The Best Masters Champion

I’ve been putting together a series of columns about the Best Major Champion here, and you can find those articles linked at the bottom here.

But, suddenly and oddly – it’s November, after all – it’s Masters Week! And with that, I think it’s worthwhile to take a pause at the overall analysis and take a look at who is the Best Masters Champion of all time. Surely, we know that Jack Nicklaus has won six green jackets, and Tiger Woods has won five.

But the question is this … if you could take one golfer and have him at his career average (as detailed by the rules I created myself), who would likely be the best? We’re going to look at the Career Average Finish, number of tournaments, wins, and the percentage of the time they finished in the top-10 or top-25 at Augusta. Let it go without saying – though now I’m saying it – that nobody is being considered who hasn’t won at least once.

Here are your guys:

Golfer# of MastersAverage FinishWinsTop-10%Top-25%
Fred Couples2216.86145.5%63.6%
Ben Crenshaw2423.38245.8%66.7%
Nick Faldo1930.26315.8%52.6%
Raymond Floyd3225.56134.4%68.8%
Ben Hogan2513.20268.0%84.0%
Bernard Langer2022.30235.0%50.0%
Phil Mickleson2619.12357.7%73.1%
Byron Nelson2010.40270.0%90.0%
Jack Nicklaus3917.08656.4%74.4%
Arnold Palmer2114.19457.14%81.0%
Gary Player2513.92360.0%80.0%
Gene Sarazen915.56133.3%77.8%
Vijay Singh1521.67140.0%73.3%
Sam Snead188.61372.2%94.4%
Jordan Spieth66.67166.7%100.0%
Tom Watson2111.24271.4%85.7%
Bubba Watson1128.55227.3%45.5%
Tiger Woods2112.24567.7%85.7%

That’s quite a list and there are a lot of numbers, but these are the guys that had to be included. A few immediate takeaways — Bubba Watson, for all of his two Masters wins, has actually done fairly poorly overall, finishing in the top-25 less than half the time. Similarly, Sir Nick Faldo has three green jackets but otherwise has hardly distinguished himself – as an example, his three wins are the only times he ever finished in the top-10! Crazy.

Conversely, Jordan Spieth is – in a sample size too small to tip the scales in this analysis – the most dominant on this course. It’s stunning that he only has one win. His AVERAGE finish is 6.67 and he’s never finished worse than 23rd. This week will be quite telling, but I can tell you right now that this has factored into my Masters pools.

If this is how you think about Spieth and The Masters, it’s time to do more research.

So, who rises to the top? We’re going to eliminate Faldo and Bubba, and anyone above with just one win, and the focus will be more on average finish, top-10 and top-25 percentages. Let’s look again:

Golfer# of MastersAverage FinishWinsTop-10%Top-25%
Ben Crenshaw2423.38245.8%66.7%
Ben Hogan2513.20268.0%84.0%
Bernard Langer2022.30235.0%50.0%
Phil Mickleson2619.12357.7%73.1%
Byron Nelson2010.40270.0%90.0%
Jack Nicklaus3917.08656.4%74.4%
Arnold Palmer2114.19457.14%81.0%
Gary Player2513.92360.0%80.0%
Sam Snead188.61372.2%94.4%
Tom Watson2111.24271.4%85.7%
Tiger Woods2112.24567.7%85.7%

It kind of blows my mind that Jack Nicklaus has the worst top-10% here aside from Bernard Langer. It’s also worth noting that he has way, way, WAY more Masters here because he kept placing in the top-10 later in life. So, let’s change this to look at Nicklaus if we stop the analysis after 1987, an age already older than everyone else on this list, but discounting eleven more Masters, which I’d included because he only missed the cut once and had two additional top-10s.

Golfer# of MastersAverage FinishWinsTop-10%Top-25%
Ben Crenshaw2423.38245.8%66.7%
Ben Hogan2513.20268.0%84.0%
Bernard Langer2022.30235.0%50.0%
Phil Mickleson2619.12357.7%73.1%
Byron Nelson2010.40270.0%90.0%
Jack Nicklaus2811.64671.4%89.3%
Arnold Palmer2114.19457.14%81.0%
Gary Player2513.92360.0%80.0%
Sam Snead188.61372.2%94.4%
Tom Watson2111.24271.4%85.7%
Tiger Woods2112.24567.7%85.7%

Well, that feels MUCH more like the right analysis for The Masters. We’re going to now eliminate anyone who didn’t finish in the top 10 at least 70% of the time (which, by the way, is a BONKERS statistic to have to use for this, but here we are):

Golfer# of MastersAverage FinishWinsTop-10%Top-25%
Byron Nelson2010.40270.0%90.0%
Jack Nicklaus2811.64671.4%89.3%
Sam Snead188.61372.2%94.4%
Tom Watson2111.24271.4%85.7%

So first, you’ll notice that Eldrick Woods has just missed the cutoff, as has Mr. Hogan. That stings, but math is math. And as much as I tend to favor Tom Watson over Jack Nicklaus, the comparison of the two eliminates Watson immediately. Byron Nelson also has to go with only two wins – though that 90% top-25% is impressive.

That leaves us with Jack Nicklaus and Sam Snead. And here’s where perhaps I’m going to be a little controversial, because I know Nicklaus literally has twice as many wins, but I’m going with Snead. To play in 18 tournaments and AVERAGE an 8th place finish is crazy, and yes, it is that much more impressive than finishing in 11th place. His 94.4% percentage finish in the top-25% is also the kind of stat that would absolutely make me want to place my bet on him. Jack gets all the plaudits and the awards and everyone can’t shut up about how great he is. And, his toxic political opinions notwithstanding, they’re right – The Golden Bear is likely the G.O.A.T. (though spoiler alert – we’re not there yet!).

So, if I was asked to put down a bet on any professional golfer from history in his prime and hope for the best possible outcome….that bet would be on Sam Snead.

Prior installments:

The Best and Worst Major Champions

The Best Major Champion – The Modern Crop

The Best Major Champion – The American Triumvirate

The Best Major Champion – The Swinging Seventies

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