Tuesday, April 7, 2015

Fantasy Golf: The Masters Preview - Part 1

You're damn right we're doing a two part preview for the Masters. We'll kick it off with a brief introduction followed by a lazy writing gimmick. Then we'll follow-up on Wednesday with the odds, rankings and of course, a pick. Maybe by then some of the scars from my J.B. Holmes v. Louis Oosthuizen decision from last week will have healed and I'll be able to think straight. At this point, however, there is just a lot of self-loathing occasionally interrupted by muffled sobs. The good news is that this has happened to me so often over the past two years that the recovery time is down to about 24 hours at which point I'm ready to make another ill-fated choice and repeat the cycle (assuming Duke doesn't win another damn title in the interim prolonging the agony).  

Let's start the healing process by turning our attention to the Masters which continues to give me that warm and fuzzy Christmas Eve/last day of school feeling every year unlike any other sporting event. Maybe it's because I'm a middle aged white guy and that's just the way many of us are wired but I think it goes beyond that and actually has more to do with the fact that the Masters is the perfect sports viewing product and those who run it and televise it have been smart enough not to mess with it by let's say building in enough dead time to make it last 50% longer than it should. Put another way, if the NCAA ran the Masters, the leaders would arbitrarily go sit on a bench for five minutes prior to teeing off on 17 and 18. Then they'd do it again before their approach shots and their putts because you know, that's how the game was meant to be played. But I digress.

The other thing that puts the Masters above events from other sports is that it doesn't just happen over a few hours like the Super Bowl and it's not broken-up over two weeks like the World Series or the NBA Finals. The Masters unfolds over four consecutive days which makes it the sports version of binge watching the Sopranos or Game of Thrones. Thursday and Friday are like the first five or six episodes with different characters each doing their thing and we have no idea how it's going to end but we do know two things with absolute certainty: (1) someone is going to get whacked - either by getting suffocated by his boss, getting shot with a crossbow (MAJOR SPOILER ALERTS ON BOTH OF THESE CLIPS) or hitting his second shot into Rae's Creek on 15; and (2) we're going to be riveted to the screen for every minute of it.  

So with that in mind, let's kick-off our two part Masters Preview by answering eight burning questions. Why eight? Because that's all we could come up with by our deadline (which we missed anyway). Why are they burning? I don't know. Jock itch?

1. Can Bubba Watson Become the Fourth Player to Win Two in a Row?

Well if he does, he'll be in pretty good company with three guys I like to call Tiger Woods, Nick Faldo and Jack Nicklaus. Arnold Palmer won four in seven years and came within a stroke of taking three green jackets in a row from 1960-62 but Jack, Nick and Tiger are the only three players who have gone back to back. Bubba may not be on the same level as those hall of famers overall but he's a freak at Augusta which he turns into a par 68. He won't go back to back this year because his mental circuitry was installed by your uncle who swore "I know what I'm doing dammit!" but he will almost surely win another one down the road meaning this won't be his last shot to try and, by next time, maybe he'll get some of those wires uncrossed.  

2. Is a European Ever Going to Win this Freakin' Thing Again?

The last one to do it was Jose Maria Olazabol in 1999 when he capped a run of eleven European winners over a twenty year span but things got really squirrelly after that when a Fijian won it the next year and then all hell broke loose when a Canuck of all people won it in 2003. Since then, we've had seven American winners, two different South Africans (not named Ernie Els or Retief Goosen I might add), an Australian (finally) and a chain smoking duck from Argentina. The only Euros to come close in the last fifteen tries are Lee Westwood in 2010 and Jonas Blixt last year. They both lost by three shots so "close" is a relative term.   

Not quite sure why Sergio
can't putt. It couldn't be
his body language.
Why the drought? I'll tell you why. Putting. Europe's best shots this year by the odds are Rory McIlroy, Henrik Stenson, Justin Rose, Sergio Garcia and Lee Westwood also known as five guys you'd feature in a training video called Don't Putt Like Me. Rose is the only one who doesn't immediately call to mind the image of a pushed three footer and he hasn't finished in the top 100 in strokes gained putting since 2011 when he ranked 96th. One of these years Rory is going to compensate by simply out ball-striking everyone but he hasn't shown signs that this will be that year. On the other hand, we've tried to bury Rory after mini-slumps before and he's come back and shoved a major or two right up our wazoo so who knows? We'll ruminate on that one a bit and revisit it in Part 2.      

3. Do You Have to Hit it 300+ Yards to Win?

Let's take a look at the winners since 2008 when Trevor Immelman won the Masters (that never actually happened), along with their average driving distance that season:

2014 - Bubba Watson (314.3) 
2013 - Adam Scott (297.8) 
2012 - Bubba Watson (315.5)
2011 - Charl Schwartzel ( 297) 
2010 - Phil Mickelson (299.1) 
2009 - Angel Cabrera (304.1)

So the answer is a definitive "NO." You do not need to drive it 300+ yards to win. You only need to drive it 297. So does that rule-out Jordan Spieth who is only averaging 294 yards off the tee this year? I don't know. You tell me. (Seriously, please tell me because he's on my short list and I thought he hit it further than that).  

4. How is Tiger Going to Play?

Terribly. Remember back in 2010 after the troubles started and he began playing again but his personal life was still a wreck? Many speculated that the golf course would be a refuge where he could escape from the distractions which was ridiculous because you can't hide from your conscience on a golf course like you can on a basketball court or a football field. (Running full speed and/or having people smash into you is the best mental medicine). There's just too much time for your mind to betray you between shots and once that happens, you're screwed. It took Tiger over two years to win again (the 2012 Arnold Palmer Invitational) and now it looks like he's worse off than he ever was during that stretch.

To play golf well, you need to be either supremely confident (Nicklaus, Palmer, pre-2010 Tiger, etc.) or just not give a rat's ass (Fred Couples). Tiger has always cared deeply about what people think of him which is dangerous in golf where you are judged on every shot. That didn't used to matter, however, because he always knew his next shot was going to be great. Not anymore. Now after he hits a bad shot he looks embarrassed instead of pissed-off and taking that mindset to Augusta is very risky. We're looking at a two day long train wreck. I hope I'm wrong because I don't want to see him go out like that but I doubt it.

5. Does Phil Have Another Green Jacket in Him?

I know we're never topping 1986
but man would this come close.
It doesn't seem that far-fetched until you consider that he's 44 and his last two results were a tie for 54th and a missed cut which ended a majestic fourteen year run that saw him win three times and never go two years without finishing 6th or better. Considering the high level that he can still reach with his game (see the 2013 British Open), he's probably got four or five good Masters runs left in him but even with that he might still need a down year from guys like Bubba, Rory and Spieth to win. I've always been a sucker for Phil so I'd love to see it happen but, at this point, his odds can't be much better than 20 to 1. However, the odds that he has at least one more Sunday charge in him that gets Augusta rocking like 1986 are even money. (I just got a chill). 

6. Who Are This Year's Legit Sleepers?

Let's start by defining a "sleeper" as any player with odds of 100 to 1 or longer. The prominent names right at that mark are Ryan Palmer, Gary Woodland and Jason Dufner* but, other than Ryan Palmer's tie for 10th in 2011, they have showed no signs of figuring-out Augusta so let's keep looking. At 125 to 1 you have Jonas Blixt who finished tied for 2nd last year and Marc Leishman who finished tied for 4th in 2013 but those results are anomalies. 

We need to find the next Blixt or Leishman and it's probably a guy who's played Augusta just enough to be familiar but not scarred which rules-out the likes of Webb Simpson and Ernie Els. He's also got to be able to bust it off the tee so let's make our formula Long Driver + Second or Third Year Player which yields Charley Hoffman (T27 in 2011), Russell Henley (T31 in 2014), Branden Grace (T18 in 2013, MC in 2014) and Stephen Gallacher (T34 in 2014). If I'm picking from from those four, I'm leaning towards Henley because he seems like he has the onions to contend at a major. Hoffman and Grace have already played in a bunch without ever scaring a top ten. It doesn't make them bad people. It just means that they're more suited to win tournaments sponsored by booze, banks and tractors.   

7. Who is the Best Bet from Outside the WGR** Top Twenty?

Keegan Bradley always seems like an obvious choice because he can bomb it with Bubba but he's never finished better than a tie for 27th. This is not based on any statistical analysis but I'd bet his short game and putting don't hold-up over 72 holes. Charl Schwartel obviously has the game but I'm just not picturing him as a two time champ. The same goes for Zach Johnson.

The Euro quartet of Ian Poulter, Lee Westwood, Jamie Donaldson and Graeme McDowell are all intriguing yet flawed. You can say the same thing about Hunter Mahan and Brandt Snedeker who have contended but couldn't hold-up on Sunday. That pretty much leaves the upper middle class American players like Bill Haas, Chris Kirk, Kevin Na and Palmer who have combined for exactly two top tens in majors. Their 2015 Masters prospects can be described in one word. Nope.

If you want to get creative, pick Louis Oosthuizen. We know he can compete at Augusta because he lost to Bubba in a playoff three years ago but, more importantly, he was the FGR pick last week and he missed the cut which makes him primed for a bounce back.  

8. So Who is Going to Win?

You'll have to check back tomorrow on that one because I still have no idea who I'm picking. I'm counting on one of the players to appear in my dreams tonight and show me the light. With my luck lately, it'll be Tiger.  
   
Footnotes

According to divorce papers, the 
Dufner marriage was pretty much 
an extended ice bucket challenge. 
* We're sad to report that the Dufner's two+ year marriage is apparently ending in divorce striking yet another blow to the dreams of every goofy looking kid who thinks the path to a model wife is through the driving range.

** WGR stands for World Golf Rankings, a system that the FGR started recognizing as legitimate the day it replaced the likes of Luke Donald and Lee Westwood in the top spot with Rory McIlroy.

You can email the Fantasy Golf Report at fgr@fantasygolfreport.com.