Ed. note: GOLF has partnered with CDW to reveal how the best golfers in the world develop trustworthy, secure game plans for the Masters. In this series, we’ll dig in to the science and data competitors rely on to protect against the pitfalls and pressures of Augusta National.
Part I: How data is helping players make informed decisions. Part II: Inside the Augusta National playbook. Part III: Phil Mickelson, data scientist.
AUGUSTA, Ga. — The most shocking sight all week at the Masters wasn’t a ripped drive or a holed putt. Nay, the biggest, “wait, what?” moment came when Jon Rahm laid up at No. 15 on Saturday morning.
It’s hardly rare to see players lay up to Augusta’s par-5s, of course. But when they do, it’s usually because a player has hit his tee shot out of play, drawn a bad lie or has an obstructed line to the green. What was so weird about this layup is that Rahm, hardly a short hitter, hit a great drive down the middle of the fairway. But from 242 yards in the damp, cool morning air, he made the risk-reward calculation and decided the move was to lay back.
“The golf course is playing long right now,” said Tiger Woods, who himself laid up from 213 yards in the rough at the par-5 13th. “The air is heavy. The ball is not really flying like it was yesterday.”
So what do we know about Augusta National‘s par-5s, how do pros approach them and, analytically, how does that change the way we should think about them?
The spectrum of par
Let’s check out the eight highest scoring averages, per hole, for the second round at the 2020 Masters:
No. 10: 4.23
No. 7: 4.26
No. 1: 4.26
No. 18: 4.31
No. 2: 4.42
No. 8: 4.51
No. 13: 4.68
No. 15: 4.70
You start to think about the holes slightly differently once par stops being attached, right? Those numbers are basically a steady continuum from 4.2 to 4.7. But it’s interesting that we refer to the top four as Augusta’s most difficult holes and the bottom four as Augusta’s easiest holes. That’s because we’ve divided them into a binary: par-4s vs. par-5s. In reality, the bottom seven holes are each closer to a (theoretical) par of 4.5 than to either whole number.
This can be confusing, but that confusion is a good thing, because it’s much more interesting to have half-par holes. Why? Because your score on that hole can’t be categorized as simply success or failure.
We think of birdies as meaning “one shot better than expected” and we think of par meaning “the expected number of shots.” But a 4.51 scoring average at No. 8 means that making birdie is only a half-shot better than expected. It’s a half-birdie. Making par, meanwhile, becomes a half-bogey. Half-pars are chaotic and delightful.
Some days, Augusta will have par-4s that play to a higher scoring average than par-5s. Stats whiz Lou Stagner has compiled a Masters database, which includes hole-by-hole information dating to 1983. The easiest par-5 in any single round was the 15th hole in the final round in 2010, when the hole played to a scoring average of 4.19. That day, 94% of players hit the green in regulation.
That very same round, the par-4 11th averaged 4.27 shots — and the par-4 5th averaged 4.48! Remember: Par is a spectrum. Beware the half-par holes.
Augusta National’s two par-5 styles
Augusta National has two par-5s on each side: 2 and 8 on the front, 13 and 15 on the back. The front nine’s par-5s are a slightly different style than the back nine, and they’re all terrific holes, but it’s interesting to think about how they’re strategically different.
Here’s how I see it: No. 2 and No. 8 each play like bombs-away two-and-a-half shot holes. (No. 2 has played downwind and therefore slightly shorter and easier this year, but the principle still applies). Each hole has a bunker guarding the right side. Avoid the bunker, find the fairway and you’re likely in a go zone. Each green has plenty of room around it, too — no water, that is — but each greenside is treacherous from the incorrect angle. As a result, you see lots of big, free swings and clever recovery chips.
On the back nine, the tenor changes. No. 13 and No. 15 are two of golf’s most dramatic risk-reward holes. For most of golf’s best players, length isn’t a make-or-break factor on these two holes, but the approach shots require such precision that every yard closer to the hole is valuable. Water guards the front of each green, but long is very hard, too. If No. 2 and No. 8 are essentially two-and-a-half shotters, No. 13 and No. 15 are two-shotters — just extremely demanding two-shotters, with more punishing penalties. While the pros have birdied all four at a relatively similar rate, they’ve made more than twice as many bogeys on the back-nine par-5s.
If you compare the slate of par-5s to Augusta’s most difficult par-4s, the biggest difference is that the 5s demand you pass one additional test. A slopey, guarded green (No. 2), or a massive hill to climb (No. 8) or a complex hazard to navigate (No. 13) or the demand for yardage perfection (No. 15). In each case, those demands don’t cost these pros a full shot. But they do provide some extra intrigue.
These days, golfers look at more statistical analysis than ever, but they’re also the ones hitting the actual shots and making decisions in real time. What do they think of Augusta’s par-5s?
Bryson DeChambeau raised eyebrows early in the week when he said that in his mind, Augusta National was playing to a par 67. His plan was to swing away on all par-5s (plus the short par-4 3rd) and neutralize the extra yardage of Augusta’s longest holes.
“From a driving perspective, I just am trying to get up there like I’m in a batter’s box swinging as hard as I can trying to hit a home run,” DeChambeau said in his pre-tournament press conference. “I don’t know if there’s a better way to say it.”
Justin Thomas played a practice round with DeChambeau and acknowledged that if the plan worked, DeChambeau would enjoy a distinct advantage.
“I knew that he was going to have sand or gap wedge into 13 and I was going to have to hit a really good drive and turn it around those trees that he flies it over,” Thomas said. “Holes like 13 and 15 are par-4s for him and par-5s for everybody else. But it is what it is.”
Of course, things didn’t go completely according to plan. DeChambeau made double-bogey 7 at 13 the first day, serving as a reminder that with great distance comes great volatility.
Paul Casey laid out the nuanced differences on No. 13 vs. 15, giving insight into his approach to each hole.
“It’s funny, for me 13 is conservative off the tee and aggressive with a second shot, and 15 is aggressive off the tee and then kind of conservative with the second shot,” Casey said. His reasoning makes sense: The tee shot at 13 demands precision over length, while the approach shot at 15 demands control above all else, which puts distance at a premium. “And if I mess up the tee shot on 15, I still have an opportunity for birdie to knock it down and wedge it on.”
Xander Schauffele acknowledged that the half-pars can be confusing, but he said he doesn’t try to think too hard about scores with respect to par. He’s plenty long off the tee but can’t go driver-wedge on the par-5s like DeChambeau, so he won’t try to.
“I’ll just play my game. I don’t have the 340 in the air covered,” he said wryly. In other words, he’ll continue trying to make the lowest number possible, whether that comes out to birdie, par or other.
After all, at the end of each round, the folks in the scorer’s tent don’t worry about adding up the numbers in the “Par” column on your card. They’re just worried about the ones you’ve added in pencil — and what those add up to at the end.