The eyes of the sporting world will turn to Augusta National next Thursday for the first Major championship of 2019, the US Masters. Unlike the other Majors, there is some comfort in an annual visit to the same course. Particularly when it comes to picking a winner there.
We are in familiar territory with the Masters and all the pomp and ceremony that surrounds the sport’s most iconic tournament. That familiarity informs us about what sort of player is best suited to succeeding there and a few simple questions will help us to narrow the field ahead of Thursday’s tee-off.
1. Course Comfort
Lots. There is a reason only one debutant has won the Masters since 1950. Fuzzy Zoeller’s feat in 1979 has remained unique because experience counts around Augusta National and course familiarity is crucial.
This week’s defending champion Patrick Reed donned his Green Jacket last year at the fifth attempt, Sergio Garcia in 2017 broke the record for the most starts before winning, 19. The best Masters’ rookie in recent years has undoubtedly been Jordan Spieth, runner up on his debut in 2014, winner 12 months later and two more top-three finishes since.
So forget first timers, go for consistent low scoring as a pointer to course comfort.
10 Lowest Average Scores at The Masters 2014-18 (minimum two years/8 rounds)
(Best finish / Top 10s) Rounds / To Par / Ave Score
1 Jordan Spieth (1st / 4) 20 / -39 / 70.05
2 Justin Rose (2nd (twice) / 3) 20 / -27 / 70.65
3 Paul Casey (T4 / 3) 16 / -9 / 70.81
4 Rory McIlroy (4th / 5) 20 / -23 / 70.85
5 Jon Rahm (4th / 1) 8 / -8 / 71.00
6 Rickie Fowler (2nd / 2) 18 / -14 / 71.22
7 Dustin Johnson (T4 / 3) 14 / -10 / 71.29
8 Tiger Woods (T4 – twice / 2) 20 / -14 / 71.30
9 Hideki Matsuyama (5th / 2) 18 / -9 / 71.55
10 Charley Hoffman (T9 / 1 ) 16 / -6 / 71.69
Average number of attempts for last five winners – 6.4 (Sergio Garcia took a record 19 starts to win in 2017, Spieth (2015) and Danny Willett just two apiece)
Invitees making their seventh Masters starts this week: Branden Grace, Marc Leishman, Gary Woodland.
2. Good Vibrations
It is no surprise that a golfer needs to be feeling good about their game heading up Magnolia Lane. Nothing breeds confidence like strong competitive finishes on Tour in the build-up to the Masters.
This is not about whether your guy has played well the week, before but whether he is carrying good vibes as he enters Augusta National.
Each of the last eight Masters champions has had at least a top-three finish in their five most recent starts.
The last champion not to go into the Masters with stellar form was Phil Mickelson in 2010, though Lefty had earned a top 10, five starts out and was World No. 3 at the time.
Official Golf World Rankings are also relevant. Only three players outside the top 20 have won in the last 10 years – Danny Willett (24th), Charl Schwartzel (29th) and Angel Cabrera, who in 2009 was ranked 69th.
Of the current World Top 20, there are clear form horses right now, not least the World No. 3 Rory McIlroy. His win at The Players Championship coming along with four other top 10s in his last five starts. World No’s. 1 Dustin Johnson and 2. Justin Rose (Rose will be World No.1 on Monday) both have a victory and two top-10s in their last five appearances.
Other notables are Francesco Molinari, Bay Hill victor and third in last week’s World Match Play, his Ryder Cup bestie Tommy Fleetwood (a T5 and T3 in his last three starts) as well as Paul Casey with a win and two top-10s.
3. State of Play
Allied to form and experience is the ability to cope with everything this legendary course throws at you. Augusta National challenges the all-around game, requiring length off the tee, a wonderful short game and nerves of steel on its high-speed and undulating greens.
In the key PGA Tour statistics for Strokes Gained: Off The Tee, Approach The Green, Around The Green and Putting, only six of the current Masters’ field feature in the respective top 10’s of the 2019 invitees more than once.
Jason Day (Off The Tee .758 and Putting .868)
Dustin Johnson (Approach The Green .860 and Putting .706)
Rory McIlroy (Off The Tee 1.308 and Approach The Green .753)
Xander Schauffele (Approach The Green .725 and Putting .611
Brandt Snedeker ( Around The Green .602 and Putting .723)
Justin Thomas (Approach The Green 1.022 and Around The Green .499)
4. Form in previous Masters
Best Masters’ records last five years (2014 to 2018)
Jordan Spieth: 3rd, T11, T2, 1st, T2
Rory McIlroy: T5, T7, T10, 4th, T8
Justin Rose: T12, 2nd, T10, T2, T14
Paul Casey: T15, 6th, T4, T6, DNP
Dustin Johnson: T10, DNP, T4, T6, MC
Rickie Fowler: 2nd, T11, DNP, T12, T5
Matt Kuchar: T28, T4, T24, T46, T5
Hideki Matsuyama: 19th, T11, T7, 5th, MC
Bubba Watson: T5, MC, T37, T38, 1st
Tiger Woods: T32, T17, T4, T40, T4
Other champions in last five years
Patrick Reed: 1st, MC, T49, T21, MC
Sergio Garcia: MC, 1st, T34, T17, MC
Danny Willett: MC, MC, 1st, T38, DNP
5. This year’s Major contenders
We’ll strip out the first-timers, the guys who just don’t get along with the course, and fellas searching for form. After crunching all the numbers you’re left with a tasty group who are capable of having that famous Green Jacket draped over their shoulders in Butler Cabin come Sunday night.
Some tick more boxes than others while there’s nothing to say someone like former Masters’ champion Jordan Spieth can’t flick a switch and return to form on a course in which the Texan excels.
The Irishman returns to the course tailormade for his game – but one that carries the most mental baggage as he needs a win to complete his career Grand Slam. McIlroy’s Players Championship victory last month and his consistent top-five finishes on the PGA Tour this year confirm he is in red-hot form. His scoring average and impressive run of results at Augusta National suggest this is a tournament with Rory McIlroy’s name written all over it. But we said that last year and he crumbled over the final round.
McIlroy’s biggest obstacle between him and a Green Jacket next Sunday is himself.
But he has never been in a better position going into the opening Major of the year.
DJ has won the WGC-Mexico Championship this year and his tie for 10th here a year ago was his third successive top 10 at Augusta National. There might have been a W next to his name and a seat at the Champions Dinner already had not slipped on the stairs of his rental home two years ago when approaching this event in a similarly good place.
If he keeps his shoes on and stays upright this week, they could be measuring DJ for a GJ.
It’s six years now from his only Major success to date at the US Open and two years on from his Masters play-off defeat to Sergio Garcia.
Rose arrives with a Tour victory this year and form to go with his impressive Augusta pedigree for a Major his game seems best suited to winning.
Stormed into a runner-up finish behind Patrick Reed 12 months ago and has the Masters firmly in his sights having skipped the WGC-Dell World Match Play a fortnight ago in order to prep seriously for this week. Has shown good scoring consistency around Augusta National in recent years and could be primed at last for his Major breakthrough.
Great form, a tournament victory in recent weeks at the Valspar Championship and an Augusta National specialist who carded his best ever score, a 65, in last year’s final round. The Englishman could be the dark horse next weekend following three top-10s and a tie for 15th in his last four visits.
I’m going to allow myself a wild card pick with the improving World No. 15. He was T10 on his Masters debut last year, following a final-round 66, which came five days after dislocating his ankle after celebrating a hole-in-one at the traditional, pre-tournament, Par 3 contest. Finau has a good strokes gained off the tee average of .607 this season and with Paddy paying 10 places looks worth an each-way play.
*Prices correct at time of publication