Using stats, science and our experienced gut feeling, we’ve identified the player who will win the Masters golf tournament 2020 and slip on the Green Jacket at Augusta National on November 15.
Predicting the winner of any golf tournament with any certainty is tough. Predicting a Major winner with any certainty is nigh-on impossible, even more so at a Masters Tournament pushed back from April to November and played with no patrons.
This year’s field will now experience different Masters playing conditions than they’re used to. Equally significant, they’ll be performing like the rest of us, in front of one man and his dog. The patrons will be conspicuous by their absence and that fact could well be the biggest and most crucial factor of them all.
More so than ever, the field is wide open and the winner could come from anywhere. And yet trying to identify that man is not a forlorn task.
By going back through a vast amount of statistical data, we have been able to narrow down the field. Mix in expert insights from players, caddies, coaches and analysts, then sprinkle it with a large dollop of gut feeling and we can name the players most likely to win in the 84th Masters Tournament.
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Alas, while we cannot guarantee you a winner with 100 per cent, bet-your-house-on-it confidence, we can narrow down the field significantly and we will stick our neck out and plump for one. So why should you trust us before having your annual bet? Let's just say that while other ruled out a certain Tiger Woods in 2019, our system named him as the man to back.
“The older past champions have no shot at Augusta. So you can cut 15 to 20 per cent of the field straight off. The course just takes so many of the older guys out of the mix.”
While Tiger Woods’ victory at 43 in 2019 was a boost for the older generation, there are still a number of players in the field who are probably too long in the tooth to be considered genuine contenders. Not only is Augusta longer than ever, it’s also more hilly than your TV lets on. It’s said that walking Augusta National is roughly 5.51 miles. For guys in the twilight years of their career, just walking it can be too much of a physical challenge.
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If anyone over 45 wins this year, we’ll be amazed. Which by our calculations means no dice for Phil Mickelson (50), Angel Cabrera (51), Fred Couples (61), Jose Maria Olazabal (54), Vijay Singh (57) and Lee Westwood (47). Interestingly, this will be the last Masters before turning 45 for both Ian Poulter and a certain Tiger Woods…
“Long off the tee is a prerequisite in the Masters. A short hitter has no chance there anymore. It’s a big hitter’s game and a big hitter’s golf course. You need to hit it long, or it puts too much stress on the rest of your game.”
Not to take anything away from Zach Johnson’s victory in 2007, but it was an outlier caused by atypically bad weather, leading to the first over-par winning total since 1956. The conditions meant that even the big boys couldn’t overpower the course, turning par 5s back into three-shotters and playing into Johnson’s hands as one of the best wedge players in the game. In the last 21 years, he is the only Masters winner to be ranked in the bottom half for driving distance on the PGA Tour.
This year, there is also the added curveball of playing the Masters for the first time in November. Temperatures are, on average, about 10 degrees cooler than during the Masters’ traditional month of April. The course is expected to play longer and softer as a result, with a northerly wind blowing into the players on the par-4 1st, as well as three of the par 5s, including the 13th and 15th.
Brooks Koepka has already predicted the winning score will be close to level par and unless we see a repeat of the conditions from 2008, this year’s winner is likely to be someone who averages at least 295 yards off the tee. This automatically rules out a lot of players, notably big names like Rickie Fowler, Matt Fitzpatrick, Kevin Kisner, and Matt Kuchar.
With the numbers narrowed right down, we’re now looking at a very simple equation.
“Look at the players who are currently top 10 or top 20 in the world. The chances are pretty good that the winner is going to come from one of the guys on that list.”
Some will point to the likes of Charl Schwartzel (2011), Danny Willett (2016) and even Sergio Garcia (2017) as relative underdog victors in recent years, but the truth is that if you want a surprise Major champion, the Masters isn’t your best bet.
The last 10 winners were all in the top 30 of the World Rankings heading into the tournament, and the last six were all ranked inside the top 11 of the PGA Tour’s scoring average statistic during their year of victory. In fact, the trend of cream rising to the top at Augusta dates back even further.
There have been 34 winners of the Masters since the World Rankings were created, and only two of them – Zach Johnson in 2007 and Angel Cabrera in 2009 – were outside the top 40 in the world at the time of their victory.
In other words: you need to be one of the world’s best players, and you need to be in really good form. If you apply these credentials to the players who have made it this far, your delayed 2020 winner is likely to be one of Dustin Johnson, Jon Rahm, Rory McIlroy, Justin Thomas Webb Simpson, Xander Schauffele, Bryson DeChambeau, Tyrrell Hatton and Patrick Reed.
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You could perhaps also include Patrick Cantlay and Tony Finau, who were ranked inside the top 20 for scoring average at the end of the 2020 season and finished in the top 10 at last year’s Masters.
Koepka is now outside the world’s top-10 and hasn’t played since the Wyndham Championship in mid-August due to a knee injury, putting him out of our equation, while Daniel Berger isn’t even in the field and English duo Tommy Fleetwood and Justin Rose are out of form.
Like Koepka, Tiger Woods is undercooked and has only made two top 10s since the start of last season. Recent performances also show a fallibility when temperatures are cooler, which is why we’re boldly writing off the great man’s chances of winning a record-equalling sixth Masters.
So, now we’re down to just a handful of names, and here it breaks down into three key areas of the game. Firstly…
“Augusta rewards really good iron players who put the ball in the right spot on the green. It’s not the hardest course off the tee, but there’s so much pressure with your second shot. You just can’t miss around there and if you do you have to miss in the right spot or you’re making double.”
It’s always been said that the best ball-strikers come to the fore at Augusta, and our data backs that up. Fifteen of the last 19 winners have ranked inside the top six for greens in regulation during their victory. Tiger led the field in greens in regulation on his way to victory last year, hitting over 80 per cent.
The players who led the field in ‘strokes gained: approach’ in the last five Masters tournaments finished first, first, second, fourth and first. Nobody in the last decade has entered the Masters with negative ‘strokes gained: approach’ that season and gone on to win. A lone statistic will never be sufficient to predict a tournament winner, but if we could only use one, this would be it.
Based on performances since the restart in June, which many players have treated like the start of the new season, all our contenders are in the green, with Cantlay, Thomas and Finau ranked among the standout iron players.
The next thing we need to consider is a player’s mentality, which comes under the brightest spotlight imaginable…
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“The enormity of the thing gets to so many guys at Augusta. For so many, particularly the Americans, The Masters is the biggest event in golf. And that can take its toll. You have to be able to handle pressure unlike any other.”
To win at Augusta, it helps if you’ve had that winning feeling before, and the more recent the victory, the better. If it’s been a while since you lifted a trophy, the Masters is unlikely to be the place you end your drought.
Nine of the last 11 champions had won another event in the 12 months leading up to their Masters victory. That’s not good news for four of our contenders – Finau, Cantlay, Schauffele and McIlroy, who celebrates the anniversary of his last victory, the WGC-HSBC Champions in China, the week before Augusta.
In the case of Schauffele, he technically did win the Tour Championship (he had the lowest 72-hole score by three shots) but the staggered start meant he’s still awaiting his first PGA Tour victory since January 2019.
So that leaves us with seven players who aren’t too old, or too wet behind the ears at Augusta, who hit the ball far enough, are high in the World Ranking, maintaining good scoring averages, outplaying the field with their iron play, and with a recent taste of victory: DJ, Rahm, Thomas, DeChambeau, Simpson, Reed and Hatton.
There are three more parts of the game that define who wins and who loses at Augusta, which we will use to pick a winner from these seven: Your ability to get up and down, your ability to make birdies, and your close-range putting.
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“Bad chippers have no chance at Augusta. When you are technically flawed, you are going to make too many bogeys to be in with a serious shout. The course exposes short game weakness. It might be the only course we play where we’re always chipping off short grass. That is a part of the game a lot of guys struggle with, because we don’t often do it.”
Augusta’s greens are so tricky to hit – and hold – that even the best ball-strikers will miss their fair share. That’s why you need a killer short game if you want a Green Jacket. Ten of the last 11 Masters winners ranked inside the top 10 in ‘scrambling’ during the week.
That means we can eliminate three players, starting with DJ who, despite winning the FedEx Cup, has a negative strokes gained around the green since the restart, getting up and down just 59.7 per cent of the time.
Hatton is another whose short game is likely to let him down at present; he ranks outside the top 150 for scrambling over the last four months.
But perhaps most surprising is DeChambeau’s short game struggles, which have seen him record negative strokes gained with his approach shots in three of the last four seasons. Despite him being the favourite in many people’s eyes, the Mad Scientist is out of our equation.
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“A really good putter from inside 10 feet will do well. You’re not hitting it close all day, so you need to make those. If you can do that, it’s huge.”
If you’ve been watching the Masters for a while, you’ll have probably noticed that players don’t knock it stiff with their approaches, or even their chip shots, quite as often as they do at other courses. That’s because the greens, especially in certain pin positions, make it almost impossible to do so. The result is a lot of ‘must make’ putts from inside 10 feet, either because you missed the green and couldn’t chip it close, or because your first putt was so difficult you’ve left yourself a knee-knocker to avoid a three-jab.
This is where the alarm bells start to ring for Jon Rahm and Justin Thomas, who performed poorly from inside 10ft at Winged Foot on greens which have been likened to Augusta’s in the past.
However, stats are nothing without context and we all know putting is a streakier endeavour than any other part of the game. A short hitter doesn’t suddenly become a bomber just for one week, but a player whose putting performance has been only so-so leading up to the Masters can get hot with the flatstick for four rounds.
Coming into the 2018 Masters, Patrick Reed ranked 75th on the PGA Tour for ‘strokes gained: putting’, gaining just 0.163 shots per round with his putter. But his putting came alive at Augusta, gaining 1.98 strokes per round against the field, the third-best putting performance that week. This is perhaps a good omen for Thomas, a self-confessed streaky putter, who has just started working with a new putting coach, John Graham, in a bid to improve perhaps his only weakness.
Our final consideration is a player’s ability to make birdies.
“Very few players get round Augusta without dropping a few shots. But that means you need to make plenty of birdies, because the winner is probably going to be 10-under or better. Make four or five birdies a round, with an eagle or two during the week, and you’ll be right in the mix.”
Everybody drops shots at Augusta. The key is to make enough birdies to compensate for that and to get you deep into red numbers – eight of the last 10 tournaments have been won at nine-under or better.
Seven of the last eight winners were ranked inside the top 40 of the PGA Tour’s ‘birdies per round’ statistic during their season of victory.
Interestingly, Reed and Thomas rank among the top two on the PGA Tour since June, averaging over 4.4 birdies per round. We wouldn’t be surprised by either man winning, and Reed’s victory in 2018 clearly stands him in good stead. However…
Your 2020 Masters champion will be… Justin Thomas
JT has improved with every year he has played the Masters. In his last two visits, he has ranked second for greens in regulation and only poor putting displays have stopped him from troubling the top of the leaderboard.
He made just 11 birdies last year, 14 fewer than tournament leader Schauffele, though he says he plans to adopt a more aggressive approach this year. So he should too, considering he’s one of, if not the best ball-striker in the game right now, ranking first for strokes gained: approach the green on the PGA Tour last season. Lest we forget he’s had 14 top 10s, including four wins, in his last 22 starts and was the first round leader at the US Open before finishing in a tie for eighth.
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JT has a game made for Augusta and he really should have added to his maiden Major victory at the 2017 PGA Championship before now. He’s yet to crack the top 10 at Augusta in four attempts, but the change of date could well assist him as nine of his 13 PGA Tour wins have come in the second half of the year.
His ability to hit a draw off the tee should give him even more of an advantage at Augusta, and if his putter gets hot, golf will have another multiple Major champion in its ranks.