Among the wackiest sports nuggets of 2020 will be the Masters, an April tradition being played in November. Add to the mix that Tiger Woods is the defending champion, and it’s downright surreal that it’s been 19 months since we last saw Magnolia Lane (not to mention Woods’ sushi/fajita Masters Club dinner combo selection, his honor for winning last year):
The Masters is arguably the major championship of all major championships. Few sporting events are more about tradition and symbolism than the Masters (originally known as The Augusta National Invitational). The Masters gives us Rae’s Creek, Amen Corner, the “Masters Theme” piano music and, of course, the green jacket.
Among the greatest symbolic traditions of the Masters is the role of Honorary Starter, given this year to Gary Player and Jack Nicklaus. In 2021 Lee Elder, who in 1975 became the first African American to play in the Masters, will join Player and Nicklaus in this prestigious role. It’s fair to critique the club for waiting too long to honor Elder, but you have to applaud Chairman Fred Ridley who has been an agent of change since becoming Chairman in 2017. In the Age of Ridley, the club has created the wildly popular Augusta National Women’s Amateur, recognized the long overdue Elder, and developed an incredible interface for fans through what might be the best app in all of sport.
This November vintage of the Masters has tasked the club with overseeding the entire golf course, save the greens. While normal November weather would typically provide a faster, firmer golf course, the ryegrass overseed should prove no problem for the field, whatsoever. The forecast, however, says it looks like rain, the residue of nearby tropical storms.
Given the touchy nature of the forecast and the limited daylight it could prove pivotal to be on the right side of the morning or afternoon wave.
The Thursday morning/Friday afternoon wave is loaded. Bryson DeChambeau, the polarizing 2020 U.S. Open champion whose newfound distance promises to melt Augusta’s already accessible par fives, plays alongside world No. 2 Jon Rahm, of recent pond skipping hole-in-one fame. Reigning Masters champ Tiger Woods tees off two groups behind the power duo at 7:55 a.m. EST. Xander Schauffele, Jordan Spieth, Colin Morikawa, Patrick Reed and Webb Simpson also drew early tee times Thursday.
The opposite side of the draw is even more stacked. Dustin Johnson, Justin Thomas, Brooks Koepka and Rory McIlroy all tee off at the first hole right around noon. Tommy Fleetwood, Two-time green jacket winner Bubba Watson and Matthew Wolff all play together at 11:27am.
The top 50 players (and ties) will play into the weekend. No longer does anyone within 10 shots play on the weekend. If there’s enough rain we could easily see delays that force the tournament to wrap up on Monday.
There will be no patrons (what every other sport simply calls “fans”) this year due to COVID-19. The lack of fans at Augusta is less than optimal for the players who feed off the famous roars from the galleries, but it could be an absolute blessing for viewers at home. For the first time, the at-home audience will see a clean version of course architect Alister MacKenzie’s classic design. Viewers will appreciate the simple and elegant routing from green to tee box free from the clutter of spectators, but still filled with the ghosts and history of Masters gone by. Some, like the walk Jordan Spieth will take from 12 green to 13 tee, where in 2016 he lost a one-shot lead with a quadruple-bogey 7, will be especially and uncomfortably quiet.
There won’t be any azaleas, that are so much a part of this course in November. The most famous stretch of holes is undoubtedly Amen Corner, the par four 11th, par three 12th and par five 13th, keep a close eye on the action a little deeper into the par 5 15th and the generous par three 16th, as well. In short, don’t get up to make a sandwich on the back nine. Frankly, the par 5s are barely par 5s. Expect more than a few eagles.
Tiger Woods, Bryson DeChambeau, Dustin Johnson, Justin Thomas and the Shakespearean Spieth will draw most of the attention this year. And given all of the novelty surrounding this year’s Masters, past experience should prove to be a premium. Sergio Garcia, 2017 Masters champion, is out with a positive COVID-19 test, but the field is packed with green jacket winners like the aforementioned Spieth, Bubba Watson, Woods, Reed, Adam Scott and 2016 winner Danny Wilett who has been rejuvenated of late.
Rookies don’t do well at Augusta. Only three first-timers have ever won the tournament, the last being Fuzzy Zoeller in 1979. Matthew Wolff is my pick to be the fourth.
Wolff was right at the doorstep of victory at the 2020 U.S. Open at Winged Foot last September before a final round 75 crushed the 21-year-old runner-up’s hopes. At the PGA at Harding Park held in August, Wolff shot four rounds in the 60s — a rare feat in major championships — and finished tied for 4th behind a historical effort from Colin Morikawa. You’ve got to lose one before you can win one, they say. If that’s the case Matt Wolff is ready.
A soggy Augusta will ask for a champion who drives it far and high, and Bryson is the poster child for that combination; it also fits Wolff to a tee. For all of the hype surrounding DeChambeau’s drives at Winged Foot, Wolff’s drives were actually longer. Augusta’s primary defense is its greens and while putting may not be Wolff’s forté, he hits it close and seems to have the rare ability to summon a putt when he needs it.
While you won’t see the azaleas in bloom or patrons watching the action, you will see dramatic golf and a golf course. Augusta can’t help but give us anything else. Buckle up and stay ready. Remember, we get to do this all over again come April.
Correction: An early version of this story had Lee Elder taking part as an Honorary Starter this year, as opposed to next year’s.