Sergio had always had the game for Augusta National – great iron play, magic in the wrists – but seemingly not the mental toughness after previously claiming he’d never win there.
Statistically, he delivered a classic Masters winner’s performance in 2017, ranking high in greens in regulation and backing it up with short-game class.
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His back-nine duel with Justin Rose was a genuine battle royale and seeing two Euros fight it out at the death brought back memories of a previous era of dominance when Seve, Faldo, Langer, Lyle, Woosie and Olly shared 10 green jackets from 1980 to 1996.
Winning Scores, Winners and Stats
2017 -9 Sergio Garcia (DD: 6, DA: 2, GIR: 2, Scr: 6, PA: 12)
2016 -5 Danny Willett (DD: 32, DA: 26, GIR: 6, Scr: 1, PA: 12)
2015 -18 Jordan Spieth (DD: 52, DA: 21, GIR: 2, Scr: 10, PA: 1)
2014 -8 Bubba Watson (DD: 1, DA: 14, GIR: 6, Scr: 5, PA: 12)
2013 -9 Adam Scott (DD: 18, DA: 49, GIR: 1, Scr: 3, PA: 28)
2012 -10 Bubba Watson (DD: 4, DA: 48, GIR: 4, Scr: 15, PA: 11)
2011 -14 Charl Schwartzel (DD: 40, DA: 31, GIR: 19, Scr: 1, PA: 8)
2010 -16 Phil Mickelson (DD: 2, DA: 45, GIR: 3, Scr: 3, PA: 10)
2009 -12 Angel Cabrera (DD: 11, DA: 48, GIR: 15, Scr: 6, PA: 7)
2008 -8 Trevor Immelman (DD: 4, DA: 1, GIR: 3, Scr: 1, PA: 7)
Notes: Six-time Masters winner Jack Nicklaus insists it’s a second-shot course and Sergio became the sixth straight winner to rank in the top six for GIR. Nine of the last 10 winners were also top 10 for Scrambling. Sergio hit it both long and straight last year and the importance of accuracy seems to have gone up a notch in recent editions. Big hitters are generally seen as having a serious advantage but Jordan Spieth and Danny Willett didn’t rank highly in DD and still claimed victory.
The Course – Augusta National
Familiarity is our friend at Augusta National and the vast majority know Alister Mackenzie’s masterpiece better than any other championship course. It measures 7,435 yards and features a classic par 72 split of four par 5s, four par 3s and 10 par 4s. There are just two sets of successive par 4s and both are on the back nine (10-11 + 17-18). Fairways are generous while the sloping and super-fast greens require great lag putting from distance and steely nerve from close range. “Keep the ball under the hole” is a mantra many will have in mind this week as it’s crucial to leave uphill putts rather than treacherous downhill ones. The branches start high on the enormous trees that flank the fairways and the pine straw underneath is even so there’s still the chance to go for it and be creative if tee shots miss the short grass. Lefties Phil Mickelson and Bubba Watson have benefitted from that.
Strongest Masters Trends
Last 10 winners were all 40 or under
Last 10 winners were not the defending champion
Last 10 winners were not the World No. 1
Last 10 winners had made the cut at Augusta the previous year
Last 10 winners had finished T38 or better at Augusta previously
The Leading European Contenders
It feels we’re still feeling the effects of Rory’s ‘Sliding Doors’ moment in 2011. Had he converted that four-shot 54-hole lead into a win, how many green jackets might he have now? Instead, Rory’s run of 7-10-4-8 here doesn’t represent swashbuckling title bids that failed, rather, a set of low-fi back-door top 10s. Still, the bottom line is that he’s offered lots of consistency at Augusta National so the bigger puzzle is whether to judge him on his modest PGA TOUR form for much of 2018 or that red-hot week at Bay Hill.
While McIlroy still hasn’t managed a top three at Augusta National, Rose has two in the last three years via second places to Jordan Spieth (by a mile) in 2015 and Sergio Garcia (by a whisker) last year. Rose has built his excellent Masters form – 12-for-12 and eight top 25s in the last nine starts – on hitting greens and he consistently pelts more than 70% in Masters week, much to the envy of other big names. With two top fives in his last three starts heading in, that first green jacket must be within sight again.
Not in the form he was last year and perhaps the perception of Rahm’s debut Masters appearance was that it was a little modest after he posted T27. However, the Spaniard was sixth at halfway (three off the lead) and T11 after 54 (six back) while his stats were pretty consistent although, like many, he did find the greens hard to fathom on first look. One other thing we know to this point – Rahm hasn’t made the same instant impression in majors like he has in the WGCs. So far? No top 20s in six starts. It will change soon but will it be this week?
It was probably very unlikely that Casey would go from someone without a victory on American soil since 2009 to Masters winner in one leap. However, he now has the big stepping stone of a recent PGA TOUR triumph at the Valspar Championship, a result which had been coming to be honest. The Englishman was T6 on his Masters debut, top 10 again in 2007 and the last three years he’s gone 6-4-6 at Augusta National. One of the most likely contenders to keep the green jacket in European hands.
This time last year, Sergio still carried the major monkey on his back and looked as if he’d be forever taunted by Augusta National. Twelve months on and he has a Masters Green Jacket and a new baby called Azalea. You really couldn’t script it. Defending this event is always extra tough given all the extra-curricular activities but let’s not forget his good performance last year didn’t come out of the blue. Check his record now and Garcia has four top 20s in his last six Masters and that adds to form of 7-4-9 in March.
Whereas Sergio’s shortcomings at Augusta National seemed mental before last year, Stenson’s repeated failures perhaps point more to a game that doesn’t quite match up with the course. He’s rarely putted the greens well enough and his scrambling has been a little short of top-notch, hence six top 25s but nothing better than T14. He played well in Houston but does that really count for much for this specific test?
On a course where so many drives require a draw, Noren’s left-to-right hitting could represent a problem. That said, many believe a controlled fade is the best way to approach the greens. A missed cut (74-78) on debut last year could be viewed as evidence that this isn’t his best chance of major success but he was finding his feet in America back then. Now, he’s one of Europe’s best performers on the PGA TOUR after a second and two thirds this season, the latest coming in the WGC-Dell Match Play two weeks ago. In that sense, Noren is perhaps one of the best examples of a #teamcourseform v #teamcurrentform dilemma this week.
Fleetwood is another of the highly-regarded Europeans with no course form to bring to the table. Like Noren, the Englishman had a first crack at Augusta National last year and, like the Swede, he bombed out early after shooting +8 over 36 holes. Fleetwood made a superb defence of his Abu Dhabi crown at the start of the year and went close with fourth at the Honda Classic. He’s been steady rather than spectacular since but a great temperament will certainly boost his chances this week.
The big-hitting Belgian took to Augusta National like a duck to water last year when shooting 72-68-75-68 to post tied fourth. His stats that week – 3rd for Driving Distance, 14th for GIR, 19th in Scrambling and 3rd for Putting Average, so he used a balanced attack to end the week as leading debutant. He certainly has a penchant for big events and a love for the Masters may already be embedded but current form isn’t great and midfield finishes are rather becoming the norm so gamers will need to lean on last year a lot.
If a cool head is needed for the Masters, a red flag has to be raised next to Hatton’s name given how quick he is to fly off the handle. That said, he’s a very fine player and when things are going right the youngster is capable of landing the big bucks, as he did when third at the WGC-Mexico last month. The proof is already there at this level too after T5 and T10 in the final two majors of 2016 although he missed the cut in all four last year. That included a miserable display at last year’s Masters when shooting 80-78.
What can you say? Needing to win in Houston to punch his ticket, Poulter only goes and does it, overcoming an opening 73 to win with 19-under after making a play-off via a 20-foot putt. And he doesn’t just go there to enjoy the views. Poulter has a strong game for Augusta National, is 11-for-12 and that includes seven top 25s and two top sevens from his last five appearances. If he emerged as one of the highest-placed Europeans, no-one would be surprised.
The Next Rung
Rafa Cabera Bello
RCB missed the cut last year, meaning his main focus on the weekend was cheering on compatriot Sergio Garcia but in 2016 the Spaniard closed with a 70 for T17. A steady improver over the last few seasons, he also took T4 in last year’s Open Championship and shone again when T3 in the recent WGC-Mexico Championship. A check of his Masters stats shows that he hasn’t worked the greens out yet, but those two previous visits provide useful homework for this dedicated student.
Unlike some of his well-known European buddies, Fitzpatrick can boast a Masters top 10 after slotting in at T7 in his second appearance two years ago. He also shot under-par on the weekend last year for T32. What did he do well? In 2016, he ranked 1st for greens in regulation (75%) while he holed more putts in 2017. In theory, he could be a sneaky pick but current form is a concern and his iron play looks a little ragged.
He’s had some excellent wins, played on two Ryder Cup teams and finished a career-high T2 in the last major to be played, the 2017 PGA Championship at Quail Hollow. However, despite his ability to hit Augusta National’s greens, the Italian doesn’t appear to boast the necessary powers of recovery when he misses them. Hence, a record which shows just one finish better than T30, a T19 in 2012. Hard to envisage much more than a solid week.
He’s 4-for-5 at the Masters after returning to the tournament with T41 last year having not made the field since 2012. Fisher has twice opened with 69 and posted T15 in 2011 so he’s capable of making an impression. Second in Strokes Gained: Approach in at the WGC-Mexico but his putter appears to have gone cold, hence his T46 there.
It’s well documented how Augusta National has always tormented the German and he even once tried to change his natural shot shape to a draw in a bid to have more success at Augusta National. Since missing his first four cuts there, at least there’s progression and he improved his PB from T31 to T16 last year. He’s now 5-for-6 since 2012 so don’t just lazily take him on in match bets. Perhaps a bigger negative this time is some average form and a WD at the Honda due to a wrist injury.
A brilliant winner of the green jacket in 2016 when cashing in a Jordan Spieth collapse to show off his red-hot short game and steely determination. A surprise in some senses although at that time he was making rapid strides in his career and had just finished second to Rory on the 2015 Race to Dubai. Since then, injury and loss of form mean he returns in hope rather than expectation and a WD at Bay Hill with a shoulder problems probably seals the deal if you were thinking of a gambling on him.
An encouraging T22 on his Masters debut in 2015, his finishes have slid a little (T34 and T43) but 3-for-3 at Augusta National is no mean feat. The Austrian has been a bit flat of late but T30 in the WGC-Mexico with a closing 66 suggests he could be a reliable, if not spectacular, option again.
A very latest thermometer check shows two missed cuts in the last three years but he was T24 in 2016 and actually had a chance to win in 2014 when T8. The two-time winner can still use his veteran smarts to serious use in this event.
Jose Maria Olazabal
Will enjoy the Champions Dinner served by fellow Spaniard Sergio but impact on the course likely to be minimal. Last made the cut in 2004.
Six MCs in the last eight and last played the weekend in 2014.
Not made the cut since 2008 so it’s week of food, waving and memories for Woosie.
Non-Europeans available for official ET Fantasy game
An American who might be worth picking despite not having the course form - yet. He has four visits to Augusta, comprising 12 circuits, but is also yet to break 70 and averages 74.50 on Thursday and Friday. Flipside? Arrives having posted three straight top 10s.
Not to be forgotten that the 39-year-old American is available in the European Tour's Fantasy game and possibly a sneaky pick. He certainly boasts a two-tone major championship career. Till the end of 2009 he was 4-for-17 in them. Since then he is 28-for-31 but more importantly has racked up 10 top 10 finishes and, yet more pertinently, four finishes of T8 or better in his last six starts at Augusta National.
Boasts what is arguably one of the most curious major championship records in the 21st century. Prior to winning the 2010 Open he was 1-for-8 in majors and finished only T73 the one time he did make the weekend. He's only 20-for-29 since and only five times finished better than T19, but the amazing thing? Four times he was second or T2. In fact he owns a grand slam of seconds which includes his play-off loss here to Bubba. Best finish of 2018 was when T9 in the WGC-Match Play.
A Masters debut for the 24-year-old who, even prior to his career high of winning the 2017 Tour Championship, had hinted he liked the big occasion when T5 in the U.S. Open and T20 in The Open. Not only were they, too, his tournament first starts, but he was also the first rookie to win the Tour Championship and it happened in Georgia, at East Lake. Arrives on a run of four consecutive top 20 finishes.
The eight-time European Tour winner and one-time PGA Tour victor boasts five top six finishes in the major championships since the start of 2015 and yet not one of them has been at Augusta National. In fact three of his five visits have been abbreviated and he has a best of T18 on debut in 2013. T8 in the Valspar Championship but fell at the WGC-Match Play group stage.
Would be a fiendishly difficult quiz question answer: Who finished solo third behind Sergio Garcia and Justin Rose at Augusta last year? Yep, it was the 33-year-old South African. Perhaps even more amazingly, that result, alongside the win in this tournament in 2011, is his only top 20 finish at Augusta in eight tries. It's a curious record and form suggests he's unlikely to add positively to it: He last made a top 10 anywhere at last June's St Jude Classic.
Opened with a pair of 72s on debut in 2016 to lie T8 at halfway and although he pegged 77 on Saturday he recorded T15 with a Sunday 70. Arrives in form, with two wins (on the European and Asian Development Tours) and two T5s (including the WGC-Mexico Championship) in his last six starts. But in full PGA Tour fields has managed only T68 and MC in that short sample.
Another of the potentially cunning PGA Tour picks this week, although a moot point in his particular case. In three visits to Augusta National (and 10 laps) he has only twice needed less than 73 swings. He averages 74.83 pre-cut.
Two wins on the European Tour, top 10s in the WGC-Mexico Championship and Indian Open: The whirlwind fairytale had to hit the buffers and did so with a limp WGC-Match Play effort and a missed cut in the Houston Open. A rookie so unlikely to win, but his ebullient charm might work a treat by flirting with Augusta headlines.
Two victories on the European Tour in 2017, plus high quality consistency at the end of that year and start of this, earned the University of Texas grad a first crack at Augusta National and just a third major championship start. He's yet to finish top 60 in those and after logging T11 in the Honda Classic hasn't made the top 30 in his last three starts.
Making his Masters debut having made a first appearance in the other three majors last summer - and how. At Erin Hills, in the U.S. Open, he made the weekend with laps of 74-70 then slumped to outlandishly bad rounds of 82-84. However he proved that he has something about him by showing no pain and instead carding a final round 63 in The Open to finish solo third. Won January's Dubai Desert Classic, as did the last two Masters winners, but not made the top 50 in his subsequent five starts.
The 32-year-old Japanese player is a winner of 19 titles at home, but is yet to prove he can cut the mustard at the highest level. Finished 29th on his Masters debut in 2010 and that remains his major championship career best after 16 starts. 14 WGC starts have also failed to reap a top 20.
It would take a strong opinion to select the 28-year-old who has a best of T46 from four major championships starts, T47 from five WGC starts and is making his Masters debut.
Four wins on his home circuit in 2017 have earned the Japanese veteran a first visit down Magnolia Lane, but his record at the top level suggests he won't be contending. A best of T52 in three WGC starts and 2-for-5 in majors, with a career best of T23 in the 2016 U.S. Open.
He actually logged three consecutive top 20s at Augusta straight after his win in 2008, but since then? A best of T50 in six attempts and looking to arrest a run of four missed cuts. A brave if not foolhardy consideration never mind pick.
Had a poor Masters record before his win there in 2000, but ticked eight straight top 20s straight after it. Alas, time has caught up with him and he has a best of T27 since 2010.
No matter how well-liked the Canadian leftie is, it would take tremendous loyalty to overlook an inability to finish better than T43 in his last nine Augusta starts.
Who’s On The Team?
From an official European Tour Fantasy game point of view, the addition of the eligible Americans and Internationals really widens the net. Matt Kuchar is certainly pushing for inclusion
And, of course, what about the amazing Ian Poulter?! The Ryder Cup star could easily ride the wave on a course where he’s thrived before.
I’ll reveal my full six-man line-up for the ET game in Tuesday’s Playing The Tips feature.
One To Swerve
Henrik Stenson’s lack of a Masters top 10 after numerous starts here suggests he’s further down the queue than most of the other leading names.