What’s the best way to predict the winner of a golf tournament? There’s the horse-for-the-course approach, which prioritizes a player’s history at the host venue. There’s the hooked-on-a-feeling approach, which requires a strong hunch and a healthy dose of confidence. And then there’s the current-form approach, a logical strategy that looks at a player’s recent results to identify players who are trending in the right way.
There’s some validity to the horse-for-the-course method, particularly at a course as unique as Augusta. (If you’re the type of person who makes predictions based on a gut feeling, then even the most foolproof argument isn’t going to convince you.) But the greatest predictor of Masters success, at least in recent years, has been whether a guy comes into the year’s first major playing well.
Take a look at how each of the past eight Masters champions finished in their pre-Augusta starts that year.
Patrick Reed (2018): MC-T23-T17-MC-C-T37-T2-T7-T9
Sergio Garcia (2017): T11-WIN-T49-T14-T12-T30
Danny Willett (2016): T54-WIN-T45-T3-T22-T28
Jordan Spieth (2015): T7-MC-T7-T4-T17-WIN-2-T2
Bubba Waston (2014): T23-T2-WIN-T9-T2-WD
Adam Scott (2013): T10-T33-T3-T30
Bubba Watson (2012): T18-T13-T5-T13-T17-2-T4
Charl Schwartzel (2011): T4-WIN-T8-T17-T14-T24-T47-T30
Every one of those guys had at least a T3 finish before their major triumph, and five of the eight had already won that year. If history is any indicator, a player needs to have shown at least some recent form if he is to claim the green jacket.
With that knowledge, let’s look at players who are trending up and down heading into Augusta.
• Rory McIlroy. Don’t let his match play loss to Tiger Woods cloud your judgment— McIlroy is the best player in the world right now, full stop. He still hasn’t finished outside the top 10 all year, and he’s finished T6 or better in each of his six stroke-play events. That includes the Players Championship, where McIlroy beat the best field and golf to emphatically assert himself as the man to beat at Augusta. He leads the Tour in strokes gained off the tee, strokes gained tee to green (a crucial predictor of Masters success) and strokes gained overall.
• Francesco Molinari. He’s probably the best match play golfer in the world, but his stroke play ain’t too shabby, either. The reigning British Open champion (and Ryder Cup legend) fired a tremendous 64 to erase a five-shot deficit and win the Arnold Palmer Invitational at Bay Hill, and he finished third at the Match Play last week (his only loss came ot eventual champion Kevin Kisner). Has four wins in his last 19 worldwide starts.
• Paul Casey. He has a bit of a reputation for failing to close out PGA Tour events—despite over $28 million in career earnings, he has just three victories. But one of those came two weeks ago at the Valspar Championship, and it wasn’t an out-of-the blue performance. Two starts earlier, he finished T3 at the WGC-Mexico Championship and also picked up a solo second at the AT&T Pebble Beach in February. As a result, the 41-year-old is No. 4 in the FedEx Cup standings and up to No. 11 in the world rankings. A bonus: he has four top-six finishes at Augusta.
• Matt Kuchar. He’s been in the news for the wrong reasons—a certain caddie stiffing and the Gimmie That Wasn’t—but Kuchar’s game is in fantastic shape. He and Xander Schauffele are the only players who have won twice on Tour this season, and Kuchar is fresh off a solo second at the match play that saw him take first place in the FedEx Cup standings. It’s somewhat surprising that he’s playing at this week’s Valero Texas Open, but an opening round three-under 69 suggests he hasn’t lost any momentum.
• Tommy Fleetwood. He’s still searching for his first win on U.S. soil, but boy has he been close. His last two stroke-play events (Bay Hill, the Players) have feature elite fields, and he finished T3 and T5. He’s fourth in strokes gained off the tee, fifth in strokes gained tee to green and fifth in strokes gained overall. Fleetwood has struggled to put four rounds together, but he’s an elite ball striker and is among the world’s best when he’s playing well.
• Jordan Spieth. Spieth is in the midst a slump that defies the normal ebb-and-flow of golf. He doesn’t have a top 10 anywhere since last year’s British Open, and his best finish in a stroke play event this year is a T35 at Torrey Pines way back in January. The stats don’t paint a pretty picture- he is No. 204 in strokes gained off the tee, No. 131 in strokes gained approaching the green, No. 121 in strokes gained around the green, No. 81 in strokes gained putting and No. 167 in strokes gained overall. He’s down to No. 32 in the world, and while he has played Augusta better than anyone in recent years (T2-WIN-T2-T11-3), there has been little on-course evidence to suggest his game is ready to contend for a major.
• Brooks Koepka. Koepka gave one of the more curious interviews in recent memory at this Players Championship. He said he’s lost 24 pounds since November, and 10-12 yards off the tee, but wouldn’t reveal exactly why. “You’ll see…I’ll be fine…I just want to be able to eat again…I just feel out of sorts.” Not exactly encouraging. Koepka did finish T2 at the Honda Classic, but his last three starts are MC-T56-T56, the last of which came after an 0-2-1 week at the match play. Koepka seems to always save his best for the majors, so if there’s one guy to buck this recent trend, it’s him. But still—the weight loss, the distance loss…his momentum isn’t ideal.
• Phil Mickelson. Yes, he already has a win (AT&T Pebble Beach) and a second-place finish (Desert Classic) this season. Since then, though, it hasn’t been fantastic—T37-T39-MC-MC-T40, with the T-40 coming at the 64-man match play. Part of the reason he’s struggled recently is the simple fact that he’s played so much recently—he’s 48, and he’s said some weeks he just doesn’t have the requisite energy—and he should be rested after taking this week off to practice, but it’s safe to say Phil would be a beter pick if the Masters was in February.
• Alex Noren. The Swede entered last year’s tournament as a legitimate sleeper, but the same can’t be said this go ’round. He has missed three cuts in his last five stroke play events, currently ranks No. 210 (out of 216 qualifying players) in strokes gained overall and No. 172 in scoring average. Consequently, he’s dropped from a career high world ranking of No. 8 to No. 30.
• Tony Finau. It hasn’t been disastrous by any stretch, but the first chapter of Finau’s year hasn’t produced the type of play he’s capable of. After racking up an impressive four second-places in 2018, Finau hasn’t managed to finish better than T15 in any of his seven starts this year, and that came back in February. After being one of a few Americans to have an impressive Ryder Cup and finishing the year ranked No. 9 in the world, Finau was a trendy dark horse pick for the Masters. His game still fits Augusta well—he finished T10 in his first Masters last year despite playing on ankle the size of a softball—but the relatively quiet start to the year has quieted that talk a bit.
Wait, No Tiger?
What, you thought we weren’t going to mention him?
Tiger doesn’t really fit into either of the above categories; he’s not playing poorly, but he also hasn’t been anywhere close to challenging for a stroke-play event this year. In fact, the closest he’s been is eight shots behind the eventual winner. If you desire a deep-dive breakdown of Tiger’s chances—reasons to believe he will contend, and reasons to believe he won’t—we’ve got you covered.