With the WGC-Cadillac Championship in the books, the season finally feels like it’s getting serious. Adam Scott won the first meeting of the best golfers in the world, holding off Bubba Watson to win his second event in a row. Only four more events remain on the PGA Tour schedule before the Masters. Now is the time to lay the groundwork for a successful run at a green jacket.
So, how important is playing well in March in identifying the eventual Masters winner? Do guys like Jason Day have to worry about their slow starts to the season and will Phil Mickelson and Adam Scott remain buoyed by their strong opening months?
Looking back 12 seasons, the data is mixed. The better golfers who have won the Masters typically showed promise in the weeks before their wins. For instance:
- Leading up to his 2004 breakthrough major title, Phil Mickelson earned two straight top 10s.
- Tiger won at Doral before winning in 2005.
- In 2006, Phil won by 13 strokes at the now defunct BellSouth Classic one week before his second Masters victory.
- Bubba Watson typically plays a lighter schedule pre-Masters, but he dominated in 2012 with a second-place finish at Doral and a T4 at Bay Hill. He again finished second at Doral before his 2014 win, but also had a bizarre (allegedly allergy-induced) WD at Bay Hill weeks later.
- Of course, Jordan Spieth gave everyone a preview of what was to come in Augusta with his 1-2-2 leading up to last year’s record-setting win.
On the other side of the coin, some Masters winners have come out of nowhere – in terms of both recent form and career pedigree. Angel Cabrera missed two cuts leading into his 2009 victory. In 2008, Trevor Immelman played four of five weeks before winning his green jacket, with his best finish a T40 in the no-cut event at Doral. One would have expected the surprise winners to at least flash a signal going into Augusta, but in these cases it didn’t happen. The lesson: don’t count out someone who enters the Masters with an empty form sheet.
Others, like Phil Mickelson in 2010, Zach Johnson in 2007, and Charl Schwartzel in 2011 did not distinguish themselves from their normal level of play. Adam Scott in 2013 didn’t even play a warm-up event before his win, taking three weeks off as a lead-in. These were good players, but you may not have picked them based on their pre-tournament form.
Confounding things here is that the warm-up events played in the month before the Masters are played at courses that don’t share much in common with Augusta National. Houston the week before is set-up to mimic Augusta’s green speeds and forgiving rough, but otherwise the Florida swing features the wind and water that’s mostly absent from Augusta National. In fact, the only Florida course where results show even a slight correlation to Masters performance is the renovated Blue Monster – a welcome signal for Adam Scott, even if those Doral renovations are only three years old.
I explored the correlation between playing well before the Masters and success in Augusta by comparing each golfer’s scoring average in both the five weeks before the Masters and one year before the Masters to their eventual performance at the event. As we would expect, a full year of play proved more predictive, but results indicated that there was a clear line between players who over-performed in March also over-performing in April. In total, the predictive value of play over the next month was about 20% as strong as the full year of results.
This means that we shouldn’t discount anyone – like Jason Day – who might be struggling going into Augusta. His play in the last year still stacks up with anyone on Tour, even if it takes him three months to kick into gear. More importantly, playing well at this point doesn’t guarantee anything for guys like Bubba and Phil Mickelson, even though it’s a positive indicator for their chances. Remember that Phil also won at the Houston Open in 2011 and entered Augusta coming off a win at the 2010 Masters before finishing outside of the top 10 for only the second time in his last thirteen Masters. One thing is clear however, Phil’s golf game – with a hot March or not – is finally looking strong to capture another green jacket.