Watching Texas, with eye toward Augusta

March, 26, 2014

With the best four days of the college basketball season in the books, sports fans are now counting down in days (or for some of us, hours) until the beginning of Masters week.

Trivia question

Arnold Palmer won the Texas Open three straight years, from 1960-1962. Palmer did this at one other event in his career. What tournament was it? Answer below

Most of us probably don't need the constant reminders that come during the college hoops coverage -- but that doesn't make the images of Amen Corner and Magnolia Lane any less welcome on the television screen.

Over the next two weeks, the pervasive theme of the PGA Tour stops in San Antonio and Houston will be the world's top players gearing up for the season's first major. But how significant are strong finishes at the tour events leading up to Augusta?

Last year, Houston and San Antonio, in that order, were the last two events before the Masters. Those two wins weren't exactly harbingers of great success: D.A. Points won the Shell, then finished T-38 at Augusta. Valero Texas Open winner Martin Laird missed the Masters cut.

In the past 20 years, 19 players who earned a victory in one of the final two PGA Tour events before the Masters went on to play at Augusta. The lone exception was Zach Johnson in 2004. As many of those players missed the cut (three) as finished in the top five at the season's first major.

During the past three years, nobody in that group of PGA Tour winners went on to finish in the top 10 at the Masters. That group of players includes stars such as Tiger Woods, Hunter Mahan and Phil Mickelson.

Winning doesn't promise impending Masters success, but that doesn't mean strong play earlier in the year doesn't prove to be significant.

The last player to win the Masters without a top-20 on the PGA Tour to his credit that season was Nick Faldo in 1989, who had none in seven previous tour starts that year. That's bad news for Woods, whose best finish so far this year is a tie for 25th.

None of the previous four Masters winners had a PGA Tour win that season before their victory at Augusta, but they all entered the major with strong, if not overwhelming, season résumés.

Adam Scott in 2013? No wins, but eight of his 12 rounds were below par, and he had a tie for 10th at Northern Trust and a T-3 at Doral. Bubba Watson in 2012? No wins, but three top-five finishes and 75 percent of his rounds were better than par. Combined, none of the four winners (the other two being Phil Mickelson in 2010 and Charl Schwartzel in 2011) had missed a single PGA Tour cut leading up to the Masters that season.

So which event can fans look to historically as a glimpse into what the top of the Masters leaderboard might look like?

Over the past 10 years, the Masters winner played earlier in the season at Doral nine times, at either the WGC-CA Championship or the Ford Championship at Doral. All nine of those eventual Masters winners made the cut at Doral, and four of them finished in the top 10, including Scott (finished T-3) and Watson (second).

Since 2007, Masters winners have entered the season's first major with a combined seven PGA Tour top-10 finishes. Three of them came at Doral -- no other course has more than one.

Trivia answer

Question: Arnold Palmer won the Texas Open three straight years, from 1960-1962. Palmer did this at one other event in his career. What tournament was it?

Answer: The Phoenix Open, from 1961-1963

Looking forward to Augusta, several promising names fit those recent Masters winner trends. Seven players have multiple top-10 PGA Tour finishes this calendar year -- none of them wins -- with one of them coming at Doral. The names on that list: Dustin Johnson, Hunter Mahan, Graeme McDowell, Jason Dufner, Bill Haas, Jamie Donaldson and Charl Schwartzel.

As for this week's event, no player since 2009 has finished in the top 10 at both the Masters and the Valero Texas Open in the same season. Common champions, though, permeate the two events' histories -- both recent (Adam Scott in 2010, Zach Johnson in 2008 and 2009) and not as recent (Arnold Palmer is a three-time winner of the Texas Open).

And even if it might not predict the Masters winner, San Antonio is promised a great event this week. After all, each of the past seven years, the Texas Open has been decided by 2 shots or fewer.