In a most unusual year in sports, the Masters begins this week just a few days after the Breeders’ Cup (the Masters is usually in April). With a wide-open field and the world’s best golfers gathered at Augusta National, usracing.com is taking a look at the top contenders – and there’s a long shot worth considering, too.
By Mark Blaudschun
It will be a Masters “like no other.”
Televised with all of the splendor (this time in the fall) of Augusta National, with the history and tradition of Amen Corner and Rae’s Creek, with the dulcet tones of Jim Nantz guiding us through a spring time ritual.
But these are the days of COVID-19.
Nothing is what it has been.
The pink azaleas have long since bloomed. The days are shorter, rather than longer, which means that the drama of Saturday and Sunday will unfold earlier in the afternoon.
And the crowds, my goodness, the crowds and the waving thunder created by a Jack Nicklaus putt, an Arnold Palmer charge, or a Tiger Woods surge, will be missing.
The drama which will be created — and there will be drama. Even with a muted response that not even the magic of piped in sound from TV generates, the Masters field of golfers will be the main players in a Southern spotlight dance that this time of year is generally reserved for college football.
The cast of characters is, as usual, intriguing.
Of course, there’s Woods.
The five-time Masters winner who returns, remarkably, as the defending champion. Remarkable since many cynics suggested that his run at winning a Major had come and gone. However, he’s listed as a 35-1 long shot.
Your pre-tournament favorite is Bryson DeChambeau, whose notoriety has come not only in his distance (he reportedly hit a 400-yard drive during a practice round last month), but with his swing analytic mind, which produced a U.S. Open victory at another historic golf setting at Wingfoot in September.
DeChambeau is the 8-1 morning-line favorite, while Dustin Johnson, with more traditional attitudes about golf — keep drives in the fairway and make putts — is the second choice at 9–1.
After that, it becomes a dealer’s choice list of candidates.
John Rahm, on the cusp of greatness but still seeking his first major is 11-1, Justin Thomas (12-1), Rory McIlroy (14-1) and is Brooks Koepka (16-1). They are safe choices to be at the top of the leaderboard when the tournament arrives at the incoming nine on Sunday afternoon.
But there will be other storylines, starting on Thursday morning and progressing through the weekend.
What will make this different — and has always made it different — is that the golf course, not the players, as good and as famous as they might be, will play the leading role.
Instead of pink azaleas, we will see orange leaves and acorns on the ground.
We will see part of the course that no one other than the Augusta members themselves have seen, simply because the crowds will be missing.
At a pre-tournament press conference, Adam Scott, the 2013 Masters champion, offered the prevailing sentiment.
“I think a lot’s different this year,” he said. “But this week and the Masters being played in these circumstances, there’s no doubt the missing galleries is going to be the biggest difference.
“I’ve played two major championships since we’ve come back from this COVID break and it just couldn’t be more different playing major championship golf without the spectators out there and the crowds and the atmosphere.’”
The sound of the patrons or galleries — don’t call it a crowd or a mob, which will draw the ire of Masters officials — is what makes it a special weekend, no matter what time of year it is played.
Unlike the other Majors, which revolve from course to course each year, Augusta National is part of the fabric of golf itself, dating back more than 80 years to the era when Bobby Jones was the reigning king.
Now, there is no clear cut leader, which makes this week so intriguing.
Johnson is a “safe” pick, but DeChambeau is the flavor of the month and Koepka is the player who wins as many Majors as he does regular tour events.
Rahm, at 25, might be a good bet. The Spanish-born golfer with a heritage linked to Seve Ballesteros, has as much talent as anyone in the field, but has been prone to temper displays that have impeded his progress.
If you want a sleeper, you could do worse than 27-year old Xander Schauffele, who has finished in the top 10 in all four majors and finished second to Woods at Augusta National last year.
So it will come to pass, the Masters, which will be very different, as very much the same and very, very special.
The 84th Masters is the final major of golf’s Grand Slam rather than the first after it was postponed from its usual April dates due to the coronavirus pandemic … Joaquin Niemann had to withdraw from the Masters after testing positive for COVID-19 … Playing in his fourth Masters, DeChambeau’s best finish was a tie for 21st in 2016 to be the low amateur … Woods’ Masters win in 2019 ended an 11-year drought without a major, and came after four back surgeries … In 1986, Nicklaus became the oldest player to win the Masters at 46 years, two months and 23 days; in 1997, Woods became the youngest player to win at 21 years, three months, 14 days.