With the Masters four days away, Joe Peta returns for a look at the tournament’s history. Joe’s latest book, A 2019 Masters Preview (available on Amazon), contains a deep preview of the event, complete with detailed, never-before-seen strokes gained data from the 2018 tournament. Today, Joe shares some data that ended up on the cutting room floor.
Ask any casual fan who has the best course history at Augusta, and you’re sure to hear the names Tiger Woods, Phil Mickelson, and Bubba Watson. With good reason, too, at least on the surface, as all three of those golfers have donned the green jacket more than once.
There are a few different ways to measure a golfer’s past success at the Masters, including money won, cuts made, Top 10s, green jackets, etc. But with the advent of strokes gained, we can be a bit more precise.
As I mention in my book, for handicapping purposes, a golfer’s strokes gained during any year at the Masters should be compared to his strokes gained over the rest of the season to determine if he really possesses a positive or negative course factor. For instance, Rory McIlroy has averaged 1.54 SG/round at the Masters over 38 career rounds. His 58.71 raw strokes gained ranks him in the top 40 of all golfers who have ever played in the Masters. However, for handicapping purposes, you wouldn’t assign him much of a positive course factor because he’s normally about that good per round no matter where he plays (after everything, including his baseline performance, gets adjusted for strength-of-field faced).
Those extra steps are for handicapping, however. This is just for fun. Below, I’ve compiled a list of the nine golfers in the past 60 years who have amassed more than 100 strokes gained over their career at Augusta. (Sixty years ago, in 1959, Jack Nicklaus played in his first Masters.) All nine are major winners, though only seven have won the Masters, and none is obscure to anyone who has been a golf fan for a while and, let’s say, remembers Nicklaus’s final victory at Augusta in 1986.
Before we get to the list, if you want to take a shot at naming the nine members of the +100-strokes-gained-at-the-Masters club, here’s how they rank, in order of total career strokes gained, 1959-2018:
Rank strokes gained
Once you’ve made your guesses, read on.
9. Raymond Floyd: Floyd’s 1976 win probably doesn’t get talked about enough in terms of dominating performances at Augusta. His 25.28 strokes gained for the event ranks second—barely—to Tiger Woods’s 25.77 strokes gained in his 1997 triumph. In fact, in the last 60 years, there are only four golfers to post total strokes gained greater than 20 in a single tournament. Woods, Floyd, Jack Nicklaus (+24.51) in 1965, and Phil Mickelson (+20.15) in 2010. Floyd had six different events in which he amassed double-digit strokes gained. He played 144 rounds at the Masters, and while he missed the cut in his last nine efforts, dropping -55.78 strokes gained, he retired just in time to keep his career strokes gained in triple digits.
8. Greg Norman: I assume this is going to be the first name on the list that stumps a lot of people, as Norman is synonymous with failed efforts at Augusta. However, his lifetime record in the Masters is astoundingly good. Seven different times, the Shark finished the Masters with more than 12 strokes gained, a score that sometimes earns the green jacket. He accomplished this feat four times in a row from 1986 to 1989. Of course, he never won the event. Among the nine golfers on this list, his career strokes gained per round of 1.33 ranks fifth, ahead of the next three names you’re going to read.
7. Bernhard Langer: Langer’s place on this list ahead of the Shark is quite impressive when you realize he’s played a considerable amount of tournaments as a senior golfer, thanks to his lifetime champion’s exemption. His standing in this club is a tribute to consistency. Although he has two victories at Augusta, they were the only two in which he amassed more than 12 strokes gained Agonizingly for Norman, Langer won in 1985 with 12.61 strokes gained, essentially the exact feat Norman accomplished over the next four consecutive years. None of those efforts resulted in a victory.
6. Tom Watson: As impressive as Langer’s appearance in this select company is, Watson’s is even more so, as he played the event 43 times, eight more than Langer. It’s doubtful Langer will stay in this company, should he use his lifetime exemption eight more times. Watson made 21 cuts in a row from 1975 to 1995, and from ’75 to ’91, he finished every Masters with positive strokes gained. During one stretch from ’77 to ’84, he recorded at least ten strokes gained in seven appearances, including victories in 1977 and 1981. Further, Watson gave back 70 strokes gained in the last 19 years he played the event from 1998 until he retired in 2016.
5. Tom Kite: This has to be the answer that ends everyone’s chances at a perfect bracket. Although I always think of Kite as being most notable at Augusta for finishing second to Tiger in 1997 and Jack in 1986, his consistent excellence at the Masters is undeniable. He missed only one cut in his first 19 appearances, and he had eight different instances of double-digit strokes gained. His 13.77 strokes gained in 1997 would have won a good number of other Masters, but he was a distant second to Woods that year. By also finishing second to Nicklaus and Seve Ballesteros, he has an impressive trio of champions to whom he played bridesmaid.
4. Fred Couples: You knew his name was going to appear on this list, I knew his name was going to appear on this list, and yet, when you dig into his career at Augusta, it’s still shocking how wonderfully he plays this course. His record 23-for-23 cuts made to start his career at the Masters may have snapped in 2008, but from 2010 to 2018—all after he turned 50!—Couples is seven for eight in cuts made. At an age when the giants of Masters lore are usually making large withdrawals from their career strokes gained banks, Couples has actually deposited another 35 strokes since turning 50.
3. Tiger Woods: It would not surprise me if even casual golf fans correctly identified the top three golfers on this list before reading the answers, but how many would have known to place Tiger third? It’s not his fault, as we’ll see in the following sentences, but instead it’s more a tribute to the two ahead of him. Since he turned pro in 1997, Woods has never missed a cut (19 for 19) and he’s never finished a Masters with negative strokes gained. In fact, in those 76 rounds, Tiger has only 10 rounds with negative strokes gained. He had a 27-round streak from 2004 to 2011 with positive strokes gained, the longest I can find of any golfer. And of course his 25.77 strokes gained in 1997 is a record for a single tournament.
2. Phil Mickelson: After reading the achievements of Woods above, think about what it takes to finish ahead of him, even if by only four-and-a-half strokes on this list. Yes, strokes gained is a counting stat, so playing more rounds is a helpful ingredient, and Mickelson has played 16 more career rounds at the Masters than Tiger. But he’s made the most of them. Mickelson has 12 different tournaments where he’s finished with double-digit strokes gained, including an unbelievable nine events with at least 13 strokes gained, suggesting he has played well enough to win more than three titles. (Woods, by comparison, has done that just five times.) Mickelson is one of the greatest golfers of all time, but he will always seem diminished by the shadow Tiger has cast across his career. Despite that, at Augusta, where Tiger has been nothing short of spectacular, Mickelson has raised his game to a level at least equal to that of Woods.
1. Jack Nicklaus: Before you read on, go back and look at the career strokes gained list at the top of this piece and note Nicklaus’ incredible total of 287. He has more strokes gained than #4 Fred Couples and #9 Raymond Floyd combined. Fourteen strokes gained in a tournament is the threshold for an expected win, and with 280 career strokes gained, Jack has amassed twenty such performances. What makes his career so spectacular is that his contemporaries Gary Player and Arnold Palmer also played in 45 or more Masters, but their second-half career and senior performances badly eroded their lifetime strokes gained. Nicklaus, on the other hand, had 11.81 strokes gained in his final 17 appearances, after he won his sixth green jacket in 1986. His career strokes gained at Augusta is so impressive that it is nearly impossible to imagine Mickelson or Woods making a run at it. It is yet another piece of evidence cementing Nicklaus’s status as the greatest Masters golfer of all time.