First published in 168
For an event that places a high value on tradition and history, to the point of ridiculousness, the Masters golf tournament is incongruently remarkably flexible and innovative.
Next week sees the 84th staging of the Masters – the only one of golf’s four men’s majors that is played at the same course every year. And in 2020 Augusta National’s crusty custodians have had to be more accommodating than ever.
Traditionally the Masters is played in April – spring in Georgia. The azaleas are in full bloom, the grass is emerald green and Augusta pines have been pruned and plucked to within an inch of their lives to make for a beautiful TV spectacle.
Even the scheduling is done to suit the weather. Sunday’s final round, where roars of the patrons (spectators at Augusta are not referred to as fans) echo and tumble through the trees, is timed to finish in the slanting golden light of Georgia in spring.
This year there will be no fa … er, patrons … allowed due to Coronavirus and the days will be shorter because it’s nearly winter. As a result, golf’s traditional first major of the season will have a completely different look and feel.
No doubt the Augusta committee has ensured that the course will look pristine (they have been known to use paint to cover over worn patches of land that might be caught on TV) but even they have their limits. Augusta’s committee cannot control the seasons and weather, although it wouldn’t be much of a surprise if we learnt that there was a secret lab under Magnolia Lane working on perfecting Augusta’s climate.
Because of the unique challenges facing the tournament in autumn, there is no traditional Wednesday par-three contest. That’s because it was designed with thousands of fans in the gallery in mind. Without the crowd the par-three contest will look like a prettier version of your local mashie course.
There will be a two-tee start for the 96 competitors. That has only ever happened when unseasonal weather has delayed rounds in the past. This year it is part of the scheduling.
At most courses, starting on the first or the 10th hole shouldn’t make much of a difference. But at Augusta the brutal 10th, 11th, and 12th holes are known as “Amen Corner”. They are so testing that golfers have been known to say “amen” as they walk to the 13th tee if they had played those three holes without calamity.
By contrast the first, and particularly the par-five second hole, are realistic birdie chances. The second is also a good eagle chance. It’s where South Africa’s Louis Oosthuizen famously holed a long iron for albatross in 2012.
Players starting on the first could easily be two-under through three holes. Those starting on the 10th could conceivably be two-over by the time they reach the 13th.
As a game of momentum, coming back from a poor start is more difficult than having a few shots in the bank before the course bares its teeth.
The changes won’t just be limited to aesthetics and light, though. The course itself will play differently and word is that Augusta is likely to play shorter and faster. That brings a lot more players into contention to win the coveted green jacket.
Since Tiger Woods battered the course into submission in 1997 when he was driving the ball 25-30 metres further than the rest of the field, the course has consistently been lengthened. Almost every year for the past two decades it has grown by a few metres. Length might not be as crucial in 2020.
Which brings us to the contenders for the title. Woods, at 44, is the defending champion, having won his fifth green jacket and 15th major in 2019. It ended an 11-year major-less streak for perhaps the greatest golfer of all time. But Tiger has played sporadically since the post-Covid restart four months ago and is unlikely to have the form to sustain a consistent challenge.
History tells us that few golfers win the Masters at their first attempt, because the theory is that they have to learn to know the course. History also tells us that few golfers win it after their 10th attempt.
In fact, of the tournament’s previous 51 winners, there have only been three winners at the first attempt – the last being Fuzzy Zoeller in 1979. The average for a first-time winner is at their sixth attempt.
However, wait too long and chances diminish. Ernie Els, who never won the Masters, came second in his seventh attempt and second again in his 11th try in 2004.
In 12 subsequent appearances he had a best finish of a tie for 13th.
Only eight players have won the Masters for the first time after their 10th appearance. For players such as current world number one Dustin Johnson and number five Rory McIlroy, who are playing their 1oth and 13th Masters respectively, history says they are running out of chances.
McIlroy has had opportunities and perhaps no fans and the different feel that the event will present might ease some of that mental pressure he is under. It’s bad enough standing on the par-three 12th with no one around. It’s harder with thousands of people literally staring over your shoulder.
The form golfers going into the tournament are Spain’s world number two Jon Rahm and 2020 US Open winner Bryson De Chambeau (sixth in the world). Both are massively long-hitters, but they also have silky short games, which is where this edition is likely to be decided.
The 2020 Masters will look and feel strange. But on Sunday afternoon at Augusta, the drama will be as intense as ever, as a handful of contenders vie for a place in history. DM168