It's been a long winter since last we saw major championship golf but, finally, it's back. No, this time around we didn't have any crazy rules violations, but we did see a final-round collapse, a back-to-back-to-back-to-back birdie finish, a charge by a legend, and a crazy chip-in on the last hole. We saw guys that we expected to go low falter, and we saw a few Masters rookies nearly pull out a victory. We almost saw a broomstick win a major, and we saw KJ Choi contend with a putter grip that is so big you could land an airplane on it.
The back nine at Augusta once again proved that while it's tough and long, it can be had, and when someone (or a bunch of someones) puts on a late round charge, it's as exciting as anything in golf.
Number Five: Some Guys are Masters of Masters…
In our pre-Masters prediction column, I said that I thought Tiger and Phil would compete for one reason: they both flat-out know the course. Granted, this was before Phil's win at the Shell Houston Open and before the world jumped on the bandwagon of Tiger's new swing mid-tournament. Tiger and Phil have both played there so many times that they could sleepwalk around the course. While Phil didn't exactly prove me right this year, I think in the coming years we will be hard-pressed to find a leaderboard that doesn't include at least one of them, even as they eventually fade away.
This phenomenon isn't exclusive to Tiger and Phil either. Last year Tom Watson made his way around the course in just 67 strokes in the first round, and Fred Couples did him one better with a 66 on Thursday and a 68 on Saturday. Even Sandy Lyle shot a 69 on Thursday (but followed that up with an 86 on Friday to prove that good memories aren't everything).
This year Freddy had another great showing, with a 68 on Friday and a T15 finish. Angel Cabrera, already a two-time major champion and 2009 Masters winner, was in the final group and came in seventh. KJ Choi, who finished third back in 2004 and tied for fourth last year, was in it until the end and tied for eighth. Ricky Barnes, after a T10 last year, came back with a solid T20 this year. Brandt Snedeker, who tied for third in 2008, tied for 15th this year. Adam Scott, who has quietly had several solid finishes at the Masters, finished in a tie for second and would have won had Charl not absolutely bulldozed the last four holes. And Lee Westwood, after a T6 in 1999, a T11 in 2008, and a tie for second last year, tied for 11th this time around.
Number Four: …And some Just Aren't.
Some guys just aren't good at Augusta National. Their game just doesn't fit the shape or the length of the course, they don't feel comfortable there for whatever reason, or it simply doesn't fit their eye. Not everyone loves the golf course.
After finishing 75-74 on the weekend the Masters in 2009, Sergio Garcia famously said:
I don't like it, to tell you the truth. I don't think it is fair. Even when it's dry you still get mud balls in the middle of the fairway. It's too much of a guessing game.Sergio Garcia
He eventually would go one to apologize, and effectively retract what he said, but it's pretty obvious that Augusta National is just not a course Sergio does well at. A lot of people criticized Sergio for his comments, but in my opinion there was nothing wrong with what he said. Maybe saying that Augusta is unfair was taking it a little but far, but I know plenty of courses that I've played that just don't suit my game.
This year Martin Kaymer showed us the most recent example. In our pre-Masters predictions, one of the questions was to name one player in the top ten who we thought might miss the cut. Citing his three prior missed cuts, I, along with George and Donald, chose Kaymer to once again miss the cut. Kaymer did just that, and afterwards said the following:
I think that I don't really know how to play that golf course…I can think about it another hour, hour and a half, or two hours. I just don't really find a solution…There are some golf courses that suit your eye, and some, they just don't.Martin Kaymer
Lee Trevino is another player that simply never played well at Bobby Jones's course. Though Lee won six majors in his career, the Master is the only major that he never conquered. In fact, Lee only recorded two top-10s at Augusta in his whole career. In typical Trevino fashion, Lee once went as far as to say that Augusta National "Rejects him like a skin transplant."
Some players like Tiger, Phil, Cabrera, and Couples just love the course. It fits their eye, or their style, or their preferred shot shape, and those are the guys that will be there each and every year. Martin Kaymer, as great a player as he is, unfortunately, probably won't be.
Number Three: It's an International Game.
Last year everyone was quick to jump on the European bandwagon. The Euros won two majors and took home the Ryder Cup, beating an American team that had, at the time, the top two players in the world. Since then, Lee Westwood and Martin Kaymer have had their cracks at the top spot in the Official Golf World Rankings, and Tiger Woods was passed by Luke Donald and Graeme McDowell during his drop to seventh (though the Masters nudged him back to fifth). Europeans currently hold the six of the top ten spots in the OWGR, with Americans occupying only four spots. Not a lot of space there for the rest of the world.
But we may be overlooking the International players just a bit. An International player (going by the President's Cup's definition) has won at least one major championship every year from 2000 to 2011. The list is pretty impressive, and includes Charl Schwartzel, Louis Oosthuizen, Angel Cabrera (twice), Y.E. Yang, Trevor Immelman, Geoff Ogilvy, Michael Campbell, Reteif Goosen (twice), Vijay Singh (twice), Mike Weir, and Ernie Els. In that same time, only three Europeans have won majors; Graeme McDowell, Martin Kaymer, and Padraig Harrington (three times), though if you go back one more year can add include Jose Maria Olazabal and Paul Lawrie. Still, since the beginning of 2000 that's 14 majors for the Internationals to just five for the Euros (and 26 for the Americans). Maybe, just maybe, the rest of the world doesn't have to succumb the new European world order quite yet.
Number Two: He's Back. Well, Maybe.
Tiger Woods finished the Masters in a tie for fourth this year, just as he did last year. Simple math might suggest that he's on the same pace, but in this case the numbers don't tell the whole story. If you watched the tournament last year, it was quite apparent that Tiger got around Augusta National on superior course management alone. His swing was bad, his drives were consistently closer to the adjacent fairways than his own, and he couldn't hit an iron close to save his life.
This year was a different story though. At the Masters his swing had certain rhythm that it hasn't had in years, and he had the confidence to fire at pins and bomb the driver when needed. Even on Saturday, his worst round, almost all of his misses were simply long with the irons, a much better miss than the duck hooks, banana slices, and pop-ups that we saw just a few weeks ago at Doral. Maybe more spectacularly, his swing was a far cry from last year's WGC event at Firestone. He was not without fault of course. His wedge play was poor, and he seemed to have very little confidence from just off the greens.
And then there's the putting. There were times this week when it was genius, but much of the week it appeared that Tiger's entire net worth couldn't buy him a three-footer. I see this a good sign though. Sort of. It's not a good thing that Tiger's putting wasn't great (if my counting is correct, he was a decent T32 for the week), but I'd rather see him struggle with the flatstick than with his full swing. If he was hitting the ball all over the map, like he did most of last year, he wouldn't have even been near the lead, and all of his swing work would have seemed to be for naught. He would have been in the same boat as last year, managing himself around the course. That's not the type of game that anyone wants to play. It isn't sustainable, and Tiger knows it. Now all he has to do is call up Nike, get about 20 shag bags full of his golf ball of choice, and put that shiny new practice facility at his Jupiter, FL, mansion to good use. Easier said than done though, I suppose.
Number One: There is No Magic Formula.
It's a crapshoot, the picking of champions at the Masters. We've all heard the criteria for winning: "You have to fade it," "It's a bomber's course now," "It's comes down to a putting competition," "You're ballstriking better put the ball in the right spots on the greens," "Can't get too wild with the driver." The list goes on and on. But do you really need to be good at everything?
Well, yes, sort of. Let me explain.
All of the leaders putted well. The worst putting of anyone in contention was by Rory McIlroy, but if you took away his Sunday putting average of 1.94 putts per hole, he would be much higher on the list, near the leaders. Aside from Rory the next worse was Tiger, and like I said earlier, T32 isn't that bad at all. But everyone else even close to the leader on Sunday was near the top of the putting stats. The winner, Charl Schwatzel, was second in putting, losing out only to Luke Donald who had a ridiculous putting average of 1.22 on Sunday during his late-round charge. On the flipside, Ryan Moore, Aaron Baddeley, and Ricky Fowler all had good weeks rolling the rock, but none of them were within 13 shots of the lead. While it may not be enough to get you into contention by itself, putting well is a must.
That's not to say you have to be a traditionally great putter. Adam Scott sure isn't. He's ranked 114th on the PGA Tour in putting average this year, but he tied for third in putting at the Masters and finished in a tie for second. Conversely, Charl Schwartzel is ranked T22 on the PGA Tour this year in putting, so it's not surprising that he would have a good week putting.
Most of the leaders were near the top of the pack in GIR, but again being high on the GIR list didn't guarantee that you would be in contention. Driving distance panned out sort of the way you would expect, with the traditionally long players at the top, but only two of the top 10 in driving distance were in contention on Sunday (Angel Cabrera and Rory McIlroy). Driving accuracy is also important, but only one of the top 10 in driving accuracy was in contention (Angel Cabrera, amazingly). You have to do pretty well in all of those categories, but they won't make or break your Masters, not even close.
Looking at some of our leaders, there is no discernable pattern to their stats every other week of the year. They all putted pretty well at the Masters, but they aren't all great putters. They don't always hit a tons of greens, they aren't always super long, and they aren't always supremely accurate. These guys are above average in most categories, and at the Masters they mostly putted their way into contention. Also, a lot of the guys at the top of the leaderboard were past Masters contenders, but in picking winners don't bank on that alone. Phil Mickelson (T27) has won three times at Augusta National, but Jason Day (T2) had a much better chance at victory. Because of this, there is no real algorithm for picking Masters winners. To win you need to do well in most facets of the game, but what's great about major championship golf is that on any given week, anyone can play themselves to victory.
Closing and Your Thoughts?
One of the best Masters finishes in recent memory has given us a lot to chew on. We saw yet another International player pull out a big-time win, Tiger Woods got his game back a bit, and a lot of the leaderboard played out the way we thought (yet many didn't). So what's next? Do the Internationals keep on their hot-streak in majors, or do the Euros stay steady on their ascension? Is Tiger's swing enough to bag him a few victories, or will a balky putter keep him down? And how do you try to pick a Masters champion?