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AUGUSTA, Ga. – Despite a dire forecast, Augusta National was bustling with activity Wednesday. Both the course and tournament practice area were packed once it became apparent that the heavy precipitation wouldn’t arrive for a few more hours. So players worked, first in suffocating humidity and then through passing showers. And afterward, their sense of excitement was palpable, even if hidden behind masks.
Just by virtue of the golf calendar it’s always an excruciating run-up to the Masters, with eight months of relentless hype and anticipation. So, try this pandemic-delayed edition on for size: It’s been 579 days since Tiger Woods won the 2019 Masters, authoring one of the most improbable sports stories in history.
Yet this week’s preparations have seemed to fly by, perhaps because there’s so much to discover. How differently the course will play in November as opposed to April. How players will perform without patrons. And, yes, how golf’s biggest bopper, newly minted U.S. Open champion Bryson DeChambeau, will tackle an Augusta National layout that he’s been trying to bend to his will.
Here are some observations, nuggets and thoughts from three days on the ground here at Augusta National:
• There are no ropes this week, only spray-painted lines – dark green, of course – that indicate where we’re allowed to walk. There aren’t many of us out here, mind you. Roughly 120 media members, from outlets spanning the globe. Swing coaches and trainers. Players could bring a plus-one, so there are family members and significant others on-site. It is, selfishly, the best viewing experience imaginable: Completely unobstructed views of a golf cathedral.
• The biggest change, at least visually, is the lack of grandstands. It’s most apparent behind the tee of the par-3 12th, where now just a couple dozen people stand on the gentle hillside, only a few paces from the tee. It’s also weird to watch the action by the 15th green. No grandstand left, where we’d always crowd the top row of the bleachers to see the approaches into 15 and then the tee shots on 16. And no grandstand right, where some players, blocked by trees, would bail out to avoid the creek and receive a free drop. Now, an unplayable lie awaits any shot that comes in too hot. Speaking of which …
• There’s no fire to this course, not yet anyway. Part of that is simple agronomics. It’s been so warm in Georgia this fall that there hasn’t been the typical grow-in period from the Bermuda to the ryegrass. So what we’re left with is a blend of the two grasses. That creates some uncertainty, not just with the lies around the green but also some question about how the ball will react when it skips through the collar and onto the putting surface.
It’s also left the fairways much slower and softer, even before the early-week showers. Walking the second nine on Wednesday morning – 24 hours before the start of the tournament – a few swing coaches mentioned how soft and receptive the greens were, how little rollout there was in the fairways, and how players were already starting to see mud balls. The latter point was important, they said: With so many draw-bias holes, golf balls were going to pick up mud on the right half. That’s problematic, with water down the left side of so many holes. The SubAir system was humming all day Wednesday in an attempt to get the course tournament ready, but also in anticipation of some incoming weather. That’s because …
• The forecast for the opening round is positively dreadful, especially in the morning. There’s an 80% chance of showers and thunderstorms from 7 a.m. (when the tee times begin) until 1 p.m. At that point the chance of precipitation drops to about 50%. The club can do amazing things to transform the course overnight, but it has little defense if there’s an inch-plus of rain, as expected. It’ll play soft. And long. At least the weather forecast for the weekend is vastly improved, with temperatures in the low 70s and a minimal chance of rain. Most interesting, perhaps, is that each of the tournament rounds is expected to feature a different wind direction.
• Hey, it’s a testament to our discipline that we waited this long to discuss the biggest pre-tournament storyline, Bryson DeChambeau. He’s everywhere. On TV. On websites such as this one. On billboards here in Augusta. He’s the talk of the Tour, for good reason, and the Masters is the tournament for which he’s overhauled his game and rebuilt his body.
Let’s be clear: It wouldn’t surprise at all if he won this week. He has an enormous advantage off the tee. But all of the early-week experimentation with the 48-inch driver seems like an unnecessary risk. He’s missed only one fairway during practice rounds and was still plenty long with the 45-inch model, especially if his new 5-degree head can reduce his spin rate. (A member of his team pegged the likelihood of putting the 48-incher in play this week at “10 percent.”)
Tinkering and exploring is very much a part of Bryson’s competitive DNA, but this week, under the biggest spotlight of his career, it’s also seemed to detract from what his real focus should be, which is wedging and putting (especially without a trusty greens book). Yes, he was the straightest of the long drivers at the U.S. Open, but he also knocked several wedge shots close and putted well. The completeness of his world-class game was on full display at Winged Foot, not just his mind-bending speed. Because of his added length, DeChambeau said he’s viewing Augusta as a par 67 … which is fascinating, because he’s only broken 70 once, in the opening round of last year’s tournament (eventually tied for 29th).
• It’s been interesting to watch the evolution of how DeChambeau’s peers have begun to talk about him. At first there was skepticism about his process. Then there was genuine respect and admiration for the way DeChambeau set an ambitious goal and achieved it. And now there’s … something approaching annoyance? How they’re asked, over and over, about him and his game and his approach and if he’s really going to upend the sport. They’re quick to remind that DeChambeau isn’t winning every tournament he enters. That he isn’t No. 1 in the world. That there’s more to championship golf than 325-yard carries. Many of the game’s elite players seem ready for the spotlight to return to them. Which reminds us …
• Has Tiger Woods ever been more overlooked than this week? No doubt that’s partly because of our obsession with DeChambeau. And the fact that the top 10 players in the world – all without a green jacket – enter with sublime form. But it also speaks to how poorly Woods has played in the six events since the restart: no finish inside the top 35, a missed cut at the U.S. Open and a 72nd-place showing in his most recent start. Woods will always be a danger man at Augusta, but he has some serious hurdles to overcome: His iron play has been surprising poor the back-half of this year, and he’s never putted worse. Not lookin’ good for major No. 16.
• Sloppy conditions might bring more players into the fold, but it still favors the bombers. DeChambeau, Rory McIlroy, Dustin Johnson, Jon Rahm, Tony Finau, Brooks Koepka and Matthew Wolff all rank inside the top 20 on Tour in carry distance. Hmmm.
• And before we go, some parting shots: A November Masters, without patrons and Grand Slam hype, might be exactly what McIlroy needs to play with the freedom he’s been missing at Augusta. … Koepka has dismissed questions about his health, but as he described earlier this year, the nature of his left-knee injury (a partially torn patellar tendon) is such that walking downhill “is a pain,” because that’s when the tendon stretches. Augusta has significant downhill slopes, of course, on several holes (Nos. 2, 6, 9, 10 and 15 being the most severe). As the week progresses, it’ll be worth watching whether he can still get onto his left side at impact. That issue has plagued him for much of 2020. … If Tyrrell Hatton putts at Augusta like he does pretty much everywhere else, look out. … By midday Wednesday, we’re alarmingly close to hitting the over on 9 ½ egg salad sandwiches consumed.