The 2020 Masters Preview from 15th Club

November 10, 2020
Justin Ray

In recent years, there are few numbers in golf more correlated with success at a specific tournament than strokes gained approach and The Masters.

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Tiger Woods led the field in strokes gained approach in his 2019 victory, but the trend goes beyond that. Strokes gained data exists for the last five years at Augusta National. During that span, players to lead the tournament in strokes gained approach have finished first, first, second, third and first.

Approach play is almost always a significant factor in the equation of success in professional golf: since 2010, 27 percent of PGA Tour winners (in ShotLink-measured events) have ranked either first, second or third for the week in strokes gained approach. But there is a distinctive difference between it’s impact at Augusta and your rank-and-file pro event. The average SG approach rank of winners since 2015 at ANGC is a full three spots better than the PGA Tour average during that time span.

While we have heard for generations about Augusta National being a ‘second shot golf course,’ the new age data has truly started to bear that out empirically.

KNOW THE NATIONAL

– In 2019, the field recorded the lowest scoring average in Masters history, 71.87. Eleven players finished the Tournament double-digits under par, smashing the previous record of six. Docile winds and softer greens played a role, sure, but there’s a prevailing fear that the modern player is overpowering golf’s Sistine Chapel.

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Each of the last three years, the field at Augusta has averaged a higher green in regulation percentage than the one before (2019 yielded a rate of 64.5%, the highest in 18 years). Scrambling percentage has improved each of the last three years, too – up to nearly 56% one year ago. Will a rainy forecast provide ample scoring opportunities again this year?

– Amazingly, one power-related statistic from seemingly eons ago stands today. The single-week record for average driving distance at The Masters still belongs to Tiger Woods, who in 1997 averaged 323.1 yards off the tee. Tony Finau’s average of 316.3 one year ago now ranks second. It’s a testament to the course changes ANGC underwent that followed Woods’ asteroid-crashing-level arrival. Bryson and his 130+ MPH club head speed may have something to say about that record, though, this week.

– Over the last ten years, Masters champions have played the 14th hole in 3.65 strokes – 0.45 strokes lower than the field average during that span. That is by far the biggest differential in that span between winner performance and the field. The next three holes on that list are the 3rd (-0.39), 15th (-0.32) and 1st (-0.29).

– Interesting Tiger note looking back at 2019: Woods won despite making bogey on the fifth hole in all four rounds of the Tournament. It’s the only time in the last quarter-century that a player made bogey on one of the holes at Augusta all four days and won the Tournament.

KEY PLAYERS IN THE FIELD

– It’s Masters week, so everyone in the top-ten of the World Ranking should get some love in the preview. Without further ado:

  1. Dustin Johnson

Rolling off six consecutive top-six finishes, this week feels a little like 2017, when DJ came into the Masters having won three straight starts. Then, the stairs happened. Johnson is ranked second to Jordan Spieth the previous five years in score to par and strokes gained total per round at The Masters. DJ has finished in the top-ten in each of his last four Masters appearances, and 15th Club has him as – far and away – the pre-tournament favorite when it comes to win probability.

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  1. Jon Rahm

There are 97 different players with 12 or more rounds at The Masters since 2010. Of that group, Rahm ranks first in par four scoring, first in par five scoring… and 62nd in par three scoring. Rahm leads all players in strokes gained off the tee since making his Masters debut, at 1.39 per round.

  1. Justin Thomas

Thomas is arguably the most consistent iron player in the world since the beginning of last season, averaging 0.94 strokes gained approach per round. Only Russell Henley (who is not in this week’s field) has a higher average in that span. Thomas led the field in strokes gained tee-to-green at last year’s Masters, and has improved his finish here each of the last three years.

  1. Collin Morikawa

It’s not often that a top-five-ranked player and reigning PGA Champion is making his Masters debut, but hey, 2020. Morikawa has been understandably sluggish since his breakthrough major win, with three missed cuts and one top-ten finish in seven starts.

  1. Rory McIlroy

This will be Rory’s sixth Masters start when needing just this leg to complete the career grand slam. Each of the five men to win it needed three or fewer starts in the final event to finish the job. Maybe playing one of the rounds off split tees will help McIlroy: over the last five years, Rory is 4-under on the first nine at Augusta National (rank: T-16). He’s 24-under on the second nine, best of anyone in that span. Request 7-100

  1. Bryson DeChambeau

How DeChambeau attacks Augusta National will obviously be fascinating, but if he wants to win this week, he will need to putt better than he has previously. There are 58 players with eight or more Masters rounds over the last three years. Of that group, DeChambeau is ranked 58th – dead last – in strokes gained putting per round. Bryson ranked 18th in the field in strokes gained putting in his U.S. Open win earlier this year.

  1. Webb Simpson

All he does is contend: since late May, Simpson has finished outside the top-20 twice in eleven starts. He finished tied for fifth here last year, his best career Masters finish. In eight career Masters starts, Webb’s scoring average in rounds one and two is 73.8 – it’s three strokes better on the weekend (70.8).

  1. Xander Schauffele

Dustin Johnson (2.02) is the only player to average more strokes gained total per round since the season restart in May than Xander (1.86). Since the beginning of 2017, Schauffele has been one of the most consistently good performers in the major championships, ranking fourth in scoring, fourth in rounds in the 60s and sixth in birdies/eagles per round. He ranked fourth in the field in strokes gained approach at last year’s Masters.

  1. Tyrrell Hatton

He’s never had a round in the 60s at The Masters, but past performance doesn’t always speak to future outcomes. Keep that in mind when looking at Hatton’s striking 2020 CV: a pair of wins on tough courses (Bay Hill, Wentworth), a top-five ranking in strokes gained approach since the beginning of last season, and is 13th in strokes gained total since the PGA Tour season restart in May.

  1. Patrick Cantlay

Cantlay shot 64-68 on the weekend at last year’s Masters, the best closing 36-hole score of any player in the field. The last time he played, he won the Zozo Championship, ranking third in the field for the week in strokes gained tee-to-green and tenth in putting. Cantlay also flashed some form on the greens last year at Augusta National, ranking fifth in the field in strokes gained putting in 2019.

DON’T SLEEP ON…

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Brooks Koepka: The number is still staggering: since the beginning of the 2016 season, Koepka is a combined 73-under-par in the majors. The only player within 60 strokes of Brooks in that span is DJ (-14, a mere 59 shots off the cumulative pace). Last week in Houston, Koepka put together his strongest strokes gained putting week in more than a year.

Bubba Watson: The two-time Masters champion has shown elite approach play of late. Of players with ten or more measured rounds so far in the 2020-21 PGA Tour season, Bubba is ranked second in strokes gained approach. It’s a trend that has continued from last season, when he made a quantum leap forward of 51 spots in that statistic.

Hideki Matsuyama: Only three players have made more birdies/eagles than Hideki at The Masters the last five years (Spieth, Rose, McIlroy). He ranked second in the field Sunday in Houston in strokes gained approach, nearly catching Carlos Ortiz with a closing 63. Matsuyama is ranked fifth in strokes gained approach at The Masters the last five years.

TIGER WOODS STAT OF THE WEEK

Tiger is 44 years old. The only player age 40 or older to successfully defend a major championship title in men’s golf history is Old Tom Morris, who was 41 when he won the 1862 Open Championship. The field had eight players and the course was only 12 holes long.