The Masters: Course Insight

It’s easy to get caught up in the enduring beauty and undeniable emotion of The Masters. It’s natural to let the last-minute reversal of fortunes or tragic downfalls of our favorite players consume our hearts and minds.  Even the most cynical golf fans will admit the back nine on Sunday at Augusta National is golf’s version of a gladiator pit, where a battle for dominance beats to thundering roars that sound as if they stretch to infinity.

The Masters is a worldwide obsession where every shot is held to a higher standard, where every move is put under a microscope, and where the drama actually charges through and soars over the avalanche of hype surrounding it every spring. Augusta National takes center stage this week for the 81st playing of The Masters, and while this pristine par-72, 7,435-yard iconic course might look the closest thing to golf perfection you’ll ever find, it also has ways of ruthlessly demonstrating that winning a green jacket is often dependent on sheer power.

Since 1997, Masters champions have shot 162-under par on the four par-5s, and just 46-under on the remaining 14 par-3 and par-4 holes. Pink Dogwood is Augusta’s first par-5 hole. The 575-yard No. 2 is a dogleg left hole that big hitters can reach in two, and ranks as the third easiest hole with a historical average of 4.82 strokes. A fairway bunker guards the right side of the fairway, so players will try to keep their drives left. Second shots will be hit from a downhill lie to a green that’s flanked by two, large bunkers on the front right and left sides.

Yellow Jasmine is the next par-5 hole. The 570-yard No. 8 is the second easiest hole with a historical average of 4.79 strokes. Pine trees and a right-side bunker pinch the fairway severely for the long hitters off the tee. Second shots that find more trees on the left will be completely stymied, with players unable to even see the flagstick, and likely facing a restricted backswing. The green is long and narrow without any bunkering at all, but significant mounding makes it important to only hit certain spots on approach.

No. 13 is hallowed ground, acting as the conclusion of Amen Corner. This dogleg left, 501-yard hole named Azalea will give players a real chance at eagle with two well-struck shots. Mishits on approach, however, can lead to bogey or worse with the raised green protected by a tributary to Rae’s Creek in the front. Four threatening bunkers guard the back.

The last par-5 at Augusta is the 530-yard 15th hole named Firethorn. Again reachable in two for the longest hitters, but approach shots must be played over a pond and away from a bunker that guards the green on the right. Firethorn is the easiest hole on the course historically with a 4.77 stroke scoring average, but this hole is proof that statistics sometimes lie. Sergio Garcia once said, “Anyone who calls the 15th at Augusta the easiest hole on the course has never played here.”

The shape and surface of the 15th green forces players to be very precise with their approach because of the severe downward slope and break of the putting surface. Shots with too much spin will wind up rolling back down into the pond. No. 15 is a classic risk-reward situation, offering players the theater of a last chance opportunity to do something special on the par-5s, but also potentially trivializing their chance of victory in an emotionally eviscerating fashion.

Players who go for the green in two should have a decent look at eagle, and a very good look at birdie, but risk water both in front and behind the green. Players who lay-up reduce the chance of trouble, but face a more difficult third shot from a severe downhill lie, where spin control will be tougher. Paul Azinger once said, “That third shot off the downslope is the most difficult shot on the golf course.”

GPS overhead view of the 510-yard 13th hole

Don’t think that blitzing their way through the par-5s in the only ingredient to winning here. You’ve undoubtedly heard Augusta is a second-shot course, and there is disaster waiting to happen for players who are even just a bit off with their irons on the remaining par-3s and par-4s. The par-3, 180-yard 6th hole is a great example. The tee box is elevated well above a green that has three levels. Depending on pin positions, two shots within inches of each other can wind up being 50 yards apart. Finding the wrong side of a slope can run shots completely off the green, leaving players with a stomach-churning second chip or putt back up the slope that can come right back down to their feet.

Driving distance and greens-in-regulation are key components to predicting success at Augusta, but short hitters with a hot putter still have a chance, as Zach Johnson proved in 2007. In fact, because of the purity of the greens, there are more putts made between three and 10 feet at Augusta than there are at most of the other events on the PGA Tour schedule. The flip side of that coin, however, is because of the very fast, undulating greens (13 on the Stimpmeter), there are also fewer putts made over 10-feet at Augusta than other Tour events.

Players to Watch

Dustin Johnson is the hands-on favorite to win the first major of the season and deservedly so. DJs won his last three starts in convincing fashion. His devastating power and precise wedge play are reasons to start sizing him for a green jacket right now. However as we saw last year with Jordan Spieth, The Masters is a different animal, and even prodigious talent can fall victim to the time-defying trance of major pressure. Johnson will pick up a top-10 finish.

In 12 career rounds at The Masters, Spieth has held the lead in eight of them. Think he likes Augusta? Actually, he “loves” it. Don’t worry about any emotional baggage from last year’s collapse on the par-3, 12th hole. It will inevitably be a talking point leading up to Thursday, but Spieth understands mental scarring is part of the game, and if anything he’ll be fueled by a desire to exorcise those demons.

Spieth’s first on Tour this season in Greens-In-Regulation, and arguably, no one’s game is better suited for Augusta, but I have real concerns about his early exit from WGC Dell Match Play and his missed cut at the Shell Houston Open. Spieth will finish in the top-15.

Rory McIlroy is one green jacket away from completing the career Grand Slam, and only a few days ago he admitted there would be something missing in his career when all is said and done if he doesn’t win The Masters at least one time. Why is that relevant? Because even with his refreshing honesty, I don’t think Rory says that if he doesn’t believe he’s going to win eventually, and sooner rather than later.

His confidence can’t be overstated, and I think he’s completely locked-in this week. McIlroy’s power off the tee is staggering, and when he’s dialed in with his irons no one is better. The only thing keeping Rory from winning this week is that it’s just not yet meant to be. McIlroy will finish runner-up.

Winner Prediction

Rickie Fowler has been trending in the wrong direction at Augusta since his T-5 finish in 2014. He was T-12 in 2015, and missed the cut here last, and missed the cut here last year. But this season Fowler’s putting has come around, he’s ninth on Tour in Strokes Gained: Putting, and remember earlier when I told you players make fewer putts at Augusta from over 10-feet than they do at other events during the season? Well from 10-15 feet Rickie’s ranked second on Tour.

What I like most about Rickie this week is his mindset. He’s always had swagger, he’s always been fearless and likes to take shots on. However at times that gets him in trouble. During yesterday’s press conference, Fowler said, “I know this golf course too well now to really make [the kind of] mistakes that I did last year.” This sounds like a more mature, introspective Fowler than we’ve seen in the past, not the impatient Fowler we saw last year. The most ironic thing about picking Fowler to win this week? He’s going to do it in the most un-Fowler like way imaginable. I know that even his head-covers for The Masters have #patience inscribed on them. I’m all-in on the new, more disciplined Rickie.

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