the week before.

– Of the eight who did play, only five of them made the cut.

– Only one of the last eight Masters winners played the week prior, the last being Jordan Spieth in 2015.

– Only three of the last 25 Masters champions finished in the top-ten the week immediately before their win.

The Houston Open should be a high-quality event this week that stands on its own merits: a renovated host facility, world number one in action and big name players from around the world headed to Texas to compete. But in terms of forecasting next week’s Masters, don’t invest too much into it.

COURSE CHARACTERISTICS

This will be the first year the Houston Open is held at Memorial Park Golf Course since its redesign, spearheaded by Tom Doak and aided by four-time major champion Brooks Koepka. The $34 million renovation should inject new life into the event, bringing the tournament closer to the city center.

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In its first stint, Memorial Park wasn’t without its share of historic winners: Bobby Locke, Cary Middlecoff and Arnold Palmer are among the luminaries who claimed the Houston Open title while this course (or its bones, at least) hosted the event 14 times between 1947 and 1963.

To learn more about Memorial Park, check out this article from Sean Martin of the PGA Tour.

NOTES ON KEY PLAYERS IN THE FIELD

Dustin Johnson is making his first start since testing positive for COVID-19 last month. Before the virus put his season on pause, Johnson was on a remarkable roll: since the PGA Championship began, he leads all players in strokes gained total, scoring average and strokes gained tee-to-green. But perhaps the sharpest aspect of his game during this run hasn’t been his trademark driver – it’s been his approach play.

There are 135 players with a dozen or more ShotLink-measured PGA Tour rounds since the PGA Championship began. Of that group, Johnson has the most strokes gained approach per round, at 1.50. Only four players are averaging even HALF as many strokes gained approach as DJ in that group.

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This seems like an important time to point out this statistic: the players to lead the Masters in strokes gained approach the last five years have finished first, first, second, third and first (Tiger led the field in 2019). A strong performance this week from Johnson will invariably make him an even more popular pick next week at Augusta National.

– The player who ranks second on Tour in strokes gained approach in that span – at 1.20 per round – is Russell Henley, one of the hottest players on Tour. Maybe no player wishes more than Henley that this tournament stayed at Golf Club of Houston: he finished in the top-ten in five of his last six starts in this event.

Since the PGA Championship began, Henley ranks fourth on Tour in strokes gained tee-to-green and sixth in strokes gained total. He’s 50-under-par in three starts since the ’20-21 season began with all 12 rounds being scores of par or better. In case you are wondering, Henley is not in the field for next week’s Masters Tournament.

Koepka may be the player in the field most intricately familiar with Memorial Park GC, but that might not be enough to be bullish about his prospects this week in Texas. Since the beginning of last season, Koepka has ranked in the top-ten in the field in strokes gained tee-to-green only one time. He finished tied for 28th in his last start, the CJ Cup.

–  Denny McCarthy is the best putter on the PGA Tour: since the beginning of last season, he’s averaged 0.98 strokes gained putting per round, by far the best of any player. If his ball-striking keeps improving, he could find himself in the winner’s circle soon.

At last week’s Bermuda Championship, McCarthy ranked fourth in the field in greens in regulation. Two starts before that at Sanderson Farms, he ranked 12th in the field in strokes gained tee-to-green. Both performances led to top-ten finishes.

– Check out the sneaky-great 2020 C.V. of world number ten Tyrrell Hatton: wins at two marquee events on two different continents (the Arnold Palmer Invitational and BMW PGA Championship). He ranked eighth on the PGA Tour in 2019-20 in strokes gained total, a 57-spot leap from the previous season. He’s finished seventh or better in three of his last five starts, and has a scoring average below 68 in his last 12 worldwide rounds. Hatton is in the field this week in Houston.

TIGER WOODS STAT OF THE WEEK

Tiger Woods will defend his Masters title next week at Augusta National. Woods has successfully defended a major title four times, tied with Walter Hagen for most all-time.