The 83rd edition of the coveted Masters is dawning upon us. The hunt for the first major title of the year for some, while others attempt to cross off a major milestone off their checklist.
Augusta National is undoubtedly one of the most daunting courses in the world, with its increasing length from year to year and deadly pin-positions on Sundays. This year, the fifth hole, also known as ‘Magnolia’, was lengthened from 455 yards to 495 yards with two new gaping bunkers on the left side of the fairway.
It is never easy to compete at Georgia’s gem, unless you are ’97 Tiger Woods who won with a 12-stroke margin. The Big Cat’s last triumph at a major was over a decade ago – the – ’08 US Open, but winning this week seems plausible for the 14-time Major champion.
Woods has performed relatively decent in recent months after coming back from injury. Last year, he came in 2nd at the PGA Championship before winning the Tour Championship.
Justin Thomas, who played with Woods and Fred Couples nine-holes on Monday, had this to say.
“Tiger probably isn’t as, I mean I’m not trying to be mean, but isn’t as helpful I would say as Freddie. He just doesn’t, at this point, he doesn’t quite give as much information.”
Wood’s tightly sealed lips may be his greatest asset of all. After all, he has won the Masters four times and with that bit of veteran knowledge around the course, he is second to none.
Actually, the ‘secret’ to winning at Augusta is actually no secret at all – getting on in regulation, scrambling and scoring, primarily, on Par 5’s.
2015 winner Jordan Spieth finished -12 for the week on the Par 5’s alone and won with a record-tying performance. He tied Woods’ tournament low at -18 after breaking the 36- and 54-hole scoring record along the way.
Nevertheless, Woods is not my pick this year. He is definitely in the mix, but there are five others who, in my view, have more to offer.
Bear in mind that in the last four years, the Masters had a first-timer tailored into their Green Jacket and this year could be no different.
The Prodigy – Rory McIlroy
Frankly, the Ulsterman should have won the title back in 2011 where it has become a tragic memory for viewers and himself.
Known as the ‘McIlroy’s Masters Meltdown’, he had a four-shot lead on Saturday after maintaining his impressive start to the week.
Dropping six shots in three holes on the back nine on the final day gave him an 80 and handed Charl Schwartzel the win.
Despite that, he went on to win the US Open that year and two more Majors in 2014. The Northern Irishman still was seeking his final piece to the Grand Slam puzzle, and year-after-year, tried to remove the existence of his collapse the only way he knew how – with a win.
McIlroy has finished in top-10 in each of his last five starts at Augusta, with positions of T8, 4, T10, T7, and T5 respectively since 2014.
McIlroy has one win for the year and seven top-10s in eight appearances – four of them in the top-five.
“I’ve started the second phase of my career. I’ve learned a lot in the last 10-11 years and feel I can make the next 10-11 years even better,” he said after edging out Jim Furyk at the Players Championship.
McIlroy leads the Tour in two categories, strokes gained off the tee and tee-to-green. He hits 72% of his greens and scrambles at 58%.
He averages 4.58 for Par 5’s, 3.92 for Par 4’s and 2.91 for Par 3’s. In other words, he is playing the best golf of his career.
With all factors considered and when the stars are finally aligned, this Masters belongs to McIlroy.
The Major Machine – Brooks Koepka
Brooks Koepka won back-to-back US Opens in 2017 and 2018 while winning the PGA Championship in the same year. His performances at Augusta are not up to standard and yet to break in the top-10 in his three Masters appearances. Finishes at 33rd in 2015, 21st in 2016 and 11th in 2017, he did improve in standings year after year.
In all his Major wins, Koepka did not start out hot. The Florida native usually makes his surge in the second and fourth round, evident with his averages of 68.94 and 68.27 respectively for 2018. This year, he improved his averages in the final round, a commendable 67.83.
For the current season, Koepka has won once, at the CJ Cup at Nines Bridges in Korea, and came in second once.
Koepka averages 69% for greens in regulation but is 56% for successful scrambling. The key here is his performances on Par 5’s – 4.5 on average. His only worry are the Par 3’s, where he struggles at an average of 3.13, the bottom 5% on the Tour.
Koepka in a warped sense, is like a microwave oven. He starts out slow but can get heated on quickly mid-way, except there is a time-limit on how streaky he can get.
The best part, he turns it up during the final stages of the round. His win at the CJ Cup graced the crowd with a flawless 7-under-par display on the back nine to beat Gary Woodland at Jeju Island.
At Shinnecock Hills last year, he just stayed consistent to shoot a solid 68 with an even-par back nine while the rest of the field played catch-up.
Tommy Fleetwood’s 63 was a beauty to watch on such an arduous course but it was unfortunate he fell short. If Koepka can mitigate his way around the Par 3’s at Augusta, I daresay he has a shot of being the newest member with a Green Jacket.
Mr Consistent – Matt Kuchar
Matt Kuchar has already won twice this season with five top-10s under his belt. A moniker like Mr. Consistent is most suitable for the ‘Kooch’, and his unique one-plane swing which dominated headlines four years ago. His ball striking is said to be one of the best on tour, and is ranked just behind Tiger Woods, Charles Howell III and Gary Woodland.
The 40-year-old had some notable finishes at the Masters, T3 in 2012, T8 in 2013, T5 in 2014 and T4 in 2017.
The American leads the Tour with greens in regulation at 76% and also at 6th for driving accuracy at 71%. He has a 4.45 scoring average for Par 5’s and the other two are also under par.
The 64% scrambling percentage gives him a slight edge over the first two picks but with almost 3/4 of his game putting for birdie or better, scrambling would not be a major factor in his game.
However, Kuchar’s problems lies with the flat stick. He is severely below the Tour average on the greens, and is ranked 150th for putting inside of 10 feet. His strokes gained from putting is -0.122
In a research done for the field’s proximity-to-the-pin averages, Augusta ranked number one in difficulty, with players leaving themselves an average of 31 feet from the pin as compared to the Tour average of 26 feet.
Kuchar’s current average for proximity to hole is 34 feet and 9 inches and it might pose an issue if he is not sharp enough with the irons.
According to research, three-putts on the Augusta greens are 80% more likely to happen to the players.
If the putter gets hot for Kuchar, he might finally capture his first Major title.
The Nice Guy – Tommy Fleetwood
The Southport native is no stranger to contention in Major championships, especially at the US Open where he came in fourth and second consecutively in the last two years.
His luck at the other Majors however, seems to run out. He has never made top-10 in any Open or PGA Championship appearance which seemed a tad odd for someone with this much talent.
Fleetwood has conceded himself as a risk taker, one who will always go for the win.
“Maybe that’s my difference [from] some other people but I’m always going to play to win,” he said after finding the water on the 17th at Sawgrass while trying to chase McIlroy.
“Winning is what it’s all about, not for anything than to win tournaments and big tournaments. I want to win them, not from a financial standpoint or anything. It would just be nice to have on my résumé.”
That mentality is what makes him a crowd favourite and one of my picks. A final day with him in the last flight could see some fireworks if he is leading the chase.
The 28-year-old proved that he can tame Augusta with a third round 66 in last year’s edition, but failed to capitalise on his opportunities.
Fleetwood is 6th on Tour for strokes gained tee-to-green, and has a 68% average for greens in regulation. He is 5th on Tour for scrambling at 68% and averages Par 5’s at 4.56.
He remains a prime contender for me as his aggressive playing style can easily turn a rhythmic run of birdies into a monster lead.
The People’s Champion – Justin Rose
The current world number one Justin Rose, whose sole Major came at the 2013 US Open, is my final pick from the crop. The Englishman has a blemish-free record at Augusta, making the cut 13 out of 13 appearances. He has five top-10 finishes including two runner-ups in 2015 and 2017.
Rose won the Farmers Insurance Open earlier this year, and has four other top-10 finishes if you include the Hero World Challenge.
The 38-year-old is an all-rounded performer – above tour average in all the major statistic categories at roughly the top 25%. He hits 65% for greens in regulation, 68% for scrambling, and scores 4.56 for Par 5’s.
What separates him from the rest of the field is how hot he is with the putter. The now-Honma ambassador uses the Axis1 prototype and leads the Tour in three major putting categories; putting average (1.644), one-putt percentage (47.5%) and three-putt avoidance (0.83%).
To put it in perspective, out of 360 holes played this season, Rose only three-putted three times and almost half the time takes only one putt on the green.
Rose also leads the Tour with a 40% birdie or better conversion rate. Dustin Johnson is only at 32% while McIlroy is at 35%.
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