AUGUSTA, Ga. – Masters practice rounds wrapped up Wednesday afternoon under warm sunshine, as Augusta National continued to bake and produce the fastest and firmest setup in recent memory.
No matter the winner, the Masters reliably delivers high drama – and this year should be no exception, especially with the reemergence of Jordan Spieth, the questionable health status of Brooks Koepka and the nonstop theatrics of Bryson DeChambeau.
Here are 21 things to know – some notes, a little perspective, a few predictions sure to go awry – on the eve of the first round of the Masters:
1.) Jordan Spieth is the pre-tournament headliner. Last week, he won for the first time since July 2017, a cathartic victory that came just a few months after he’d reached a breaking point, shelving his clubs for four weeks because he was tired of spiraling in the wrong direction. His turnaround has been THE on-course story of 2021, and conveniently it builds nicely into the first major of the year – an event where he’s enjoyed both tremendous success and suffered wrenching defeat. Assuming he’s not tapped out mentally after his Valero title, Spieth should make a run at a second green jacket. His confidence is too high, and his iron play too dialed-in.
2.) This is a looser, freer Bryson DeChambeau than the one we saw last November. That week the hype was overwhelming, and he didn’t handle the spotlight well. Coming off his game-changing victory at the U.S. Open, he experimented with a 48-inch driver up until game time and said that he was treating Augusta National as a par 67. When things predictably didn’t go well – he tied for 34th while wedging poorly and feeling under the weather – he made himself an easy target for his critics. This time, he seems more comfortable, not making any outlandish predictions and mapping out his strategy at least somewhat more discretely. Big Bryson said he’ll likely air it out on all of the obvious holes but knows that his success will ultimately boil down to how he plays the par 4s. His secret weapon isn’t so much his insane driving distance but rather the fact that because of his steep angle of descent, he can hit his approach shots with more height and impart more spin – key factors when the greens are this firm. Historically, he’s thrived when the conditions are more difficult (Muirfield Village, Winged Foot, Bay Hill, etc.).
3.) The grind never stops. Phil Mickelson was sporting bandages on his left hand after spending so many hours on the tournament practice area that he developed cuts and callouses. Sandy Lyle hasn’t broken par since the final round in 2013, yet he worked up a lather on the range (in purple suspenders, no less!). Larry Mize dropped ball after ball on the 14thfairway, trying unsuccessfully to chase a fairway wood up onto the green. These aging warriors have little chance to contend this week – yes, sadly, even Phil – but that doesn’t keep them from trying.
4.) After a flawless start to tournament week, the weather forecast for Friday and Saturday looks ... unfortunate. There’s a 70% chance of showers and thunderstorms on Friday afternoon. And for the third round? Another 60% chance of precipitation, but also this: 25-mph wind gusts as the leaders tee off!
5.) Augusta National chairman Fred Ridley wouldn’t bite when asked Wednesday what percentage of the usual capacity was allowed on-site this year. Last November, only essential personnel were permitted, and there were roughly 500 people on hand to watch Dustin Johnson tap in for victory on the 18th green. Though there are more this year – well into the thousands – it’s hard to tell just how many exactly, with patrons spread out on the course, in their favorite spots. It’s notable that there still are no grandstands, even around the 15th green.
6.) Three weeks after undergoing surgery on his right knee – his good knee – to repair a dislocated kneecap and ligament damage, Brooks Koepka declared himself ready to play in the Masters. If this were any other tournament, it seems highly unlikely that Koepka would be competing – but his swing coach, Pete Cowen, said Koepka was swinging it so well, he wanted to make a run at a jacket, iffy health be damned. More than any shot, walking the hilliest course of the year will be Koepka’s greatest challenge, especially on downhill holes like Nos. 2 and 10. He’ll also read putts awkwardly, since it hurts to crouch into position behind the ball. The quick turnaround has impressed surgeons, but it does seem like a significant risk to be out there, pushing his body to the brink, requiring hours of rehab each day. “I’ve got to do it,” he said. “No other option, is there?” Besides withdrawing? Apparently not.
7.) After a Monday practice round, Adam Scott had flashbacks to 2007. That year, while standing on the 16th green with Greg Norman, he poured a bottle of water on the slope in the middle of the green and watched as it trickled all the way off the side, never getting absorbed. He didn’t attempt that experiment this week, but he said the greens had a similar firmness and sheen. Ridley said this was probably as firm as the course has been since 2013, the year (ironically enough) that Scott won. On Wednesday, multiple players said that it appeared as though the club has done just enough at this point to keep the greens alive. The takeaway: A quick shower or storm over the weekend won’t take that much fire out of this place.
8.) When it plays like this – as it’s intended – a few holes get infinitely more fun. Putting becomes an adventure on holes like Nos. 1 and 5. The third and ninth greens become wicked-fast. Approaches into the par-5 15th become must-see TV. Coupled with a skimpy second cut that has even be eliminated in some areas, more errant shots are going to run off into trouble, whether it’s the water, pine straw, collection areas or trees.
9.) The winning score in 2007 – the year Scott referenced – was 1 over par. The winning total last November was 20 under, a record. A good bet this time is somewhere right in the middle. The average winning score of the last 10 years: 12.1.
10.) Justin Thomas seems to be the most popular Masters pick among Smart Golf People. There are plenty of reasons for that, but most notably: He’s improved in each and every Masters appearance, peaking last November with a fourth-place showing; his shot-shaping and distance control with his wedges is world class; and he has ranked first in strokes gained: approach and greens in regulation each of the last three years here. Stellar iron play matters more at Augusta than arguably any other course on the planet. Per stats guru Justin Ray, during the last five April Masters, the player who led the field in that strokes gained: approach category has an average finish of 1.8.
11.) In the bad-timing department: The Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Office announced Wednesday that Tiger Woods’ February car accident was caused by excessive speeding. The report stated that Woods’ SUV was traveling between 84-87 mph in a 45-mph zone when the crash occurred, but questions about what happened that day persist (and likely will remain unanswered). Still, this new info couldn’t come out next week? The headline news dominated the news cycle on the final day of Masters prep. Woods didn’t attend the traditional Champions Dinner on Tuesday as he continues to recover at home in South Florida.
12.) After becoming a father over the weekend, Jon Rahm finally arrived at Augusta National on Wednesday morning. That he even was here was a surprise to the world No. 3 – with wife Kelley’s due date between April 10-12, he fully anticipated getting a call on Thursday or Friday, telling him to hop on a jet back to Arizona for the birth of their first child. Instead, Kepa arrived last Saturday, a week early, and Rahm spent the past five days changing diapers and tending to his wife, the Masters the furthest thing from his mind. Rahm’s caddie, Adam Hayes, was on-site on Tuesday, scouting the course, but Rahm knows he’ll be the least prepared (and least well-rested) player in the field. Asked whether that was any cause for concern, he smiled: “I’m not concerned. I went through a major life experience. If anything, I’m just happier. I’m thankful to be here. I’m definitely in a different mental state, but I would say it’s a better mental state.”
13.) Four sleepers to consider this week, if you’re filling out your office pools or DFS lineups: Cameron Smith, Will Zalatoris, Corey Conners and Brian Harman.
14.) Is this the week that Rory McIlroy captures the final leg of the career Grand Slam? Don’t count on it. Even McIlroy sounded like he was tempering expectations this week as he begins a “journey” with new swing coach Pete Cowen. The changes to McIlroy’s long game will help him in the long run, but the process takes time. That said, even without his best stuff, he’s still talented enough to post another high finish; in each of his six attempts to compete the Slam, he’s finished inside the top 10, including a T-5 last November after opening with 75.
15.) The No. 1 ranking is up for grabs this week. A few months ago, it seemed as though Dustin Johnson would have a stranglehold on the top spot for the foreseeable future, but there’s a scenario this week – not even an unlikely one! – that could see him forfeit the No. 1 position to Thomas. That’s what happens when Thomas wins a big-point event like The Players and Johnson strings together three pedestrian results, his worst stretch since summer 2019. If Thomas wins and Johnson finishes in a two-way tie for 21st or worse, then Thomas will become the top-ranked player.
16.) In an encouraging bit of news, Ridley said Wednesday that a Masters-only tournament ball would be a “last resort” if the governing bodies fail to adequately crack down on distance gains that they’ve said are detrimental to the game’s long-term health. The chairman added that he doesn’t want to see Augusta National – or any course, for that matter – stretched to 8,000 yards. This week’s yardage checks in at 7,475 yards.
17.) U.S. Amateur champion Tyler Strafaci headlines one of the smallest amateur contingents in Masters history. Strafaci, who won the 2020 title over Ollie Osborne, left Georgia Tech last fall and has been preparing to make his pro debut after the Walker Cup this May. He’ll play the opening two rounds with defending champion Dustin Johnson and Lee Westwood. Osborne is here, too, along with British Amateur champion Joe Long. It’d be a surprise if any of the three amateurs made the cut.
18.) Those who made their first Masters appearance last November – guys like Max Homa and Sebastian Munoz – might feel like first-timers this week with the drastically different course conditions, but technically there are only six total newbies here: The three amateurs, plus Zalatoris (who cracked the top 50 in the world despite playing mostly on the Korn Ferry Tour in 2020), European Tour winner Robert MacIntyre and 2020 Houston Open champ Carlos Ortiz.
19.) Here are (to this observer at least) the best Round 1 groupings at Augusta National:
- 10:06 a.m. ET: Brooks Koepka, Viktor Hovland, Bubba Watson
- 10:30 a.m.: Dustin Johnson, Lee Westwood, Tyler Strafaci
- 10:42 a.m.: Rory McIlroy, Jon Rahm, Xander Schauffele
- 1:36 p.m.: Bryson DeChambeau, Adam Scott, Max homa
- 1:48 p.m.: Justin Thomas, Tony Finau, Louis Oosthuizen
- 2 p.m.: Jordan Spieth, Collin Morikawa, Cam Smith
20.) One guy whom there hasn’t been much chatter about: Patrick Cantlay. He nearly won here in 2019 and has finished outside the top 20 just once this calendar year. If you’re looking for a weakness in his game, you’re going to be searching for a while. Because there isn’t one. He looked exceedingly comfortable and confident while playing practice rounds this week with Xander Schauffele. We’d put him third on our list of favorites, behind only No. 2 Spieth and ... well ...
21.) If you made it this far, first of all, congrats. Your reward is this scribe’s pick to win: It’s the defending champion, Dustin Johnson. What has plagued him his past starts has been an uncooperative driver, but from what we’ve seen on the ground he once again has it dialed in: aiming down the left side, then smashing that power fade. If he and brother/caddie Austin can successfully team up on the reads of these notoriously difficult greens, there’s little reason to think that he can’t go back-to-back for the first time since Tiger Woods in 2000-01.