Putting matters, but iron play rules at Augusta

April, 8, 2009
04/08/09
2:24
PM ET

Alister MacKenzie, Bobby Jones, Magnolia Lane, azaleas, the Hogan, Nelson and Sarazen bridges, Amen Corner, the green jacket, Augusta National, the Masters Tournament.

No numbers can describe how excited golf fans get when hearing that list rattled off. Simply put, this is the best week of the year to be a golf fan. Let's hope for an entertaining first major championship of 2009.

Golf Stats: The Numbers That Matter

Every golfer and golf fan knows the sport is a game of numbers. One of the most distinct characteristics of golf is that any player's efforts are summarized by an absolute and final statistic: the score. However, as any visitor to the 19th hole knows, the story of the game cannot be told in full by the tally at the end of the round.

"Golf Stats: The Numbers That Matter" is your weekly source of insight into the numbers that make a difference in golf, focusing on the PGA Tour. Whether you're looking to wow your buddies in your Saturday foursome or get a little extra help for your fantasy team or are just a stats junkie, this blog is for you.

Every week, this sliver of the Internet will be your one-stop shop for the unique and significant golf stats that best tell the stories beyond the scores.

Still, that doesn't mean we'll be mailing it in for the Masters. This week, the golf stats blog takes a look at how the most recent tournament champions have gotten it done (including a special section devoted to Tiger Woods) and details the relationship between changes at Augusta National and Tiger's wins.

The green jacket

Aside from Tiger and Phil Mickelson, there have been some unexpected champions at Augusta in the past several years, including Trevor Immelman, Zach Johnson and Mike Weir. The list has quite the variation in skill sets, body types and even dominant hand (Mickelson and Weir both are lefties).

The common perception is that putting determines the outcome at Augusta, and although this statement holds some truth, the recent champions' numbers show a more common thread: greens in regulation.

Below are the stats and rankings of the past seven champions in the major skill categories. Save for Weir's victory in 2003, none of those Masters winners finished worse than T-4th in GIR. Weir was able to make up for his lesser iron play by leading the field in scrambling and finishing second in putting average.

Masters champions' statistics from 2002 to 2008

Year Winner Driving dist. Driving acc. GIR Scramble Putt avg.
2008 Trevor Immelman 287.5 (4) 85.71% (1) 70.83% (T-2) 80.95% (1) 1.765 (7)
2007 Zach Johnson 265.0 (57) 80.36% (T-2) 61.11% (T-4) 64.29% (4) 1.841 (25)
2006 Phil Mickelson 299.3 (1) 62.50% (T-36) 69.44% (T-4) 59.09% (28) 1.780 (12)
2005 Tiger Woods 292.4 (4) 57.14% (49) 75.00% (2) 55.56% (37) 1.759 (8)
2004 Phil Mickelson 290.4 (T-9) 73.21% (T-9) 73.61% (1) 73.68% (2) 1.792 (19)
2003 Mike Weir 271.3 (39) 75.00% (T-11) 52.78% (T-37) 76.47% (1) 1.658 (2)
2002 Tiger Woods 293.8 (6) 69.64% (T-22) 75.00% (1) 66.67% (T-12) 1.704 (5)

Another trend worth mentioning: The past two champions, Immelman and Johnson, finished first and T-2nd, respectively, in driving accuracy. Both hit fairways at better than an 80 percent clip -- quite the contrast to Mickelson's 62.5 percent in 2006 and Tiger's 57.1 percent in 2005. It also should be noted that the scrambling ranks and putting averages for the champions are higher than those in most PGA events. The greens at Augusta definitely play a prominent roll, but a high GIR percentage is even more essential for victory.

Tiger's victories fit the mold

When examining Tiger's Masters victories in 1997, 2001, '02 and '05, the importance of greens in regulation is only reinforced. The table below compares Tiger's victories to his other eight Masters Tournaments as a professional.

Tiger Woods' Masters statistics comparison

Statistic Winning years Other finishes
Scoring average 68.4 71.8
Birdie average 5.5 3.7
GIR percentage 77.4 66.3
Driving accuracy 70.5% 67.2%
Putts per round 29.2 29.7

What it boils down to is that the best predictor of Tiger's success at Augusta is his GIR, which has been 75 percent or better in each of his victories there. Only once has Tiger hit 70 percent or more of his greens in regulation at the Masters and failed to win (in 2000, when he hit 70.8 percent of greens). His putting averages and fairway averages are pretty similar in wins compared to other finishes.

Tiger also has fared better when the course has played easier. The field scoring relative to par in his wins is plus-1.554 (against plus-2.276 in his other finishes). Below are more interesting notes on Woods' victories. Keep these numbers in mind when considering possible outcomes this week, as they could be the best indicators of Tiger's finish.

In each of Tiger's Masters victories (1997, 2001, '02, '05):

• He scored 12-under or better.
• He had no double-bogeys.
• He posted a scoring differential of minus-13.6 (287.1 versus 273.5).
• He averaged eight more greens in regulation for the week.
• He ranked first, first, first and second in GIR.
• He averaged only 2.1 fewer putts (116.8 versus 119.0) for the week.
• He averaged just 1.9 more fairways for the week.
• He earned $3.762 million, versus $2.156 million in eight other Masters finishes.

One more interesting Tiger note: His worst finish at the Masters as a professional is a T-22nd in the 2004 tournament.

Tiger prints on Augusta National?

Since Tiger's first Masters as a professional in 1997, Augusta National has undergone several changes. Most notably, the course has been lengthened by 540 yards. Prior to 1997, the course length had remained unchanged for nearly a decade. There has been all kinds of controversy about the effects of lengthening the course on the excitement of the event. Most will agree that Jack Nicklaus' back-nine 30 in 1986 can't be duplicated on today's course.

Which begs the question: How much have Tiger's victories influenced the course changes at Augusta? The timing of the added length suggests Woods' dominance was a key factor. The table below notes the yardage that was added to the course the year after a Tiger win. In sum, the four years that followed a Woods victory account for more than 80 percent of the yards added during the past 12 years.

Tiger wins and course lengthening correlation

Years Length added the following year
1997 0
2001 285
2002 20
2005 155
Tiger wins 440 yards
1997-2009 540 yards

The Paddy Slam?

Another question on the minds of golf fans: Will Padraig Harrington win his third consecutive major? The quest for a Paddy Slam continues this week at Augusta; unfortunately, Harrington's ballstriking numbers appear to put his streak in jeopardy.

In his two previous major wins, Harrington relied heavily on his putter, ranking first in putting average at the PGA Championship and 13th in putting average at the British Open. But his iron play was much less impressive: T-27th in greens in regulation at the PGA (56.9 percent) and T-30th at the British (52.8 percent).

Harrington currently ranks T-126th in GIR on tour, hitting 63.23 percent of his greens. And although he has played better golf lately (three top-25s after a very rocky start), he has yet to finish in the top 10 in a PGA Tour event in 2009. It appears he'll either need to make a quick turnaround with his irons or find more magic in his putter to keep his hope of four consecutive major wins alive.

ESPN Masters Best Ball Challenge

ESPN Fantasy welcomes back the first of four Best Ball Challenges, offering competitions and prizes for each of the four majors.

The contest works similarly to a four-man best-ball competition. You select four players, and your fantasy score for each hole during that day's competition is the lowest of the four players' scores. For instance, if three of your selected players score a 4 on a hole and the fourth scores a 3, your fantasy score for that hole is a 3. There is a catch: a salary cap of $50 million. Player salaries are based on "market value."

Any way you slice it, you want to pick the players who figure to make the most birdies. My favorite strategy for this format: "studs and scrubs." Just grab the strongest firepower (also the highest-salaried players) and round out your roster with the best remaining players who fit within your salary-cap constraints.

My two favorites to win the tournament are Tiger ($18.0) and Geoff Ogilvy ($14.7). Although those picks exhaust a good chunk of salary cap, they're the two top birdie machines in the field. I'm still able to add a rooting favorite in Rocco Mediate ($8.8) and a world-class player from Denmark, Soren Hansen ($8.5). Bottom line: I get the world's No. 1 player; the 2009 leader in money, FedEx Cup points, birdie average and putting average; and two very experienced players who will rack up pars should my two thoroughbreds stumble.

Here's another permutation of the strategy: Take Camilo Villegas ($14.3), who leads the tour in GIR (73.3 percent) and averages four birdies per round. Add the world's No. 2 player in Phil Mickelson($16.0), who is second on the money list and in FedEx Cup Points, and who ranks sixth in birdie average (4.32). Round out your roster with a couple of sentimental favorites who know how to win at Augusta: Fred Couples ($10.1) and Jose Maria Olazabal ($9.3). It doesn't hurt that Couples is coming off a solid T-3rd at the Shell Houston Open.

This is just one of many ways to approach the ESPN Best Ball Challenge. You could go with the teen phenoms of Rory McIlroy, Danny Lee and Ryo Ishikawa. Paul Casey is coming off his first PGA victory. Sean O'Hair and Nick Watney have emerged as two of the best players in the world under age 30. Any way you choose to go, give yourself an additional rooting interest to enjoy the 2009 Masters Tournament and fantasy golf on ESPN.com.

Send comments, suggestions and corrections to Nathan.J.Easler@espn.com.

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