Ranking the ‘Pucker Factor’ of Each Masters Contender: Who Can Close on Sunday at Augusta?
Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images. Pictured: Tony Finau.
AUGUSTA, Ga.– There’s a trend amongst the current contenders here at the 85th Masters, one which has nothing to do with ball-striking or putting statistics.
Almost none of ‘em have won anything lately.
Each year, when prognosticating the festivities at Augusta National, we tend to accentuate recent form — and nothing screams form like a previous victory in the first few months of the year.
And yet, through three rounds, the list of contenders is essentially a who’s who of those who haven’t. Not recently, at least.
Hideki Matsuyama, fresh off a blistering 7-under 65 in the third round, is the current Masters leader by four strokes. He hasn’t won a tournament since the 2017 WGC-Bridgestone Invitational, nearly four full years ago.
There are four players in a share of second place. Marc Leishman won at Torrey Pines last year, 15 months ago, which means he’s actually experienced the sweet taste of victory more recently than the others. Xander Schauffele somewhat notoriously hasn’t closed out an event since winning at Kapalua more than 27 months ago. Justin Rose hasn’t won since doing so at Torrey Pines three weeks later. And then there’s Will Zalatoris, who did triumph on the Korn Ferry Tour last summer, but has never won at this level.
Right behind them? Corey Conners, whose lone victory came just over two years ago. Jordan Spieth, whose victory last week was preceded by a four-year drought. Brian Harman, whose four-year drought is still ongoing. Tony Finau, whose only title famously came in an alternate-field event more than a half-decade ago.
All of which means there isn’t exactly a contender who’s been peeling off recent wins and therefore should feel completely comfortable in the moment on Sunday.
With that in mind, it’s time to introduce the Pucker Factor – a totally subjective ranking of how each player will handle the pressure during the final round. (The higher the number, the more of a pucker and more likely to struggle to close.)
Hideki Matsuyama (-115): 11-under
Perhaps because of the language barrier, we often don’t hear Matsuyama yell at his ball like Spieth or curse at himself under his breath like, well, everyone else. But he’s also just a soft-spoken kind of dude. (I once asked a Japanese journalist about him. She said, “He doesn’t speak much English, but he doesn’t speak much Japanese, either.”)
Being soft-spoken and being calm aren’t necessarily the same thing, of course. It’s tough to imagine him getting too ruffled, but this is a situation he’s been waiting for his entire life, and you never know how a player will respond.
If there’s part of a player’s game that is going to be most impacted by pressure, it would be putting – and Hideki is already a below-average putter, despite his sensational Saturday stats. If his first few strokes on Sunday get a little yippy, the door could be open for the rest of the contenders.
Pucker factor: 6.5/10
Xander Schauffele (+500): 7-under
Much has been made of Schauffele’s failure to claim a title over the past two years, while remaining well inside the world’s top-10 ranking. Xander himself recently admitted, “I’ve knocked on the door a few times and kind of messed up and choked, I guess, if you want to call it that. But just try to learn from every moment.”
They say the first step toward progress is an admission, so he’s at least moving in the right direction. Really, though, he’s being a bit tough on himself here. Schauffele is still an elite player. If Matsuyama does falter, he’s the one who I think could most benefit by the end of Sunday’s final round, although having that “c” word echoing in his ear might not be the sweetest music while he’s competing.
Pucker factor: 3/10
Justin Rose (+900): 7-under
We all love cashing FRL wagers, but racing out to a first-round lead is often a recipe for disaster to those who do it, especially at major championships. Rose looked like he was puckered up pretty well during the third round, when he seemingly held it together with band-aids and duct tape, getting up and down from everywhere to turn a 77 or 78 into an even-par 72. His ball-striking should improve a bit, but I don’t see him replicating that short-game play in an even more pressure-packed final round.
Pucker factor: 6/10
Will Zalatoris (+1000): 7-under
Nerves? What nerves? A kid who was Monday qualifying for Korn Ferry events not that long ago and still doesn’t own full PGA TOUR privileges, Zalatoris has looked like one of the calmest contenders in the bunch. Then again, he hasn’t played the final round of a Masters before. I think there will be just a bit more pucker than we’ve seen from him, though I think it’ll be less than the major champion listed above, which is in itself a big-time compliment.
Pucker factor: 4.5/10
Marc Leishman (+1100): 7-under
Nobody wants the wind to blow more than Leishman, whose low ball-flight can pierce through any heavy breezes. Unfortunately for him, that doesn’t seem to be in the Sunday forecast. That’s the bad news.
The good news is that the Aussie is a fairly unflappable dude who’s been in these situations before, including a playoff at the 2015 Open Championship. I don’t know if the conditions will cooperate, but I also don’t believe that Leishman will fold like a cheap suit.
Pucker factor: 2/10
Corey Conners (+2000): 6-under
Speaking of being unflappable, Conners seems to be just fine with the glaring spotlight of a big tourney on him. On Saturday, he did most of his damage on holes 6 and 7, making an ace and chasing it with a birdie. Like Matsuyama, though, Conners is a poor putter – and a poor putter will likely putt even worse when his hands start trembling in a big moment. It will be interesting to see how he, too, looks on his first few putting strokes of the round.
Pucker factor: 5/10
Jordan Spieth (+1600): 5-under
Before last week, Spieth might’ve had a higher pucker factor in this scenario than he does now. Getting that monkey off his back and that win under his belt at the Valero Texas Open should help ease his nerves a bit, albeit in a completely incongruous situation. Unlike his fellow contenders, Spieth knows he can slip into a green jacket after the round, which should allow for less tension, though you’ll never know it by watching his face or listening to his (many) words.
Pucker factor: 3.5/10
Brian Harman (+12000): 4-under
Known as a bulldog who loves the heat of competition, Harman might not have the physical tools needed to overcome a seven-stroke deficit, but he does own the right spirit to give it a fight. One of the game’s best short-game artists, expect some brilliant wedge play if he is indeed going to give it a run.
Pucker factor: 2.5/10
Tony Finau (+12000): 3-under
Now, if Finau was leading entering the final round instead of lingering in ninth place, his pucker factor might be off the charts, somewhere in the neighborhood of 14/10, like we’re rating a very good dog. Instead, this might be the perfect scenario for which he can win a tournament, though I don’t believe this is the one. The man known as Top-Five Tony seems to thrive when he knows he can’t win, but doesn’t when he thinks he can.
Pucker factor: 7/10