Philip Reid: Wide open Masters as many eye Major prize at Augusta
Move back to traditional springtime slot ensures the famous course will play firm and fast
Bryson DeChambeau hits out of the sand on the 12th green during a practice round at the Masters at the Augusta National Golf Club in Georgia, USA. Photograph: Erik Lesser/EPA
Perhaps, with this 85th edition of the Masters at Augusta National Golf Club even allowing for the limited return of patrons, having been played behind-closed doors last November; while the move back to a springtime setting has ensured that the azaleas et al are blooming and, perhaps most pertinently of all, that the course will likely play firm and fast.
In effect, the challenge for those 88 players in the field will be more akin to the traditional examination, one unlike any other of the four Majors, where Dustin Johnson, the world number one, will seek to become just the fourth player to defend the title.
One thing is for sure, if DJ succeeds – or whoever usurps him – he is not likely to match the record low 72-holes total of 20-under-par which the softened course coughed up just five months ago.
As Xander Schaufelle described it, “I think every guy who plays professional golf is a little bit of a masochist. So, I’m here for the torture.”
A bit extreme, perhaps. But, then who knows?
“It’s certainly going to be a different test,” acknowledged Rory McIlroy.
“It’s very dry, very sunny, and the greens are starting to get pretty firm. This week’s going to be a huge premium on accuracy, on landing your golf ball on your numbers and being precise with your iron play. And the ball is not hitting and stopping [on approach shots], so you’re inevitably going to miss a few greens. Scrambling is going to be a key, too.”
All of which sounds like every facet of a player’s game will be tested to unearth a champion from a field which features the top-58 off the official world rankings, headed by Johnson.
Many of those contenders are in fine form, with their CVs enhanced by wins in recent weeks: Jordan Spieth, who ended a near-four year winning drought only last week in Texas; Collin Morikawa at the WGC-Workday; Justin Thomas who returned to form with his recent win in The Players; Bryson DeChambeau at Bay Hill; Patrick Reed at Torrey Pines. Johnson, for his part, won earlier this season in Saudi Arabia.
Winning is a habit and it is one that has escaped McIlroy since lifting the HSBC Champions in 2019, although the addition of Pete Cowen to his team – providing an on-site presence to go hand-in-hand with longtime coach Michael Bannon, or as McIlroy put it, “an extra set of eyes” – may provide the Midas touch in that quest to complete the career Grand Slam.
Tantalisingly, one piece has been missing from the jigsaw for each of the 31-year-old Northern Irishman’s last six visits to the Masters. Will it be a case of seventh time lucky?
A lot of times practising 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
Further intrigue hands too over Brooks Koepka’s return so soon after undergoing knee surgery. Koepka, who hasn’t played since finishing runner-up to Morikawa at the Workday in February, has focused on his rehab and the undulating terrain will ask questions of his body.
“I like how I’m swinging it, everything should be fine,” insisted Koepka, who has adopted a new yoga-like stance in reading putts to protect his knee.
Or what about the so-called “baby effect” as it is known on tour, of new fathers going out and winning?
Jon Rahm, the world number three, and with three top-10s in four appearances in the tournament, has that on his side.
“A lot of times practising 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. I’m here later than usual but I’m here ready to compete. I wouldn’t be here otherwise,” said the Spaniard.
DeChambeau’s bid to add the Masters to his US Open title win of last year has involved him putting a new driver – one with 5.5 degrees of loft! – into his bag. Cobra’s RadSpeed driver has only recently passed the USGA and R&A’s conforming list and, for a player who already heads the PGA Tour’s driving distance stats (averaging 320.8 yards), the club is another tool in his armoury as the scientific-minded American plots his own course.
“I know that hitting it as far as I am, having wedges into greens with firm greens, I’m going to be able to stop it on the greens a lot easier,” said DeChambeau of his perceived advantage. As it is, he probably deserves to carry the tag of favouritism with him into the tournament.
Others, too, have taken to new drivers. Johnson has the new TaylorMade SIM2 Max in his bag.
“It’s going a lot better and I feel like I’m driving it well,” claimed Johnson.
Shane Lowry, for his part, has taken to his new Srixon driver this season.
“I am very, very happy with it,” said Lowry of his hope that improved driving will finally enable him to challenge at a tournament where historically he has struggled (with three cuts in five previous appearances).
One fly in the ointment for players over the coming days is the prospect of thunderstorms – a 52 per cent chance on Friday, and up to a 75 per cent chance on Saturday – which could well add a stop-start playing routine to add to the overall examination.
All in all, it looks set to be a wide open Masters with many eyes on the prize.
Philip Reid's four to follow
World ranking: 5
Stands out from the crowd in many ways, DeChambeau proved he could put theory into practice with his runaway win in the US Open last year. While his driving is the standout part of his game, it was his putting in that breakthrough Major which carried him to victory . . . if he is to fit into a green jacket in the Butler Cabin, that putter will again be key. His recent victory in the API at Bay Hill shows his game is in good shape.
World ranking: 44
Bit of a mystery as to why he has yet to fire at Augusta National in past outings (three missed cuts in five appearances) but has all the attributes. A new Srixon driver is working well and there are few better in the game with wedge in hand, so it will come down to the putter which seems to be behaving more often than not these days. Firmer, faster course should suit. Certainly won’t be fazed if the opportunity arises come Sunday.
World ranking: 37
Yet to contend in the Majors but Homa is one of the most improved players on tour during the pandemic, moving from 122nd in the world rankings at the start of 2020 up to a current 37th. The highlight of that upward charge was his emotional win in the Genesis Invitational at Riviera in late February. Has three top-10s in his last three outings on tour. Carries two coins with him for good luck, which can’t be a bad thing!
World ranking: 155
A bit of an outlier, but the 29-year-old from Taiwan has a tendency to come in from out of the blue form-wise. He tied for seventh in the Masters last November and had missed the previous two cuts before turning things around with a third place in the Honda Classic, his last outing. With most bookmakers paying each-way 10 places, he is worth a long shot look.
(US unless stated, all times Irish)
1.0pm: Michael Thompson, Hudson Swafford
1.12: Sandy Lyle (Sco), Matt Jones (Aus), Dylan Frittelli (RSA)
1.24: Ian Woosnam (Wal), Jim Herman, Stewart Cink
1.36: Sebastian Munoz (Col), Henrik Stenson (Swe), Robert Streb
1.48: Bernhard Langer (Ger), Will Zalatoris, Joe Long (Eng, am)
2.0: Brian Harman, Ian Poulter (Eng), Brendon Todd
2.12: Charl Schwartzel (RSA), Si Woo Kim (Kor), Corey Conners (Can)
2.24: Danny Willett (Eng), Joaquin Niemann (Chl), Kevin Kisner
2.36: Jason Day (Aus), Matthew Wolff, Cameron Champ
2.48: Hideki Matsuyama (Jpn), Harris English, Abraham Ancer (Mex)
3.06: Bubba Watson, Brooks Koepka, Viktor Hovland (Nor)
3.18: Sergio Garcia (Esp), Webb Simpson, Christiaan Bezuidenhout (RSA)
3.30: Dustin Johnson, Lee Westwood (Eng), Tyler Strafaci (am)
3.42: Xander Schauffele, Jon Rahm (Esp), Rory McIlroy (N Irl)
3.54: Patrick Reed, Daniel Berger, Paul Casey (Eng)
4.06: Vijay Singh (Fij), Martin Laird (Sco)
4.18: Larry Mize, Jimmy Walker, Brian Gay
4.30: Carlos Ortiz (Mex), Mackenzie Hughes (Can), Bernd Wiesberger (Aut)
4.42: Mike Weir (Can), CT Pan (Twn), Robert MacIntyre (Sco)
4.54: Jose Maria Olazabal (Esp), Matt Wallace (Eng), Lanto Griffin
5.12: Victor Perez (Fra), Jason Kokrak, Marc Leishman (Aus)
5.24: Fred Couples, Francesco Molinari (Ita), Charles Osborne (am)
5.36: Zach Johnson, Kevin Na, Gary Woodland
5.48: Shane Lowry (Irl), Justin Rose (England), Matt Kuchar
6.0: Billy Horschel, Tyrrell Hatton (Eng), Ryan Palmer
6.12: Phil Mickelson, Tommy Fleetwood (Eng), Scottie Scheffler
6.24: Patrick Cantlay, Sungjae Im (Kor), Matthew Fitzpatrick (Eng)
6.36: Adam Scott (Aus), Bryson DeChambeau, Max Homa
6.48: Tony Finau, Louis Oosthuizen (RSA), Justin Thomas
7.0: Jordan Spieth, Cameron Smith (Aus), Collin Morikawa