If we did our math right, these stats-backed sleeper picks should be in the Masters mix

Ian Poulter's ability to scramble makes him a favorite this week.
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The last 10 Masters champions have sent mixed signals.

Mike Weir hit barely over half of the greens in regulation but gave a clinic in scrambling (104 putts) to win in 2003. Vijay Singh hit so many greens in regulation (80 percent), he got away with taking 124 putts in 2000.

So is putting as important as they say? Or is it driving distance? Or neither?

The X factor in deconstructing Augusta National is that the course is a moving target. When Singh won the course wasn't yet 7,000 yards long; when Weir won it was more like 7,300. At least it still looked like a Masters. By the time the club added rough (1999), pine trees (2004), and length (7,445 yards by 2006), it had become U.S. Open Part Deux.

More than anything the new Masters is about busting it off the tee and scrambling around the green. Ignoring for a moment the obvious pre-tournament favorites (Tiger Woods, Phil Mickelson, Steve Stricker), and with a keen eye toward which way the numbers are trending, here are five picks to win the green jacket in 2010.

Padraig Harrington
Best Masters finish: T5 in 2002; T7 '07; T5 '08
Why he's dangerous: His clutch putting
Doing the math: The last three Masters winners have averaged 28.08 putts per round, nearly identical to Harrington's PPR average during the 2008 season, second best on Tour. (He was up to 28.29 in '09, but that's not a good indicator since he was making a swing change.) More important, the Irishman has a knack for holing the big putt, whether for birdie or, more critically, to save par and keep a round going. (OK, so maybe "sleeper" is a stretch, but Paddy's scoring average last year (71.05) was a dismal 130th on Tour.)

Ryan Moore
Best Masters finish: T13 in '05
Why he's dangerous: His driving
Doing the math: Trees and way-back tees make the course longer and tighter than ever, and Moore, whose victory at the Wyndham Championship last year will get him into the Masters for the first time in five years, was eighth in the Tour's total driving stat (driving distance rank plus driving accuracy rank) in 2009, and 12th in '08. That kind of length and accuracy is reminiscent of Trevor Immelman's driving at the 2008 Masters, when he hit 48 of 56 fairways (85%) while averaging 287.5 yards.

Ian Poulter
Best Masters finish: T13 in '07
Why he's dangerous: His scrambling
Doing the math: Sometimes good golf is a function of willing it into existence (see Harrington, above). And few players want it more than Poulter. Ranked fourth in scrambling on the PGA Tour in 2009, the Englishman gets it up and in more than 65% of the time. That's important because at the new, nastier Augusta National, Masters winners are no longer racking up GIRs the way Singh did in 2000 (58 of 72) or Tiger Woods did in '01 (59 of 72). If you want to claim the coat, you'd better be able to get up-and-down like Zach Johnson did in 2007, when he hit only 61 percent of the greens in regulation (44 of 72).

John Merrick
Best Masters finish: T6 in '09 (only Masters start)
Why he's dangerous: He's aggressive
Doing the math: Maybe it shouldn't be a surprise that Merrick makes this list, since his stats suggest a right-handed Phil Mickelson. Merrick averaged 297 yards off the tee last season (29th on Tour), and he averaged one birdie or eagle every five holes. Those numbers are comparable to the way Mickelson won the 2006 Masters, when he averaged 299 yards off the tee and birdied one out of every four holes.

Robert Allenby
Best Masters finish: T22 in '06
Why he's dangerous: His improved putting
Doing the math: The only thing holding back this ball-striking machine has been his putting; his 30 putts per round ranked 173rd on Tour in '09. That's not going to cut it at Augusta, hence his terrible Masters record: nine starts, zero top-20s. But lo and behold the 38-year-old Australian found something during the PGA Tour's '09 off-season, winning the Nedbank Challenge and Australian PGA. He kept it going in his first start of 2010, carding an opening-round 65 at the Sony Open and then proclaiming of his newly pure stroke, "It's the same as I left off last year." Hey, we all thought Vijay Singh wasn't good enough with the wand, too.

 

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