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How to pick a Masters champion

Jamie Kennedy
April 10, 2014
Who will follow in Adam Scott's footsteps and win the Masters? © Getty Images
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This article was originally published on Thursday April 10, before the 2014 Masters began

For the first time since 1994, the Masters will take place without Tiger Woods and it is perhaps not a coincidence that many believe this weekend's event will be the most open at Augusta in recent memory.

Much of the excitement and anticipation of the Masters centres on the course. It is the only major championship played on the same course each year, which does lend itself to analysis of the types of players who can excel at Augusta.

So what does it take to win a green jacket?

First time lucky?


The 2014 field may be without Woods but it features a strong-class of 24 Masters rookies, the most since 1935. Names like Jordan Spieth, Patrick Reed, Harris English, Victor Dubuisson and Graham DeLaet have many believing this could be the year a rookie wins the green jacket.

However, the numbers don't agree. Fuzzy Zoeller is the only player in recent times to win the Masters, in 1979, in his first visit down Magnolia Lane.

Truth be told, the first two champions, Horton Smith in 1934 and Gene Sarazen in 1935, were also rookies but nonetheless Augusta doesn't favour first-timers.

Eighth time lucky?

A young Tiger Woods in 1997 is the only player in the last 33 years to win the Masters within his first 10 career major tournaments © Getty Images
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If not first-timers, what kind of experience is needed to don the green jacket? Let's look back at the last 25 years of Masters events, since the beginning of the World Rankings, to examine the formula to winning at Augusta.

Over that time, Masters champions have made an average of 8.1 visits to Augusta, and played 33.5 previous major championships, prior to winning the green jacket.

In fact, the Masters has demanded more experience than any of the Majors, with the PGA Championship averaging just 25 previous majors, 28 for the US Open and 33 for the Open.

When Tiger Woods famously broke onto the scene in 1997, he became the only Masters champion in the past 33 years to win the green jacket having played less than 10 career majors.

Rank outsiders

Mastering Augusta

  • Phil Mickelson 71.13 (82 rounds)
  • Nick Watney 71.79 (24 rounds)
  • Fred Couples 71.88 (112 rounds)
  • Angel Cabrera 71.94 (50 rounds)
  • These are the only four players competing this week to have an 18-hole scoring average around Augusta lower than the course par of 72

Augusta National is famously strict about membership policy and similarly pick a small, yet strong, field for the Masters each year. With that smaller field, the pedigree of winner is also noticeably stronger than the other majors.

The average world ranking of a major champion in the last 25 years is 30th, but that shrinks to 15th for the Masters. Whilst much of that may be down to Tiger and Phil's recent dominance, 19 of the last 26 winners ranked inside the top-15 in the world when they took home the green jacket.

The Masters is typically regarded as the easiest Major, in terms of scoring, but that perception may be skewed by excitement and pin positions on display on Masters Sundays. Just four players will tee it up this week with a scoring average below par at Augusta, having played 20 or more rounds.

A cut above


Alister MacKenzie's demanding Augusta layout takes a bit of learning. Ironically, the only Masters champion in the last 33 years that did not make the cut at The Masters the previous year was a 20-year old amateur in 1996, named Eldrick "Tiger" Woods.

But making it to the weekend is not enough - 21 of the last 25 Masters champions had previously recorded a top-20 finish at Augusta. Even the likes of Angel Cabrera, who won the 2009 Masters whilst ranked 69th in the world, had finished eighth just three years prior.

Clearly experience and feeling comfortable with the surroundings, pressure and greens of Augusta serves players well. Knowing how to escape Amen Corner unscathed can take several visits. The last 19 champions have played the famous 11th to 13th hole stretch in par or better for the week, markedly better than the field.

Drive for show…

Zach Johnson held his nerve to win in 2007 despite not being a long hitter © Getty Images
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Whilst many power hitters like Bubba Watson, Mickelson, Cabrera and Woods have donned the green jacket, other short hitters, like Zach Johnson, Mike Weir and Trevor Immelman, have won round Augusta.

There is little doubt that Augusta's layout favours those who hit it long off the tee: 10 of the last 14 winners have ranked inside the top 30 in driving distance on the PGA Tour in the season they won. Being able to reach the par-5s in two, particularly holes 8 and 15, can definitely save a player shots throughout the week. However, the key to par-5 scoring isn't necessarily distance off the tee.

Look at how recent champions played the par-5s and you may be surprised to learn that whilst Adam Scott was 5-under par on the par-5s in 2013, small hitting Mike Weir was twice as good in 2003 at 10-under. Better still, Zach Johnson, who famously laid up on every par-5, played the long holes in 11-under-par when he won in 2007.

In Tiger's last three Masters victories, he hasn't once played the par-5s in 10-under or less.

…putt for dough?


Many believe Augusta is more of a putting contest than a long drive contest. Henrik Stenson joked this week that putting "doesn't matter, because you don't need to putt well around Augusta, right?"

The Masters doesn't use ShotLink to track stats like Strokes Gained Putting, but almost all Masters champions point to their putting prowess in the year they won. Consistently good putters such as Tiger, Phil, Zach Johnson, Jose Maria Olazabal, Ben Crenshaw have all tended to perform well on the lightning fast greens.

Short putting, specifically 3-putt avoidance, is what can make the difference at Augusta. Players like Bubba Watson and Sergio Garcia could be in for a good week, considering they are top-ranked players in the field in 3-putt avoidance, based on the PGA Tour this season. They also both rank inside the top-10 on putts inside five feet.

It all comes down to Masters Sunday


Recent history also suggests winning at Augusta about finishing well, rather than getting off to a flyer.

The last four champions (Scott, Watson, Schwartzel and Mickelson) failed to lead or co-lead at the end of any of the first three rounds, coming from behind on Sunday to take the green jacket. All four shot 33 or lower on the back nine Sunday, where many believe the tournament is won or lost.

And the winner is...

  • Top 15 in the world? Check
  • Masters experience? Check
  • Made the cut last year? Check
  • No.1 in the field in driving distance? Check
  • No.1 in the field in 3-putt avoidance? Check
  • Top 5 in the field in putting inside 5-feet? Check
  • Answer? Bubba Watson

In 2008, Trevor Immelman became the first 18-hole leader to win in 25 years as well as becoming the first wire-to-wire winner of the Masters since Seve Ballesteros did so 1980.

Holding the lead after round one is perhaps not a blessing, but getting off to a good start is. The last eight champions at Augusta have been within four shots of lead after Thursday and the last six winners have opened with a score in the 60s. Comparatively, just two of the last 26 champions have shot over par on Thursday.

So there you have it, distance is important but not crucial, avoiding three putts is advised, experience and quality play a major role and players need to be consistent and in the hunt early and be ready to take on the pins on the back nine on Sunday.

Jamie Kennedy is a golf statistician. Follow him on Twitter.

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