Why 'different' Masters can still deliver a sporting spectacle
2020 has been a real scunner in men’s golf. No Open Championship and no Ryder Cup. A shuffled schedule saved the US PGA Championship and US Open, but this week is the one we’ve all been waiting for.
Yes, of course, it will be a different Masters. For starters, it’s never been held at this time of the year. Normally, it marks the beginning of the new golfing season on this side of the Atlantic, but, on this occasion, it is coinciding with some golf lovers preparing to go into winter hibernation.
The colours around Augusta National are not the same as the spring. There are no azaleas or dogwood in bloom. Everything is still immaculate, of course, but, even for seasoned campaigners like Tiger Woods, the scenario feels strange.
“It’s different,” admitted the defending champion and five-time winner. “The grass is different. The conditions are different. The run up to this event is different.”
Visits to the Georgia venue for the likes of Woods and Rory McIlroy at this time of the year in the past have been laid-back affairs with family and friends. With a Green Jacket on the line, the next four days will be a different proposition altogether.
“We’ve never played a Masters like this,” added Woods. “There is a lot of bermuda around the greens and the golf course in general. The rye is a little bit spotty in places and the ball is settling down a bit.
“Some of the shots around the greens are going to be a lot more challenging than they have been in the past. Generally around the greens, we have the ability to play bump and runs or play more spinning golf shots.
“That’s going to be a little different this year. The ball is going to be popping up on us a little bit and rolling out. Especially with the forecast we have coming in (rain is expected at some point on all four days), it’s going to be a little more fuzzy around the greens.
“Some of the guys have switched wedges and gone to more bounce to try and figure this out. It’s going to be challenging for all of us.”
Woods raised one of the biggest roars the game has ever witnessed with his victory in 2019, ending a near 11-year drought in majors and, at the same time, capping one of the greatest comebacks in sport following career-threatening back surgeries.
In contrast, it will be eerily silent when he tees off in the opening round as the defending champion at the tenth hole - a two-tee start is being used because of the shorter daylight hours at this time of the year - due to no patrons being allowed on site as one of the biggest events in sport is affected by the COVID-19 world along with everything else.
“They helped me win,” said Woods of those patrons as he recalled his welcome returning to winning ways in this event last year. “The support that I had, the energy that was around the property, it was electric that day.
“We all miss the energy of the crowds and this year is going to be very different. It's going to be stark in what we see, our sights into the greens, the energy that you hear from different roars, from different parts of the golf course.”
As always on this course, the 15-time major winner “expects to contend”. His form this year suggests otherwise. If there’s any place that can ignite his flame, though, it’s here.
Even then, that might not be good enough this time around. Not if Bryson DeChambeau reproduces the form that delivered a maiden major win with a six-stroke victory in the US Open at Winged Foot in September.
On the strength of that, the 27-year-old is the favourite with most bookmakers, vying for that position with the world No 1, Dustin Johnson. In his practice rounds, DeChambeau has been using his muscle to reduce some of the toughest holes here to a drive and a flick.
As he showed at Winged Foot, he’s no one-trick pony, having produced a polished all-round performance at one of the toughest venues in the game.
But, having broken 70 just once in 12 rounds at Augusta National and also based on the fact he’s dead last in strokes gained for putting among players who have played eight rounds or more there over the last three years, it’s certainly not a foregone conclusion that he’ll become the first player to win back-to-back majors since Jordan Spieth in 2015.
“If trophies were handed out just for how far you hit it and how much ball speed you have, then I’d be worried,” said McIlroy in reply to being asked if he feared that DeChambeau could bring this week’s venue to its knees in a similar way to when Woods won his first Green Jacket by 12 shots in 1997.
“But there’s still a lot of different aspects that you need to master in this game. I can see this being quite a low-scoring week, but that’s just because of the way the golf course is.
“It’s November, it’s a little softer. It’s going to play a little differently. But I still think this golf course provides enough of a challenge to the best players in the world.”
McIlroy is feeling “good” for his sixth attempt to complete a career grand slam; Johnson, who has finished in the top 10 four times in a row in this event, is back here in cracking form again; and Jon Rahm fancies his chances of joining Seve Ballesteros, Jose Maria Olazabal and Sergio Garcia on the list of Spanish winners. Oh, and don’t forget about the major machine, Brooks Koepka.
It won’t make up for everything that’s been lost in the game this year, but this “different” Masters can still light up lives for a few days and, what’s more, we only need to wait until April on this occasion to enjoy it all over again.
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