• Analytics Blog
April 8th, 2019
After five long winter months, the season’s first major is finally upon us. With Augusta’s arrival, there will be no shortage of narratives floating around as we all do our best to predict who will slip into the Green Jacket on Sunday night.

One narrative you’ll undoubtedly hear this week is that past experience at Augusta National is a key contributor to success.

This is an easy story to buy into; especially because, as golfers, we love the history and intricacies surrounding golf’s sanctuary, Augusta National. We grew up being told that it requires a level of strategy and patience that can only be learned through experience, or, if you’re lucky, an early-week stroll alongside a past Masters champion. But how much truth is behind this: do players who have more experience tend to play better at Augusta National?

To make headway on that question, let’s start simple: the plot below shows strokes-gained (the number of strokes better than the field’s average) per round for each level of experience, where experience is defined by the number of previous Masters appearances. We use data from each edition of the Masters since 1995.

Notes: Sample includes data from the 1995-2018 Masters. Any golfer who played less than 20 rounds total in the relevant season is dropped (this mostly affects past Masters champions and amateurs). The low-experience bins have the most golfers in them. Total strokes-gained sums to a number above zero due to the fact that the dropped golfers were generally of low skill levels.
It seems that more experienced players tend to perform better at Augusta, at least until the player’s age begins to take a toll on performance. However, it’s likely that players making their 6th, 7th, or 8th appearances at The Masters are simply better golfers than those who are only playing in their first or second. After all, it says something about a player if they have qualified for 7 Masters; while many players have managed to play in one or two, only the best are able to consistently book their ticket year after year. This is a problem, as differences in golfers’ general skill level could also produce the hump-shaped figure above, even if experience is not a relevant determinant of performance at Augusta.

Clearly, differences in skill need to be accounted for. One possible solution is to compare each player’s score at Augusta not to the field average, but to their own “baseline ability”. A simple way to obtain baseline abilities is to use a player’s average adjusted strokes-gained throughout a season. The “adjusted” part is needed to account for the fact that not all professional golf tournaments have players of equal quality.

For example: if Jordan Spieth averaged 2 strokes-gained over a typical PGA Tour field per round in the 2016 season, while the average player in the 2016 Masters averaged 0.5 strokes-gained over a typical PGA Tour field, then we would expect Spieth to beat this Masters field by (2-0.5) = 1.5 strokes per round.

If experience at Augusta National is important, we should observe that more experienced golfers tend to perform better than what their baseline abilities suggest, while less experienced golfers tend to perform worse than expected.

In this next plot we have added in expected strokes-gained alongside actual strokes-gained for each experience level. The dots are the raw averages by experience level, while the curves capture the general trends. For example, we see that golfers with 0 years of experience at Augusta (i.e. rookies) have on average lost 0.28 strokes to the field per round, while we expected them (according to their baseline abilities) to lose just 0.2 strokes per round.

Notes: Expected strokes-gained for each Masters is obtained from our statistical model of golfer performance. While the explanation given in the main text regarding baseline skill is useful, our actual model estimates are a little more sophisticated. However, the intuition remains that this baseline skill is essentially our best estimate of a golfer's average performance at all other tournaments besides The Masters (in the relevant time frame - i.e. the years preceding and following a given Masters).
There are two main takeaways from this figure. First, it confirms our earlier intuition as we see that players with more experience are generally better golfers (i.e. have higher expected strokes-gained). Golfer ability peaks among those with 6-8 years of experience, and then begins to decline as the effects of old age on performance take hold. Second, and more importantly, it appears that after controlling for baseline golfer skill, we do see that players with minimal experience slightly underperform their expectation (areas shaded red), while more experienced players perform above expectation (areas shaded green). Experience at Augusta National does appear to have an effect on performance!

You may have noticed the “course history” toggle on the plot above. What this does is adjust the expected strokes-gained numbers to account for each golfer’s so-called course history (that is, their historical performance) at Augusta National. Our conclusions about experience could be clouded by the fact that more experienced golfers may tend to be those who play above their baseline skill at Augusta National irrespective of their level of experience.

For example, Phil Mickelson is one such player. In his 98-round career at Augusta National, Phil has averaged an astonishing 1 stroke better than his baseline skill level. When we adjust for Phil's course history, it has the effect of increasing his expected strokes-gained, as he has historically performed above his baseline skill at Augusta National. This ensures that we do not mistake the effects of course history for the effects of experience.

By toggling the course history adjustment on and off, you will notice a subtle difference in the plot: the expected strokes-gained of more experienced golfers increases slightly. This means that on average the golfers with high experience levels also tended to have good course history. This is not too surprising given that past champions receive a lifetime exemption at The Masters. It also means that part of the performance above expectation by the most experienced Masters participants can be explained by their "course history", and not just their accumulated experience.

Overall however, with or without the course history adjustment, we see that an experience effect persists. While 0.2-0.3 strokes per round may seem like a small difference, it is actually pretty meaningful in the context of golfer performance. This is roughly the difference between the skill levels of the 70th and 100th ranked golfers in the world.

It is likely that the top of this year's Masters leaderboard will be filled with experienced Masters participants. While this will mostly be due to the simple fact that these golfers are better on any golf course, not just Augusta National, it will also be partly due to the fact that experience does appear to help around the storied Augusta National layout.

We will leave the question of why experience matters at The Masters to more imaginative golf pundits than us.