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Masters 2021: How to win a green jacket in seven simple steps

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There is a thought experiment in metaphysics—which is a terrible lede for a golf story but bear with us—called the Theseus paradox (also known as the Ship of Theseus) that raises the question whether an object that’s had its pieces replaced remains, fundamentally speaking, the same object. Essentially, think of a boat. As it ages rotten planks need to be torn out. The sail’s canvas is swapped for unweathered cloth. Perhaps a different captain takes the wheel. As this process continues, does the boat remain ‘the Ship of Theseus,’ or does it become an entirely new boat? Though we’re confident the ancient Greeks didn’t have a golf tournament in mind when introducing this concept, it is the perfect, ahem, vessel when contemplating how Masters of the past can predict the present.

Because, in spite of its trappings of tradition, Augusta National and the Masters sure change a heck of a lot. From reversing nines after the inaugural tournament to brandishing a it-sure-looks-like-rough-but-don’t-call-it-rough second cut last fall, Augusta National is in perpetual evolution. It is an evolution partially dictated by the transformation in how the game is played and what it rewards. Gene Sarazen used a 4-wood for his “Shot heard 'round the world” from 235 yards out at the par-5 15th in 1935; 62 years later, Tiger Woods went driver-pitching wedge on the 15th for eagle on his way to a second-nine 30, eventually winning the tournament by 12 strokes. Even a glance to the modern era shows the variance that can exist spring to spring with a recent(ish) five-year stretch producing Woods, Phil Mickelson, Zach Johnson, Trevor Immelman and Angel Cabrera as champs. In games and jacket sizes, those are five distinct profiles; clearly what we’re dealing with is a new boat.

And yet … this is the Masters we’re talking about, a tournament that exists in a timeless plane. Renovations and technology advancements be damned, the soul of the place remains unchanged, and last we heard everything still breaks toward Rae’s Creek. It’s also the only major annually played at the same venue. Certainly some truths about the Masters have to hold true. And if they do, well … it’s the same boat, right?

So we dived into the results to see for ourselves and discovered seven facets that determine how a Masters is won.

You need momentum

Augusta National is no analgesic; players can’t roll into Georgia cold. Five of the last seven winners won at least one event in the preceding two months to the Masters. Slightly change the parameters of momentum—subtract the victory requirement for multiple top-15s in a player’s five starts leading up to Augusta—and the list is expansive: 10 of the last 11 champions, and 15 of the past 18, fit the billing. Make it three top-15s and the list barely changes, with Danny Willett the lone exception from the past nine years.

Viewing this data through another prism, only two players came out of the woodwork to claim their share of immortality since 2003: Angel Cabrera (previous five tournaments: MC-MC-T32-T33-T13) and Trevor Immelman (MC-T40-T48-T65-MC). Charl Schwartzel, the 2011 champ, wasn't lighting the world on fire, although he did begin the year with three consecutive top eights, including a win at the Sunshine Tour's Joburg Open.

Keep big numbers at bay

Three. That’s how many double bogeys eventual winners have made, combined, this century during their championship runs. We’ll save you the time: Jordan Spieth at the 17th in Round 3, Immelman at the 16th in Round 4, Mickelson (2004) also at the 16th in Round 1. To find a winner recording multiple doubles in a week we have to go all the way back to 1982 in Craig Stadler. And should a player mark down an eight, best to just pack it in: No winner has ever made worse than a seven over 72 holes.

We know. “Avoid trainwrecks” is not exactly a profound realization. But the results back it up.

(Photo by David Cannon/Getty Images)

Experience matters

The plight of Masters rookies is a known struggle. This tournament marks 42 years since Fuzzy Zoeller donned the green jacket in his Augusta National debut. In the 42 years since that moment, precisely zero Masters newcomers have won. A handful of rookies have come close—Jason Day in 2011, Spieth in 2014, Sungjae Im last year—yet every passing spring moves Zoeller’s feat from rarity into wonder.

However, it’s more than a rookie curse. You need Augusta reps, and you need a lot of ‘em.

Since 2003 those who won the Masters were, on average, making their 10th career start at the tournament. That number is partially inflated thanks to Woods (22nd appearance in 2019) and Sergio Garica (lucky No. 19 for his ‘17 breakthrough), and in the past decade Willett, Schwartzel and Spieth have won in their second career outings. Yet even with Woods bringing the figure down the farther back this exercise travels, the average career start for the winner still hovers around nine for the better part of three decades. Perhaps it’s fitting that Dustin Johnson earned his first Masters title last fall in his 10th try.

Let the irons lead the way

David Cannon

Jack Nicklaus called Augusta National “the quintessence of a second-shot golf course.” Far be it from us to say the Golden Bear is wrong. Four of the past six Masters winners led the field in strokes gained/approach, with Johnson gaining a whopping 8.78 shots over his competitors in the category last year.

Granted, not every player needs to be lights-out with their irons to make a run at Augusta. Patrick Reed hit just two-thirds of his greens in regulation in 2018, but was extremely efficient in getting up-and-down (first in putts) and making the most of his opportunities (first in putts GIR). But Reed is the outlier. Johnson, Woods, and Adam Scott led the field in GIR during their wins over the last decade, with Garcia and Spieth ranked second in GIR in their victories. The only player aside from Reed who didn’t finish in the top 10 in GIR since 2009 was Schwartzel (18th in the category).

Seize Thursday

Put aside the “Saturday is moving day” platitude for a second. (Just a second, we’ll come back to it, promise). The real mover is Round 1.

In the past 15 years the eventual winner boasts a 68.6 scoring average on Thursday. Spieth (64) and DJ (65) are the only ones to go crazy low, yet only three times in the past 13 years has the winner failed to break 70 through 18 holes. The last time a winner shot over par in Round 1 was Tiger in 2005, and he cleaned that up thanks to 66 in Round 2 and 65 in Round 3.

Though he’s only led or held a share of the lead in three of those occasions, the winner's average leaderboard position after Round 1 is inside the top five (4.73). Again, Woods is the outlier, standing in T-11 in 2019, four back of 18-hole leaders Bryson DeChambeau and Brooks Koepka.

Speaking of, the average stroke deficit is even tighter, the winner within two shots (2.2) of the lead over the past 15 years. The largest deficit overcome in this span was six by Garcia in 2017. So no, you don’t have to be leading after 18 holes. But you better be darn close.

However …

Yes, Saturday matters, too

It’s a cliche because it’s true. On the surface, the winner’s scoring average on Saturday and Sunday are nearly identical over the last 13 years, 69.00 to 69.23. If you’re wondering why we’re using 13 years instead of 15, the 2007 Masters’ third round is such an aberration—30-mph winds resulted in a 77.35 scoring mark, the highest single-round average in 50 years, with winner Zach Johnson shooting a third-round 76—that it wrecks the exercise. Yet a deeper dive underlines the third round’s importance over the fourth.

On Sunday, historically, the course is set up to facilitate more scoring (and excitement) for the final round, which on average leads to lower scores. In the past 13 years, the Round 3 scoring average is 72.63 against a 72.12 mark in Round 4, a disparity that has grown over the past decade: 72.68 vs. 71.93. Keeping these numbers in mind, the winner has gained over 3.62 strokes over the field on Saturday over the last 13 years but just 2.88 strokes on Sunday. Five times the winner has gained less than two strokes on the field on Sunday in our 13-year stretch; that’s happened just once on Saturday (Bubba in 2014, his 74 versus a field average of 73.82). Take Watson out of the mix and that strokes-gained total raises to nearly four (3.94) on Saturdays since 2007.

Throw in the importance of going off last Sunday (the winner has come from the final group in 25 of the last 32 tournaments), we can safely say, yes, Saturday is moving day at the Masters.

Get it done on the par 5s

Harry How

We tend to think the modern game has subtracted the risk/reward element out of par 5s, a sentiment encapsulated by Augusta National’s par-5 13th—arguably the most famous hole in the sport—turning into a par four-and-a-half over the last decade (last year’s field averaged 4.55 on the hole, 4.47 in ‘19). However, risk remains present at Augusta National’s par 5s, just in a slightly different prism. Specifically, the risk in failing to take advantage of them.

The last 15 Masters winners have collectively played the par 5s in 129 under, which translates to 8.6 under par for the week. That figure moves to 9.21 under when taking out Willett, who played the par 5s even in 2016. (For posterity—avert your eyes, Spieth fans—Jordan played the par 5s 11 under that week. Damn you, Golden Bell!) The only other individuals who didn’t play the par 5s in at least seven under were Scott (five under) and Immelman (three).

Why does that matter? In that 15-year span, the average winning total is 10.86 under par. So, in elementary form, the formula over the past decade has been to birdie just over half the par 5s … and play the other 56 holes in two under. Reed and Mickelson (2006) went the lowest over the par 5s in this stretch, playing those 16 holes in 13 under, with Spieth and another Mickelson performance (2010) hitting 12 under.

But the winner who used the par 5s to his advantage most? Zach Johnson, who played the par 5s 11 under in 2007 and the rest of the course in 12 over to win by two. Forget the Ship of Theseus; how short-hitting Zach Johnson took down the most celebrated par 5s in golf is the true paradox.