From playing conditions to traditions to top contenders, our panelists consider a range of topics before picking their winners
After only six months, golf has another Masters Tournament. As the annual rite of spring returns to spring after a COVID-19-forced November edition, Morning Read teams with RotoWire to answer some of the key questions entering this week’s 85th Masters. Play begins Thursday at Augusta National Golf Club.
In this roundtable discussion, RotoWire’s Len Hochberg and Greg Vara joined Morning Read contributors Mike Purkey and Gary Van Sickle to help readers prepare for the first major championship of the men’s season. So, here we go ...
The Masters returns to its regular April slot after a November COVID edition. What type of golfer benefits from springtime conditions compared with those who might have struggled in the fall, when Augusta National played softer and yielded a record-breaking winning score to Dustin Johnson?
RotoWire’s Len Hochberg: While a long hitter has an advantage under either set of conditions, golfers will need an elite short game to win this week. The course always plays firm and fast in April, and early indications are that this year will be extremely firm and fast. It doesn't appear as if anyone will come close to Johnson's 20-under. A lot of guys fit the requirement of being a long hitter, but those who play best from 100 yards and in will contend/win this Masters.
Morning Read’s Mike Purkey: Weather is always the wild card at the Masters, as April in Augusta is not entirely predictable. It can be cold, windy, warm, wet or any combination of the four. However, players who are long off the tee and can hit their iron shots high usually have the advantage, no matter the conditions. No, that doesn’t narrow it down much. A number of players in the field fit that description, which means the tournament is wide open.
Morning Read’s Gary Van Sickle: Johnny Miller used to call it the Spring Putting Championship. In April, usually only the players who can handle the fast-and-undulating greens have a chance. In November, the softer, slower greens helped remedial putters (by PGA Tour standards) such as D.J. Augusta National is a second-shot golf course and a putters'-chippers' course in April when the turf is firm, which makes it a high-ball hitter's course (read: big hitter). The best iron games and best short games usually prevail: Tiger Woods, Phil Mickelson, Zach Johnson, Trevor Immelman, Ben Crenshaw, Patrick Reed, et al. But Sergio Garcia and Vijay Singh won Masters, so anything's possible.
RotoWire’s Greg Vara: I think what we’ll see is more treacherous conditions around the greens, so precision striking will be extremely important as to avoid being on the wrong side of the green, which we all know can be akin to a one-stroke penalty on certain holes. I’m hoping for a bit of wind and no precipitation, as Augusta can be too easy for these guys without the aid of certain weather conditions.
What’s a better indicator of potential success this week: a player’s recent performance, or his overall track record at Augusta?
Hochberg: It's hard not to say "both." There certainly are strong indications that you have to be playing well coming in; Augusta is no place suddenly to find what's been missing in your game. But the edge goes to overall track record. There might be no course that takes more time – years, really – to learn fully all of the nuances, strategies, where to land the ball on the green, where the best place to miss is, etc.
Purkey: Augusta National is not a quick study, hence only three players have won in their first try, and the last was 1979. In fact, first-time Masters winners average 6.23 starts before being awarded their green jacket. The greens are so complicated that it takes time to learn where to position iron shots and where not to miss. And it’s vital to know how to play big, breaking putts. That knowledge comes only with experience.
Van Sickle: I'd say a track record over four or more Masters tells you whether a certain player can deal with the greens, which are like nowhere else on tour. I don't care how well you're playing: Augusta's greens are a different level of golf. They're not for everyone. Winning the Puerto Rico Open doesn't mean you’re ready for this. A 10th- or 12th-place finish in a previous year indicates that you might be.
Vara: I’m solidly in the “track record” camp when it comes to the Masters. Take a quick glance at the track records of those in the field and you’ll see a bunch of haves and have-nots, which to me indicates that you either have a feel for Augusta or you don’t. There always are going to be exceptions, but for the most part, the winner is not a huge surprise.
Which player stats, if any, do you think are most predictive of success at Augusta?
Hochberg: It's a course that requires a complete skill set. But what will separate the top of the leaderboard from the others is short game, both wedge and putter. Strokes gained: around the green, scrambling, putting. That's why we see guys who aren't the very longest hitters – say, Patrick Reed and Jordan Spieth – in the conversation.
Purkey: Obviously, you can’t win the Masters without putting well, especially lag putting. But par-5 average is telling. All four par 5s are reachable in two by most players in the field. Whoever takes care of the par 5s the best usually will be high on the leaderboard.
Van Sickle: Proximity to the hole, true for nearly any event, is a key, and it had better be proximity below the hole. Putting from above the cup on these sloping surfaces is a good way to have the weekend off. My favorite stat is lowest three-putt percentage. The Masters winner is often the player who didn't three-putt in 72 holes, or maybe did it only once.
Vara: I try not to get too far into the weeds when looking at stats as a predictor as you need everything clicking to win here. When we look back, we can explain how someone won the tournament by looking at the stats, but claiming that, say, short game is the most important metric doesn’t help much because someone with a poor short game might excel in that area this week, but there’s no way of seeing that ahead of time. We’ve seen several different routes to the green jacket over the years, and the one thing they all have in common is that everything was working for the better part of four days.
What’s your favorite Masters tradition?
Hochberg: It's not any single tradition. It's just that there's so much tradition, that pretty much everything we see is what we see every year. I'm not sure that's what you were looking for, but that's what comes to mind.
Purkey: The patrons at the Masters are fans unlike any other. There won’t be as many this year because of COVID-19 restrictions. But in normal years, it’s a spectacle to watch people pour through the gates when they open and walk quickly – no running allowed – to set up their chairs (Masters green only) at their favorite viewing spots. They leave them unattended for most of the day while they walk around the course, returning to their seats – which are undisturbed – for the final couple of hours of the tournament. Try that at Yankee Stadium.
Van Sickle: I liked the original tradition of sending off two old-timers first on Thursday – to play 18 holes! I remember seeing Sam Snead and Gene Sarazen do that in the early 1980s, then Sarazen had physical issues, so they started playing only nine holes. I saw Sarazen hole a long putt – it had to be at least 60 feet – to make a par 5 at No. 8 once. As to the tradition of the ceremonial tee shot and nothing else, following minutes of Masters chairman Billy Payne formerly playing the role of pompous ringmaster, I'm not a fan.
Vara: I feel like most of the favorite traditions are reserved for those onsite, and if I were there, I would imagine that inexpensive and classic food options would be near the top of the list. From afar, and this might not be considered a tradition, but I just enjoy the feel of the entire event. Optically, it’s as good as it gets, and having the familiarity of every hole, especially on the back nine (um, second nine), just adds to the enjoyment.
The Masters often produces one or two “veterans” who dent the leaderboard or sometimes win. Which 40-something golfer will you be watching this week?
Hochberg: Would a 50-something count? Wouldn't it be fun to see Phil Mickelson make one final Masters run? He hasn't been playing very well of late, but his nearly three decades’ worth of course knowledge at Augusta make this one of the few remaining places where he could be relevant on the PGA Tour. I don't think it will happen, but just seeing him during meaningful time on Sunday would be awesome.
Purkey: Before the WGC Match Play, 42-year-old Matt Kuchar hadn’t had a top-10 finish since February 2020. But after some intense work with his swing coach, Kuchar beat Justin Thomas, Kevin Kisner, Louis Oosthuizen and Jordan Spieth on his way to the semifinals and a third-place finish. Since 2012, Kuchar has finished in the top eight at the Masters four times.
Van Sickle: I would bet real money, maybe even bitcoin, that Phil Mickelson will do something crazy-great or crazy-bad. Last week in San Antonio, for instance, he carved an imperfect 10 on one hole. He's got all the shots, including some that he wishes he didn't have. Mickelson is still exciting at both ends of the scale.
Vara: Let me start by saying this hurts, but is everyone aware that Sergio Garcia is over 40? That means that I’m … let’s move on. Garcia seems like the most likely candidate, as he has won this event and he’s coming off a good showing at the WGC Match Play a couple of weeks ago. The usual suspects, Fred Couples and Jose Maria Olazabal, seem to have lost their magic here, and although Zach Johnson is former champion, he has only one other top-10 here in 16 tries.
There can be only one, so who slips into a green jacket on Sunday?
Hochberg: Justin Thomas has played Augusta five times and gotten better every year dating to 2016: T-39, T-22, T-17, T-12 before a solo fourth in November. There are not really many more places he can move up the leaderboard without winning. He's obviously been figuring out the place little by little. My answer would've been different a month ago, but with his win at the Players Championship, Thomas washed away all the terrible things that befell him earlier in 2021.
Purkey: For the first time since 2002, there will be a back-to-back winner at the Masters. He’ll be wearing the same jacket he won in November.
Van Sickle: I've had a funny feeling all year that Jordan Spieth slowly has been climbing the stairs toward another Masters win, and he took another big step Sunday by winning the Texas Open. He's still spraying his drives? Well, he did that when he won his 2015 Masters. And when he nearly won two others. He fits the profile of the great iron player, great short-gamer and he's got a proven track record. There's also something about Sungjae Im, maybe his super-slow-mo backswing, that makes me think he's a good dark-horse pick. Of course, I once thought Enron and WorldCom were great stock picks, so ...
Vara: He’s not as locked-in as he was this past November, but I’m still siding with D.J. to repeat. It’s a tall task, winning a major two years in a row, especially considering that it took him so long to break through at Augusta, but I have a feeling the floodgates could open with the majors now. Jordan Spieth is going to be a popular choice, and looking at his game, especially after his victory Sunday at the Texas Open, there’s not much to dislike at the moment, but I feel like he has too much steam right now. So many people are on Spieth this week, and the trendy pick rarely pans out at any major.
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