The Masters | Iron play the key to Augusta triumph

There are many clichés thrown around at the time of the Masters, one of the most notable being about good putters winning at Augusta given the treacherous slopes on the greens of the course.

“Drive for show, putt for dough” is often thrown about when a player misses a few putts when in contention on Sunday, and while putting the ball in the hole is undoubtedly important, the underappreciated skill present in Masters winners is control of second shots, iron play essentially.

To give just one noticeable example of this, in 2015 Dustin Johnson led the field in strokes gained off-the-tee and strokes gained putting. A winning combination most weeks on Tour, but he still finished nine shots behind the winner Jordan Spieth.

Precision iron play as an important factor at the Masters really comes to the fore when you look at the recent past winners of the event. Bubba Watson has won at Augusta twice, with a jerky putting stroke that never looks convincing. Adam Scott was the winner in 2013 with a broomstick putter, when the Australian has been among the worst putters on Tour for the past decade. If there was one thing that stopped Sergio Garcia winning more majors other than attitude, it was putting, yet the Spaniard won the Masters in 2017.

This makes it worth checking the Strokes Gained Tee-to-Green stats on the PGA Tour this season. Here are the placings of players that have qualified for the Masters:

  1. Rory McIlroy

3. Hideki Matsuyama

4. Justin Thomas

5. Dustin Johnson

6. Tommy Fleetwood

7. Corey Conners

8. Gary Woodland

9. Tiger Woods

10. Patrick Cantlay

Last year, Patrick Reed was a bit of an outlier, going into the week 24th tee-to-green, but in this case he did putt and chip exceptionally well. Of previous winners, Garcia was 3rd going into the Masters in Strokes Gained Tee-to-Green on the PGA Tour, Willett was 7th, Spieth was 4th, Watson was 4th, Scott was 1st and Watson was 1st.

Those stats don’t look so good for some big names heading into Augusta – Francesco Molinari is 92nd on Tour, Rickie Fowler is 53rd, Brooks Koepka is 45th, Phil Mickelson is 43rd, Jason Day is 40th.

It does look well for Rory McIlroy, who has attracted much of the pre-tournament hype. McIlroy, as the cliché would suggest, can’t putt well enough to win at Augusta. McIlroy’s putting is patchy at the best of times, but you can’t say he is a worse putter than Sergio Garcia, Adam Scott or Bubba Watson.

McIlroy is first in driving this season, 12th in approach to the green. He is the first player to enter the Masters with 7 top-10s including a win, since Phil Mickelson in 2004, and Mickelson won that week. He has had the third best average score at the Masters in the past five years, behind Jordan Spieth and Justin Rose.

That is all well and good for a high placed finish but can McIlroy win the Masters? Statistics may point to who will go well and be in contention on Sunday but once it hits the back 9, intangibles come into play and McIlroy has looked poor under pressure in both recent Masters and recent PGA Tour tournaments.

The Northern Irishman did win the Players in the fine fashion but several poor final group performances over the past year raise concerns about his temperament when all the pressure is on. A win at the Masters would seal the career Grand Slam for Rory and set up his career for true greatness.