Approach play indicative of Masters success

Approach play indicative of Masters success

For decades, players and fans alike have shared the colloquialisms common with Augusta National strategy. From the hilly terrain to the nuanced putting surfaces, “missing it in the right place,” and all points in-between.

In recent years, the advent of Strokes Gained and its application in the major championships have provided a deeper understanding of what is required to win. That includes at Augusta National, where analytics have helped supplement the recent on-course stories played out by the world’s best.

Its reputation as a ‘second shot’ golf course becomes even more fortified with a deep dive into the numbers.

Little Penalty for Missing Fairway

In order to best explain the significance of approach play at the Masters, the story begins with what players don’t have to worry about off the tee: rough.

Annually, Augusta National yields the lowest penalty for missing fairways among major Tour venues around the world. Consider the rate at which players make birdie or better on certain holes across the last 10 Masters. On seven of 14 holes (par 4s and 5s), there is a difference of less than 10% in birdie-or-better rate depending on whether or not a player hits the fairway. For example, at the fifth hole, players who hit the fairway make birdie or better 8.7% of the time. Players who miss the fairway, 4.7%.

Since 2010, players to finish in the top 10 at the Masters have averaged 9.6 fairways hit per round. Every other finisher at Augusta in that span has averaged almost the same total: 9.5. So while nobody wants to be stuck behind a pine tree, the numbers say that accuracy off the tee isn’t a significant advantage at the season’s first major.

Approach Play Paramount

In any given PGA TOUR season, a look at the Strokes Gained: Approach leaders often closely resembles the top of the Official World Golf Ranking. Six of the top-12 in this week’s OWGR are also ranked 12th or better in Strokes Gained: Approach per round this season on TOUR. That is to say, strong iron play is a prerequisite for great golf almost all the time.

That is even more true at Augusta National, where five of the last seven champions have ranked top-five in the field that week in Strokes Gained: Approach. Jordan Spieth leads all players in that statistic since 2015, averaging 1.17 Strokes Gained: Approach per round. It’s no coincidence that he’s also the leader in cumulative score to par (45-under) and birdies-or-better (141) in that same stretch.

Over the last eight PGA TOUR seasons, tournament winners have gained 35.4% of their strokes against the field with their approach play, the highest percentage of the four Strokes Gained disciplines (Off-the-Tee, Around-the-Green and Putting being the others). At the Masters in that span, that number is a bit higher, 36.0%. While this doesn’t seem like an enormous gap, the margin at which the best iron players can separate themselves from the pack is clearly larger at Augusta than at the typical PGA TOUR venue.

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