AUGUSTA, Ga. – Tiger Woods isn’t big on sharing.
To be precise, the 15-time major champion isn’t a fan of passing two decades' worth of Grand Slam knowledge on to the next generation. He is, after all, still winning majors and it was no surprise that during a practice round with Justin Thomas this week at Augusta National Woods proved less than helpful
“Tiger is less willing to give me information than Freddie [Couples],” Thomas said. “But I just watch where they chip from and I pretty much follow them around.”
At Augusta National, institutional knowledge is king. You don’t go left off the tee at No. 2 or long with your approach at the seventh. On Sunday, anything left of the first green is D-E-A-D and the middle of the green at the 12th is always, always, a good option.
These unwritten truths would at least partially explain Thomas’ play this week. In his fifth Masters start, he’s improved each year (T-39 in 2016, T-22 in ’17, T-17 in ’18, T-12 in ’19) and despite Thursday’s storm that forced JT to finish his first round early Friday and essentially head right back out for Round 2, he’s tied for the lead at 9 under par following rounds of 66-69.
At 27, Thomas is a Masters veteran armed with the kind of nuanced information that can turn solid play into a trip to Butler Cabin. Despite Woods’ understandable reluctance to pay it forward, Thomas can use everything he's learned himself from his rounds around Augusta National to win this week. Right? Wrong.
“You have to really throw all past knowledge out the window this week, as weird as it is,” Thomas said.
It turns out the 2020 Masters is even stranger than we thought.
By way of explanation, Thomas pointed to his second shot at the par-5 15th hole, after stumbling to a two-bogey start to his second round. From a hanging lie, with 231 yards to the hole (216 yards to the front edge), JT choked down on a 5-wood.
If that sounds like a Tour-quality shot, know that during normal times, when the Masters is played in April and patrons line every fairway, roping a 5-wood off a hanging lie to the 15th green is one of those unwritten no-no’s.
“I judged it perfectly to where it came out spinny to get up in the wind, because that's a 250-yard club and you don't want to go over it, and was able to fly it 226,” explained Thomas, who birdied four consecutive holes, starting at No. 15. “That was a really, really good shot and got me a little momentum.”
Another example came early Friday while putting the finishing touches on his first round, when Thomas had an awkward chip from left of the 15th green.
“To that front pin that usually would be just brutal and really, really hard to hit close, and I had to trust that I just kind of had to gas it and hit it pretty hard and it was going to spin,” he said.
Part of what makes this year’s Masters the antithesis of other editions is Thursday’s storm that dumped nearly an inch of rain and forced the field into a desperate game of daylight savings catchup. But the biggest difference is on the greens, which are markedly softer and slower.
The normal axiom at Augusta National is to keep the ball below the hole at all costs, but that’s not the case this week.
“The big swinging [putts] - I'll just pick one, on 14 - if you're left of the hole, down to the right pin, it's like the 90-degree turn, and you putt it out there, and it just goes 90 [degrees left],” Adam Scott said. “They're just not moving [like that].”
It’s just different.
This isn’t a criticism, just an agronomic truth at a golf course that was built for the spring and forced to the fall by a pandemic.
“A lot of the history and things that you know about the golf course, it can sometimes hurt you this week because of what you're used to,” Thomas said.
This isn’t Bernhard Langer’s Masters. With apologies to the two-time Masters champion, who will easily make the cut at age 63, all of those bounces and twisting turns that make this course such an architectural study in April have been largely voided by soft conditions and a short growing season.
Perhaps the useless tidbits will be useful this weekend when the forecast turns glorious and the turf has a few days to drip dry, but that doesn’t seem likely. Like everything else at this Masters, throw out everything you know about Augusta National because this is not that course.