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2019 Masters Preview: Strokes Gained Correlation at Augusta
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2019 Masters Preview: Strokes Gained Correlation at Augusta

The Masters. The words alone ring with excitement as the world’s best will battle in early April to see who will wear the next green jacket and thousands of gamblers and fantasy players alike will take their shot and turning their golf knowledge into cold hard cash. It will be a weekend full of excitement, heartbreak, PGA DFS sweats, and much more. For the more sophisticated fantasy player though Augusta leaves us lacking data – specifically strokes gained data for Augusta is not made public – making it a more challenging puzzle to solve while trying to predict the winner or who may offer the most value. In this 2019 Masters Preview, I’ll instead be leaning on PGATOUR strokes gained data as an indicator over what correlates best with finishing position at Augusta dating back to the 2010 season.

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While this won’t give us a foolproof blueprint it will help us isolate common themes and areas to differentiate between players of similar skill to help with course fit and longshots to crack the final leaderboard. The process:

  1. Aggregate Masters data from 2010 to present
  2. Aggregate tournament data for PGA Tour events leading up to the Masters
  3. Stastistical analysis to identify correlations for each year and in aggregate
  4. Overlay with the field

While a lot of analysis just focuses on the winner of golf events, mine focuses instead on correlation with finishing position, knowing that the winner each year had a lot of fortune to wind up on the podium.

There are plenty of romantic discussions in golf media about all of the individual holes, but at the highest level, Augusta plays as a 7400+ yard Par 72 that is 18th in par adjusted distance and typically plays as one of the 10 toughest courses relative to par. The greens are firm – rumored to run between 12 and 15 on the stimpmeter with actual speeds varying dramatically between greens to reflect approach length – and undulating with slopes and strategy playing a key role. Augusta has shown more correlation between leaderboards between years than most other golf tournaments perhaps lending some credence to weighing course history at the event even for non-believers. Purely from a fantasy format, nearly 50 percent of the scoring comes from the short Par 4 3rd hole and the Par 5s – Pink Dogwood, Yellow Jasmine, Azalea, and Firethorn. Azalea and Firethorn specifically matter for weekend golf and showdown formats due to their ability to link crucial birdie streaks.

But back to the strokes gained breakdowns. So much of the talk about Augusta is about the difficulty and speed of the greens and the importance of a strong short game, that it is easy to be tricked into thinking strength around the green and putting matters most. While that could end up true from a descriptive perspective, our goal in fantasy or betting isn’t to describe the winners after the conclusion of the event but rather to use data to attempt to predict the future. There are some pitfalls using strokes gained data that should be addressed:

  1. Not all events have strokes gained data
  2. Many European Tour players don’t have a high sample of strokes gained data
  3. Strokes gained data isn’t regressed to account for field strength

Those concerns aside, my analysis shows that Augusta National is much closer to a “BOMBERS TRACK” than it is anything else.

Specifically, as a leading indicator, a golfer’s Strokes Gained Off the Tee (SGOTT) has shown the most correlation with the final finishing position of golfers at The Masters than any other statistic, followed by Strokes Gained Approach (SGAPP), and then the two more volatile Strokes Gained Around the Green (SGARG) and Strokes Gained Putting (SGP). At many events the ration between off the tee play and approach is inverted, but historically at Augusta SGOTT has mattered almost twice as much as approach play for predicting leaderboard position.

One thing to note is that it isn’t always consistent from year to year, so the inconsistency is just one indication of the variance and golf. It is also why focusing on statistics and one metric only isn’t something you should be doing to find value. DataGolf’s fantasy projections optimize a blend of long-term form, short-term form and course history that has been backtested to produce the most accurate projections they can. But any given week, so many golfers are projected within just 1-2 DraftKings points of each other so thinking about things like course fit is certainly fun and a nice way to break a tie.

2019 Masters Preview: Betting Outrights, Prop Betting and Course Fit

If you were to take away one thing from Augusta, golfers who are going into The Masters gaining strokes off of the tee will have higher finishing positions than those that don’t. In fact, driving the golf ball is the only metric that shows importance at Augusta as a leading indicator regardless of the year.

Of course, all things equal we want our golfers to be exceptional around the green, but the fact of the matter is many golfers with elite Off the Tee and Approach games just don’t have the same short game. We definitely aren’t going to be downgrading golfers with good short games (because we aren’t idiots) but it does make sense to take a chance on elite ball strikers who can flash outlier upside because for all the hype of Augusta’s greens, we have seen some “bad putters” win like Bubba Watson and Adam Scott.

So who are the best statistical fits for Augusta within given price bands?

Masters Fantasy Preview: $10k+ Golfers

Above $10,000 on DraftKings you have a list of the biggest tournament favorites who are capable of winning on any golf course in the world. To dismiss somebody on the basis of course fit would be dangerous and aggressive, but with plenty of cluster both in terms of vegas odds and pricing its fun to have some other elements to discuss. My course fit analysis aligns with the betting markets belief the Rory McIlroy should be favored over Dustin Johnson at Augusta, and that both two players are the top outright favorites. Beyond that obvious confirmation though is perhaps the surprising emergence of Jon Rahm as the 3rd best fit for Augusta (4th place last year) carried by the strength of his driver and Justin Thomas as the 4th best fit (17-22-39 in three starts).

Masters Fantasy Preview: $9k+ Golfers

In the $9000 range Tommy Fleetwood (17-MC at Augusta) stands out as the favorite ahead of a clustered group that includes Jason Day (20-22-10-28-20-3-WD-2), Bryson Dechambeau (21st as an amateur and 38th last year), and Paul Casey (15-6-4-6). The off the tee profile of these players during the 2019 season favors them over Rickie Fowler and even Brooks Koepka who has had a slow start to the year. The long-term profile of Koepka (Top 10 SGOTT in 2018) suggests some of this may be noise but his season has been less than exceptional so far.

Masters Fantasy Preview: $8k+ Golfers

In the $8000 range defending champion Patrick Reed finds himself as the worst fit and an unlikely candidate to defend the championship. Reed’s win last season came out of nowhere and his previous track record at Augusta (MC-49-22-MC) suggests he could be closer to a Charl Schwartzel level champion than a consistent contender each year at The Masters. Hideki Matsuyama, Xander Schauffele, two time Masters Champion Bubba Watson and Tony Finau (10th in his Masters debut on his infamous sprained ankle) rate out as the best course fit profiles of the mid-tier value range with Francesco Molinari and Louis Oosthuizen boasting notably poor profiles leveraging their strokes gained data.

Masters Fantasy Preview: Value Course Fits

Perhaps one of the biggest strokes gained darlings is Gary Woodland will be a popular mid-tier value play in the DraftKings fantasy format. While he lacks the pedigree or flagship win of some of the world’s elite, his strokes gained data is best in class from tee-to-green with positive SGOTT (+0.755), SGAPP (+0.561) and SGARG (+0.252) for the 2019 season. DataGolf darling Patrick Cantlay and defending Masters Champion Sergio Garcia also boast similar T2G profiles and rank out high in the weighted stat rankings. Much can and will be said about the putting woes of these players but at the betting market prices for Cantlay and Woodland (65 or 70 to 1 ) it seems worthy of a gamble based on DataGolf betting probabilities and my course fit analysis. Matt Kuchar (28-4-24-46-5-8-3-27-24) is another name that checks the course fit box but should already be popular based on his strong start to the season and course history. Two of the more surprising value picks that rose towards the top of my course fit analyses were Matthew Fitzpatrick (+0.44 SGOTT and +0.336 SGAPP), Augusta native Charles Howell III (+0.43 SGOTT and +0.114 SGAPP), and my favorite longshot value bomb in first-timer Keith Mitchell (+0.67 SGOTT, +0.37 SG APP, +0.09 SGARG, -0.36 SGP).

While I would still recommend leaning primarily on DataGolf’s model using adjusting scoring averages, I’ll also be making some course fit adjustments to identify sleepers.

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