Whether you are a fantasy golf fan looking for an edge or just want to know which players have the best chance of contending on Sunday, analytical trends and studying past performances can help you make smart decisions when it comes to making Masters picks.
The analytics gurus at 15th Club, the London-based consultancy group that helped Danny Willett create his plan to win the 2016 Masters, have studied all the shots hit by each player during the last two Masters. According to Jake Nichols, 15th Club’s head of golf intelligence, the group has found some stats and qualities have proven to be predictive.
You’ve probably heard of them already.
One of the key traits turns out to be that Masters contenders are excellent players before they win. The average Official World Golf Ranking of the last 10 winners before they won at Augusta is 23.9, with the lowest-ranked player to win in the last 10 years being Zach Johnson, who ranked 56th in 2007 before his victory. The last five Masters winners had an average world ranking of 10.6 the week before they won. So while Augusta National Golf Club invites elite amateurs and the winners of qualifying events held around the world, the contenders are well-known, highly-ranked players. Nichols and 15th Club estimate elite players have a .3 strokes per round advantage beyond what they have in a typical event.
Rookies are not elite players, usually.
There has not been a player who won a Masters in his first appearance since Fuzzy Zoeller won in 1979, although Jordan Spieth was close in 2014. Inexperience playing at Augusta National certainly has a lot to do with that, but Nichols also pointed out that many first-timers who earn an invitation to the Masters are not “elite” players yet. For example, Brian Stuard is playing this week because he won the Zurich Classic of New Orleans, but he is ranked No. 145 in the world, and Billy Hurley is in the field because he won last summer’s Quicken Loans National, but he is ranked No. 137.
In contrast, Spieth was already ranked 13th when he almost won three years ago, so he fell within the average of the previous 10 years. It’s worth noting that Jon Rahm is making his Masters debut this week, but he is already ranked No. 12 in the world, won at Torrey Pines in January and just lost to Dustin Johnson in the final of the WGC-Dell Match Play Championship. Rohm may be a Masters rookie, but he is not a typical rookie because he has established himself as an elite player.
The home tour advantage.
Golfers who play primarily in the United States have also been found to get a similar .2 to .4 strokes per round edge at the Masters, according to 15th Club data.
“This is not a Masters-specific thing. What I find, when we compare guys who go from the U.S. to Europe, or vice versa, is that they lose about an equal amount of strokes per round,” Nichols said. “It’s not something that has to do with the style of the courses, but I think that’s mostly because of travel.”
You were right, length helps.
Fans and pundits have assumed for years that golfers who are long off the tee fair better at Augusta than players who lack power. There is no rough at Augusta National, just a spin-reducing second cut, so the course rewards distance and does not punish missing the fairway like traditional venues used during U.S. Opens and PGA Championships. The stats validate this assumption and show big hitters fair about .3 shots per round better at the Masters than their standard score.
Golfers who have length off the tee also tend to be statistically dominant in strokes gained from long range in the fairway (250-300 yards), and they can attack par 5s more effectively than other players. Zach Johnson may have won the 2007 Masters while laying up on the par 5s, but it’s important to remember that was an outlier event; the 2007 Masters was contested in unusually cold weather, and scores were high (Johnson won with a final score of 1 over). Nichols said golfers who are highly-ranked in strokes gained from 250-300 yards out (not a publically available PGA Tour stat) gain .15 strokes per round.
Only marksmen need apply.
Golfers who excel at the Masters also tend to attack flagsticks.
“You want guys who, with their iron play, don’t just rely on getting the ball onto the green 30 feet from the hole,” Nichols said. “You want to look for guys who play more aggressive shots to get themselves close to the hole.”
He gives these types of players a .15 strokes per round edge over the field.
“This is an area where Spieth stands out. He’s almost always been a guy whose greens in regulation numbers are not elite (although he ranks No. 1 on the PGA Tour in that category this season), but he hits it closer than a lot of other guys.”
And then there is putting.
The greens at Augusta are legendary for their speed and undulation, as well as their velvety smoothness. While many players struggle to putt well at the Masters, Nichols and his colleagues found that winners and contenders tend to be especially good lag putters from 25-40 feet (.15 strokes per round advantage). While they might hole only a handful of putts from that range over four rounds, their good lag putting leaves easier tap-in pars and helps them avoid three-putting.
So, the stats say you should pick …
When you add it all up, recent Masters history and analytics say that your ideal Masters picks should be big-hitting, highly-ranked players who compete primarily in the United States. You want players who can hit long-iron shots close and who are good lag putters. Dustin Johnson, Justin Rose, Sergio Garcia and J.B. Holmes are, therefore, smart selections. Jon Rahm and Jordan Spieth are also worth strong consideration, but you might want to shy aware from Jim Furyk, Ryan Moore, Russell Knox and Billy Hurley.