It has been 20 months since the last competitive round of golf was played at Augusta National Golf Club, the famous host site of The Masters since 1934. That round was unforgettable however, particularly watching the big crowd envelop Tiger Woods on the final hole, cheering on what would become his fifth Masters victory and 15th major championship title.
The COVID-19 pandemic caused a schedule re-shuffle that saw many tournaments cancelled, and The Masters moved from its typical April spot to November, where it will be competing with football over the weekend.
And those fans that make the tournament unforgettable? Not this year; a warranted safety measure.
It will be a Masters like we have never seen before, but one thing that hasn’t changed is the plethora of rich storylines. Here are a few to especially watch:
1. COVID’s Impact
Most sports fans, even those who don’t care for golf, probably noticed that The Masters doesn’t usually happen this late in the year. It took a special set of circumstances to get to this point, and it nearly got cancelled for the first time since 1945 due to some international dispute that much of the world was involved with.
It will feel different with it being in the fall rather than spring, but I believe most agree that it is better than not having the tournament at all. Someone could say “it’s just golf” and there are more important things going on, and not face much disagreement, but this week should provide a welcome escape from a harsh reality that is driving the populace insane.
So far, two players have had to withdraw from this tournament due to a positive COVID diagnosis. The first was 22-year-old Chilean star Joaquin Niemann, who was set to play his second Masters. Niemann played well enough to make the Tour Championship and had finished in the top 25 in each of his last five starts.
The other was 40-year-old Spaniard Sergio Garcia. The winner of the green jacket in 2017, Sergio had played in each of the last 84 majors, which was the longest current streak. His last missed major was the 1999 U.S. Open, which was won by the last Payne Stewart, who died in a plane crash just four months later. Adam Scott, Scottie Scheffler, and World No. 1 Dustin Johnson have all had COVID-19, although all three are set to tee off this week.
The field was locked in with who was qualified back in March, which is bad news for several highly-ranked players, most notably world No. 13 Daniel Berger, who had a stretch of play this year where he finished in the top five in five of six starts.
Norweigan star Viktor Hovland (world No. 24), and American Harris English, who finished 12th in the FedExCup standings and was solo-fourth at the recent U.S. Open. All three will be exempt when The Masters convenes again next April.
In addition, split tees will be utilized, believed to be done to not have to compete with some big football games over the week. Also for the first time, the cut will be strictly top 50 and ties: being within ten strokes of the lead no longer guarantees a golfer weekend play.
2. Tiger Defends
It feels like a million years ago now, but the last edition of The Masters, played in April of 2019, was one of the most memorable in recent memory, as Tiger Woods emerged from a crowded leaderboard to capture his fifth green jacket, ending an 11-year major championship winless drought.
It got the 43-year-old (second oldest in Masters history) legend to 15 career majors, three short of the coveted mark set by Jack Nicklaus.
It was not just that Tiger won that was impressive, but how he won. A man who became famous for his power and dominance had to completely retool his swing to accommodate a messed-up back, degraded from years of violent swings. He proved that week that he can think his way around a golf course as well as anyone in the world. He showed the rare ability to adapt to outside conditions.
Tiger has been up and down since that transcendent victory. In October of 2019, in what was considered the 2020 wrap-around season, Tiger won the inaugural ZOZO Championship in Japan. Even more impressively, he carried the U.S. team on his back in Melbourne, winning the Presidents Cup as a player/coach.
In 2020, though? It has not been good for Tiger. In four 2020 season events after the COVID layoff, he failed to finish better than T37, and he somehow got the putting yips in an embarrassing performance at the PGA Championship. In the new 2021 wrap-around season, he has played twice; missing the cut at the U.S. Open, and finishing T72 in his defense of the ZOZO Championship.
If Tiger were to go back-to-back at The Masters, something that has only been done by Nicklaus (1965-66), Nick Faldo (1989-90), and himself (2001-02). He would also tie Nicklaus for the most green jackets with six, and at 83 career victories, he would break a tie with Sam Snead for the most all-time.
3. The Meteoric Rise of Bryson DeChambeau
Most of the buzz from Augusta this week has been regarding the unorthodox Bryson DeChambeau, a man known as “The Scientist”. DeChambeau, now 27 years old, was an amateur superstar, who saw quick success in the pros, winning six times over his first three full-time seasons.
What has been REALLY remarkable about DeChambeau was what he has done since. In the past year, he has put on 40lbs of muscle, and in the process, has become statistically the longest driver in the history of the game. He averaged 299.4 yards in 2017, slowly rising each year, but then in 2020, he got that all the way up to a walloping 322 yards, and early in the 2021 wraparound season, he is even up to 344 yards. His absurdly good driving was key to him winning September’s U.S. Open by six strokes, his first career major title.
It’s not like no golfer has bulked up before: Tiger Woods, Phil Mickelson, and Brooks Koepka, among others have seen tremendous results with their gym regimes, but nobody has done it as quickly, as markedly, and as emphatically as DeChambeau has. He made waves in practice last week when he posted a picture on social media of a drive that CARRIED 400 yards, according to whatever electronic device was measuring it.
In the past week, those who have played practice rounds with him have raved about little he has left to the green after his drives. It has been unbelievable.
And he’s not just a long hitter, he finished 10th on Tour last season in strokes gained: putting. He is the betting favorite this week, despite his best result at Augusta being a T21 as an amateur in 2016.
4. A Masters Rookie Trio
It has been well-established that rookies just do not win at Augusta. Aside from the first Masters, the only players in history to have won The Masters in their tournament debut was Gene Sarazen in 1935 (the second Masters ever), and Fuzzy Zoeller in 1979. Competency like Jordan Spieth showed when he finished 2nd-1st-2nd in his first three Masters starts was unprecedented. The green jacket winner is most often an established player who has competed on the course at least four times.
That being said, if somebody is going to match the feat of Sarazen and Zoeller, this year is as good a bet as any. Three players who currently are among the best on Tour are playing in their first career Masters this week:
Collin Morikawa: The 23-year-old won August’s PGA Championship in just his second career major start (first PGA start). He took down a ridiculously stacked Sunday leaderboard, hitting jaw-dropping clutch shots and outdueling Tour stars such as Dustin Johnson, Brooks Koepka, Louis Oosthuizen, Xander Schauffele, and Rory McIlroy, all who were in the mix through 54 holes. It took just 27 professional starts for Morikawa to win three times on Tour, and since the COVID layoff, he has two wins, and a runner-up.
Matthew Wolff: A 21-year-old who won the 2019 3M Open in just his third career start, Wolff had never played a major before this year. Now? He has two under his belt: a T4 at the PGA Championship and a solo runner-up at the U.S. Open, the latter of which he was the 54-hole leader.
Wolff’s results as a whole have been very hit-or-miss, but his talent and tenacity on the big stage is obvious.
Scottie Scheffler: The 24-year-old University of Texas product made his second career major start as a professional at the recent PGA Championship, making the final Sunday pairing with Dustin Johnson and finishing T4.
The following week, he shot a second-round 59 at The Northern Trust, the first event of the FedExCup playoffs, also finishing T4, and he was solo-fifth at the Tour Championship. He had to sit out the U.S. Open after a COVID diagnosis, which had to be extra difficult considering the form he was in.
5. Rory (Still) Looking for the Career Grand Slam
For the sixth consecutive year, four-time major champion Rory McIlroy can complete the ultra-rare career grand slam if he were to finish atop the leaderboard this week. Just five players currently belong to that club: Gene Sarazen, Ben Hogan, Gary Player, Jack Nicklaus, and Tiger Woods.
Surprisingly, the 31-year-old’s last major victory was at the 2014 PGA Championship.
His Masters effort last year was a largely uninspired T21, but he had placed in the top 10 in each of the previous five editions, and held a four-stroke lead through 54 holes in the 2011 tournament. He has certainly had his chances.
The career of the Northern Irishman has been largely up and down since. He has 12 wins worldwide since that 2014 season, and has 11 top 10s in majors. He has also spent considerable time atop the world rankings, and as recently as several months ago. He is currently fifth.
Rory started his 2020 on an absolute tear. Going into the COVID layoff, Rory had placed in the top five in all six of his season starts. However, when play resumed, it took nine starts for him to post another top 10, and that was at an event with a 30-man field. He was T33 at the PGA Championship and T8 at the U.S. Open.
McIlroy recently welcomed his first child into the world, believed to have played a role in his season quasi-slump. His game fits this course tremendously, but it is unknown where his mental game is, and whether his notoriously inconsistent putter will act up on the big stage yet again.