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Why I'm picking Rickie Fowler to win the Masters (Hint: I've got data)


David Cannon

April 04, 2017

What we like about the Masters is that, for lack of a better description, it’s an All-Star Game with meaning. In other words, the obscurity quotient is low.

The Masters continues to set the table so the strays don’t get a seat, let alone end up determining the menu at the following year’s Champions Dinner. And so, generally, we get a roster of Hall of Fame champions. Forty-seven of the 80 Masters have been won by a guy whose career eventually included two or more Masters titles. Sixty-three have been won by a guy whose career eventually included at least one other major championship. Fact is, if any major should be sponsored by Kitchen Aid, it should be this week’s tournament in Augusta because so many household names end up winning it.

Of course, that’s the way it’s supposed to work. There have been stretches in the late 1960s and early 1970s (Brewer, Goalby, Coody, Aaron) and then again in the sloggy aftermath of Tiger-proofing Augusta National in the early 2000s (Weir, Immelman) when the green jacket went to otherwise nice fellows who happened to be in the right place at the wrong time. From a historical perspective, these outliers make many Masters fans wish they’d replay the tournament those years just to get it right.

This opening soliloquy is meant not to directly disparage Danny Willett, although if we’re all to be honest with ourselves, his victory last year, snatching it from Jordan Spieth’s all-but-certain parade to Butler Cabin, felt a bit less like a Masters and more like a PGA or worse, a WGC.

Rather, it’s meant to set the stage for why I’ve chosen, through my incredibly—but reliably—inaccurate system of calculations and mismatched algorithms, Rickie Fowler to win the Masters this year.

While Fowler, much like Justin Bieber, still can’t entirely escape the reckless lack of polish of his younger years (see tattoos, the occasional misogynistic T-shirt and, well, last year’s opening-round 80), he is clearly established as the game’s nearest and most worthy pretender to the throne of the young, established stars like Dustin Johnson, Jason Day, Rory McIlroy and, of course, Spieth. He’s got six top-10s in majors since 2011, and among the 20-somethings, only Day, McIlroy and Spieth have more. He’s got two top-fives, including a win, this year, and aside from those semi-ridiculous but touching Arnold Palmer shoes, he no longer is dressing like an assistant football coach on game day in the SEC during the 1980s. But I digress.

Here’s what we like: Fowler wants the ball at crunch time. He is a Hall of Famer in waiting. He is an All-Star’s All-Star. He’s the kind of winner the Masters readies its table for. Of course, I could only sit by and watch the numbers of my crazy calculations play themselves out, hoping against hope that it wouldn’t churn out a Tyrell Hatton, Daniel Berger or Scott Piercy, leaving me to have to explain once again why I’d opted for the obscure winning pick, a veritable Ray Schalk in a sea of Johnny Bench’s.

In trying my best to veer my Masters pick away from the obscure and undeserving, I did a few things that made sense and a few that did not. Which is somewhat similar to how I order from the menu at Chik-Fil-A, but that’s another story that ends somewhere between waffle fries and lactose intolerance. In upholding a long-held Masters traditions, I removed any entrant that was making a first-time appearance (because first-timers only have won once since 1935, and even though Jon Rahm is going to win multiple major championships, he’s not going to win the first time he drives down Magnolia Lane). As much as Augusta National oozes history, I didn’t feel compelled to consider those who are basically part of the furniture as having a chance to win, either, so anyone over 55 was out (sorry Freddie, Bernie).

Then, I got to work. My calculations involved proven performers (lowest Masters round, number of top-10s in majors the last three years) and because I wanted to avoid the obscure, I chose three statistical categories that seemed at once obscure and completely relevant to the proceedings:

1. Total Distance Efficiency is the ratio of total yards to swing speed, important I believe because those who win the Masters don’t have to be the longest but they certainly have to get every possible yard out of their frame as possible.

2. Going for it. A stat that measures how often players who go for the green on a par 4 or par 5 in two make birdie or better seems right in line with the aggressive effectiveness Augusta National demands.

3. Made-putt percentage from 15-25 feet. This distance is where you’re throwing daggers at the field.

As it turns out, Fowler is near the top in all three of those obscurely vital statistical categories. Plus, he’s contended in all four majors, and he’s previously shot 67 at Augusta National. He’s Fred Couples with drive. He’s Adam Scott with swagger. He’s Danny Willett, only less of a complete surprise.

And, yes, I know, this is the second consecutive major I’ve picked Fowler to win. But sometimes the numbers, like some of his Sunday orange selections, show us things that only look good in theory.

But this time it just feels right. My only concern now is what and where the tattoo will be.