Inside the Numbers: The Key Stat to Identifying the Masters Favorite

March 31, 2016

Vegas favors Jason Day, Jordan Spieth and Rory McIlroy to win the Masters, but I say Augusta National best suits someone else.

Big hitters have had an edge at Augusta for decades, thanks in part to a pair of reachable par 5s and lack of penalties for wild tee shots.

In 2015, the 13th and 15th holes played with average second shots of 220 yards and 233 yards — both relatively short for a PGA Tour par-5. Dustin Johnson’s average second shot into the 13th was 178 yards and Rory McIlroy’s was 189 yards. D.J. and Rory also averaged 202 yards into the 15th hole.

Looking at 2015 data, the golfers who hit their approach at 13 from 180-210 yards took 3.14 strokes to hole out (so 4.14 strokes total). Moved back to 210-230 yards (roughly the average length of an approach), the hole-out average was 3.50 strokes — a gap of 0.36 strokes. At other courses, a that gap is typically closer 0.15 strokes. The story for the 15th hole was similar; bigger hitters had doubled their typical advantage from closer second shots.

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Augusta has another bomber-friendly characteristic: forgiveness for missed fairways. More than half of the holes lack fairway bunkers and the second cut measures less than an inch and a half (compared with 2-4 inches at normal venues), so wayward drives hurt scores by about 0.1 strokes per hole less than elsewhere. A small margin, but it can add up over four rounds.

Augusta National’s fast and sloping greens also offers an edge to precision iron players. In the early ‘80s the club switched from bermuda grass (typically used in the South) to bentgrass (typically used in northern climates), which allowed them to speed up the greens and make them a difficult test. Augusta’s greens play tougher than the average PGA Tour greens by over 0.25 strokes per round.

One interesting note: at Augusta, 3-10 foot putts are made at a higher rate than an average PGA Tour stop, perhaps because the greens are so pure. But move outside 10 feet and that advantage disintegrates. The undulations make these greens diabolical. Combine that with the speed of the greens and putts outside of 25 feet get very tricky. The lesson here is simple: golfers that hit it close will make more 6 or 8 footers than normal, while those who leave themselves longer putts will make fewer than ever.

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And so at the Masters, proximity to the hole is a more telling stat than the more commonly cited greens in regulation. Proximity of course reflects how well a golfer hits their irons and wedges. It takes precision to go flag-hunting at Augusta, or hit the spots that feed the ball to the cup. The poster child for this is Jordan Spieth, who ranked 23 places higher on Tour in proximity to the hole than in greens in regulation when he donned the green jacket last year. There’s no path to success here for hitting the middle of the greens and attempting to walk away with par.

Finally, those greens favor a particular type of putter. Players who excel on California’s poa annua or Florida’s bermuda can struggle here – or at least, fail to match their normal putting performance. In fact, the list of top putters at the ’15 Masters in strokes gained versus the field disproportionately favors those with track records on bentgrass — especially faster bentgrass, like Muirfield Village (Memorial Tournament), Conway Farms (BMW Championship), and Firestone (WGC Bridgestone).

Who will win the green jacket when it’s all said and done? A golfer who combines distance off the tee, audacious ball-striking and strong putting on bentgrass greens.

Add it up, and my pick is Rickie Fowler. He has the right best blend of these skills, and is perfectly set up to capture his first major title.

The Pick: Rickie Fowler wins at -13 under par (275)