Ten Things to Know About the Masters Golf Tournament

From a story on theathletic.com by Justin Ray headlined “Masters 2023 analysis: 10 notes to know on Tiger Woods, Scottie Scheffler and more”:

Rain and cool temperatures are in the forecast virtually all week for this year’s Masters. But there’s little chance that will dampen the pre-tournament excitement.

The splintered factions of today’s professional game convene in Georgia with storylines bursting from every angle. Here are the top notes and numbers to know before the opening round of the 87th Masters Tournament.

1. Only three men in history have successfully defended victory at Augusta National Golf Club: Jack Nicklaus (1966), Nick Faldo (1990) and Tiger Woods (2002). You’d be hard-pressed to find a candidate more poised to become the fourth in recent years than Scottie Scheffler, who capped off his incredible sprint last spring with his first career major. In the post-pandemic era, Scheffler has replaced Brooks Koepka as the game’s most consistent performer in majors: Since the beginning of 2020, he’s a combined 44-under in them, 17 strokes better than any other player.

His ball-striking numbers in recent months detail why he was able to reclaim the world No. 1 ranking. Scheffler won The Players Championship last month leading the field in driving distance and greens in regulation, the first man to ever execute that trifecta at TPC Sawgrass. He’s the PGA Tour’s leader this season in strokes gained off the tee, greens in regulation and strokes gained tee to green. From 50 to 125 yards away, he’s hitting his approach shots 4 1/2 feet better than the tour average. There’s “dialed in,” then there’s whatever alien form Scheffler has undertaken when he makes a full swing.

Scheffler’s acclimation to the spotlight has been seamless the last 16 months. Since the inception of the Official World Golf Ranking in 1986, Woods is the only player to win multiple majors from the top spot (11 times). Scheffler will try to join him this week.

2. The most significant course change fans will notice comes at the 13th, where tees have been moved back 35 yards. This is the first time the tees have been shifted at the famed par 5 in 21 years. From 2002 to 2014, the hole played under 4.7 strokes for the week just twice. That’s happened six times in the last eight years.

Watching the shot-making decisions by the world’s best will be one of the most interesting things to see unfold this week. Dustin Johnson, perennially one of the longest players in the game, alluded to the potential he would lay up in certain situations. And though that’s an interesting subplot for four rounds, the move plays an even larger role in the ongoing conversation within the game about rules on equipment limitations, most notably the golf ball. On one of the marquee holes in the entire sport, a modification as significant as this makes it an inevitable point of reference.

3. Each of the five men to win the career grand slam got the final leg of it in three tries or fewer. This week is the ninth time Rory McIlroy has arrived in Augusta needing a green jacket to join that club of immortals.

McIlroy has answered limitless off-course questions in recent months about the present and future of the professional game. His two toughest questions this week, though, are strictly related to his own performance on the golf course.

One: Can he get off to a better start? Since 2015, McIlroy is a combined 21-over in the first round of major championships. He’s 76-under — a difference of 97 strokes — in rounds 2 through 4. His first-round scoring average at Augusta is 72.38, but he’s under par in each of the last three rounds. Each of the last 17 Masters winners started their week with a round under par.

Two: Which putter shows up? After surging into the top 20 on the PGA Tour last season in strokes gained putting, McIlroy has plummeted to 175th this season. He’s down 164 spots in putting from 10 to 15 feet and down 200 in distance of putts made per round (from ninth to 209th). That seemed to change, though, at the WGC Match Play (stats are unofficial there), where McIlroy put a different putter into play and showed flashes of elite form. Over the last nine holes of his quarterfinal match win over Xander Schauffele, McIlroy made five putts of 7 feet or longer to seal the win.

4. Jon Rahm has done just about everything well since making his first Masters appearance in 2017. Among all players in Masters history with 20 or more rounds played, Rahm is the only one with a scoring average below 71 who has not won. He leads all players in strokes gained off the tee here since 2017 and averages more strokes gained putting per round at Augusta than he does week to week in his PGA Tour career.

Statistically, the only thing that has kept Rahm from winning a green jacket yet has been his approach play. Though he has averaged positive strokes gained in every other category, he’s lost shots to the field with his iron play in his career at Augusta National. That’s diametrically opposed, though, to what he’s shown on the course this season. Rahm is averaging more than a full stroke gained per round with his approaches on tour in 2023, the fourth-best rate of any player.

5. Reigning Open champion Cameron Smith leads the LIV Golf contingent, both in World Ranking and apparently, as lead spokesman. Smith was the only LIV Golf player with a pre-tournament news conference in the Augusta National media center. It seems unwise to dismiss Smith entering the week: Over the last three Masters, he leads all players in cumulative score to par (21-under) and rounds in the 60s (seven). He’s also averaging more than 1 1/2 strokes gained approach per round in that span, best of anyone with 10 or more rounds played.

Though many of the pre-tournament questions about LIV players are simply human curiosities (team logos on shirts, the Champions Dinner vibe, driving range interactions, etc.), how well players are prepared for this week might be an actual golf issue. How well does a 54-hole tournament at an Orlando-area public course last week prepare a player for Augusta National? Is there a championship rust buildup for players competing in the different, shorter LIV format? Even the staunchest LIV apologist might acknowledge those are questions yet unanswered.

6. Of course, Smith is not the only LIV player who could be a factor this week. Since 2018, no player has averaged more strokes gained tee to green and strokes gained total per round at Augusta National than Dustin Johnson. Brooks Koepka struggled in the majors last year, but from 2016 to 2021 finished in the top 10 at them 13 different times. Patrick Reed has averaged 4.55 birdies or better per round at the Masters the last five years, the highest average of any player in that span (minimum 10 rounds). Since 2010, the current LIV roster accounts for more than half of all Masters victories.

7. Among the current top-15 players in the World Ranking, eight have not yet won a major championship. So which of that group is most likely to get their first this week in Georgia?

Patrick Cantlay (world No. 4) has the deep, balanced statistical profile to break through, but has just three top-10 finishes in 23 career major starts. Max Homa (No. 5) has improved in virtually every statistic for each of the last three years but has missed the cut in two of his three Masters appearances. Sam Burns (No. 11) just picked up the biggest win of his young career at the WGC Match Play in Austin, but his iron play numbers (175th in strokes gained approach) and major inexperience could be a deterrent.

Consider Tony Finau (No. 13), he of three top-10 finishes in five previous starts at Augusta. He enters the week ranked third on Tour in strokes gained approach, and well inside the top 10 in greens in regulation and strokes gained tee to green. He’s gaining more than a half-stroke on the field per round putting this season, something he has never done on the PGA Tour. He’s finished outside the top 25 just twice since July, picking up three victories. Finau fits the statistical profile and would be an immensely popular champion.

8. Though seeing Tiger Woods tee it up anywhere competitively in 2023 feels like a bonus, it’s especially rewarding when it happens at Augusta National. Last year, more than 500 days removed from competition, Woods opened with 71, inexplicably putting himself in the top 10. His body and putter let him down on the weekend though, as he lost more than six strokes to the field on the greens the last two days on his way to a 47th-place finish.

Woods has never missed the cut at the Masters as a professional. Should he make the cut this week, it would be his 23rd in a row, tying Gary Player and Fred Couples for the longest streak in tournament history. Woods’ name permeates the Masters record books, but that one would be one of his most impressive around this place.

9. The adage that Augusta National is a second-shot golf course has been further validated in the age of new analytics. Since 2015, Masters winners have gained 36.4 percent of their strokes on the field with their approach play. That’s an uptick from the tour average in that same span (35.5 percent). Six of the last eight Masters champions ranked inside the top five that week in strokes gained approach. Since 2010, players who finish in the top 10 at the Masters have hit 68.1 percent of their greens in regulation. Those who don’t hit 60.1 percent.

Over the last five years, the 11th has been the toughest green to hit in regulation, with the field finding it at a rate under 43 percent. That’s an especially pertinent stat when it comes to McIlroy, who has played the 11th in 17-over in his career here, worst of any single hole. Despite hitting the fairway at a near-80 percent clip, he’s found the putting surface in two shots just 42 percent of the time.

10. It would be possible to make this preview 20,000 words and not hit on every interesting player and topic entering the opening round.

Jordan Spieth is second in Masters history in strokes gained total per round, sandwiched between Ben Hogan and Woods. Can he rediscover the magic on the greens he had in his first few Masters starts?

Viktor Hovland had his best career major finish last summer at St. Andrews — but ranked 166th in strokes gained around the green this season. Will his short game hold him back?

Schauffele has finished in the top three here twice, and in the top 10 at majors nine times since 2017. Will Zalatoris and Cameron Young have been center stage in the majors the last few seasons, too — is this their breakthrough week?

Bring on Thursday.

Justin Ray is a contributor at The Athletic and the Head of Content for Twenty First Group, a sports intelligence agency that works with players, broadcasters, manufacturers and media. He has been in sports media for more than 10 years and was previously a senior researcher for ESPN and Golf Channel.

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