By: Edward Egros

golf

Who Will Win the 2017 PGA Championship?

Pasted GraphicThis year, the Wanamaker Trophy will be claimed at Quail Hollow Club, the same course that hosts the Wells Fargo Championship (previously the Wachovia Championship). No analysis of this year's PGA Championship would be robust without discussing Rory McIlroy's domination there.

A favorite to win the last major of the season, McIlroy has two victories and once lost in a playoff, in seven appearances there. He also made the cut six of seven times and owns the course record, shooting a 61 in 2015. Also, as I mentioned in a previous article, McIlroy is not only successful in PGA Championships, he is one of the more dominant golfers of any specific event on Tour (even if that major is a hodgepodge of characteristics where no particular abilities stand out). You add to his resume that he has a pair of Top 5 finishes his last two tournaments, and McIlroy seems poised to win for the third time at the PGA Championship.

However, as we have learned with other tournaments,
Strokes Gained statistics have incredible predictive power. When it comes to who has won in North Carolina before, sometimes an already dominant golfer came in and continued his momentum to victory. More recently, Strokes Gained: Around-the-Green has become more crucial to success:

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There are two periods when a player needed to rank in the Top 40 in SG: Around-the-Green: 2005-2007 and 2014-2016. This season, the Wells Fargo Championship was played elsewhere so Quail Hollow could be redone for a major. The two important changes here are the removal of trees and the adjusting of the front nine to where the final yardage is shorter but likely more challenging. It's possible these two details make SG: Around-the-Green all the more important.

At this point, the players leading in this statistic are: Ian Poulter, Jason Day, Bill Haas, Pat Perez and Cameron Smith. McIlroy barely cracks the Top 80. Jordan Spieth, another favorite who could complete the career Grand Slam at age 24, is 18th. As for Strokes Gained: Off-the-Tee, another stat with some predictive power, the current leaders are Jon Rahm, Dustin Johnson and Sergio Garcia. In terms of skills shown this season, there are several players who are perhaps more suited to win a revamped Quail Hollow than the favorites.

Perhaps the one player that seems to have put it all together, at this point, is Hideki Matsuyama. Fresh off a win at the WGC-Bridgestone Invitational, he is one of only four players with three wins on Tour this season. He also ranks 11th in Strokes Gained: Around-the-Green and 11th in Strokes Gained: Off-the-Tee. Lastly, he finished fourth in last year's PGA Championship and has two Top 20 finishes in the last four seasons. In other words, he overcomes the slightly lower statistical rankings than the aforementioned players with overwhelming momentum and overall success with this specific event. While I expect solid games from the favorites, I am picking Hideki Matsuyama to capture his first major.

Who Will Win the Dean & DeLuca Invitational?

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Before offering a prediction for who will wear the plaid jacket as the winner of the Dean & DeLuca Invitational, here is a quick recap of the Byron Nelson.

Sergio Garcia, my pick, did have his moments. He did card a 29 for his Back Nine on Saturday. But several mistakes led to an incredible unraveling for his Sunday round. Also, Billy Horschel could have been a more credible dark horse pick, his Strokes Gained: Off-the-Tee, which I concluded was the most telling for the Nelson, had him in the Top 50 on the PGA Tour. He missed the cut in his last four tournaments, but for a course that emphasizes the tee shot, it should not be as big a surprise Horschel won, given the unpredictability of the tournament.

And now, the Tour heads to Colonial. This tournament is much easier to predict because history is a better indicator for success. Jordan Spieth finished 2nd, 14th and 7th there before winning the event last year. Eleven men have won multiple titles at Colonial, compared with the five at the Nelson.

Once again, let's look at the winners from 2004-2016, the years "
Strokes Gained" statistics are readily available using ShotLink data. The most predictive component for the Dean & DeLuca is Strokes Gained: Approach-the-Green. How golfers do on tee shots on Par-3's and approach shots on Par-4's and Par-5's are most predictive. In fact, Spieth is the only player to rank outside of the Top 75 in this statistic when he won last year. He made up for it with his knowledge and previous success on the course. Strokes Gained: Off-the-Tee is also an important indicator, with most players ranking in the Top 50 before competing.

It might be shocking, but the golfer who currently ranks 2nd in Approach-the-Green is Jordan Spieth. Even though he has missed the last two cuts, his approach shots have often not let him down. The next best golfer who is in the tournament field is Webb Simpson. He has only played this event three times. Though he missed the cut his first two appearances, he finished tied for third last year. Spieth has had recent struggles, while Simpson has a couple of Top 20 finishes in two of his last three tournaments. It would not be a surprise for Spieth to repeat as champion, but my pick is Webb Simpson.

Who Will Win the Byron Nelson?

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Last year, Sergio Garcia became just the fifth golfer ever to win multiple titles at the Byron Nelson. Given this tournament has been around since 1944, it shows just how difficult it is to predict this tournament.

It does help the field is stronger than usual; eight of the top 20 golfers in the world will participate, including Dustin Johnson, Jason Day, Jordan Spieth, and of course Sergio. In fact,
Vegas Insider is giving these highly ranked golfers the best odds to win, most notably Johnson at 5/1. On the surface, this mark makes sense, given he has already won three times this year, more than anyone else on Tour.

But as with most golf predictions I have done, I place an emphasis on
strokes gained statistics. These measurements look at how well a golfer does in each phase of his game, compared with the rest of the field. For instance, strokes gained putting looks at how many putts a golfer needs to complete a hole at a specific distance, so if the average golfer needs 1.5 putts to complete a hole from seven feet, 10 inches, the golfer who sinks the putt gains 0.5 strokes, but a two-putt means they lose 0.5 strokes. These totals are then aggregated for the season.

ShotLink data has this information readily available since the 2004 season. Given the renovations TPC Four Seasons made to the course since that year, this time frame may be enough data for us to have a glimpse into what qualities a golfer needs to have to be successful at this particular tournament. I am using four statistics: Strokes Gained: Off-the-Tee, Approach-the-Green, Around-the-Green and Putting.

The statistic with the best ranking for success is Off-the-Tee. In other words, how well a golfer does from the tee box on all par-4's and par-5's is the best predictor for winning the Byron Nelson. Here is how golfers ranked in this statistic just before competing in the Nelson:

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Other than Steven Bowditch in 2015, every golfer ranks in the Top 100, often in the Top 60. As of the end of the PLAYERS Championship, here are the top ten golfers in Strokes Gained: Off-the-Tee

1. Sergio Garcia
2. Dustin Johnson
3. Jon Rahm
4. Tony Finau
5. Bubba Watson
6. Kyle Stanley
7. Patrick Cantlay
8. Justin Rose
9. Hideki Matsuyama
10. Hudson Swafford

Of these ten, only Garcia, Johnson, Finau and Swafford are competing. Finau and Swafford have played this event far fewer times and Swafford has never finished in the Top 30. As for the other two players, Johnson has played at the Nelson seven times and has averaged a score of 68.54, including four "Top Ten" finishes. Garcia has played the event 12 times, has averaged a score of 69.07 and has the same number of "Top Ten" finishes. The difference is, Garcia has won the Byron Nelson twice and also has a third-place finish.

The volatility of this tournament might make this exercise seem foolish, but history does show, three of the five multiple winners won in back-to-back years. I am picking Sergio Garcia to become the fourth to win back-to-back Byron Nelson championships.

Which Golfers Dominate Where

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Jordan Spieth was bound to win the plaid jacket at Colonial Country Club. In the three previous times he played the Dean & Deluca Invitational, he finished in the top 15 every time, including a second-place finish in 2015. Spieth mentioned how much the win meant to him because it was a course and tournament he grew up attending.

Outside of Tiger Woods’ heyday, there often seems to be some randomness at the top of the leaderboard of any event. However, like with Spieth at Colonial, some golfers dominate specific courses and tournaments because they simply know it better.

I looked at 15 of the more lucrative tournaments in the world and analyzed how the top 25 in the Official World Golf Ranking faired at each one for their entire careers (I will analyze 46-year-old Phil Mickelson later because he has played much longer than everyone else in the group). Using a top ten finish as the qualification for success, here are six of the more current dominant performances:

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By this ranking, the most current dominant performance at particular course belongs to Dustin Johnson when he plays at the Genesis Open (at Riviera). Out of ten appearances, he’s had a top ten finish seven times (and won it outright this year).

What should also stand out is how frequently Rory McIlroy appears on this chart. He has become one of more successful golfers in the world by consistently performing well at specific tournaments, including the Wells Fargo Championship, the WGC-HSBC Champions and the PGA Championship. He has also had a high rate of top ten’s at the U.S. Open, WGC-Dell Match Play and Bridgestone Invitational.

It is important to note this chart groups tournaments together, not necessarily the courses. It makes Jason Day’s work at the U.S. Open perhaps more impressive, considering every top ten finish for that major has happened at a different course.

As for Lefty, his favorite tournament might be Wells Fargo, where he’s had top ten finishes 69% of the time. His second-most dominant is the Masters, at 63%. While much is made of his oh-so-close victories at the U.S. Open, only 38% of the time he cracks the top ten.

You may be wondering why Jordan Spieth failed to make the chart. After all, he’s finished first or second in every Masters appearance. In all of the lucrative tournaments analyzed, he has far fewer starts than most everyone else. However, at many of these events, he is on pace to be as dominant at the Masters, Tour Championship and WGC-Bridgestone Invitational, as he already is at Colonial.

(Special thanks to ShotLink for providing the data)

Are We Witnessing the Best Golf Ever?

Last January, Adam Hadwin shot a 13-under 59 at the CareerBuilder Challenge in California. Though it’s a dream scorecard, sub-60 is no longer a rarity. Just in the week prior, Justin Thomas posted a 59 at the Sony Open. Last August, Jim Furyk carded 58 at the Travelers Championship. Of the nine sub-60 round in PGA Tour history, three of them have happened in the span of roughly six months, out of 87 years of pro golf (in more than 1.5 million rounds of play, last I counted).

Because the odds are infinitesimally small these low rounds are by chance, it is safe to say golfers are improving. Equipment, athletic ability and coaching all play a part. But with several months left in the season, can we predict, right now, we are about to witness the best golf ever played?

Let’s first consider scoring average over the last 20 years, specifically, the median scoring on Tour:

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We had been seeing a significant decline in scoring beginning in 2007—with some fluctuation—but overall lower figures as recently as last year; however, so far this season, an uptick. What makes the higher median score so interesting is how much easier the early tournaments are, compared with the rest of the schedule.

Even for individual seasons, it will be difficult for anyone to match what Tiger Woods accomplished in 2000 and 2007. In both years, he finished with the lowest scoring and adjusted scoring average, ever, with a 67.79. This year, after the CareerBuilder Challenge and all of those historically low scores, even with the 59’s, the lowest scoring average was 68.715, roughly one stroke worse than Tiger’s.

Of course, devious course designers can always stay one step ahead and adjust conditions to keep scores from approaching zero (e.g. Tiger-proofing). Other statistics could better highlight if today’s golfers are indeed the best ever. However, metrics off the tee like driving distance has remained relatively steady over the last several years, though some tournaments show professional golfers are becoming more aggressive than ever before.

Where there might be significant improvement involves the less glamorous approaches and short game. Though the top Greens in Regulation percentages have hovered around 72% each season, this year the best is 75.69%, held by Jordan Spieth. More golfers can finish a hole with one putt. The best could have roughly 44% one putts for a season. In 2017, seven golfers have more than 44% success rate with one putts. But again, it is worth noting how much easier the start to a season is; these golfers have not faced the toughest challenges like The Players, the Barclays and any major championship.

What seems to be happening is not the next coming of 2000 Tiger, but rather, more golfers improving at roughly the same time at roughly the same rate. There are still milestones yet to be reached, like someone shooting a 62 for one round at a major, or less notably, a golfer carding 254 for a 72-hole tournament. There have been more golfers flirting with breaking these records in recent years, but no one has broken through. Sub-60 rounds are happening at easier courses where scores are lower and competition is not as fierce. But because fields are becoming saturated with similarly talented players, some of the better golfers still have to find other events to play. When they do, the occasional golfer could be poised to achieve that coveted 59.

If you believe talented playing partners and deeper tournament fields naturally make an individual golfer better, then the play we will witness this season could very well be the best we have ever seen. There may not be the lone star of golf, but a hodgepodge of pros who will make 2017 something to behold.

Will Jordan Spieth Win a Major in 2017?

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Leave it up to the U.S. Open’s official twitter handle to place tongue firmly in cheek when it comes Jordan Spieth’s victory at the Australian Open being a sign of things to come: “We all know what came after @JordanSpieth’s first #AusOpenGolf win...” followed by a photo of him holding the major’s championship trophy. In other words, only in the years he won the Australian Open did he win majors.


At the time of publication, no major tournament participants have withdrawn based upon this logic.

There are sounder ways to predict if Jordan Spieth will earn his 3
rd career major this year like momentum. Perhaps surprisingly, in a few ways, Spieth performed better in 2016 than he did in 2015, despite not winning any majors last year. We can illustrate this idea using “Strokes Gained” statistics:

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For those new to “Strokes Gained”, it simply means how many strokes a player gained or lost, compared with the rest of the field, based upon how they played in the four areas: off the tee, approaching the green, around the green and putting. Spieth was actually a better putter in 2016, it was primarily his iron and hybrid clubs letting him down. Fortunately for Spieth, putting is a better predictor for overall success than other phases of the game, so as long as he can continue improving in close range, he has opportunities.

Next, let’s look at each individual major, beginning with the Masters. When looking at a host of variables, there is no better predictor for future performance than past success. It is why I publicly predicted Spieth to win the green jacket last year, and I would have gotten away with it had it not been for that pesky Amen Corner. Still, nobody has played better at Augusta National the last three years than Spieth, so he is in the best position to win there again.

This year’s U.S. Open will be at Erin Hills. It is listed as 7,823 yards, which would be longer than any PGA Tour event played last season. Though Spieth is not one of the longer drivers on Tour, his U.S. Open win was at Chambers Bay, almost as long as this year’s event. Spieth’s advantage was he knew how to putt on the unique fescue greens better than most everyone else. This setup might pose problems.

Royal Birkdale will host The Open, a shorter links course. Perhaps one of the more underrated qualities of Spieth’s is his ability to play links courses well, compared with other Americans. As long as the momentum is there over the summer, Spieth can also contend there.

Finally, the site of the PGA Championship is Quail Hollow Club. It has hosted the Wells Fargo Championship since 2003. Predictably, familiarity with a course has helped Spieth over the years, but he has only played that tournament once, in 2013 when he finished tied for 32
nd. There may simply be too many other golfers with more knowledge of the course for Spieth to have a realistic chance.

Spieth already has a few Top 10 finishes in 2017, including a victory at Pebble Beach. In the last few months, he helped the Americans claim Ryder Cup win, earned an Australian Open victory and is 2nd on the Tour in greens in regulation percentage (one of the areas that was in need of improvement). His Strokes Gained: Putting has not been as strong this year, ranking 37
th, but a few golfers ahead of him have played more tournaments, so it remains too early in the season to suggest there might be a problem.

Because of the deep fields of majors, the odds are better “not” to predict any one golfer to win one of the big four. But for Jordan Spieth, there are enough reasons to believe he can capture another green jacket, win his first Claret Jug, or both.

Subscribers of the Aussie Open theory would agree.

Who Wins the FedExCup?

The PGA Tour will award its tenth FedExCup by week's end. This event has not attracted the same fanfare as majors or even other regular tournaments. The TOUR Championship is held during football season, has only been around for a decade and has a scoring system that has changed even in that short window. Still, with $10,000,000 in bonus money on the line for the winner and the best players of the season in the field, it is worth the exercise of predicting this year's champion.

Historically, there has been little fluctuation when it comes to who wins the FedExCup, based upon his ranking the prior week:

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Seven out of nine winners were ranked 5th or better heading into the final tournament. This trend bodes well for Dustin Johnson, Patrick Reed and Adam Scott. However, seven out of nine won the tournament and went on to capture the cup, so much of this prediction exercise involves who will win at East Lake Golf Club just as much as it does forecasting the rankings afterwards.

The course has a par 70, uses Bermudagrass and is 7,385 yards long. Last year, it was ranked the 17th toughest course by score, out of 52 tournaments (and again, this tournament features only the top 30 ranked players in the FedExCup standings). As for more specific statistics compared with the rest of the Tour:

Driving Distance: 12th shortest (284.2)
Sand Save Percentage: 14th best (53.49%)
Greens in Regulation Percentage: 13th worst (62.1%)
Putting Average: 42nd best (1.742)

So far, nothing suggests this course has unique attributes that golfers have to make major adjustments for. The next step is looking at the strokes gained statistics for the last nine winners of the golf tournament, prior to the BMW Championship:

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Winning this tournament seems to require a complete game, though occasionally winners have had negatives strokes gained statistics in putting or driving. This idea does not necessarily eliminate anyone's chances. However, nearly all of them have needed good to great approach games, which is good news for Adam Scott (1st in SG: Approach the Green) and Hideki Matsuyama (2nd).

Often times the winner has also had a stellar World Golf Ranking, which suggests Jason Day or Dustin Johnson could win everything. Five golfers can win the TOUR Championship and hoist the FedExCup without requiring any help thanks to their point totals: Johnson, Scott, Day, Reed and Paul Casey. Given how important momentum can be for winning any golf tournament, these golfers have many reasons to feel confident about their chances.

This idea is furthered when analyzing how much of an advantage the higher-ranked players have heading into the tournament, relative to the rest of the field. Consider this: after the BMW Championship, a player's points are reset to a new number based upon his ranking (to see the updated point totals,
click here). Resetting scores gives everyone a chance to win the FedExCup, even though it wipes away any commanding leads a golfer may have had leading up to the TOUR Championship. The points earned for where a player finishes at the TOUR Championship can be found here.

One way to look at the probability each golfer has for winning the FedExCup is to look at how resetting points improves or worsens each golfer's chances. The most critical assumption in this exercise is every golfer is of the same quality and has the same abilities, so everyone has an equal opportunity to win; their probability to win the TOUR Championship is 1/30, or 3.33%. But to calculate their chances of winning the FedExCup, after resetting points, requires a more rigorous approach. Using
Monte Carlo simulation, I ran 5,000 tournaments and looked at how many times each golfer finished with the highest point total. Their probabilities can be found here:

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As expected, the lower the ranking, the worse the probability. Also as expected, if you were to draw a function to fit these points, it would be logarithmic (the R^2 is .9536 suggests this function captures almost all of the variation). Dustin Johnson has a significantly better probability to win than second-place golfer Patrick Reed. After Reed, the variation levels off. Still, in this exercise, golfers ranked 1st thru 8th have a better probability of winning than if points were completely erased, and whoever won the TOUR Championship also won the FedExCup.

No matter if you are computing probabilities using golfers of similar skill set, glimpsing at historical results or looking at abilities using advanced quantitative measures, the lesson is clear: likely looking at the top of the points list is where you will find this year's season-long champion.

Is Jordan Spieth Struggling?

IMG_3376Even before winning two majors—and nearly two more—in 2015, Jordan Spieth was one of the more popular golfers on the PGA Tour. Then, that popularity soared when the 22-year-old set many records beginning with the phrase: "Youngest golfer to…". But with enormous popularity and early success come high expectations. This year, Spieth has not won a major, only being in contention once out of three times. He also fell out of the top spot in the Official World Golf Rankings and has three fewer victories overall. Given what he did accomplish and how he's performing now, is Jordan Spieth Struggling?

Spieth defended his record and, during his performance at The Open at Royal Troon Golf Club, felt any questions about struggling was "unfair". Per
golflink.com:

"It's been tough given I think [2016 has] been a solid year," said Spieth. "I think if last year had not happened I'd be having a lot of positive questions and instead most of the questions I get are comparing to last year and therefore negative because it's not to the same standard…So that's almost tough to then convince myself you're having a good year when nobody else really…even if you guys think it is, the questions I get make me feel like it's not. So I think that's a bit unfair to me…"

Let's take an analytical look at if Jordan Spieth is struggling by his standards and, if so, by how much. The simplest way is to look at
Strokes Gained rankings and compare last year to this year. What makes Strokes Gained so useful is pointing specifically to the parts of the game a golfer may or may not be excelling at. The following statistics compare how well Spieth has done compared with the rest of the field:

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The numbers above the bars are his rankings on Tour. What also matters here are the following equations:

Off-the-Tee + Approach-the-Green + Around-the-Green = Tee-to-Green

Off-the-Tee + Approach-the-Green + Around-the-Green + Putting = Total

First, Spieth is actually performing better off the tee, but the rest of the field has caught up. Around the green and putting have remained steady or actually improved. The glaring statistic is his approach to the green. This measures all approach shots on par-4 and par-5 holes that are NOT within 30 yards from the edge of the green and includes tee shots on par-3 holes. Spieth has gone from .618 to -.016 (moving from 11th place to 118th). This statistic is further highlighted by looking at the breakdown of his rankings compared with the rest of the field:

  • 163rd in Greens in Regulation Percentage (62.3%)
  • T107th in Approaches from 75-100 yards (17' 10")
  • T109th in Approaches from 100-125 yards (20' 5")
  • T118th in Approaches from 125-150 yards (23' 9")

This information explains the discrepancy in SG: Tee-to-Green and SG: Total. It also explains the bigger discrepancy in tee-to-green versus total, because his skill at putting is included in the total, not tee-to-green. It is also worth noting, Spieth is playing in fewer tournaments this year than last. He played in 25 last season and is only through 16 this season, prior to the PGA Championship.

Let's now look solely at majors and highlight the discrepancy in Spieth's approach game:

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Spieth does not have the same driving accuracy, greens in regulation numbers or sand save percentage that he did in that record-breaking year.

Here is something else to consider. Perhaps one of Spieth's strengths is adapting to links courses. PGA Tour players do not play a lot on these types of courses, and while other golfers can drive the ball farther, this skill is not an advantage on a links course. But Spieth's skills as a putter and around the green do come in handy. In 2015, the U.S. Open was on a links course. Spieth won. This year, the only two domestic tournaments that even come close to those types of conditions are the AT&T Pebble Beach Pro-Am and the Hyundai Tournament of Champions. Spieth won the latter.

What Spieth said about his game and his year requires clarification. Strokes gained statistics have helped us highlight two important things about Jordan Spieth. First, his approach game has let him down much more so than last year. Second, he is not struggling with any other part of his game and in some ways he has improved. While his fans hope Spieth would have won more tournaments this year, he still has virtually as good a chance as any to capture the final major of the season.

Predicting the Masters

IMG_3374Jordan Spieth is and should be one of the favorites to win the Masters. He's had two starts at Augusta National, finished tied for second in 2014 and won it in 2015. He also has a PGA Tour victory in 2016, the Hyundai Tournament of Champions.

But, the PGA Tour's website is predicting someone different. Using an analytic formula, the site says
Phil Mickelson will win the green jacket. There are three variables used: the overall rankings for driving distance, putting and scrambling. Mickelson has the best ranking when combining all three variables, and by a lot. The second-place golfer, Jason Day, is 38 "points" lower than Mickelson but only ten points better than third and fourth place (Marc Leishman and Rickie Fowler, respectively). If this formula is completely accurate, Spieth will finish 7th.

Though the simplicity of the formula can be appreciated, any Masters prediction should include past performances. This variable is highly predictive. It explains why Fred Couples finished in the Top 20 in five of the last six years, even though he has played on the Champions Tour since 2010. It might also explain why the Masters remains the only major championship Rory McIlroy has yet to win (he has finished 8th or better the last two times at Augusta National).

Even when adding this variable, it does not take away from the argument for Mickelson. After all, he has won a pair of green jackets and finished tied 2nd in 2015, four strokes behind Spieth. It is also worth noting, of the 48 different golfers who have won the Masters, 17 won it multiple times (35.4%). Look for Mickelson, Spieth or Adam Scott to finish atop Sunday's leaderboard.