Golf is unpredictable. Take, for example, the mysterious case of Ted Potter Jr. In February, the journeyman outgunned Dustin Johnson and Jason Day to win the AT&T Pebble Beach Pro-Am. Who'd have predicted that outcome, especially when his tournament results immediately preceding the showdown in Monterey were T73, cut, cut, T13, cut, cut, cut? The victory earned Potter an invite to the Masters, but, with good reason, he isn't a bookies' favorite to win.
Nevertheless, it's fun—and, admittedly, something of a high-wire act—to predict who will don the green jacket this year.
For me, three factors are key: form (the current state of a player's game), fit (the way a player's game pairs up with a specific course) and intangibles. To measure form and fit, predictive analytics models can be used to harness and make sense of deep troves of scoring and ShotLink data. Intangibles are, implicitly, a judgment call, not math—an informed but speculative evaluation of variables not found in the data. Will Tiger return to his old form? Does Bubba's win at Riviera mean he's back? Will current World No. 6 Hideki Matsuyama reverse his recent slide? Who might unexpectedly succumb to the pressure of a major? Who might, like Danny Willett, turn in the tournament of a lifetime? I'll leave the adjustments for intangibles to you.
Data and analytics are my go-to tools, so let's use them to winnow the Masters field.
Form is a prediction of a player's likely score in the week to come, independent of venue and playing conditions. Assessing a pro's form involves, in my mind, three essential measures. The first is long-term past scoring performance—results, say, from the previous couple of years. The second is recent performance—results from the past month or two. The third is the player's documented ability to go low in four rounds, since winning requires an exceptional and sustained performance over an entire tournament.
Assessing performance using "raw" scores is flawed, because a 65 at TPC Scottsdale isn't the same as a 65 at Augusta National. The solution is to use total strokes gained, which is score relative to the field, taking into account conditions and the strength of the field. By this measure, Dustin Johnson is our leader in form, nearly a quarter of a stroke better than second-place Jason Day. DJ tops the list because of his great play last year (four wins; eight top 10s; the No. 1 rank in strokes gained total), his great recent play (as of mid-February, he had one win and two seconds in 2018-season events) and his top-ranked "ability to go low" (he beat the field average at the Sentry Tournament of Champions by nearly 17 strokes).
Wobbly performance in at least one area makes these guys marginal hopes.
Players currently outside the top 30 in my calculations for form have only a fraction of a chance to perform well at Augusta this year, so for the purpose of our horse race the following players can be eliminated from consideration. The "excluded by form" list contains plenty of prominent Tour pros, including a few Masters winners past. Eliminated because of sub-par driving: Patrick Reed. Eliminated because of sub-par approach play: Charl Schwartzel, Kevin Kisner, Ryan Moore and Kyle Stanley. Eliminated because of sub-par recent form: Adam Scott, Charley Hoffman, Louis Oosthuizen, Branden Grace, Kevin Chappell and Jason Dufner (among many others).
TOP FIVE IN FORM
Recent form, long-term form and the ability to go low in four rounds factor big-time at the upcoming Masters.
RANK, AND STROKES BEHIND DJ* (*Through Genesis Open)
1. Dustin Johnson
2. Jason Day: 0.24
3. Jordan Spieth: 0.29
4. Rickie Fowler: 0.38
5. Justin Rose: 0.44
ADJUSTING FOR "FIT”
Although it's significantly less important than form, fit—other-wise known as the "horses for courses" factor—measures how a player's game matches with the demands that a particular course presents. It's critical to look at relative results, not absolute results. For example, Augusta's greens are notoriously slick and undulating, so a premium should be placed on putting skill, right? Not right. Putting is a valuable skill on every course. The real question is, is better putting worth relatively more at Augusta than at a typical PGA Tour course?
Augusta's greens are more difficult to putt than average, but a closer examination yields surprises. Inside of seven feet, players sink more putts at Augusta than elsewhere. Those immaculately conditioned greens are most likely the explanation. Outside of seven feet, the green speed and slope leads to more putts. The conclusion is that precision iron shots, especially from 125 to 225 yards, is the skill on which Augusta places the highest premium. Augusta, more than other courses, is a second-shot course, where power (to hit the ball high and land it softly) and precision are required to knock approach shots closer to the hole, giving the players shorter putts. Fact: The top ten finishers at Augusta last year gained the most strokes with their approach shots.
The next most important skills are driving distance and short-game shots inside 60 yards. Driving accuracy is certainly valued, but less than at other courses because of Augusta's minimal rough. Putting is certainly valued at Augusta, but you don't have to be the best Tour putter to have a great putting week. Last year's winner, Sergio Garcia, ranked 19th in strokes-gained-putting for the week, but 168th for the season. Justin Rose ranked 10th in putting for the week, yet he ranked 123rd for the season.
Augusta National's "fittest," based on Masters-compatible skills as well as past performance at Augusta, fall into five categories: Very Good (players in my top 20-percent of fit), Good (the second 20 percent), Neutral (the middle 20), Poor (the next 20) and Very Poor (the bottom 20).
Jordan Spieth, Justin Rose, Paul Casey, Rory McIlroy
Sergio Garcia, Hideki Matsuyama
Dustin Johnson, Jason Day, Rickie Fowler, Jon Rahm
THE LIKELIEST 2018 MASTERS WINNER IS…
Tiger Woods didn’t have enough competitive rounds to be properly included in this analysis. His recent strokes gained “form” has been excellent and his fit for Augusta is also “very good.” The lack of data means his ranking must rely heavily “intangibles” (e.g., will his excellent putting on relatively flat greens continue on Augusta’s undulating greens?). Putting his numbers into the prediction algorithm (with a Tiger-specific weighting scheme), gives Tiger a rank of 2 (just behind Dustin Johnson). These are based on results through the Dell Match Play.
1. Dustin Johnson: Form Rank: 1, Fit: Neutral
2T. Tiger Woods: Form Rank: n/a, Fit: Very Good
2T. Paul Casey: Form Rank: 4, Fit: Very Good
3. Jason Day: Form Rank: 2, Fit: Neutral
4. Justin Rose: Form Rank, 5, Fit: Very Good
5. Jordan Spieth: Form Rank, 6, Fit: Very Good
6. Justin Thomas: Form Rank: 3, Fit: Neutral
7. Rory McIlroy: Form Rank: 7, Fit: Very Good
8. Rickie Fowler: Form Rank: 8, Fit: Neutral
9. Jon Rahm: Form Rank, 9, Fit: Neutral
10. Sergio Garcia: Form Rank: 10, Fit: Good
WHAT ABOUT DARK HORSES?
I'd define a dark horse as someone who is low (let's say, outside the top 30) in the Official World Golf Rankings but higher up (top 20, say) in my "form and fit" analytics results. I wouldn't put money on these ponies, but qualifiers in this category (and recent Genesis Open close-callers) Phil Mickelson, Patrick Cantlay and Tony Finau can't entirely be considered hopeless longshots.
1. Tony Finau
2. Phil Mickelson
SO, WHO'LL IT BE?
Players with an excellent fit for Augusta have great approach shots, are long off the tee and have a deft touch from the fairway within 60 yards of the hole. While fit is a factor that could move a player up or down in our predictive rankings, form is, as I've said, the most crucial measure of future performance. Putting the two together (and leaving out the intangibles that almost every year play a part in shaping golf's most riveting event) we get our winner. Sunday, April 8th, at about 6 p.m. Eastern, will be…Dustin time.