With the season's first major upon us, I thought it would be interesting to develop a statistical model to predict the Masters winner. And why not? Netflix predicts movies you might like based on your viewing habits, and online music-streaming station Pandora suggests songs to match your listening habits. Sounds straightforward, right? Unfortunately, ShotLink isn't used at the Masters, so I can't look at Augusta-specific Strokes Gained data to assess how a player will perform there. That means I'm limited to using stats from the PGA Tour season and from past Masters finishes.
Predicting major winners is fun, but it poses challenges. Due to Golf Magazine's press schedule, I wrote this column without access to much 2015 Tour data. So the two main factors I'll use in my analysis are: 1) how players performed in the 2014 season (represented by their total Strokes Gained), and 2) how players performed in up to four of the most recent Masters. The tricky part? Figuring out the proper weight to give each of the two factors. I crunched the numbers for the past 10 Masters and determined that it's a sound strategy to put a 60 percent weight on 2014 Tour performance and a 40 percent weight on performance in previous Masters. (Yes, history tells us that course knowledge and experience matter a lot at Augusta, but there are exceptions to the rule—take Jordan Spieth and Jonas Blixt, first-timers who tied for second last year.) I applied my formula and produced the 10 golfers most likely to win the 2015 Masters (sidebar).
With seven green jackets between them, you may wonder: Where are Tiger and Phil? Woods didn't crack the top 10 because of his poor performance in the 2014 season. Mickelson is just outside the top 10 (No. 12), mainly because his 2014 season wasn't one of his best. Scott, McIlroy and Bubba are no surprises at the top, but…Charl Schwartzel at No. 9? The South African sneaks into the top 10 on the strength of his 2011 Masters win.
Now for a few disclaimers: My two-pronged method does exclude several factors, such as which player is hot heading to Georgia and who's dealing with an injury. I also didn't look very carefully at Masters rookies like Brooks Koepka, who won his first PGA Tour event at the Waste Management Open, nor players who play primarily on the European Tour, like Henrik Stenson. Still, when I went back in time and applied this method to predict past Masters champions, the winner made my top 10 half the time. Not bad, considering that more sophisticated methods would have had a hard time predicting the victories of Mike Weir, Trevor Immelman or Angel Cabrera.
So now that we have our contenders, let's determine which holes will be most important at Augusta. The player who gains the most strokes against the field grabs the green jacket, so it makes sense to identify the holes where the tournament's top five finishers gained the most on the field each year.
At Augusta, the holes topping that list (in order of most gain) are Nos. 7, 18, 13, 12, and 14. Let's focus on the first three. Statistics show that the field plays the par-4 seventh over par, with an average score of 4.2, but the top five finishers play it slightly under par, with an average score of 3.9. Thus, the top finishers gain 0.3 strokes per round on the field, or just over one stroke in the tournament, on average. Since the top finishers average 0.4 strokes under par for four days on No. 7, savvy players could set a target of even par or 1-under-par for the tournament on this hole.
The top finishers gain almost as much on the field on No. 18 (field average of 4.2 vs. the top-five average of 3.9) and No. 13 (4.7 vs. 4.4). Players could target even par or 1-under for four days at No. 18 and 2- or 3-under for four days at No. 13. Colin Swatton, Jason Day's coach and caddie, likes using the performance of past winners to set target scores for Day on each hole of each tournament. It's no surprise that most of the key holes at Augusta come on the back nine, but now we know how important they are. With this knowledge, Sunday afternoon at this year's Masters should be more exciting than ever.
PLAYERS MOST LIKELY TO WIN THE MASTERS
(Based on Strokes Gained and previous Masters performances)
1 Adam Scott
2 Rory McIlroy
3 Bubba Watson
4 Matt Kuchar
5 Sergio Garcia
6 Jim Furyk
7 Jason Day
8 Justin Rose
9 Charl Schwartzel
10 Jordan Spieth
Got a stats question for Mark Broadie, best-selling author of Every Shot Counts? Ask him via Twitter: @MarkBroadie