By: Edward Egros

Masters

Previewing the 2019 Masters

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If you didn't know, Masters merchandise can only be purchased on the grounds of Augusta National. Officially, swag with the flagstick firmly planted on the Southeast corner of the United States can only be picked up by attending golf's first major. Tradition rarely ever changes in Augusta, Georgia.

Over the past few years I have researched which statistics best predict who will win the Masters, and just like Masters merchandise, time has not changed the approach.
As I have mentioned in previous conversations, my approach involves predicting who will earn the biggest share of purse winnings, not a score. This approach gives me a constant dependent variable instead of something discrete like "did they win" or what placement did each golfer finish with. To address that many golfers will not cash by failing to make the cut, I use a Tobit regression that, put simply, accounts for a lot of zeroes. Most of the factors used to diagnose a golfer's game come from Strokes Gained statistics. The last variable I look at is "Money Share" that is a proxy for course history, answering how well golfers have played at Augusta National before.

Of all of these factors, Strokes Gained: Putting proved not to be useful in terms of forecasting a winner. Putting is an uncertain activity where even the slightest break or inconsistency in the green can change a putt's trajectory. There also does not seem to be much of a trend in the ability to putt
from one round to the next.

For some additional trends, since 2010, every Masters champion but one was in the Top 50 in Strokes Gained: Tee-to-Green (and often in the Top 10). Also, since 2012, every winner was in the Top 25 in the
Official World Golf Rankings (OWGR) heading into the tournament. Both trends were even more exclusive, until Patrick Reed's win last season lowered the aforementioned thresholds. Still, both trends are significant when determining a winner.

Now, to address the tiger in the room, Tiger Woods certainly falls in line with all of these trends. He ranks 9th in
Strokes Gained: Tee-to-Green, sits 12th in the OWGR and, of course, he's won four green jackets, though the last one was worn in 2005. The favorite in Rory McIlroy has finished half of his Masters in the Top 10, is currently leading in Strokes Gained: Tee-to-Green and sits 3rd in OWGR.

However, my pick to win is Justin Rose. One of the tricky things about Strokes Gained statistics is they do not account for international tournaments. International players are often miscalculated because how they perform away from American soil may not always come into the equation. On the PGA Tour, he's 26th in Strokes Gained: Tee-to-Green, but internationally, he's won the Turkish Airlines Open, finished 8th in the Sky Sports British Masters and earned
a Top 25 at the BNI Indonesian Masters. Lastly, at Augusta National, Rose has finished second in two of the last four years and can boast 11 Top 25 finishes out of 13 starts. He has come close, but I believe Justin Rose will finally capture his first green jacket and spend much more time at the souvenir shops nearby.

For those who play Daily Fantasy Sports, I submit two lineups as often as I can:

Justin Rose
Rickie Fowler
Hideki Matsuyama
Shane Lowry
Justin Harding
Sergio Garcia

Justin Thomas
Bubba Watson
Xander Schauffele
Henrik Stenson
Brandt Snedeker
Webb Simpson

As always, special thanks to
ShotLink for providing the data.

One Personal Note About the Masters

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It seemed like Sunday offered the kind of drama befitting Jim Nantz's description: "the most anticipated Masters…in our lifetime". Jordan Spieth, a former winner capable of dominating Augusta at any moment, nearly shot a course record to complete what would have been the biggest comeback leading into the final round in Masters history. Patrick Reed, who began Sunday with a three-stroke advantage, stayed around his starting score while those nearest to him were crumbling. For a few moments, it seemed like Spieth was going to catch Reed and fulfill the mantra that anything is possible at golf's first major.

Emotions are one thing, statistics are another.

DataGolf calculated its own odds for who would win the Masters, stroke-by-stroke. Even as Jordan Spieth trimmed his deficit with each passing birdie, Patrick Reed remained a sizable favorite for a number of reasons. First, no one has ever shot a 62 at the Masters before; but a few have shot a 63 and a few more have carded a 64. Expecting something unprecedented should be statistically small. But even if Spieth had pulled off that feat and we assume nothing else would have changed in terms of Reed's game, a course record would have only tied Reed, so nothing gives Spieth an advantage to win.

Second, as Spieth was approaching the end of his round, Reed had several holes remaining. Though he was in the middle of Amen Corner which historically can be treacherous,
when Reed's ball sat up on the slope after his approach on the 13th hole, avoiding the water altogether, Reed avoided any major disaster that would have given Spieth an opportunity. Then, Reed had easier holes where he could card more birdies, including the Par-5 15th, where he even scored an eagle the day before.

Lastly, per ShotLink, Reed was already 24th on Tour in Strokes Gained: Tee-to-Green and 41st in One-Putt Percentage, so nothing suggested one aspect of his game could cause a collapse, he would probably remain steady at worst—which is exactly what happened—Reed gained one shot en route to his first major championship.

There may have been wishful thinking by many Spieth would have completed the comeback, whether that come from fans of his, haters of Reed or consumers of incredible storylines. Often those emotions can have us thinking irrationally, that someone can do something that unprecedented. But those stoic statistics reminded us just how much of a longshot Spieth was to win, no matter how thrilling he made it seem. It's not that analytics should prevent us from enjoying the spectacle, but it should put in context what we are witnessing, as it might deceive us.

My 2018 Masters Pick Is...

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A couple of months ago, I gave a talk at SportCon, a sports analytics conference in Minneapolis. There, I discussed how I come up with my predictions specifically for golf's first major of the year. If you'd like to listen to the podcast, click here.

What was not touted was, since I began my research into sports analytics, I correctly predicted two of the last three winners at the Masters (Jordan Spieth in 2015 and Sergio Garcia in 2017). Danny Willett in 2016 plays on the European Tour and given his inexperience at Augusta National and my ongoing adjustments as to how European Tour statistics translate to American courses, I missed that result completely.

I will apply the tobit model mentioned in my presentation for my picks, but will also use simpler statistics to highlight what matters most. This year may pose more uncertainty because of the number of international players who are playing well (their statistics do not always translate easily to Augusta National) and so many big names are playing well. Since 2012—when statistics are available for the winners—every Masters champion was in the Top 5 in Strokes Gained: Tee-to-Green. Also, since 2012, every winner was in the Top 16 in the
Official World Golf Rankings (OWGR) going into the tournament.

First, let's address the tiger in the room. Tiger Woods has won more purse money than anyone except Phil Mickelson at Augusta National. In fact, he's won approximately $3.5 million more than third-place Jordan Spieth. While he has shown steady improvement leading up to this week, and while I am willing to disregard his OWGR of 103rd, it is more difficult to assume his total winnings are not some sort of an outlier when analyzing the data (more technically, that there would be a perfect linear relationship between winnings and likelihood of winning the next tournament with the uppermost points that are substantially higher than everyone else). Tiger may play exceptionally well, but given he hasn't played since 2015, he remains a risky choice.

The aforementioned statistics do bode well for defending champion Sergio Garcia. He ranks first in Strokes Gained: Tee-to-Green, has three Top 10 finishes this season and historically has played well, finally putting it all together in a playoff victory. Even the player he beat in that playoff, Justin Rose, could earn a green jacket. Not only has he finished 2nd in two of his last three tries, in a dozen career appearances, Rose has finished in the Top 25 nearly every time and made the cut every time. One more honorable mention who grades highly is Adam Scott, the 2013 winner of this event. Though he has not been in contention in any of his seven events, he's had a relatively consistent game and a sterling history in majors.

But this year, my pick to win is Jordan Spieth. Yes, while his putting used to be a strength of his, it has now become problematic. In the three previous years at the time of the Masters, Spieth's Tour ranks for Strokes Gained: Putting were 39th, 17th and 5th. This time,
he's tied for 185th, missing several short putts throughout the year. However, my model classifies Strokes Gained: Putting as an insignificant variable because of the variability of the metric. More specifically, a golfer may look like a worse putter because the putts are much tougher, not because of ability. Also, Spieth says an illness during the offseason completely threw off his schedule, so he knew he would need additional time to have his game where he wants it.

In four appearances, Jordan Spieth has finished second, first, second and 11th. He ranks third in the history of the tournament in total winnings in just those four appearances. Currently, all three components of Strokes Gained: Tee-to-Green
rank in the Top 20 on Tour. If you believe in momentum, Spieth had his best finish of the year last week, tied for 3rd at the Houston Open. He finished tied for 2nd at that same tournament when he captured his first green jacket. It looks like he could claim his second in just a few days.

For those who assemble Daily Fantasy lineups, here are the two I am submitting:

Jordan Spieth
Paul Casey
Sergio Garcia
Kevin Chappell
Ian Poulter
Matt Kuchar

Bubba Watson
Hideki Matsuyama
Patrick Reed
Justin Rose
Adam Scott
Henrik Stenson

Prelude to the Masters

Pasted Graphic 1The uniqueness of the Shell Houston Open is not so much the course itself, but its timing. Some of the top players skip the event altogether so they can focus solely on next week's Masters, some may very well use the event as a tune-up, vying less for the win and more for retooling and some are playing this event to win. There are some players with a lot of success at this event, notably Phil Mickelson, Russell Henley and Henrik Stenson. Strokes Gained: Off-the-Tee, Tee-to-Green and Approach-the-Green all have predictive value; in fact, when looking at the last 50 Top 5 finishers, the majority were all in the Top 50 in the second pair of statistics. Given this information, here are my Daily Fantasy Lineups:

Keegan Bradley
Tony Finau
Luke List
Ryan Palmer
Kevin Streelman
Jhonattan Vegas

Chesson Hadley
Phil Mickelson
Henrik Stenson
Scott Piercy
Chez Reavie
Nick Watney

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.