No Tiger, but plenty of favorites at Augusta
If we at Numbers Game are known for anything (and that's unlikely, but play along), it's cold, calculating math regarding the sport you and I both love. But this week, more than any other, defrosts our calculator. Masters memories are seemingly endless, and are better discussed by others who are more qualified in other sections of this website.
What we at Numbers Game can do, though, is give you fuel to win your Masters pool. The numbers point to four players as the biggest favorites this week at Augusta National -- three recent major champions, and a fourth who has been banging on the door for years now.
Trivia questionThis will be the first Masters without Tiger Woods since 1994. Can you list the top four finishers at Augusta that year? Answer below
With a third-place finish or better this week at Augusta, Scott will become the No. 1 player in the world for the first time in his career. The biggest reason Scott is in that position is that he is, by far, the most consistent performer in major championships over the past two years. Since the beginning of 2012, only three players have made the cut in all eight majors played -- Scott, Jason Dufner and Tiger Woods. Scott has a combined score of 4-under par in those eight tournaments. Dufner is a combined 12-over (so 16 shots behind Scott), while Woods is 21-over (25 shots behind). Scott isn't just making cuts, he's contending regularly in the sport's biggest events. Scott has five top-10 finishes in major championships in the past two years.
According to the Elias Sports Bureau, no other player has more than four in that span (Lee Westwood and Ian Poulter). Scott will attempt to become the first back-to-back winner of the Masters since Woods in 2001 and 2002. Only three players have ever won the Masters in consecutive years -- Woods, Nick Faldo (1989-90) and Jack Nicklaus (1965-66). Those three players have a combined 38 major championships to their names.
Before his opening-round 80 and subsequent withdrawal last week in Houston, one could make the argument that Johnson should enter the Masters as the prohibitive favorite, despite not yet having a major championship to his name. In his five stroke-play starts in the 2013-14 season leading up to last week, Johnson had yet to finish worse than tied for sixth. He was leading the PGA Tour in greens in regulation (73.6 percent), scoring average (69.0), birdie average and all-around ranking. And being outside the top 100 in driving accuracy (as Johnson is) is truly irrelevant when you lead the PGA Tour in approach-shot proximity from the rough. But where Johnson has improved astronomically this season is on the green. DJ ranked 117th last season in strokes gained putting. In his career, he has only finished a season inside the top 80 on tour in that statistic once -- when he was T-50th in 2012. This season? Johnson is 19th, a jump of nearly 100 spots.
In the more archaic putting stat "putting average," he's first on tour, and his 38 percent conversion rate of birdie- and eagle-putt attempts is also best this season. Johnson has six career top-10 finishes in majors, all coming since the 2009 PGA Championship. He has been either first or second entering the final round of a major three times since 2010. His eight PGA Tour wins are two more than any other player currently under age 30 (Rory McIlroy has six). Each of the past three Masters winners and 15 of the past 19 major champions were first-time major winners. So back permitting, why not Johnson?
The two-time major winner and Las Vegas' favorite this week sent a warning shot to the Masters field on Sunday at the Golf Club of Houston. McIlroy's sparkling, bogey-free 65 needed just 24 putts (only 11 on the back nine), and had six approach shots land within 16 feet of the cup. In last week's Numbers Game, we mentioned McIlroy's uncharacteristically mediocre iron play since the beginning of last season. That changed last week at the Houston Open, where McIlroy ranked T-8th in the field for the week in approach-shot proximity from the fairway. In Rory's last start before the 2012 PGA Championship (the WGC-Bridgestone), McIlroy led the field in that statistic. We all know what happened next at Kiawah Island.
There is also strong precedent for McIlroy when it comes to entering a major championship with momentum. In his last PGA Tour rounds before the 2011 U.S. Open and 2012 PGA, McIlroy shot 68 in each, finishing tied for fifth and solo fifth in both tournaments, respectively. Sunday's 65 in Texas vaulted him to a T-7th finish. Should McIlroy win his first green jacket this week, he would join an incredible list of players to win three professional major championships before turning 25 years old. In the past 90 years, the only three players to accomplish that feat are Woods, Nicklaus and Bobby Jones.
On top of the obvious that he's our most recent major champion, many signs point to Dufner being a strong pick at Augusta National this week.
Checkpoint No. 1: coming in with good form. No champion since Nick Faldo in 1989 has entered the Masters without a top-20 on the PGA Tour that season already to his credit. None of our previous four Masters winners had missed a cut on the tour leading up to that season's first major. Dufner passes those with flying colors: four top-15 finishes in six 2014 tour starts with no missed cuts.
Question: This will be the first Masters without Tiger Woods since 1994. Can you list the top-four finishers at Augusta that year?
Answer: Jose Maria Olazabal won. The rest of the top four: Tom Lehman, Larry Mize and Tom Kite.
Checkpoint No. 2: playing well at Doral. No pre-Masters tournament in recent years has been a better indicator of Augusta's leaderboard than Doral. Over the past 10 years, the Masters champion has played earlier in that season at Doral nine times. All nine of those winners made the cut at Doral, and four of them finished in the top 10. The past two Masters winners, Scott and Bubba Watson, finished T-3rd and second, respectively. Dufner passes again: a tie for ninth place at The Donald's new creation.
Checkpoint No. 3: a clutch résumé. While it's true that Dufner is a combined 10-over on the weekend at Augusta in his career, recent trends point to that changing this week. Dufner has broken par in four of his past five final rounds in major championships. In the past three final rounds of majors last season, Dufner was a combined nine under par. And four times in Dufner's career, he's entered the final round of a major inside the top 10. He shot par or better all four times, posting a combined score of 4-under. No Tiger? No problem. Masters week is here, and the excitement is impossible to contain.