If you tune in to the Masters just to see the blooming azaleas, you'll be disappointed this year.
Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the 84th running of the Masters Tournament has been pushed from April to November, bringing in some new scenery for viewers. Word on the ground from Augusta National, "For decorative displays around buildings, the Club nursery team, instead of forcing azaleas to bloom, decided to utilize nandina, pampas, camellia and other plants that enhance the grounds in the fall."
On the bright side, the tournament officials have set the expectation that the height of the fairway and green speeds will be the same or close to the same as usual.
Speaking of usual, this event remains the smallest field of all major championships. At press time, the field sits at 93 golfers following a Monday morning WD from past champ, Sergio Garcia. They do not replace pre-tournament WDs so any more early exits would just shrink the field size even more.
Wondering how many will play the weekend? The cutline rule will allow the Top 50 and Ties to make it through the cutline. They have scraped the "Within 10 Shots of the Lead" rule this year.
After a fall schedule that has featured plenty of new courses, it's nice to return to a course that so many golf fans know inside and out.
Augusta National Golf Club is a par 72 that continues to stretch itself to keep up with the trends of distance gains on the pro level. The first edition of the Masters was played in 1934 with a course that played at 6,700 yards but last year it tipped at 7,475 yards.
Distance will be a major theme this week because power can be a big advantage around this course that allows for creative recovery shots even if you are spraying it off the tee. The distance conversation has intensified this year due to big-hitting Bryson and his newly-found ability to hit into areas previously unchartered.
While hitting bombs can give you a leg-up on the competition, many still describe this as a second-shot course. The greens are slightly below average in size but they play much smaller than that due to the severe slopes on and around the green complexes that repel incorrect approach shots. If you miss your mark by much then you will often get penalized with a brutal up-and-down opportunity or a putt that you'd be lucky just to two-putt.
The beauty of Augusta National, though, is the routing. If you bucket the course's hole-by-hole difficulty into three sections, then you'll pick up some trends on the tough six holes.
First of all, you are not greeted with a handshake. Hole number one surrenders birdies to less than 10% of the field. The 18th is also one of the six toughest on the course so you are slapped in the face right out of the gate and then again on the way into the clubhouse. A nice bookend of difficulty.
The other four "toughest" holes come in pairs. Holes 4 and 5 (Flowering Crab Apple, Magnolia) then again later at 10 and 11 (Camellia, White Dogwood). You can really raise your rage meter quickly if you drop shots on back-to-back holes and it's almost a 10% chance to do just that.
On the flip side, the par-5 13th and 15th provide a wonderful stretch to start a back-nine streak. In fact, all four of the par 5s are more than manageable for everyone in the field. They all surrender birdies or better to more than 30 percent of the field. Eagles are not so rare at ANGC. The field averages around 0.41 eagles per 72 holes played which is nearly 10 percentage points higher than the TOUR average.
Zooming back out, we talked about power being an advantage but iron play being just as important. However, the around-the-green and putting challenge is just as tough. It's a true test of all-around golf. This is where course management comes into play because sometimes it is better to miss the green entirely rather than landing a GIR but finding yourself in the wrong section of the green. You can know where those misses are from past experiences at the course or an accurate scouting report. Even if you do miss in the right spots, you need a sharp short game to avoid the bogey trains.
For grass, golfers will see bermudagrass fairways that were overseeded last month so the ryegrass is still trying to establish its dominance. The bermuda is still the primary strand on the fairways which is not the case come April when ryegrass is thriving. On the greens, they'll see bentgrass surfaces that run pure and lightning fast. The stimp is usually geared up to 13 feet or faster. It can embarrass you quickly if your lag putting is slouching. It does make it relatively easy to roll in the mid-range putts because the greens run so pure.
Sifting through some past quotes, let's try to break down the course to see how it will play.
Francesco Molinari: "it’s a second-shot golf course. Tee shots are important, but not key, probably. Obviously you can play from the rough. I think off the tee, it’s important to miss on the good side. Every hole there’s a side where most of the time you have a shot to the green, even if you are out of position"
Justin Thomas: "I work on my lag putting a decent bit because there’s going to be times maybe you can’t get close to a pin or you get out of position, you have to hit it to the fat of the green and you have 40, 50, 60-footers where you need to lag it up there and try to 2-putt."
Bubba Watson: "The lies in the fairway, you got all kind of different angles and slopes and things, so the lies above your feet, below your feet, uphill, downhill, rumor is they cut the grass towards us, so it’s into the grain when you hit, so the quality of iron shots, you got to be pinpoint or you’re going to look pretty bad on the iron shots because it’s hard to get a crisp hit on it."
Patrick Reed: "It truly is a course knowledge golf course. You need to know where to put the ball on certain pins and if you miss you need to miss it in certain spots because there’s some areas around here that it’s literally impossible, unless you make a 15, 18-footer."
Phil Mickelson: "Unequivocally it’s much easier for a first-timer to win here because the greens have been so much more receptive the last seven, eight, ten years since the course has been lengthened and the greens aren’t the only defense. What that allows you to do is miss it in a spot that normally would be bad but get away with it because the greens are more receptive. I think that that allows players who have not played heres many times, who maybe put it in the wrong spots, but are able to recover because the greens will receive shots that they didn’t use to receive."
Looking at grass types, geography, course attributes, and past performance, here are a few courses/events that I think could prove to be a good pointer this week:
Muirfield Village (Memorial)
Riviera CC (Genesis)
TPC Sawgrass (PLAYERS)
Sheshan International (WGC-HSBC)
TPC Boston (FEC Playoffs)
A major theme of these courses is the rate of bogeys recorded by the field. Most of these courses force you to take your medicine, stay patient, and then take advantage of the scoring holes when they fall your way.
Thursday: Rainy with a chance of T-storms. High of 76 degrees. Calm Winds.
Friday: Partly sunny with a chance of rain. High of 78 degrees with calm winds.
When this event was first put on the calendar for November, many guessed we'd be in for a colder edition of the event. However, the temps look pretty normal this week compared to April in Augusta. Instead, it's the precipitation that is throwing a wrench into things. There is rain in the forecast from Tuesday through Sunday so the course should be well-watered but hopefully they are able to sneak in some dry windows to actually play some golf.
The SubAir systems are going to be working overtime this week and hopefully allow this field to play the event without too many delays. We'll need some help from Mother Nature. It's still a few days away so hopefully we see some shift in the forecast before Thursday.
Golfers to Watch
World No. 1 showed no signs of rust last week in Houston, finishing co-runner-up despite arriving off a six-week forced break due to a positive COVID-19 test result. He arrives with seven straight finishes of T12 or better. It wasn't love at first sight for DJ at Augusta National (T30-T38-T38) but he's finished T13 or better in each of his last five trips, including a runner-up finish last year.
BK has talked a big game about his health since returning at THE CJ CUP and the scoring results finally snapped into place last week. Is it true that he lost strokes on approach last week in Houston? Yes. Did he lean heavily on the putter? Yes, he gained 6.4 strokes putting. Did he also finish T2 in birdies recorded (20)? Yes. Koepka is a big-game hunter and just filled his confidence tank last week just in time for the year's final big event.
He has collected all of the pre-tournament hype in his corner which many in the field will be happy to hear. DeChambeau has talked about adding a 48-inch driver for this event. We'll need to wait for his pre-tourney presser for final confirmation on how that process is going. Even without the added shaft length, B.A.D. is putting course architects on notice this year with his ability to hit into areas that were previously off-limits. How has he played here in the past without the added boost of distance? He was T8 through 36 holes of his 2016 debut while playing as an amateur. He also co-led after day one last year. However, all three of his starts have resulted in finishes outside of the top 20. Bookmakers have lined him up as a 9/1 co-favorite to start the week.
When I think of golfers that could benefit most from the Bryson storyline, McIlroy is one of the first that pop to my mind. He's been hounded about the Career Grand Slam narrative every time he shows up at Augusta National but this time around he'll probably be asked about DeChambeau. Sure, there will likely be a question or two asked about his Grand Slam chances but I think it's less of a focal point now and that could free him up to finally deliver the goods. He was sloppy when play returned from the COVID break but he's lapped the field by 5 or more shots in three of his last 12 rounds played so those big finishes may be just around the corner.
He's the defending champ and always a fan favorite. He has five green jackets on his resume and nine other top 10s, in 22 tries at the Masters. More recently, he's struggling to score. He has lost strokes to the field in 11 of his last 13 rounds played. The worst stretch of golf for him since late 2014 / early 2015. On a positive note, that slump took a brief hiatus when he pieced together three positive rounds at the 2015 Masters to record a T17 finish. I think that kind of result would be on the positive end of his range of outcomes this week.
The Texan can still piece together a birdie streak with the best of them but struggles to find any real consistency from a round-to-round basis and really struggles to avoid the big numbers. Can Augusta National be the cure? Spieth has bettered the field scoring average in 20-of-24 rounds played here and lapped the field by four or more shots in nine of those rounds. He is the ultimate course horse but it would still be somewhat surprising if he played his way into contention this week. His last podium finish came at the 2019 PGA Championship (T3), 31 starts ago.
Another unique part of the 2020 Masters will be the lack of patrons. Would that help a golfer like Watson who has been vocal about his struggle with anxiety issues? Potentially. More importantly, his game arrives in tip-top shape, gaining 4.8 or more strokes gained tee-to-green in five straight events. Lastly, it's an even year so we know Watson should crush it at the Masters right? His last four finishes in even-numbered years? T5-T37-WIN-WIN. I'm only joking about that being a trend with any merit behind it is appealing to see two wins on his course resume.
Ranking the Field
1. Dustin Johnson
2. Jon Rahm
3. Xander Schauffele
4. Justin Thomas
5. Rory McIlroy
6. Bryson DeChambeau
7. Webb Simpson
8. Adam Scott
9. Patrick Cantlay
10. Patrick Reed
11. Hideki Matsuyama
12. Matthew Fitzpatrick
13. Tony Finau
14. Tyrrell Hatton
15. Louis Oosthuizen
16. Bubba Watson
17. Collin Morikawa
18. Jason Day
19. Abraham Ancer
20. Brooks Koepka