AUGUSTA, Ga. – Only five months since the last one Masters tournament another is here, in a famous April spot. Tiger Woods he will not be here because he is still recovering from the injuries he suffered during a car crash in Los Angeles in February. But patrons will return, in limited numbers. Players will find a different golf course than the soft one they experienced in November.
We go through great stories as the week of the 85th Master begins.
The patrons are back. The Masters will not say how many will actually be at the location this week. What is the biggest impact of the patron’s return on the estate after there were so few of them in November?
Bob Hairy: The energy and atmosphere that viewers represent, especially in Augusta National. As cool as it is to see all holes almost unobstructed in November – remember, there were no ropes for the gallery – which aged after about a day. Until Friday / Saturday, the tournament felt like a guest member. It just wasn’t the same. Even limited viewers will create a good noise that was sorely lacking five months ago.
Michael Collins: Former ESPN colleague and current FOX Sports reporter Tom Rinaldi told me that it was best for me when I asked him last year to describe the feeling of August National without a patron. “Patrons are the soul of this place.” That’s all there was to say. Of course, it would be just as easy to describe it in a way Paul Casey is, “It was bullshit.” We hope that there will be enough people on the property for whom some screams echo through the land.
Mark Schlabach: You have to pay tribute to Augusti National for making the November tournament as good as it could be in such unusual circumstances. But I agree with Bob that it was so Dustin Johnson and his brother Austin walked the 18th on a waterway to win over a guest member with such a small gallery. The patrons and their roar make the Masters so special, along with their tradition and landscape. The lack of a full number of protectors there has been blowing for the second year in a row, but at least there will be more than five months ago. We are making progress in returning to normal.
Nick Pietruszkiewicz: This will make a big difference, especially on weekends. Even if the number is small, noise will be heard. When players make a move on Saturday and Sunday, everyone will know. The pressure rises when the whole field knows the eagle was made in 15 years or someone rammed their shot at par-3 16. Silence in November might ease your nerves, especially to those chasing the first green jacket. Well, that’s gone. Increased awareness, not only about oneself but also about the whole field and a certain moment in the tournament, will again play a significant role after the autumn break.
Augusta National recorded a small number in November. Will the course – and the tournament board – win even now that the event is returning to its usual place in April?
Hairy: If the hope is that the results will return to more normal levels – Johnson set a tournament score in 268 – the Masters may not need to do anything. As we have learned, achieving a firm and fast course in November was difficult from an agronomic point of view. We will now see a course that has benefited from the full growth season. Look for the greens to be much firmer. Of course, rain is a great equalizer. If we manage to get a dry week, watch out.
Collins: There isn’t a lot of place in the world that could go toe to toe with Mother Nature. Augusta National Golf Club is one of the few. April in Augusta is not like November in Augusta. I expect a harder course than we saw five months ago. We will keep our fingers crossed that there will be no rain and low pollen levels. That way, even if we hit only half the query, we still win.
Schlabach: Good luck with the pollen, Collins. I would advise you to wear shoes you don’t want to take home, given how yellow the air has been over the past few weeks in Georgia. You can’t downplay what the DJ did in November, because I think he would have won the first green jacket in any conditions given how well he played. But the world’s biggest players had a target training session at the Augusta National green spots last year, something we’ve never seen before. Greens that traditionally contain very little have held almost everything. They were as soft as Jerry Ricehands. The waterways were understandably slower due to colder temperatures and rain, while the juicy second cut provided some defense. I would expect a much different course this time.
Pietruszkiewicz: Listen, the Masters tournament board is not USGA. Sure, the green jackets probably didn’t like seeing Dustin Johnson hanging 20 below. But it won’t pass all the US Open and cheat the place or shut down the sprinkler system. It’s not who the board members are, it’s not what this tournament is. These caregivers know that drama is an important part of attraction. They want birds and eagles around Amen Corner. But they also wouldn’t mind some balls bathing in Rae’s Creek. Drama, people, drama. If the rain stays on – are we sick of talking about the weather? – Augusta National will be heavier than it was in November. But this tournament was never aimed at inflicting pain.
Many players would like to do what Dustin Johnson did in November and grab their first green jackets. Who has the best chance of that?
Hairy: Jon Rahm. He already has three top-10s in four appearances at the Masters, including his seventh result last year. He ranks third in the world, often battling with seven of the top 7 on the PGA tour, representing a win at the BMW Championship last September. The big question was whether he could skip it, as his wife Kelly needed a couple with her first child next weekend. That was resolved on Saturday, as Rahm announced that his son had been born just after midnight.
Collins: Justin thomas. The best thing that could have happened to JT after winning the player championship was to get a kick in the first two matches of the WGC-Dell Technologies Match Play. Why? Because Thomas is a guy who plays great when he’s kind of angry. And he left Match Match angry and ready to grind. His game will be prepared for the Masters and his first green jacket.
Schlabach: Will I bite for Xander Schauffele bait again? He has been runner-up eight times since winning the Champions Tournament in January 2019. That includes a draw at the 2019 Masters, when he led the field with 25 birds. Schauffele understood Augusta National; six of his last eight rounds were under par. He always appears on the biggest stages of the game, with seven top-10s in his career in major disciplines. It’s just a matter of closing the door and doing it.
Pietruszkiewicz: There are so many choices, which speaks to the depth currently in golf. There are, as mentioned, Rahm and Thomas. Throw in Rory McIlroy and if he is healthy enough, Brooks Koepka. There are young guys, like Collin Morikawa,, Matthew Wolff i Victor Howland. And, of course, you can’t talk about this sport without it Bryson DeChambeau. But I go the other way and say maybe, just maybe, after so many close calls lately, Lee Westwood he gets that great victory he has been waiting for all his professional life. At 47, with fiancée Helen Storey on her bag, he is happy. (Storey, however, was ruled out with Westwood’s son Sam this week.) Westwood announced a pair of runners-up on Arnold Palmer Invitational and players. He knows the way around the place; this is his 20th start. He was close a few times, finishing second in 2010 and 2016. So … why not now?
Which past champion are you expecting for the big week this week?
Hairy: Dustin Johnson. There’s no reason why he can’t continue where he left off in November. The DJ, after a rocky start in the first five attempts at Augusta National, figured out a place and was in the top 10 in each of his last five performances, with a draw for second and victory. He has had a minor blow in his game in the last few tournaments, but expect to be there again.
Collins: Jordan Spieth. It was a journey, but now we know why – bone chips in the left hand. If you’re not a hater of Jordan Spieth, and I haven’t met him yet, no one will be surprised when his name finds itself at the top or near the top of the rankings towards the weekend. I also think that when that happens, Spieth will remember how to end up at Augusta National
Schlabach: Jordan Spieth. He hits the ball like everyone in the world right now. He just needs to keep out of the game and play better on Sunday.
Pietruszkiewicz: I can’t stress how much I hate getting along with American Caddy and Schlabach. It just hurts. But … Jordan Spieth feels like a real possibility here. He has to survive four swings. That’s it. Four swings. The one at number 12 on Thursday. The one at number 12 on Friday. The one at number 12 on Saturday. She at number 12 on Sunday. Hit the ball anywhere but Rae’s Creek, and I think we’re talking about a green Jordan Spieth jacket.
What is the biggest surprise of the week?
Hairy: No one will give a chance to Rory McIlroy. Lots of frustrating results lately. He hasn’t won since the fall of 2019. And just weeks before the Masters, changing coaches? McIlroy brought in respected instructor Pete Cowen to his “performance team” in Match Play week, a move that suggests a longer-term approach. But McIlroy is not that far away. He still drives it great. Although the wedge allowed him to play, it also seems like something that can be solved with Cowen’s help. Too early? Maybe. But it’s not exactly like Rory was awful. It is common for him to put things in a big problem.
Collins: Ian Poulter he never finished in the top 5. In fact, in 15 appearances, the brilliant Briton had only three top-10s. This year will be different. There’s a new relaxed, fun attraction to Poults. Maybe it’s his social media. Maybe because this is the year of the Ryder Cup. Regardless, Ian Poulter will have a chance to win by going into the top nine on Sunday and will finish in the top 5 for the first time in his career.
Schlabach: DeChambeau says he will play Augusta National as a par-74 course. That’s the only way he can catch up with the golf gods after last year’s tricks, when he said it was 67 for him. I hope he spends less time working with 48-inch drivers in range and more time trying to figure out how to hit the waterway road and greenery.
Pietruszkiewicz: I agree with someone again. I can’t stand when that happens. DeChambeau will not be a factor again. Who knows, I could make a colossal mistake, as I was when I said that his swing-for-fence approach could by no means succeed in Winged Foot. (Editor’s note, from myself: Oops!). But no one is imposing their will on Augusti National. Players must choose places, when to take risks and when to play it safe. DeChambeau, it seems, is still pushing forward. In the past, he called himself a casino. He went all-in again, refusing to change the approach that went sideways here in November. It just seems like this is a place where it won’t work.