Tuesday, April 24, 2012
Numbers stack up against Bubba Watson
Masters champion Bubba Watson makes his return to competition this week in New Orleans, with the added caveat of being the defending champion at the event. Watson defeated Webb Simpson on the second hole of a playoff to pick up his third career PGA Tour victory at the Zurich Classic in May 2011.
Recent history tells us, though, that fans shouldn't expect a repeat this week in Louisiana.
Since 1986, only once has a player won on tour in their first start following a win at Augusta. That was Tiger Woods in 1997, who won the Byron Nelson in his first start back, five weeks after winning the Masters.
Only eight of the 26 champions in that span even finished in the top 10 in their first subsequent PGA Tour start, and five of those guys were named either Woods or Phil Mickelson. There have been nearly as many missed cuts by the group (four) as top-five finishes (six).
In fact, the numbers say that we should expect to wait a while before we see Bubba in the winner's circle again on the PGA Tour.
Since 2000, only two Masters winners won on tour that year at all: Zach Johnson in 2007, and Woods following his three victories.
The rest of the major champs needed double-digit starts to win again. Mickelson went 20 PGA Tour starts between his 2010 Masters title and his win in the 2011 Shell Houston Open. Vijay Singh started 50 times on the circuit between his 2000 Masters win and his next victory, which came in 2002 in Houston.
Three of the past four Masters winners haven't won on the PGA Tour since being awarded the green jacket: Charl Schwartzel, Angel Cabrera and Trevor Immelman. Of the nine in the group since 2000 who have won since, it took an average of 14.7 PGA Tour starts to get back to another trophy ceremony on the PGA Tour.
Of course, nothing about Watson is conventional, so bucking the numerical trends shown above would surprise nobody here at Numbers Game. Watson's past success in New Orleans could make him the exception to the Masters hangover rule. In addition to the win last year, Watson finished tied for fifth at the event in 2007, and eight of his past nine rounds here have been below par.
And if Watson is within striking range Sunday, things could really get interesting. Bubba is 16 under in five career final rounds in this event, and six of his seven final-round scores in 2012 have been par or better.
Who is the last player to win on the PGA Tour the week after winning the Masters?
While Watson is the headliner this week, the Zurich Classic of New Orleans features an otherwise solid field, featuring four of the world's top 10 players and 12 different major champions. The Numbers Game starter calls to the tee:
John Huh: Now the presumed front-runner for PGA Tour Rookie of the Year, Huh had one of the more remarkable weeks by a non-winner in recent memory last week at the Valero Texas Open.
Huh started Thursday 9 over on his first eight holes. After that, he played the rest of the tournament in 16 under, making just a single bogey during his final 64 holes. He hit just one of his first eight greens in regulation, but hit 72 percent in regulation the rest of the way.
Since 2009, no player has shot worse than a 73 in their opening round and gone on to win on the PGA Tour. If Huh had gone on to win, his opening-round 77 would have cleared that mark by 4 strokes. Huh will look to carry on that last-64-holes momentum this week in New Orleans.
Steve Stricker: Nobody has won more times on the PGA Tour since the beginning of 2010 than Stricker (five wins). He makes his 13th career start at the Zurich Classic this week. Stricker has finished in the top 25 here in four of his last five starts, and was tied for fourth entering Sunday last year before firing a final-round 73.
Stricker was especially hot putting on Saturday in this event a year ago, going 18-for-18 on putts inside 20 feet en route to a 68. Sunday he was 18-for-26 inside 20 feet, tumbling from T-4 to T-13.
Luke Donald: He's been one of the most consistent players in the sport over the past 30 months or so, partly by succeeding in fields like the one he'll be a part of this week. Last year in his first trip to Avondale, Donald fired four sub-par rounds and finished tied for eighth.
While that will make you a ton of money on tour, such success breeds expectations on the game's biggest stage -- something Donald has yet to live up to. Since the 2010 U.S. Open, Donald has made just two top-10 finishes in eight major championships. In that same span, he's finished in the top 10 in 65.4 percent of his PGA Tour appearances (17-for-26).
Bonus -- Lee Trevino: At the 1974 Greater New Orleans Open, World Golf Hall of Famer Lee Trevino did something that hasn't been done since on the PGA Tour. Trevino won without carding a single bogey over 72 holes, posting an 8-stroke victory over Bobby Cole and Ben Crenshaw. Trevino earned the winner's share of $30,000 that week -- just $1.122 million less than what this week's champion will receive.
Question: Who is the last player to win on the PGA Tour the week after winning the Masters?
Answer: Bernhard Langer, 1985, in Hilton Head Island, S.C.
Justin Ray is a senior researcher with ESPN Stats & Information. He has contributed to ESPN's golf coverage since joining the network out of college in 2008. He is based in Austin, Texas, with the Longhorn Network. Send comments and suggestions to Justin.Ray@espn.com.