The Masters: In firm conditions, November event a distant memory
AUGUSTA, Ga. — No one needed to see the colorful blooms at Augusta National to realize this will be a much different Masters than the last one. It was the color of the greens.
They were yellow. On Wednesday.
The excitement of the first major of the golf season was mixed with no small measure of trepidation about the test Augusta National might present this week without intervention and a little precipitation.
Fred Couples, who played his first Masters in 1983 and is competing for the 36th time, played a practice round Wednesday with Rory McIlroy.
“Rory said it five times: ‘Have you ever seen the greens like this on Wednesday?’ And five times in a row I said, ‘No,’” Couples said. “He was laughing. So I think if it stays like this, come even Friday, Saturday, Sunday, I mean, honestly, a 70 or 71 will be a heck of a score.”
A score like that would have meant getting lapped in November, when the Masters had to take an autumn date after it was postponed because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Dustin Johnson played conservatively along the back nine because he had a big lead, and he still finished with a record score of 20-under-par 268 to win by five shots in the lowest-scoring Masters in history.
“I’ve seen some young guys this week have a slightly deer-in-the-headlights look because they’ve walked out on a couple of those greens and they’ve seen the color of them and they’ve felt the firmness,” Paul Casey said. “You can see they’re kind of going, ‘Whoa. This is a whole different animal.’”
Still to be determined is what the weather has in store for the rest of the week. The sun has added that scary shine to the putting surfaces starting with the Augusta National Women’s Amateur on Saturday – the winning score was at 1-over par. Scattered storms are in the forecast the rest of the way.
For the 13 players who played the Masters for the first time in November, it’s like starting over.
“November is a Masters that we’ll probably never see again,” Webb Simpson said. “You know, flying hybrids, 5-woods, 3-woods to the hole and the ball stopping. It’s good to forget about that because that’s not our normal Masters. It’s in a way relearning the nuances.”
Phil Mickelson and Bryson DeChambeau dropped balls left of the 10th green on Wednesday morning to play chip shots to potential hole locations. Mickelson is a three-time Masters champion and a wizard with the wedge. After his second shot, he looked over at DeChambeau and said, “Boy, it’s tough when it’s dry.”
So much about the Masters will be so different, minus expectations of the usual suspects – a little more noise from at least some spectators.
Johnson won the Saudi International for his only victory in six starts this year, though he has been in a bit of a funk the last month. No one is suggesting the green jacket he won in November should come with a footnote given the conditions. He was that much better than everyone else.
But he won’t be hitting 5-iron to a left pin on the par-5 second hole for a tap-in eagle as he did in the third round in November, taking on pins that were accessible in such soft conditions. Johnson talked about watching one player in his group hit 3-wood to a left pin on the 15th that landed and stopped near the hole. That’s out.
Jimmy Walker said no one could hold a shot on the 15th. He said he and McIlroy each had irons into the 15th that had no chance of staying there.
Masters Chairman Fred Ridley is a past president of the USGA, an organization suspected of being very good at payback. Most notable was Johnny Miller shooting 63 in the final round to win the 1973 U.S. Open at Oakmont. The next year, Hale Irwin won at Winged Foot at 7-over par.
That’s the U.S. Open, with a history of par being a winning score, or not far from it. The Masters can be brutal when it’s brittle and windy and cold. Zach Johnson won in 2007 in those conditions at 1-over 289, though it was the first time in more than 50 years that no one broke par at the Masters.
“The fact that Dustin was 20 under was a combination of his extraordinary play that at the same time, admittedly, the golf course was soft,” Ridley said. “So it was ready to be played very well with a lot of red numbers. But that really had nothing to do with how the golf course is playing right now.
“I think we have the golf course where we want it.”
It all starts Thursday morning with Lee Elder, the first Black golfer to compete in the Masters in 1975, joining Jack Nicklaus and Gary Player for the honorary tee shot. And then the curtain rises on the 85th Masters, which should feel like the Masters of old – even if that’s only two years ago.
Johnson was a runner-up to Tiger Woods when the Masters was last held in April in 2019. So was Xander Schauffele, who thinks this year it might be even “crazier.”
“When I say crazier, I mean firmer and faster,” Schauffele said, adding a few minutes later, “I think every guy who plays professionally is a little bit of a masochist, so I’m here for the torture.”
NEW FATHER RAHM ARRIVES
Jon Rahm arrived at the Masters on Wednesday, after not sleeping much or touching a club for the past few days.
Such is life for a first-time father.
Rahm and his wife, Kelley, welcomed their son – Kepa Cahill Rahm – on Friday, and it’s been a predictable whirlwind ever since for the player ranked No. 3 in the world. Rahm had said he would leave the Masters if that was when the baby decided to arrive.
The baby is healthy. Rahm’s wife is healthy. And now, Rahm is ready to go at Augusta National.
“Coming here later than usual, but I’m here ready to compete,” Rahm said. “I wouldn’t be here otherwise.”
Most players have been at Augusta since Sunday or Monday at the latest. Many have found their way to the course in recent weeks for practice rounds. Rahm hasn’t, but he wondered if being in a different mindset could work to his advantage.
He said he’s never been this happy. That can’t hurt.
“Maybe haven’t prepared as much as I have in the past, but definitely mentally in a different state, right?” Rahm said. “A lot of times practicing for a major, you spend so much time thinking about golf, and for four or five days, it wasn’t even on my mind – which is kind of refreshing.”
His plan for Wednesday was simple: some swings on the range, then trying to get on the course for at least a few holes.
“I mean, the course hasn’t changed,” Rahm said. “I might need to spend a little bit of extra time today hitting lag putts and hitting some chips because the last time we played here it was a little softer and slower, but tee to green it doesn’t really change much. Luckily, I’ve played here before, and I always have a good vibe when I come here.”
Rahm has played the Masters four previous times and has three top-10 finishes. McIlroy couldn’t resist throwing down what seemed like a bit of a challenge earlier this week.
“My first round as a dad, I shot 64,” McIlroy said to laughter. “So he’s got that to live up to.”
Golf’s governing bodies, worried players are hitting the ball farther than ever, are proposing changes to equipment and testing standards. Among those paying close attention is Masters Chairman Fred Ridley, who on Wednesday urged the USGA and R&A to “put forward thoughtful solutions as soon as possible.”
But that doesn’t include Augusta National doing something for the Masters. At least not yet.
“I know there’s been some talk in the past of possibly a Masters golf ball or something like that,” said Ridley, a former USGA president. “I would think that would be highly unlikely and would, in my view, be an absolute last resort.”
There also has been talk about Augusta National creating a new championship tee on the 13th, a par-5 that Bubba Watson once reached in two with a sand wedge. There was no talk of that on Wednesday, even though the club has purchased part of adjacent Augusta Country Club and has space to do that.
“Fortunately, we do have the ability to make any number of changes to protect the integrity of the course,” he said. “At the same time, we hope there will not come a day when the Masters or any golf championship will have to be played at 8,000 yards to achieve that objective.”
Ridley said Augusta National prefers to support the R&A and USGA, who set the rules and equipment standards.
“And then if there is no action taken, for whatever reason, then we need to look at other options,” he said.
The tradition of having honorary starters at the Masters goes back to 1963, when Jock Hutchison and Fred McLeod did the initial honors. It has not been an annual occurrence; the Masters has opened on at least eight occasions since without an honorary starter.
Only nine men have taken those tournament-opening swings.
That list grows to 10 on Thursday.
Jack Nicklaus and Gary Player will be back in their roles, and for the first time, they’ll be joined by Lee Elder – the first Black man to play the Masters, back in 1975.
Ridley at last year’s tournament announced a plan to honor Elder by establishing scholarships at Paine College – a historically Black school in Augusta – in his name and to have him join Nicklaus and Player in opening the Masters this year.
“I cannot wait to have the honor of introducing Lee,” Ridley said Wednesday.
Cameron Champ, who’ll be playing in his second Masters, said the addition of Elder to the honorary lineup was “huge.”
“What he had to go through as a human being to play the game and just to endure that for so long … it shows a lot about him and his character,” Champ said.
Besides Hutchison, McLeod, Nicklaus and Player, the list of past honorary starters includes Byron Nelson, Gene Sarazen, Ken Venturi, Sam Snead and Arnold Palmer.
Of the 88 players in the field, 46 hail from outside the U.S.
That, too, has become a Masters tradition.
Americans were the majority in the Masters fields for each of the first 70 editions. That changed for the first time in 2007 – and hasn’t changed back, making this the 15th consecutive Masters where there were more international players than American ones.
There was some polite applause when Phil Mickelson hit his tee shot on the par-3 16th to about 3 feet earlier this week, and more relatively quiet claps came a few minutes later when he made the birdie putt.
In between, he hit one off the surface of the water.
The patrons roared.
Among the practice-round traditions at Augusta National during Masters week is one where players sometimes will give in to patron pressure and try to skip a ball off the pond between the tee box and the green. Nobody is completely sure how or when this trend started; Ken Green told Golfweek in 2016 that he came up with the idea.
“My ball just bounced,” C.T. Pan said after he tried it early this week. “Had a low bounce straight into the bank again like last time I did. But I’m getting better at it.”
Rahm famously holed his off-the-water try last year. Martin Kaymer and Vijay Singh are among those who have also pulled off the off-the-water, into-the-cup trick in the past. Even the competitors in the Augusta National Women’s Amateur got into the skipping act last weekend.
“That’s an interesting hole,” Duke junior Gina Kim said after she played the 16th. “I mean, that was the first time I’ve ever skipped a ball across the water, so I found that pretty fun.”
Mickelson’s shot wound up ricocheting off the water’s surface once, then sailing over the rest of the pond and clearing the back of the green by probably 20 yards. A security guard went and retrieved the ball, not long before Mickelson went to his original tee shot and made the putt.
Starting Thursday, skipping won’t be happening. The shots all count when the tournament starts.
MASTERS TEE TIMES
Thursday-Friday, all times PT
5 a.m.-8:06 a.m. — Michael Thompson, Hudson Swafford
5:12 a.m.-8:18 a.m. — Sandy Lyle, Matt Jones, Dylan Frittelli
5:24 a.m.-8:30 a.m. — Ian Woosnam, Jim Herman, Stewart Cink
5:36 a.m.-8:42 a.m. — Sebastian Munoz, Henrik Stenson, Robert Streb
5:48 a.m.-8:54 a.m. — Bernhard Langer, Will Zalatoris, a-Joe Long
6 a.m.-9:12 a.m. — Brian Harman, Ian Poulter, Brendon Todd
6:12 a.m.-9:24 a.m. — Charl Schwartzel, Si Woo Kim, Corey Conners
6:24 a.m.-9:36 a.m. — Danny Willett, Joaquin Niemann, Kevin Kisner
6:36 a.m.-9:48 a.m. — Jason Day, Matthew Wolff, Cameron Champ
6:48 a.m.-10 a.m. — Hideki Matsuyama, Harris English, Abraham Ancer
7:06 a.m.-10:12 a.m. — Bubba Watson, Brooks Koepka, Viktor Hovland
7:18 a.m.-10:24 a.m. — Sergio Garcia, Webb Simpson, Christiaan Bezuidenhout
7:30 a.m.-10:36 a.m. — Dustin Johnson, Lee Westwood, a-Tyler Strafaci
7:42 a.m.-10:48 a.m. — Xander Schauffele, Jon Rahm, Rory McIlroy
7:54 a.m.-11 a.m. — Patrick Reed, Daniel Berger, Paul Casey
8:06 a.m.-5 a.m. — Vijay Singh, Martin Laird
8:18 a.m.-5:12 a.m. — Larry Mize, Jimmy Walker, Brian Gay
8:30 a.m.-5:24 a.m. — Carlos Ortiz, Mackenzie Hughes, Bernd Wiesberger
8:42 a.m.-5:36 a.m. — Mike Weir, C.T. Pan, Robert MacIntyre
8:54 a.m.-5:48 a.m. — Jose Maria Olazabal, Matt Wallace, Lanto Griffin
9:12 a.m.-6 a.m. — Victor Perez, Jason Kokrak, Marc Leishman
9:24 a.m.-6:12 a.m. — Fred Couples, Francesco Molinari, a-Charles Osborne
9:36 a.m.-6:24 a.m. — Zach Johnson, Kevin Na, Gary Woodland
9:48 a.m.-6:36 a.m. — Shane Lowry, Justin Rose, Matt Kuchar
10 a.m.-6:48 a.m. — Billy Horschel, Tyrrell Hatton, Ryan Palmer
10:12 a.m.-7:06 a.m. — Phil Mickelson, Tommy Fleetwood, Scottie Scheffler
10:24 a.m.-7:18 a.m. — Patrick Cantlay, Sungjae Im, Matt Fitzpatrick
10:36 a.m.-7:30 a.m. — Adam Scott, Bryson DeChambeau, Max Homa
10:48 a.m.-7:42 a.m. — Tony Finau, Louis Oosthuizen, Justin Thomas
11 a.m.-7:54 a.m. — Jordan Spieth, Cameron Smith, Collin Morikawa