Who knows what to expect from this year’s pilgrimage to Augusta National - on the upside we’ll have back-to-back Masters in the space of six months
When the Players Championship was cancelled after day one in the middle of March because of the COVID pandemic the suspicion was that the Masters would still take place behind closed doors. Now here we are, three weeks away from Augusta National and the start of back-to-back men’s majors from Georgia. The Champions Dinner will still take place but otherwise things will be very different with no fans, temperatures in single figures, no Par 3 contest and less daylight meaning an earlier finish for those of us in the UK.
Normally the players would have a Florida Swing under their belts, now there are plenty of question marks particularly for our defending champion Tiger Woods. This will be his 23rd start and, as things stand, will be one of his strangest. After his missed cut at the US Open at Winged Foot he took four weeks off, coming into this week’s Zozo Championship he will have played just 18 rounds in 246 days. But he might now play the Houston Open the week before Augusta – Tiger’s never played the week before the Masters and whether he does or doesn’t he’ll be undercooked for Augusta and a course playing far longer than usual in plummeting temperatures will unlikely sit well with a 44-year-old with multiple back surgeries.
“It's not normally this time of year. It's not normally played this way, the configuration of events. We're not in a Florida swing. This is all different,” Woods said. “This whole year's been different for all of us. It’s unprecedented, never been done before. I can't simulate the normal ramp-up that I normally have.
“In the fall of ’01, we went up there and it was driver, 3-wood into 1; 18 was a driver, 3-wood. You know, it's so different. If you're able to get the north wind that time of year, it can be awfully difficult and long and very different than what we normally play.”
When golf shut down in March Bryson DeChambeau was 13th in the world and there was far less of him. These days he’s now a major champion and the new favourite for Augusta. There’s all the talk of a 48-inch driver and most of us are already slightly terrified at the prospect of what he’s going to do to the iconic par 5s there. His on-course prep is now done and the next time we’ll see the American is when he turns off Washington Road and down Magnolia Lane.
“I feel like the advantages that I usually have could be much improved upon with the equipment, and we don’t have it yet, but we’re diligently working on it behind the scenes. I’ll have that in a couple weeks, we’ll prototype and test it and see if it works. If it doesn’t, we’ll go back and tool it and hopefully have it ready for Augusta.”
Right now he’s looking to up his body from 235 pounds to 245 and then it will just be a lot of hitting and, in particular, the chief.
“I don’t know how many drivers I’ll hit, but I’ll hit as many as I need to. And from a speed-training perspective, I could probably go upwards of over 1,000 to probably 2,000, around 2,000 drives the next few weeks trying to get my speed up.”
He reckons with his new distance gains it will make a difference on no fewer than 13 holes.
The other major champion from 2020 has bizarrely never played in a Masters before and Collin Morikawa won’t be doing anything differently to any other week.
“I don't want to put any of these things in my head where I'm going to have to show up and, man, this is going to be so much harder to prep for than another event. I think I've done a really good job every course I've gone to for the first time in figuring it out and I feel like I'm very prepared. I never feel on a Thursday like, oh, man, I wish I had one more practice round. I don't think that's going to be the case at Augusta.
“Yes, I'm going to want to be out there a little more just to figure out some greens, figure out the slopes, but I'm not going to just go out there at 8am and leave at 6pm just because it's Augusta National. I'm going to spend my time wisely and really get my rest because at the end of the day you want to feel as prepped and pressure fresh by Thursday.”
The last time a rookie won the Masters was Fuzzy Zoeller in 1979, stranger things have happened.
The last word goes to Rory McIlroy when, any other year, he would usually be the talk of the town. He went into lockdown a top-5 machine and the World No. 1, now the crown’s slipped a little but maybe, finally, something will give a little with his relationship with Augusta National and he’ll complete his career Grand Slam.
“It will be a different feel. Two of the majors will have already been played. People will be in their routine and in the flow a little bit more. I always feel there’s this bit of anticipation going into Augusta, the first big event of the year. There’s all this hype. I don’t think it will feel like that this year, it will feel different but it’s something I’m looking forward to.
“It’s going to be a different Masters this year but personally, maybe selfishly, that’s what I need to get the jacket.”
If you’re looking for a nice omen for McIlroy he’s never won a tournament in April but he has won three times in November.