IT’S MASTERS WEEK!!!!!
This Masters is full of anticipation and storylines. Rory is going for the career grand slam, and is coming off a win at the Arnold Palmer Invitational. Phil Mickelson won the WGC-Mexico, and comes into Augusta in stellar form. DJ is still the man to beat, but Justin Thomas and Jon Rahm have been hot on his tail for world number one. Justin Rose is on fire. Jason Day has won recently. And… Tiger is back! Then we have the first-timer’s curse: no Augusta debutant has won since 1979. This year, we have several guys who can overcome that curse, namely Tony Finau and Xander Schauffele.
Augusta National is a course where I’m heavily weighing course history and tournament experience. First-timers have a poor track record here, but I mentioned a couple of debutants that I could see cracking the top-10 this week. The green complexes are so difficult and undulating that knowing where to miss shots and how to smartly recover is even more important than at other Tour stops. Because scrambling is so difficult this week, hitting greens and placing your shots correctly is key. I’m going to look heavily at strokes gained tee-to-green this week, which obviously spits out the best players in the world. If you break up the strokes gained stats even further, off-the-tee play has the biggest correlation with finishing position at Augusta. It makes sense, as most of the recent bombers who have won the Masters are guys who gain the most strokes off-the-tee (Bubba Watson, Dustin Johnson, Jon Rahm, etc.). I’ll be looking at short game play as well, but it will be weighed less than off-the-tee and approach shots.
Strokes Gained Off-the-Tee (SG:OTT): Every week, off-the-tee play is a main target. Guys who can hit it long and straight have a huge advantage over the rest of the field. It makes courses shorter, and allows them to hit approach shots from shorter distances, setting up birdies. Augusta typically has short rough, so bombs away! Scoring on the par-5s will be the major key for players this week, so give me all the distance. The best off-the-tee players in recent weeks are Bubba Watson, Brendan Steele, Francesco Molinari, Justin Thomas, Jordan Spieth, and Dustin Johnson.
Strokes Gained Approach (SG:APP): Ball-striking, especially with irons, is going to be a major key for players this week. The greens at Augusta National are so challenging that controlling iron shots into the greens will be extremely important. If players hit their irons into the wrong quadrants of the greens, they’ll be faced with three and four putts all week. In terms of recent play, the players to target in strokes gained approach are Adam Hadwin, Rafa Cabrera-Bello, Rickie Fowler, Bryson DeChambeau, Justin Thomas, and Xander Schauffele.
Birdie or Better % (BoB%): There are really not many weeks where we aren’t going to target birdie or better percentage, because that’s what fantasy golf scoring is all about. This event should lend itself to low scores, with some short par-4s and reachable par-5s. The best players in this field in recent birdie or better percentage are Phil Mickelson, Jon Rahm, Bryson DeChambeau, Kevin Chappell, Justin Rose, and Pat Perez.
Par-5 Scoring (P5): All of the par-5s are reachable for the majority of players in the field, especially holes #13 and #15. Players who can attack these holes and rack up birdies and eagles will be leading throughout the week. This could mean bombers, or it could mean elite wedge players. Some of the best par-5 scorers in this field are Pat Perez, Jason Day, Bryson DeChambeau, Justin Thomas, Kevin Chappell, and Phil Mickelson.
The Masters runs through Jordan Spieth. There’s no denying that. He faded last year to an 11th place finish, but had previously gone 2nd-1st-2nd in his three starts. He’s struggled with his putting most of this season, but the ball-striking continues to be the best on Tour. This weekend in Houston, he continued his onslaught with his irons and wedges, and nearly won. Take away a few misses inside four feet, and he would have won. In any event, that 3rd place finish will really boost his confidence heading back to Augusta. He should be the favorite in a stacked field.
2. Justin Rose
This will be one of the most popular picks of the week, but I don’t see how anyone could say a bad word about Justin Rose. His Masters record is incredible – highlighted by his playoff loss last season – and his form matches. Rose is coming off back-to-back top-5 finishes at the Valspar Championship and the Arnold Palmer Invitational, so he’s full of confidence heading to Augusta. Rose has been solid off-the-tee and has one of the purest putting strokes in the world. Two-time major champion Justin Rose has a nice ring to it.
3. Tiger Woods
I don’t know if this is going to be a popular sentiment, but I think Tiger Woods wins the Masters. This would be one of the greatest comebacks in sports history, but all the signs are there. Tiger is clearly healthy, and he’s shown the consistency that was lacking in each of his previous comebacks. He recently finished 12th at the Honda Classic, 2nd at the Valspar Championship, and 5th at the Arnold Palmer Invitational. Tiger ranks 15th in strokes gained approach, 7th in strokes gained around-the-green, and 14th in strokes gained putting. If he can straighten out his driver, he’ll be a factor once again.
4. Bubba Watson
Re-motivated and rejuvenated, we’ve seen Bubba Watson dominate this year. He won Riviera for the 3rd time, and rolled to a victory in the WGC-Match Play a week ago. Bubba comes to Augusta – where he’s won twice – full of confidence, which is critically important. His driver is still a huge weapon, and he’s sharpened his short game dramatically this season. He ranks 6th in strokes gained off-the-tee and 16th in greens in regulation this season, who key stats for the Masters. Watson is priced in the mid-tier, but should be a top-5 favorite this week.
Dustin Johnson. World number one. Remember him? It was one year ago that DJ had to withdraw after a “fall down the stairs” which sent shockwaves through the field. He came into that week on the heels of three consecutive wins. He opened 2018 with an 8-shot win in Hawaii, but it’s been tough sledding ever since. He’s had some great weeks, but has struggled on Sundays. In any event, he’s finished 4th and 6th in his last two starts at Augusta, and has the perfect game for the course. He bombs it off-the-tee and can dominate these par-5s.
6. Rory McIlroy
Rory found his putting stroke on a sensational back-nine at the Arnold Palmer Invitational, torching the contenders that included Tiger Woods, Justin Rose, and Henrik Stenson. He’s posted four consecutive top-10 finishes at Augusta, and it’s no secret how badly he wants this one. Rory needs a green jacket to complete the career grand slam. His consistency still worries me a bit, because I don’t think we can expect that kind of putting performance from him again. Rory will have to rely on his deadly driver to rip apart the field this week.
He’s playing the best golf he’s played in the past decade. Phil won the WGC-Mexico Championship, and continues to flash an all-around game. Statistically, he’s near the top of the field in most strokes gained categories, but needs to improve his accuracy off-the-tee. A final round 67 in Houston bodes well for his chances this week. He’s the best performer on the par-5s at Augusta National, which is a trend he’ll have to continue in order to contend this week. Phil is a three-time Masters champion, and there’s no secret that this is what his year is all about. This year could continue to be a magical one for him.
8. Paul Casey
The ownership on Casey will be interesting this week, since he’s surrounded by names like Bubba Watson, Rickie Fowler, Justin Rose, and Sergio Garcia. He recently won the Valspar Championship, for his first PGA Tour win in nearly a decade. Casey has finished inside the top-6 at Augusta each of the past three seasons, and has reached the point of his career where it’s major or bust. Casey ranks 8th in strokes gained approach and 11th in strokes gained around-the-green this season.
JT said he felt the nerves of becoming world number one during his match against Bubba Watson, but that’s not surprising. He’s turned into one of the game’s most clutch performers, especially on Sundays. He’s won twice this season, most recently at the Honda Classic, and backed that up with a playoff loss at the WGC-Mexico Championship. He won his first major last season, which is a sign of many, many more to come. Although he’s never broken 70 at Augusta National, his distance and birdie-making prowess should make him a threat this week. Statistically, he’s number one in my model.
10. Jason Day
Day went from under-the-radar to chalk and back to under-the-radar in just a few weeks. 2017 was disastrous for him, on and off the course, but he’s charged back in 2018. He won at Torrey Pines last month, and has continued to play well since, including a runner-up at Pebble Beach. Day has had a ton of success at Augusta, including 2nd, 3rd, and 10th place finishes. Aussies tend to perform well here, and Day is no exception. Considering the ownership of Rose, Woods, and Phil around him, I think Day goes under-the-radar this week. His short game has been especially sharp lately, and I know his long game will catch up soon enough.