The Masters’ Real Big Three: Our Metric Uncovers a Dominant Trio

April 6, 2016
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In assessing the best Masters players over time, raw scores and green jackets tell much of the story—but hardly all of it. Another metric of true dominance is a player’s score against the field, measured hole by hole. Looking back to 1970 (the first Masters with easily accessible scoring data), the best golfers at the Masters at scoring per round are an unsurprising group: Jack Nicklaus (2.6 strokes better than the field), Tiger Woods (2.5) and Phil Mickelson (2.3). These three have combined to win 13 green jackets.

Behind the top three are Tom Watson (2.0) and Gary Player (1.97), trailed by Vijay Singh (1.60) and Fred Couples (1.58). The first Masters specialist is Angel Cabrera, the 2009 champion, who in 16 starts at Augusta has bettered the field’s scoring by 1.4 strokes per round—far superior to his career numbers in regular PGA and European tour events. Greg Norman (1.51) and Tom Weiskopf (1.51) both have stellar scoring records here without donning a green jacket.

Nicklaus, Woods and Mickelson went about their business at Augusta National in slightly different ways (see charts). Nicklaus typically started slowly, but he easily rates the best on the back nine. That’s where he had his six best holes, starting with the reachable par-5 13th, the par-3 16th (site of his legendary tee shot in the final round of his 1986 win) and the tricky downhill par-4 10th. His  back-nine dominance was greatest in final rounds, when he beat the field by 2.1 strokes—a better margin over nine holes than the career averge margin at Augusta for 18 holes by anyone not named Tiger or Phil.

Woods may be the most consistent golfer to ever play Augusta National. He has beaten the field on every hole during his career. The four-time Masters champ has cut it close only at the long par-3 4th hole and par-4 14th hole. Like most Masters winners, he has been best at the par-5 13th and 15th holes.

Mickelson has struggled on the short par-3s—the 6th, 12th and 16th—but he has dominated the 13th hole. There, his total over 88 Masters rounds is 45 shots better than the field, or a 4.22 scoring average on a par-5. He has gained just short of half of his shots on the field on the par-5s.

As for other high-profile names, Bubba Watson has the most striking graph of any of the top golfers. Bubba, a two-time champ, has been worse than the field on eight holes, and especially woeful on the devilish 12th. Some 65% of his total shots gained on the field have come at the 13th and the 15th holes.

Rory McIlroy has been up and down, the latter best exemplified by his final–round meltdown in 2011. It has been his failure to take advantage of his length on the par-5 holes that has hurt him most. None of the par-5s rank in his six best holes versus the field, and he’s done his best scoring on the par-4 9th, 17th and 18th holes.

And defending champion Jordan Spieth?  He has only teed it up twice at Augusta, but his scoring margin is a stratospheric 3.8. Will the young man come down to earth? Time will tell.