After the Mud Ball Invitational in Houston, we are now ready for the main event. The first MAJOR of the season is taking place this week in Augusta, Georgia.
The course, Augusta National Golf Club, needs no introduction. It’s an iconic par 72 that pretty wide open off the tee but challenges golfers on approach as well as on (and around) the greens.
Diving straight into stats this week, the core stats of driving distance, distance from edge of fairway, greens in regulation, and scrambling all show up as very highly correlated to success at the Masters. We are looking for an ALL-AROUND great golfer. The one stat that does not correlate is putting. Poor putters have actually done better here, historically. Given the insane slopes and speeds of these greens, you don’t want to be relying on the flat stick to get the job done.
From a strokes-gained perspective we want to highly target OFF-THE-TEE. I want to give credit to Colin Drewby over at Dailyroto who put some strokes gained analysis together. I’ve been doing some behind-the-scenes work with Moose from ProjectRoto lately and we’ve seen a very similar trend on the importance of strokes gained off-the-tee at all events, not just Augusta National. That calls for an entire article by itself but on a basic level it boils down to off-the-tee being the only strokes gained metric that can not be influenced by a prior shot.
After that we still want elite approach-the-green play, while it’s always useful to combine the two (off-tee-tee & approach). I call this Strokes Gained Long, myself, but whenever I reference ball-striking stats, this is generally what I’m talking about.
As we get closer to the greens at Augusta National, good short game is a big plus because you don’t want to leave yourself 10 footers or even worse chip it back off the green (Martin Kaymer anyone?). That brings strokes gained around-the-green into the fold, but I would recommend you add in the amount of missed greens into that statistic (Strokes Gained Around-the-Green divided by # of Missed GIR). This will give us a slightly better view of who gets the ball up-and-down without giving poor ball-strikers an advantage for having more ARG opportunities. This still isn’t perfect but gets us a bit closer to properly grading short game.
On top of an already difficult test of golf, the forecast is looking to make it even harder. I included a link to the Windfinder station this week (bottom of page), which currently shows wind gusts exceeding 30 MPH on Thursday and Friday. That brings Wind Specialists into play this week.
For correlated events this week we want some combination of fast greens, a lot of mid-to-long par 4s, bentgrass greens, and not-so-lengthy par 5s. The events that ended up popping are:
WGC-Bridgestone, Doral, U.S. Open, THE PLAYERS, and the TOUR Championship.
Players to Watch
Rory McIlroy… He’s shown no rust since returning from injury. He’s gained a remarkable 10.69 strokes off-the-tee in eight rounds since returning. I guess you could say the rust has presented itself around the greens as he’s been well below average in that regard. With Spieth stealing the spotlight in terms of “demons at Augusta” and DJ stealing the spotlight in terms of “clear-cut favorite to win”, Rory should slide right through and complete his career Grand Slam. Rory is my #1 this week, he just needs to avoid the big numbers. That’s a BIG IF for him.
Jon Rahm… The first-timer narrative is due to get shattered eventually. Rahm is the leading candidate to break it this week. I find the first-time narrative a bit funny because so many elite golfers play this for their first time when they are nowhere near ready to compete on this stage. Take Matsuyama for example, when he originally played Augusta National, he said that his goal was not to embarrass himself and just play four rounds. I think Rahm’s goals are a bit more lofty this week, and for good reason.
Jordan Spieth… Right now Jordan Spieth’s experience at the par-3 12th last year is like a dog that just had surgery. He just needs to wear a giant cone this year to prevent himself from licking the wound. If he accomplishes that for the entirety of the week, then the whole thing may be forgotten in a few years. However, if he plunks another in the water or overshoots the green by 10 yards, then the wound is going to re-open and it could get ugly. On the bright side, he said he made a prep trip here in December and birdied it both times playing the hole. On the down side, he then said he called Greller and excitingly told him the news. It’s clearly a big obstacle in his mind and he’s going to put a lot of pressure on himself to over-perform at the 12th. While this isn’t enough to drop him out of my top 5, it does have me a bit worried when we add that to his already ho-hum off-the-tee form.
Windy Peppercorns… Looking a little deeper at rounds played in 14 MPH+ wind, I want to target golfers that can lap the field in these conditions. I call these BOOM ROUNDS (beating the field average by 2 or more strokes).
The Top 10 in BOOM RATES in the WIND:
On the flip side, another angle to look at is what golfers are able to hang around in the wind and then make up ground in the rounds when the weather is calm. For this we can look at a lack of BUST ROUNDS (losing 2 or more strokes to the field).
The Top 10 lowest BUST RATES in the WIND:
As you notice, there is plenty of high ball flights on both lists, so don’t get caught up on the “low ball flight needed in the wind” narrative. Great golfers can adjust their ball flight when needed but a high ball flight is still advantageous when landing greens.
Hudson Swafford… Doesn’t crack my top 25, but he’s not far off. He’s finally found some
consistencybig finishes on TOUR after struggling with big numbers for years. He’s still prone to a weekend slide down the leaderboard, but he’s probably one of my favorite FanDuel R1-2 plays this week. If you need a narrative for Swafford then look no further then his college roommate, Jefferson Knox Jr. That name may sound familiar because he is the son of Jeff(erson) Knox, the famous Augusta National member that is often used as a marker at the Masters. I would guess Swafford has dialed up his old roommate to get in a few rounds with the old man. The same narrative applies to Justin Thomas who played college golf with Knox’ other son at Alabama.
Daniel Berger… Coming in fresh off a strong finish in Houston, what I really like is his consistency off the tee. He’s beat the field average in strokes gained off-the-tee for 11 straight events leading up to Augusta National. That is a great sign in terms of pure ball-striking. The one knock on him is his shot shape as he likes to work it left-to-right but he finished T10 in his debut last year, so I’m thinking it’s not such a huge deal, after all.
Tyrrell Hatton… If Rahm wasn’t in the field, then Hatton would be the leading candidate for top first-timer this week. He’s been superb with his Spyro the Dragon Purple Putter lately, but he’s even better in his long game. The lone weakness (at least recently) has been the scrambling. Arrives with six straight top 15s worldwide in stroke-play events. En fuego.
J.B. Holmes… We saw Sherlock Holmes on both Wind Lists above, but he may go overlooked this week as he comes in fresh off a MC at the Shell Houston Open. Last year he withdrew before the SHO with a shoulder injury and still managed to deliver a T4 at this event. His length is obviously a big advantage here at AGNC.
Phil Mickelson… Hard to find better history here from a long-term view. More recently, he’s finished outside the top 50 in three of his last four visits (T2 in 2015 in between). Will be extremely popular this week, but I will have much lower exposure compared to the field this week.
Hideki Matsuyama… Seemed like the entire golf world (or maybe just people I follow on Twitter) went out to bet him at the Masters at some point during his early-season dominance. He’s now the forgotten man but he shouldn’t be. One thing that often gets overlooked is his tremendous short game. He’s one of the TOUR’s best scramblers despite being a horrendous putter at times. If he can ball-strike to his normal standards and chip it close enough to minimize the putting damage, then he should be right in the thick of things (again) come Sunday.
My Top 25 for the 2017 Masters
1. Rory McIlroy
2. Dustin Johnson
3. Jon Rahm
4. Rickie Fowler
5. Jordan Spieth
6. Justin Rose
7. Hideki Matsuyama
8. Daniel Berger
9. Tyrrell Hatton
10. Adam Scott
11. Charley Hoffman
12. Louis Oosthuizen
13. J.B. Holmes
14. Jason Day
15. Paul Casey
16. Francesco Molinari
17. Bill Haas
18. Shane Lowry
19. Emiliano Grillo
20. Gary Woodland
21. Brandt Snedeker
22. Matt Kuchar
23. Phil Mickelson
24. Charl Schwartzel
25. Tommy Fleetwood