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Stat attack!: Masters preview


Adam Scott dons the green jacket after winning the 77th Masters Tournament. (Getty Images)

This time of year the two questions I’m asked most often are “How does someone from Connecticut become a Houston Astros fan?” and “Who’s going to win the Masters?” I don’t have much of an answer for the first query, and for the second one I usually answer “Tiger Woods,” knowing that even if he doesn’t win he will place high on the leader board.

In 2014, however, that answer doesn’t work. So to figure out who will win (or at least contend) this year, let’s look at how past champions fared statistically on their way to donning the green jacket. Winning requires hitting greens, avoiding three-putts, and playing well on the par 5s. Previous Masters success and good form entering the week are also important.

Stats for Masters winners: 2004-2013

 Year Player Distance (rank) GIR (rank) Putts (rank) Three-putts
 2013 Adam Scott 293.8 (18) 55 (1) 120 (T-39) 2
 2012 Bubba Watson 290.4 (4) 53 (T-4) 120 (T-37) 4
 2011 Charl Schwartzel 278.4 (44) 49 (T-18) 107 (2) 2
 2010 Phil Mickelson 297.1 (2) 54 (T-3) 116 (T-13) 2
 2009 Angel Cabrera 284.5 (11) 50 (T-14) 113 (T-12) 2
 2008 Trevor Immelman 287.5 (4) 51 (T-2) 112 (T-4) 2
 2007 Zach Johnson 265.0 (57) 44 (T-4) 112 (T-10) 6
 2006 Phil Mickelson 299.3 (1) 50 (T-4) 116 (T-16) 2
 2005 Tiger Woods 292.4 (3) 54 (2) 115 (T-10) 4
 2004 Phil Mickelson 290.4 (9) 53 (1) 117 (T-23) 2

Adam Scott did exactly what he needed to in 2013. He hit the ball a long way, ranked high in greens in regulation and although he took a high number of putts (a result of the number of greens hit), he limited his three-putts. He was only five-under on the par-5 holes—tied for the second-worst total among Masters champs in the last 10 years. 

Par-5 scoring for Masters winners: 2004-2013

 Year Player Par-5 scoring
 2013 Adam Scott 5-under
 2012 Bubba Watson 8-under
 2011 Charl Schwartzel 9-under
 2010 Phil Mickelson 12-under
 2009 Angel Cabrera 9-under
 2008 Trevor Immelman 3-under
 2007 Zach Johnson 11-under
 2006 Phil Mickelson 13-under
 2005 Tiger Woods 6-under
 2004 Phil Mickelson 5-under

Scott, like most Masters champions, had previous success at Augusta National, and had been playing well coming into the tournament. Since 1991 only Angel Cabrera in 2009 did not have a top-10 finish on the PGA or European Tours for the season leading up to the Masters. In fact, most champions – 16 of 23 – had a top-three finish at some point that season prior to the winning the Masters. 

Tournament success prior to Masters win

Year Player Best Masters, 5 years prior to winning Top 10s that year prior to winning
 2013 Adam Scott T-2, 2012 2
 2012 Bubba Watson T-20, 2008 3
 2011 Charl Schwartzel T-30, 2010 5
 2010 Phil Mickelson Won, 2006 1
 2009 Angel Cabrera T-8, 2006 0
 2008 Trevor Immelman T-5, 2005 1
 2007 Zach Johnson T-32, 2006 1
 2006 Phil Mickelson Won, 2004 5
 2005 Tiger Woods Won, 2002, 2001 3
 2004 Phil Mickelson 3, 2003, 2002, 2001 7

A solid first round at Augusta National is also very important. No champion since 2005 has been out of the top-10 after 18 holes, and only one winner (Schwartzel in 2011) was outside the top 10 after two rounds.

Position of Masters champion after each round: 2004-2013

 Year Player Rd. 1 Rd. 2 Rd. 3 Rd. 4
 2013 Adam Scott T-10 T-7 3 T-1
 2012 Bubba Watson T-4 T-3 4 T-1
 2011 Charl Schwartzel T-7 T-12 2 1
 2010 Phil Mickelson T-2 T-3 2 1
 2009 Angel Cabrera T-6 3 T-1 T-1
 2008 Trevor Immelman T-1 1 1 1
 2007 Zach Johnson T-5 T-4 T-4 1
 2006 Phil Mickelson T-4 T-5 1 1
 2005 Tiger Woods T-33 3 1 T-1
 2004 Phil Mickelson T-15 T-4 T-1 1

Who’s doing well enough in those categories to pique our attention? How can we whittle nearly 100 players down to one? We’ll start by looking at previous Masters success. (This might seem to unfailry eliminate about 80 players off the bat, but since no first-timer has won since 1979 and no senior has ever won a major, I’m OK with a that. There will be more on first-timers at the end of the column.) Seventeen players in this year’s field have had a top-10 in the Masters since 2009 and also have a top-10 finish on the PGA or European Tours in 2013-14. They are: K.J. Choi, Jason Day, Luke Donald, Jim Furyk, Sergio Garcia, Matt Kuchar, Marc Leishman, Hunter Mahan, Phil Mickelson, Thorbjorn Olesen, Louis Oosthuizen, Ian Poulter, Justin Rose, Adam Scott,  Charl Schwartzel, Brandt Snedeker, Bubba Watson. My Masters champ will come from this group.

Of the 17, Johnson, Mahan and Kuchar have sub-70 stroke averages in the first round in 2013-14. But, because many players haven’t played enough to justify a high or low scoring average this season, we’ll give the following eight players who were in the top 50 on the PGA Tour in first-round scoring in 2013 (a sub-70.5 scoring average on Thursdays) a reprieve. That group includes Day, Garcia, Mickelson, Rose, Scott, Snedeker, Schwartzel and Watson.

From that 11 we’ll get to seven as Garcia, Johnson, Mahan, Mickelson, Rose, Scott and Watson were in the top 50 on Tour in greens in regulation in 2013.

Putting is where majors are won and lost. For as well as Scott putted at Augusta a year ago, he had six three-putts there in 2012. Watson had seven three-putts last year and four when he won the green jacket. Rose has a combined eight three-putts since 2012, and Mahan had five last year when he missed the cut. Garcia, Johnson and Mickelson had no more than three three-putts in each of the last two Masters. Those three will move on.

Sergio Garcia. Zach Johnson. Phil Mickelson. I’m comfortable leaving you with this trio, but let’s see if the par-5 scoring category can whittle this group even more. This is close. All three averaged between 4.50 and 4.68 on the three-shotters on Tour a year ago. Here’s how they have fared at the Masters in the last three years.

Garcia, Johnson and Mickelson on par 5s at Augusta National: 2011-2013

 Player 2013 2012 2011 Total
 Sergio Garcia -5 -9 -7 -23
 Zach Johnson -6 -7 -2 -10
 Phil Mickelson -6 -11 -8 -25

It's that close, but the edge goes to Mickelson. Lefty didn't appear to be trending properly as he headed to Augusta - the runner-up finish in Abu Dhabi was three months ago, and he didn't have a top-10 on the PGA Tour's West Coast or Florida swings - but, perhaps, that's right where he wants to be. Mickelson has won many tournament's when he wasn't expected to. Consider last year's British Open. Maybe he's not such a crazy pick after all.

One final thought: Could this be the year a rookie breaks through and wins the Masters? There are more first-timers in 2014 (24) than in any year since the inaugural event. My favorites to have a good week are Jimmy Walker, Graham DeLaet and Harris English. All three are long hitters who hit plenty of greens and have done a good job avoiding three-putts. 

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