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Masters 2020: Presenting our annual can't-miss, sure-fire choice to win* at Augusta

*Or not

November 10, 2020

Ben Walton

With apologies to Steve Kornacki (man crush, obviously), it seems in recent days some doubts have been cast upon the data-driven predictive arts. It’s what we in the prognostication business call “the W.T.F. Scenario” (sometimes also known as the South African Subversion, the Gabon Surprise, the Afghan Misdirection or the Tunisian Incident). To which I say, friends, shouldn’t it be obvious that when we endeavor to bend the numbers to the whim of our desires, we are as likely to be prescient in our analysis of human potential as we are to circumnavigate the globe in a bathtub?

And yet, here I go, endeavoring away in an attempt to predict the winner of another major championship, despite being all kinds of lousy at it. To say I’ve never come close to sniffing correct would be the kind of understatement usually reserved for the feigned praise one might offer to describe a neighbor’s holiday decorations involving a Pilgrim, a grinch and a menorah. (Of course to say that what I do lies somewhere in the vicinity of the predictive analytics you might expect from a Kahneman or a Levitt or even a Kornacki is to say that macaroni and cheese from a box is, in fact, either macaroni or cheese.)

But here we are in this strangest of times, braced as it were for the gales of November to come early. And suddenly, now appears the hope of spring in as pure a form as honeysuckle blossoming and the sugar sheds firing in New Hampshire. Yes, it’s Masters week just when we need it most. And if it’s the Masters, then it is my turn to show you that you cannot guess the future, you can only get it wrong. (I learned that the hard way from Prof. Hughes in Politics 102. Nickname: “Easy D”)

But I digress. Where to go with this Masters, upside down and backwards as it is? Like everything in 2020, the Masters this year seems on a kind of razor’s edge. Truly, Augusta National stands at once as a reliable old friend come to provide solace in the worst of times, and yet at the same time it feels uncertain and unsteady, too, aghast as golf’s own Cyclops, the singularly focused Bryson of Chambeau, stands ready to obliterate its majesty with his four-foot-long driver and the wicked alchemy of his protein shakes. It is obvious to pick Brutus Beefcake to slay the field at this week’s Masters, a tournament he should easily win by 10. But obvious has never been my calling card. (Which explains a lot about my recipe for Chocolate Moose. Literally. Chocolate. Moose.)

My formula is fairly simple, as the Masters affords a seemingly straightforward calculus: crush the par 5s, float precise iron shots, putt lights out. Throw in some relatively surging form (how many top 10s in your last 10 events, let’s say), and you certainly have a blueprint for success (which in my case smells very similar to a recipe for disaster with extra Bac-Os). Hence, I took the average performance metrics in those areas (par 5s birdie or better, strokes gained/approach the green, strokes gained/putting in your last event, recent top 10s) over the last five champions and searched current players performance data to find a reasonable hypothesis, or what the great Kornacki has come to call “the path to victory.” (Did you know Kornacki’s khakis are a thing, now? Thank you, New York magazine for getting to the, er, bottoms of this.

Now, let’s remember my theory behind these calculations is not merely to find the player most outstanding in these criteria and choose him. No, that would make sense, but in a world where almost nothing makes sense anymore, why choose the sensical? (It’s why I now put barbecue sauce on everything because I hold out hope that everything might someday taste like barbecue.) No, I choose to find a player whose average matches up with what recent Masters winners have tended to be like. Had I instead chosen that “best players” route, my choice likely would have been Justin Thomas or Dustin Johnson or even Tyrell Hatton.

Instead, I dug deeper, like a 13-year-old whose retainer somehow ended up in the trash with the neighborhood garbage truck rounding the corner. What I found was a guy who’s been living the feel-good story we all so desperately need, a guy who knows what tragic loss and lonely worry really are, a guy whose pedigree seems more Grateful Dead than Magnolia Lane and a guy whose “hippie” parents named him after Lanto, the ascended master, chohan of the second ray of humility, joy and wisdom. Far out, man.

Griffin plays a shot from a bunker on the second hole during a practice round prior 2020 Masters.

Jamie Squire

That’s the kind of spiritual lift life needs about now, the one that can only come from a guy not all that removed from maxed out credit cards and whose biggest pro paycheck until recently came as a caddie. Lanto Griffin is my pick to win the Masters because he has all the right pieces in place, all the right precincts reporting, as it were, the kind of champion who cries at victories and laughs in the midst of his losses. There’s something in that for us, especially now. It’s telling that his guiding wisdom is, “Thoughts aren’t real. Dwelling on what could happen is futile.” Trust me, I know futility. (I’m pretty sure I dated her once. Her mother liked me. But then they all do.)

As Kornacki reminded us, you wait long enough, something you didn’t see happening just might happen. There’s nobody better it could happen to than Lanto Griffin. Well, maybe me, but you get the picture.