Inside the dramatic shifts of Tiger Woods’ wild, improbable 2019 Masters win
How improbable was Tiger Woods’ fifth Masters win and 15th major victory? Glad you asked, because we’ve got a mainframe’s worth of numbers that track Woods’ rise and fall over 72 holes last April at Augusta. Using moment-by-moment analysis from the gurus at Data Golf, we’ve charted Tiger’s climb to the top of the leaderboard on Sunday. The win took more than a little luck and some breathtaking twists and turns. (We’re looking at you, Golden Bell.) Here, in detail, is the wavering probability of a triumph for the ages.
ABOUT DATA GOLF: Brothers Matt and Will Courchene started Data Golf (datagolf.org) in 2016, and it quickly turned into a treasure trove of analytic goodies that stat nuts and gamblers crave. Since November 2017, their predictive model has generated live, in-round updates for virtually every PGA Tour event. The company began tracking the European Tour in January 2019. Data Golf’s algorithm takes into account a player’s skill level and career stats and measures them against the field, current scores, how many holes remain, the difficulty of those holes, etc. Out pops win-probability percentages — and loads of other stats — every five minutes.
END OF ROUND 1
Bryson DeChambeau and Brooks Koepka shoot six-under 66s to tie for the first-round lead, while Phil Mickelson shoots 67 for solo third. Woods keeps himself in the mix, firing a two-under 70. “I feel very good,” Woods said. “I feel like I played well today and I controlled my golf ball all day. I’ve shot this number and won four coats, so hopefully I can do it again.”
END OF ROUND 2
The leaderboard flashes even more star power on Friday, as five major champs are deadlocked at seven under. Just one off the lead and tied for 6th are Dustin Johnson and Woods, the latter coming off a three-birdie, no-bogey back nine that led to a four-under 68. Despite being a stroke behind five others, Johnson is the favorite to win at the halfway point.
WIN PROBABILITY AFTER 36 HOLES:
Dustin Johnson 13.5%
Jason Day 11.4%
Brooks Koepka 9.6%
Adam Scott 8.4%
Louis Oosthuizen 8.2%
Francesco Molinari 8.0%
Tiger Woods 7.4%
DATA GOLF SAYS: “Back then the model was really high on DJ. He’s probably the fifth-ranked guy in our model now, but at the Masters last year he was highly rated.”
END OF ROUND 3
Francesco Molinari makes four straight birdies on Nos. 12 to 15 and is bogey-free for the second straight day. He sits at 13 under and leads Tony Finau and Woods by two, Koepka by three, Ian Poulter and Webb Simpson by four and several others by five. There’s little rest for the leaders as thunderstorms forecasted for Sunday move up final-round tee times. Groups will go off in threesomes on split tees, with the final group of Molinari, Woods and Finau scheduled to tee off at 9:20 a.m. Molinari’s win percentage is more than double Woods’, but a tense, unpredictable and thrilling day of golf is on the horizon. A day from now Koepka will call Sunday the coolest back nine he’s ever been a part of. “I don’t know how it looked on TV,” he said, “but it was amazing to be a part of.”
WIN PROBABILITY AFTER 54 HOLES:
Tony Finau 15.5%
DATA GOLF SAYS: “People sometimes forget how much even a one-stroke lead is worth with a single round left. The difference in skill between the 25th- and 150th-ranked golfers in the world is about one stroke per round, so there has to be a big skill gap for us to expect a player to make up even a one-stroke deficit.”
SUNDAY, ROUND 4
9:20 a.m., HOLE NO. 1
Molinari, Woods and Finau stand on the 1st tee at Augusta National. Four groups ahead, Patrick Cantlay’s birdie-birdie start cuts into the win percentages for the final threesome. After Molinari finds the fairway and Finau misses left, Woods steps to the tee. “Fore, please. Tiger Woods now driving!” the starter yells. Woods takes three practice swings and pipes it down the left side. He’s never won a major when trailing after 54 holes, but that’s about to change.
Xander Schauffele, two groups ahead of the final threesome, joins the hunt. He opens birdie-birdie to get to 10 under, three off the lead.
Xander Schauffele 6.0%
10:15 a.m., HOLE NO. 3
Woods makes the final group’s first birdie of the day, hitting a wedge from 126 yards to inside 10 feet on the 3rd and rolling in the putt. His win probability jumps from 16% to 25%.
DATA GOLF SAYS: “Even though it’s our model, even we are surprised at times by what it’s going to spit out.”
10:30 a.m., HOLE NO. 4
Woods follows his group’s first birdie with its first bogey, as he fails to get up and down on the par-3 4th. His chance of winning plummets back to 15.7%, as Molinari’s gets a boost to 41.7%.
10:48 a.m., HOLE NO. 5
Uh oh. Woods makes back-to-back bogeys after a three-putt on the revamped 5th, which played as the most difficult hole of the week. He drops to 10 under and is tied for second with Finau and Koepka. Molinari is three up and playing error-free golf. Caddie Joe LaCava has some choice words for his man. “I just listened; he was saying some things that I can’t really repeat here,” Woods said. “Then I went into the restroom and proceeded to say the same things over and over to myself, then came out and I felt a lot better.”
11:19 a.m., HOLE NO. 7
It’s a two-shot swing in the final group. Molinari bogeys 7 and Woods nearly holes his approach, settling for a tap-in birdie and cutting Molinari’s lead to one. Molinari’s chance of winning takes a big hit as Woods jumps into contention.
11:40 a.m., HOLE NO. 8
The field continues to crush the par-5 8th on Sunday, as seven of the tourney’s top-eight finishers will make birdie here. But Woods’ second straight birdie fails to trim the deficit, as Molinari bounces back with one of his own. Woods, however, will pick up strokes later on the back nine. Of the five players with the highest win probability at this point, all but one — the eventual 2019 Masters champ — will make a disastrous mistake on the par-3 12th within the next hour. It will be the definitive turning point of the day.
Ian Poulter 3.3%
DATA GOLF SAYS: “Win probability is now common in all sports, but it’s especially great in golf because you can have six, seven guys in contention, all at different spots on the course. Where in football you have two teams, golf is unique this way. It’s hard to assess the win probabilities.”
The tried-and-true cliché about the Masters not beginning until the back nine on Sunday is overused because it’s so true. Molinari shoots even par on the front to make the turn at 13 under and holds a 40.3% chance of winning. Woods, after a superb two-putt par on 9, shoots one-under 35, remains one back and has a 23.4% chance to win. Koepka and Finau are tied for third, two off the lead.
12:15 p.m., HOLE NO. 10
Just when things start to look up for Woods, he misses the fairway right on 10 and has to punch out. He makes bogey and drops two strokes back, into a tie with Koepka at 11 under.
12:33 p.m., HOLES NOS. 11 & 12
The terrifying 12th hole claims its first victims among those in contention. Golden Bell plays only 158 yards on Sunday but the penultimate group of Koepka, Webb Simpson and Ian Poulter struggles to decipher the swirling winds. Koepka, two off the lead, finds the water. Poulter, four back, does the same. They both make double bogey. “Once it gets above those trees, it’s just a guessing game,” Koepka said. Behind them, the final group knows exactly what’s happening — there are few secrets in Amen Corner. Woods, meanwhile, hits it so far right on 11 that he clears the trees and has an opening, leading to a gorgeous approach from 182 yards and a key par save. Molinari makes his ninth par of the day on 11, and at 13 under still leads Woods by two and Finau and four others by three. At this point, with a 64% chance to win — his highest of the day — Molinari is in control. The final threesome heads to the 12th tee. The winds of change are blowing.
Patrick Cantlay 2.0%
12:46 p.m., HOLE NO. 12
There is no other place in golf like the 12th tee at the National. Thousands watch from behind you as one of golf’s most daunting greens sits before you. Its victims are many. Just ask Tom Weiskopf and Jordan Spieth, to name two. Minutes after Koepka and Poulter found Rae’s Creek, Molinari decides to hit a “chippy 8-iron,” since he doesn’t want the wind to gust a 9-iron. The shot lands on the bank and splashes into the water. Finau finds the creek too. Both players make 5. “Amen Corner, the golfing gods, the swirling breezes — boy, they’ve bitten them hard,” Nick Faldo says on the broadcast. Woods watched Koepka and Poulter hit into the water when he was on 11, so he is already strategizing. “Brooksy is stronger than I am, and he flights it better than I do, so I’m sure he hit 9‑iron and didn’t make it,” Woods said. “I knew my 9‑iron couldn’t cover the flag, so I had to play left, and I said, just be committed, hit it over that tongue in that bunker. Let’s get out of here and go handle the par 5s.” Woods hits the shot he drew up and makes par to grab a share of the lead with Schauffele and Molinari at 11 under, with four others at 10 under and four more at nine under. Woods, for the first time, has top win probability.
Cantlay, who started the day with less than a 1% chance of winning, gets a great read from an Adam Scott putt on 15 and drains his eagle — punctuated with a fist pump — to get to 12 under and take the solo lead. Koepka also rebounds. After his double on 12, he eagles 13 to get both shots back and tie Schauffele, Molinari and Woods at 11 under. Three players now have a win probability of between 20% and 26%. A major reason Cantlay isn’t, statistically, further ahead of Woods? The algorithm knows two gettable par-5s await the final group.
DATA GOLF SAYS: “The difficulty of holes coming up is important. You saw it at the Masters. It matters a lot if the guys have Nos. 13 or 15 left to play.”
Cantlay’s lead is short-lived as Schauffele goes birdie-birdie on 13 and 14, grabbing the co-lead at 12 under. This was one of a few Data Golf updates that didn’t come at a five-minute interval. Site traffic was so high at key times, Matt and Will pushed through updates manually.
Woods and Molinari both birdie the 13th to get to 12 under, tying Schauffele for the co-lead. Cantlay stumbles after his eagle, bogeying the 16th hole.
Jason Day shoots five under and takes the clubhouse lead at 11 under, one back of the leaders on the course. Still, Data Golf gives him no love, putting his chances to win at less than 1%. Schauffele remains the stats favorite, but barely.
Dustin Johnson was even on the front nine, but after birdies on 13, 15, 16 and 17 he jumps into the story with one to play. At 12 under he’s in a five-way tie for the lead with Koepka, Woods, Schauffele and Molinari. “I was grinding hard, trying to chase Francesco,” Woods said, “and then all of a sudden the leaderboard flipped and there were a bunch of guys up there who had a chance to win.”
DATA GOLF SAYS: “Interesting that Koepka’s win probability never rose above 19%, even though he felt like the main threat for a lot of the back nine. DJ never really had a great shot: His highest win probability that day was while standing on the 18th tee.”
1:43 p.m., HOLE NO. 15
As the final group plays the 15th, five players are tied for the lead. Up ahead, Cantlay makes his second straight bogey, and back on 15, Molinari, who an hour earlier seemed destined for major glory, makes a mess of one of the course’s easiest holes. A drive flared out to the right is followed by a layup that trickles too far into the left rough and leaves him with an 80-yard pitch. He goes for the pin instead of bailing out and clips a branch, plunking his ball into the water. With his ball sinks his Masters chances. After playing the first 65 holes of the week with just two bogeys (and nothing worse), Molinari just made his second double in four holes. “I just had a couple of mental lapses on the back nine that were costly,” Molinari said. “But it is what it is.” Through all the commotion, Woods finds the fairway, hits a tight draw to the right side of the green and two-putts for birdie and his first solo lead of the day. His win probability from about 15 minutes earlier nearly doubles.
DATA GOLF SAYS: “The three biggest drops in win probabilities all belonged to Molinari: down 36% after doubling 12, down 28% after doubling 15 and down 20% after bogeying 7.”
1:54 p.m., HOLE NO. 16
Johnson’s birdie attempt on 18 never breaks, and he settles for a tap-in par and four-under 68. He’s the new clubhouse leader at 12 under and tied with Schauffele and Koepka, but Woods just hit his biggest shot of the day, sticking an 8-iron to two feet on the par-3 16th. Behind the green on the 17th tee, Koepka tries to get a look at Woods’ ball through the frenzied crowd. “I thought it might go in for a second,” Koepka said. “But it’s a good shot and that basically won him the tournament right there.” Woods makes birdie to get to 14 under and leads by two with two to play. The percentage chance of him winning skyrockets (67% to 86%) for his second-largest increase of the day. The amphitheater-like setting around the 16th is ecstatic. “I think the fans were still yelling when I was hitting,” Koepka said.
Schauffele pars 18 and joins Johnson at 12 under and two back of Woods, who is playing the 17th. Koepka plays the 18th, looking for one more birdie to get within a shot of Woods.
2:20 p.m., HOLE NO. 18
Koepka can’t believe it when his birdie putt doesn’t break. He shoots 70 and becomes the third player in at 12 under. After a par on 17, Woods stands on the par-4 18th tee at 14 under with a two-stroke lead, one hole away from his fifth green jacket.
2:30 p.m., HOLE NO. 18
Woods misses the green with his approach, but he pitches on to about 12 feet and needs two putts to win. He nestles up his par putt and taps in for bogey, winning the Masters at 13 under, one shot ahead of Johnson, Koepka and Schauffele. His arms soar into the air. The patrons follow suit. Minutes later, the 15-time major champion hugs his kids behind the green. “Both Sam and Charlie, they were there at the British Open last year when I had the lead on that back nine, and I made a few mistakes, cost myself a chance to win The Open title,” Woods said. “I wasn’t going to let that happen to them twice, and so for them to see what it’s like to have their dad win a major championship, I hope that’s something they will never forget.” Koepka sounded a final note and a warning: This is “probably one of the greatest comebacks I think anybody’s ever seen — 81 [wins], 15 [majors]. I think 18 [majors] is a whole lot closer than people think.”
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