Predictions for the 2023 Masters: Nine Trends to Identify the Next Green Jacket Winner
This week marks the beginning of the 2023 Masters, an annual major golf tournament always held in early April and played on the iconic Augusta National Golf Club. While most golfers take scouting trips in preparation for other majors, such as the U.S. Open or PGA Championship, Augusta remains the same year after year. That said, a few changes have been made in recent years, including the removal of some trees on the par-4 11th, the lengthening of the par-5 15th in 2022, and the most recent lengthening of the par-5 13th ahead of the 2023 tournament. Despite these updates, however, the core concept of the course remains intact.
Veterans of the game seem to find success year after year at Augusta National, demonstrating mastery of the course that often surpasses that of their younger counterparts. Freddie Couples and Tom Watson have shown the ability to surge to the top even in their fifties. Bernhard Langer has even trumped Bryson DeChambeau the last three years. Whatever the mysterious key is that unlocks success at Augusta, some have managed to capture it, allowing them to bring forth their best year after year.
In order to become a Masters champion, more than course knowledge is necessary. It takes skill and the ability to perform consistently over the course of four days to take home the green jacket. Past champions exemplify this, as it rarely happens on a whim. To reach the top, players must trend upward and hit peak form at the appropriate time. This can be seen in Dustin Johnson's story, as winning a Masters does not come easily.
It is a contentious issue in 2023, and no matter what side of the fence you are on, the ranking of the Official World Golf Rankings (OWGR) has a major impact on the Masters. All of the last 10 winners of the Masters have been ranked in the top 25 of the OWGR during the week leading up to the competition. This has ranged from world number 1's such as Scottie Scheffler in 2022 and Johnson in 2020 to Hideki Matsuyama at world number 25 in 2021.
Those not in the top 25 of the OWGR at this time include notable players like Joaquin Niemann, Tommy Fleetwood, Sahith Theegala, Justin Rose, Jason Day, Adam Scott, Min Woo Lee, Dustin Johnson, Patrick Reed, Tiger Woods, Phil Mickelson, Bubba Watson, Sergio Garcia, Brooks Koepka, Bryson DeChambeau, Louis Oosthuizen and Abraham Ancer.
Horton Smith, Gene Sarazen and Fuzzy Zoeller are the only three players to ever win the Masters in their debut. Jordan Spieth came close to joining this exclusive group in 2014 after taking a share of the 54-hole lead, while Will Zalatoris nearly achieved the feat in 2021, only to be narrowly denied by Hideki Matsuyama. Tom Kim and Kurt Kitayama did not make the grade.
Augusta National is a course that one must learn over time. In the last decade, seven of the Masters champions had earned either a top five or top forty finish in the tournament before their winning year. Consequently, this disqualifies the world No. 5 Max Homa, as well as Sam Burns and Cameron Young, who have yet to achieve such accomplishments in their Masters careers.
All Masters champions since 2013 had a top-15 finish in a stroke-play tournament on either the PGA Tour or DP World Tour during the calendar year prior to the event. Six had already won a tournament before the Masters - Schffler in 2022, Johnson in 2020, and Spieth in 2015 - while eight had achieved a third-place finish or better. Billy Horschel is not one of these winners.
A number of first-time major champions have found success at Augusta, but all of them have had some kind of experience on a similarly important stage. Of the last 10 Masters champions, 8 of them had at least a major runner-up result to their name, with all 10 having a T6 finish or higher. In the year prior to their victory, five of the past 10 had a runner-up result in a major and eight had a top-10 finish. Tom Hoge is excluded from this list.
Strokes-gained data is a valuable tool to possess. Ahead of their historic Masters victories, all ten champions were averaging at least +0.65 strokes gained per round, with the average of the group being +2.14. As of now, only nine players are posting a stroke gain of over +2.00. Surprisingly, it wasn't Scheffler (+2.50) or Spieth (+2.38) who had the highest metrics prior to their titles, but instead Watson (+3.02) and Johnson (+3.91) -- even more impressive since the Masters was held in November. Two competitors in the upcoming Masters event are not playing up to their usual standards, thus eliminating them from contention. These two players are Cameron Smith and Shane Lowry.
Off-the-tee performance is the most reliable barometer of success in the game of golf -- just look at the leading players of the present, they are some of the finest drivers of a golf ball in history. This also holds true at Augusta, where the last ten winners had, in their year of victory, a normal of least +0.10 strokes earned off the tee in each round. Reed owned the least of this gathering with +0.14 strokes earned off the tee for each round, 0.01 below Spieth's present normal. The golden boy persists (for now), but a common pick does not. Eliminated: Xander Schauffele
For the last three months, Collin Morikawa has been the undisputed king of approach shots (+1.22 strokes gained approach per round), while many of golf's biggest names have struggled to keep up. Augusta National--a course that typically caters to the best iron players, such as Woods--now requires a minimum +0.40 strokes gained approach rating per round to be successful, a plateau which none of the 10 most recent winners were able to reach. Will Zalatoris, Matt Fitzpatrick, Sungjae Im, and Hideki Matsuyama all fell short of this mark.
As they say, difficult moments can arise during major championships, and the Masters is no exception. There are typically some kinds of challenges that players have to face during the course of the 72-hole tournament, and a player's short game will be put to the test. Examples include Scott Scheffler's chip-in on the third hole of the final round in 2022 or Danny Willett's up-and-down on the 71st hole in 2016. This is where some potential champions do not reach a performance level of +0.20 strokes gained around the green over the last ten winners. As a result, Viktor Hovland, Collin Morikawa, Tony Finau, Tyrrell Hatton, and Keegan Bradley have been eliminated.
From a field of 88 golfers, only six remain: Scottie Scheffler, Rory McIlroy, Jon Rahm, Patrick Cantlay, Justin Thomas and Jordan Spieth. Rahm is the leader of the competition having won three tournaments this season, while Cantlay has the best tee-to-green numbers of the group. Spieth has an advantage due to his history at Augusta National, while Scheffler and McIlroy are facing down their respective golf legacies. Thomas's inclusion in the group was unexpected, but he's powered through and it wouldn't be a surprise if he proves victorious.