Stat attack!: Masters preview

By John AntoniniApril 7, 2014, 10:16 pm

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. 

If you haven’t already done so please follow me on Twitter at @johnantoninigc.

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Berger more than ready to rebound at Travelers

By Will GrayJune 20, 2018, 9:54 pm

CROMWELL, Conn. – Daniel Berger hopes that this year he gets to be on the other end of a viral moment at the Travelers Championship.

Berger was a hard-luck runner-up last year at TPC River Highlands, a spectator as Jordan Spieth holed a bunker shot to defeat him in a playoff. It was the second straight year that the 25-year-old came up just short outside Hartford, as he carried a three-shot lead into the 2016 event before fading to a tie for fifth.

While he wasn’t lacking any motivation after last year’s close call, Berger got another dose last week at the U.S. Open when he joined Tony Finau as a surprise participant in the final group Sunday, only to shoot a 73 and drift to a T-6 finish.

Travelers Championship: Articles, photos and videos

“It was one of the best experiences of my professional golf career so far. I feel like I’m going to be in such a better place next time I’m in that position, having felt those emotions and kind of gone through it,” Berger said. “There was a lot of reflection after that because I felt like I played good enough to get it done Sunday. I didn’t make as many putts as I wanted to, but I hit a lot of really good putts. And that’s really all you can do.”

Berger missed the cut earlier this month to end his quest for three straight titles in Memphis, but his otherwise consistent season has now included six top-20 finishes since January. After working his way into contention last week and still with a score to settle at TPC River Highlands, he’s eager to get back to work against another star-studded field.

“I think all these experiences you just learn from,” Berger said. “I think last week, having learned from that, I think that’s even going to make me a little better this week. So I’m excited to get going.”

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Rory tired of the near-misses, determined to close

By Will GrayJune 20, 2018, 9:46 pm

CROMWELL, Conn. – Rory McIlroy has returned to the Travelers Championship with an eye on bumping up his winning percentage.

McIlroy stormed from the back of the pack to win the Arnold Palmer Invitational in March, but that remains his lone worldwide win since the 2016 Tour Championship. It speaks to McIlroy’s considerable ability and lofty expectations that, even with a number of other high finishes this season, he is left unsatisfied.

“I feel like I’ve had five realistic chances to win this year, and I’ve been able to close out one of them. That’s a bit disappointing, I guess,” McIlroy said. “But at least I’ve given myself five chances to win golf tournaments, which is much more than I did last year.”

Travelers Championship: Articles, photos and videos

The most memorable of McIlroy’s near-misses is likely the Masters, when he played alongside Patrick Reed in Sunday’s final group but struggled en route to a T-5 finish. But more frustrating in the Ulsterman’s eyes were his runner-up at the Omega Dubai Desert Classic, when he led by two shots with eight holes to go, and a second-place showing behind Francesco Molinari at the BMW PGA Championship in May.

“There’s been some good golf in there,” he said. “I feel like I let Dubai and Wentworth get away a little bit.”

He’ll have a chance to rectify that trend this week at TPC River Highlands, where he finished T-17 last year in his tournament debut and liked the course and the tournament enough to keep it on his schedule. It comes on the heels of a missed cut at the U.S. Open, when he was 10 over through 11 holes and never got on track. McIlroy views that result as more of an aberration during a season in which he has had plenty of chances to contend on the weekend.

“I didn’t necessarily play that badly last week. I feel like if I play similarly this week, I might have a good chance to win,” McIlroy said. “I think when you play in conditions like that, it magnifies parts of your game that maybe don’t stack up quite as good as the rest of your game, and it magnified a couple of things for me that I worked on over the weekend.”

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Sunday run at Shinnecock gave Reed even more confidence

By Will GrayJune 20, 2018, 9:08 pm

CROMWELL, Conn. – While many big names are just coming around to the notion that the Travelers Championship is worth adding to the schedule, Patrick Reed has been making TPC River Highlands one of his favorite haunts for years.

Reed will make his seventh straight appearance outside Hartford, where he tied for fifth last year and was T-11 the year before that. He is eager to get back to the grind after a stressful week at the U.S. Open, both because of his past success here and because it will offer him a chance to build on a near-miss at Shinnecock Hills.

Reed started the final round three shots off the lead, but he quickly stormed toward the top of the leaderboard and became one of Brooks Koepka’s chief threats after birdies on five of his first seven holes. Reed couldn’t maintain the momentum in the middle of the round, carding three subsequent bogeys, and ultimately tied for fourth.

Travelers Championship: Articles, photos and videos

It was a bittersweet result, but Reed is focusing on the positives after taking a couple days to reflect.

“If you would have told me that I had a chance to win coming down Sunday, I would have been pleased,” Reed said. “I felt like I just made too many careless mistakes towards the end, and because of that, you’re not going to win at any major making careless mistakes, especially on Sunday.”

Reed broke through for his first major title at the Masters, and he has now finished fourth or better in three straight majors dating back to a runner-up at the PGA last summer. With another chance to add to that record next month in Scotland, he hopes to carry the energy from last week’s close call into this week’s event on a course where he feels right at home.

“It just gives me confidence, more than anything,” Reed said. “Of course I would have loved to have closed it out and win, but it was a great week all in all, and there’s a lot of stuff I can take from it moving forward. That’s how I’m looking at it.”

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Koepka back to work, looking to add to trophy collection

By Will GrayJune 20, 2018, 8:53 pm

CROMWELL, Conn. – Days after ensuring the U.S. Open trophy remained in his possession for another year, Brooks Koepka went back to work.

Koepka flew home to Florida after successfully defending his title at Shinnecock Hills, celebrating the victory Monday night with Dustin Johnson, Paulina Gretzky, swing coach Claude Harmon III and a handful of close friends. But he didn’t fully unwind because of a decision to honor his commitment to the Travelers Championship, becoming the first player to tee it up the week after a U.S. Open win since Justin Rose in 2013.

Koepka withdrew from the Travelers pro-am, but he flew north to Connecticut on Wednesday and arrived to TPC River Highlands around 3 p.m., quickly heading to the driving range to get in a light practice session.

“It still hasn’t sunk in, to be honest with you,” Koepka said. “I’m still focused on this week. It was just like, ‘All right, if I can get through this week, then I’m going to be hanging with my buddies next week.’ I know then maybe it’ll sink in, and I’ll get to reflect on it a little bit more.”

Travelers Championship: Articles, photos and videos

Koepka’s plans next week with friends in Boston meant this week’s event outside Hartford made logistical sense. But he was also motivated to play this week because, plainly, he hasn’t had that many playing opportunities this year after missing nearly four months with a wrist injury.

“I’ve had so many months at home being on the couch. I don’t need to spend any more time on the couch,” Koepka said. “As far as skipping, it never crossed my mind.”

Koepka’s legacy was undoubtedly bolstered by his win at Shinnecock, as he became the first player in nearly 30 years to successfully defend a U.S. Open title. But he has only one other PGA Tour win to his credit, that being the 2015 Waste Management Phoenix Open, and his goal for the rest of the season is to make 2018 his first year with multiple trophies on the mantle.

“If you’re out here for more than probably 15 events, it gives you a little better chance to win a couple times. Being on the sidelines isn’t fun,” Koepka said. “Keep doing what we’re doing and just try to win multiple times every year. I feel like I have the talent. I just never did it for whatever reason. Always felt like we ran into a buzzsaw. So just keep plugging away.”