08 April 2021: For every certainty about the 85th Masters Tournament, there seems to be an unknown.
Dustin Johnson, bidding to become only the fourth golfer to win at Augusta National in consecutive years – joining Jack Nicklaus, Nick Faldo and Tiger Woods – is still No. 1 in the world, but he hasn’t shown his spectacular form of last year lately.
Brooks Koepka is in the field despite recent surgery on his right knee. How will the repaired joint hold up walking the hills as he pursues his first Green Jacket and fifth major title?
Many eyes will be on Bryson DeChambeau as he attempts to overwhelm with his power. Will he improve on his tie for 34th place five months ago and contend for a Masters title to accompany the U.S. Open he won last September?
The course facing the 88 competitors is firm and fast, what three-time champion Phil Mickelson described as the most exacting conditions at Augusta National in a long time.
“When the greens are firm,” Mickelson said, “the precision, the course management, the angles – all this stuff becomes incredibly important in your ability to play this course effectively. When the greens are firm, those small sections are very hard to hit and you’ve really got to strategize on where you leave it. With firm greens, this course needs to be respected.”
But there is a 20-percent chance of rain Thursday afternoon and a 50-percent chance of thunderstorms on Friday and Saturday. Will the precipitation mitigate the challenge?
Five-time champion Tiger Woods, whose 2019 emotional victory at age 43 crowned a successful comeback from a spinal fusion two years earlier, is notable for his absence as he recuperates from severe injuries to his right leg and foot sustained in an automobile crash Feb. 23. He didn’t attend the Tuesday night Champions Dinner.
Another recent champion, 2015 winner Jordan Spieth, will tee off Thursday with a shot of needed momentum after winning the Valero Texas Open on Sunday for his first victory since the 2017 Open Championship.
“I love being here,” said Spieth, 27 and making his eighth appearance. “It’s my favorite tournament in the world.”
The usual atmosphere was different in November, when there was no gallery in order to conduct the Tournament during the COVID-19 pandemic. Patrons, although in limited numbers because of safety concerns, are back this week.
“The patrons play such a massive role in this Tournament—the echoes, the roars down in the valley,” Spieth said. “Especially come the weekend, it won’t take many people for it to feel close enough to normal to be a fantastic event.”
Rory McIlroy hopes some of the cheers are for him. He is playing for the 13th time – in pursuit of his first Green Jacket – this spring as a player in transition, hoping recent instruction with a new coach, Pete Cowen, will smooth the uneven parts of his play.
McIlroy is among Woods’ PGA Tour peers who have visited him recently.
“It was good to see him in decent spirits,” McIlroy said. “When you hear these things and you look at the car [after] the crash, you think he’s going to be in a hospital bed for six months. But he was actually doing better than that. A few of us that live down in South Florida went to see him. I’m sure he appreciates that. Everyone would love to see him back out here again.”
Other former champions are back. Bernhard Langer, 63, who won the Green Jacket in 1985 and 1993, has made the cut the last three years and in five of his last seven appearances. Last year, he opened with a 68, his lowest score at Augusta National since 2001, and finished in a tie for 29th.
At the other end of the age spectrum are the three amateurs in the field: Joe Long, 23, who won the 2020 British Amateur Championship; Tyler Strafaci, 22, 2020 U.S. Amateur champion; and Charles “Ollie” Osborne, 21, runner-up in the 2020 U.S. Amateur. Strafaci’s grandfather, Frank Strafaci, one of the country’s best amateurs in the 1930s and 1940s, played in the Masters twice.
A first-time participant hasn’t won the Masters since Fuzzy Zoeller in 1979, but the three professionals making their debut along with the amateur trio – Robert MacIntyre of Scotland, Carlos Ortiz of Mexico and Will Zalatoris of the United States – are players to watch. MacIntyre and Ortiz have won on their respective tours, and Zalatoris, who tied for sixth in the 2020 U.S. Open, is having a very consistent rookie season.
Bill Fields at Augusta National – masters.com