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Quick Masters Thoughts

This is just a quick run-through of my thoughts on some of the big names and a few others for this week.

Rory McIlroy
It seems like there’s some trepidation over installing McIlroy as the favorite this week, despite him playing clearly the best golf of anyone in the world for the past year. I’ve seen some insisting that Bubba is the favorite – two Green Jackets in three years and all – while others think Jordan Spieth’s success here last year and hot run over the past month plus means he’s the favorite. Sport fans struggle with perspective, especially around the biggest stars, and in the case of McIlroy and the Masters, perspective is critical.

It’s true that his PGA Tour play this season has been spotty (MC-9th-11th in three events in Florida), but his missed cut came on a 3 wood heavy course that he’s generally struggled at over his career. Rory relies so much on the advantage of blowing his driver 20 yards past the field that when he’s forced to ease up off the tee he’s a different golfer. Besides that MC, Rory has finished 2nd at a strong European Tour event, won another strong European Tour event, and then finished around 10th at two strong PGA Tour events. The quality of his golf in 2015 has been the same as in 2014.

As for his Masters history, it’s mostly mediocre for a player of his caliber, but this is a course which clearly favors guys who can bomb it around and feast on par 5s. However, during his career at Augusta National McIlroy has suffered from an inability to score on the par 5s (4.76 average compared to 4.70 for the field) and a tendency towards big numbers (3.5% double/triple bogey rate compared to 2.5% for the field). Basically, if you think McIlroy will struggle here you believe that he’s unable to score on the par 5s here (with that huge, high draw I think that’s unlikely) and uniquely snake-bitten in terms of posting big numbers (rather than the victim of bad luck).

Adam Scott
Perhaps because of his sparse schedule, Adam Scott hasn’t gotten enough credit for the three year run he put together between 2012 and 2014: 48 official Tour events, 47 made cuts, 21 top 10s, and three victories including the 2013 Masters. Perhaps some criticism of his lack of wins is warranted, but he plays at events with mostly very strong fields and he’s taken a very solid 6% of his events. Until McIlroy hit the gas last summer, there was definitely a debate over whether he or Scott was the best in the world. Obviously not now, but in my estimation Adam Scott enters this year’s Masters Tournament as the solid second best in the field.

Scott has great course history here, which is to be expected with his distance and ability to hit his irons so well, and he’s entering with his tee to green game looking really sharp. His performance on the Florida swing was consistently elite tee to green (+1.5, +1.7, +1.7 strokes gained/round against strong fields), but he struggled while trying out the short putter and that absolutely torpedoed his overall results in Tampa and Orlando. He’s back to the anchored long putter this week and if he can just be his normal mediocre self on the greens, he’ll be in line for a high finish.

Phil Mickelson
Phil has owned Augusta National to the tune of three wins and a yearly tradition of top finishes, but the results the past couple years just haven’t been there. What’s illuminating is that when you plot Phil’s average driving distance alongside his Masters performances, there’s a pretty obvious trend. Prior to 2012, his worst finish in driving distance was 35th. During this period his combination of power off the tee, great irons/wedges, and a really strong short game made him one of the best in the world (and made up for the fact he had no clue where his tee shots were going). In 2012 he slipped to 53rd on Tour in driving distance, then 93rd and 70th the next two years.

Mickelson Driving Distance Masters Play

Along with that distance decline, his Masters results in 2013 and 2014 were both his worst since missing the cut in 1997. Phil went from scoring an average of 4.36 on the par 5s between 2008-12 to 4.70 in 2013-14. Now, this year it looks like he’s got some of his power back (driving distance and club head speed are both up), so there’s definitely some hope he’ll return to former levels of success here.

Jordan Spieth
Spieth’s run over the past two months has been great to watch and he’s fully recovered from his struggles off the tee in the second half of last season. What is interesting is how he’s changed his game even from his rookie year in 2013. Spieth was one of the most accurate guys on Tour that season, with above-average distance. Last year, his driving numbers weren’t nearly as strong and he spent the last half of the season spraying his drives off the tee, making a bid for the Tour Sauce Hall of Fame. This year he’s gotten significantly longer (~5 yards), and he’s kept his tee shots in play like in his rookie season. That’s driven his long game to elite levels.

He’s riding a bit of a lucky putter right now so it’s important to view his recent play in a slightly skeptical light. But he is one of the top 10-15 putters on Tour, so it’s not like he’s going to fall off much.

Keegan Bradley
I haven’t heard Keegan’s name mentioned at all this week, which shows the power prior play at Augusta National has over people. Keegan’s three starts here have been mediocre as a whole, especially for a guy who’s been around the 20th best in the world over that time, but he absolutely fits the mold of a guy who should shine here. He launches the ball off the tee with a solid draw, he doesn’t struggle on bentgrass greens, and he has putted better than average on similar lightning quick greens at Firestone, Houston, and Muirfield Village.

Chris Kirk
Kirk played well last year in his first Masters trip and stands out as a pretty attractive long-shot pick. His game has been messy this year, especially when contrasted with his successes at the end of last season. The common theme so far has been just really poor putting. Kirk’s established himself as a very strong putter over the last few years, but he’s not making anything so far in 2015. Kirk’s been especially poor at making long putts (2% of his 25+ footers have gone in), despite a recent history where he’s one of the best on Tour at making putts from distance over 2011-14. I’ve written about how long putting seems to be especially random, driving putting results up or down without reflecting genuine improvements or declines in putting ability. Based on that, I expect Kirk to start producing better results on the greens and overall.

The forecast looks wet all weekend which I’ve seen taken as evidence that McIlroy, in particular, will be in good shape considering his wet weather record (his WGC-Bridgestone and PGA Championship wins last year were both on wet courses). I took a look at how players with high or low ball flights played in a handful of clearly wet rounds (WGC-Bridgestone 4th round & PGA Championship rounds 2-4). Players who bring it in high onto damp greens should be able to stick it closer than those who bring it in low.

It turns out that just looking at those four rounds (~250 individual rounds), that hypothesis was borne out in the data. I specifically measured Strokes Gained on Iron shots (par 4/5 approach shots & par 3 tee shots) and compared performance in these specific rounds to all the data I have more a player since last season. This controls for talent hitting irons. The correlation with the PGA Tour’s Trackman derived Apex Height stat wasn’t strong, but the coefficients suggest a player with an extremely high ball-flight – J.B. Holmes, Keegan Bradley – could gain about a 0.15 or more strokes from their normal level of play just on their iron shots if the course plays wet this week.

Apex Height vs Wet Weather play

This is definitely a subject worth a more formal investigation, but the data points to high ball-flight players being advantaged to a small degree in wet weather.

Best and Worst of 2013-14 PGA Tour

Best rounds:

In strokes, adjusted for the ability of the field and the difficulty of the course that day.

1. Brendon de Jonge, 2nd Round Wells Fargo Championship

de Jonge shot a 62 when the course played to 72.4 and the field was solidly PGA Tour average. Unfortunately it followed a 1st round 80. He made the cut, shot two sub 70 rounds on the weekend, and captured one of only two top tens of his season.

2. Adam Scott, 1st Round Arnold Palmer Invitational

I remember tweeting after this round that it was the best of the season so far and it held up for another two months. Scott shot a 62 when the field played to 71.8 and was a bit above-average. Scott would hold the lead for most of the rest of the tournament until he blew-up with a 76 in the final round to finish solo 3rd. Scott would get his only win of the season two months later at the Colonial – beginning a ten tournament streak where he finished top 20 in every event and top ten in seven of them. His season remains ridiculously underrated.

3. Sergio Garcia, 2nd Round WGC-Bridgestone

This is the round that propelled Sergio into the lead and set-up Rory’s Sunday comeback to secure his 2nd of three wins over ridiculously strong fields. Sergio’s 61 bested the field by nine strokes, but the Bridgestone field was the fourth strongest of the year which boosts him a lot.

4. Troy Matteson, 2nd Round Greenbrier Classic

I have no recollection of this round and no recollection of ever seeing Matteson’s name this year. He sandwiched this 61 (field average of 70.9) between three others which were below average and finished T45.

5. Rory McIlroy, 1st Round Memorial

Some wonderful soul uploaded this round (along with Adam Scott & Jason Day) to Youtube. Rory’s 63 when a strong field played to 72.2 put him in the lead by three strokes, but he followed it up with a 78 on Friday and faded to T15 over the weekend. Remember the narrative that Rory couldn’t follow-up good first rounds? He blew this lead and one at the Scottish Open in July, but then followed up a 1st Round 66 at the Open Championship with an even better (relatively speaking) 66 to solidify his lead. I’d say he’s killed that narrative.

Honorable Mentions:

I can’t help but mention Andres Romero’s 1st Round at the Las Vegas event – the 25th best of the season. He opened with a 61 when the field averaged 69.5 (amazingly this was also the day J.J. Henry shot a 60). Much more notable is his 2nd Round 81 (!). His 81 was eleven shots worse than the field (the worst round by far that anyone among the top 100 rounds shot in the same tournament). He unbelievably ended up missing the cut by two strokes, making this the only one of the best 200 rounds this year where the player missed the cut.

George McNeill’s final round 61 at the Greenbrier, played right after he found out of his sister’s death, was the 15th best of the season. He finished two back of Angel Cabrera ultimately, but cheers to that round.

Worst Rounds:

I’m ignoring anyone who doesn’t at least pretend to compete regularly. #1 may or may not meet that criteria.

1. John Daly, 2nd Round at Innisbrook (Valspar Championship) – 90 when the field played to 72.7

2. Matt Every, 3rd Round at the Deutsche Bank – 86

3. Michael Bradley, 1st Round at John Deere Classic – 84

4. Toru Taniguchi, 3rd Round at US Open – 88 on the hardest day at Pinehurst

5. David Duval, 2nd Round at Travelers – 83

Honorable Mentions:

Bubba Watson’s allergy marred 1st round at the Arnold Palmer Invitational was 10th worst by a touring professional. He withdrew, unsurprisingly. Both Paul Stankowski and David Duval shot 81 in the first round of the John Deere Classic, giving that round three of the worst thirteen results of the season. Duval withdrew, but Stankowski saw out the second round with a 78 – the worst first two rounds of the season among touring pros.

Best Tournaments:

1. Martin Kaymer – US Open

2. Dustin Johnson – WGC-HSBC

3. Rory McIlroy – Open Championship

4. Rory McIlroy – WGC-Bridgestone

5. Rory McIlroy – PGA Championship

Rory had himself quite the run late summer.

Honorable Mentions:

Sergio had the 7th and 10th best tournaments of the season, back to back, but lost to Rory both times (Open Championship and WGC-Bridgestone). All four major winners were in the top fifteen (Bubba’s Masters win was 14th). Webb Simpson’s -24 win in Las Vegas (6th best) came against a poor field and on one of the easiest courses, but he torched the field to win by six shots.

Best Expected Performances:

This is based off my expected performance ratings which project every pro in my database every week. It gives you an idea not only who was the best player, but when they were the best. I’ll just mention the best guys once.

1. Rory McIlroy entering the Barclays

Unsurprisingly the best player’s peak came after his three straight victories. He also holds the next five spots – three in the other FedEx Cup events and the others at the PGA and Memorial. Safe to say he was best in August/September.

7. Adam Scott entering the Tour Championship

Remember that insane ten event run I mentioned earlier? This was the culmination of his season, and he played to expectation to finish T9.

15. Tiger Woods entering the event at Torrey Pines

After being the best in the world over 2012-13, Tiger entered 2014 at the top of my ratings. This was his first event, a T80 that resulted in a MDF. He followed with a T41 in Dubai a week later. Things unraveled from there, but this was when he was supposedly at his peak.

23. Sergio Garcia entering the PGA Championship

After being so unlucky to play amazing and lose in his previous two events, Sergio entered the PGA in his best form of the year. He never really threatened however.

27. Justin Rose entering the Barclays

Another guy who didn’t get much attention this year, despite shipping two quality events (at Congressional and the Scottish Open).

Most Unlikely Performances:

These are the tournament performances that were furthest away from my expectations in the positive direction.

1. Mike Weir at the Byron Nelson

Weir was a fringe elite player for most of the 2000s, but inexplicably lost his game around 2011. He’s less awful than he was around 2011-12, but was still projected around the level of an average Tour player in May. He finished solo second, two back of winner Brendon Todd. It was Weir’s only finish above T44 all season.

2. Martin Kaymer at the US Open

This is unsurprisingly seeing how it was the #1 performance overall above. Kaymer is a very good player, so this is less likely than McIlroy or Adam Scott playing this well, but the degree to which he destroyed that field on that course is awesome.

3. Jim Renner at the Pebble Beach Pro-am

Jim Renner is thoroughly anonymous as a pro; he’s about Tour average, but played nearly well enough to win in February. He settled for a T2 with Dustin Johnson, one back of Jimmy Walker. This finish represented over 75% of his earnings for the season.

4. Tim Clark at the Canadian Open

Clark entered the final round three back of Jim Furyk. On what was the fifth easiest round on Tour all season, Clark shot a 65 to win by a stroke. Once a peripheral top 25 player around when he won the 2010 Players, Clark’s fallen on hard times. This season – with a win, 2nd, and 5th – represents a bit of a comeback.

5. Patrick Reed at the Humana

Despite winning in 2013, Reed entered 2014 rated as essentially an average PGA Tour player. His hot streak from the Humana onward cemented him as a Ryder Cupper. He started in Palm Springs with three straight 63s and held on to win by two.

Honorable Mentions:

Billy Horschel’s back-to-back wins ranked 29th and 33rd. Rory’s Open Championship win ranks 85th – right ahead of Phil’s T2 at the PGA Championship.