For both players and golf fans viewing at home, this week’s Masters will look different and sound different from every Masters previously played.
Because of the changes to the PGA Tour schedule resulting from the Covid-19 pandemic, the 2020 Masters will be played in November for the first time, with no spectators on the grounds of Augusta National.
Other than a smattering of family, tournament officials, volunteers and media, the players will have the course almost entirely to themselves, with no gallery ropes, crosswalks or grandstands. Camera towers behind or adjacent to all 18 greens will remain, along with the scoreboards that are a permanent part of the golf course.
The roars coming from the massive crowds, especially on the back nine, will be missing, along with the glorious spring foliage that provides Augusta National with much of its visual appeal. Thanks to the changing colors of the fall, the course will not be entirely devoid of its scenic attraction, but will look appreciably different than it does in April.
There was considerable discussion about how differently the course would play in November, with some concern expressed about the cooler fall temperatures. With highs predicted to be in the upper 70s/low 80s all week, the temperature will be only minimally different than it is in April.
But the weather is expected to be a major factor this week, with a strong possibility of rain all four days of tournament play, and thunderstorms likely both Wednesday and Thursday, which at the least will make Augusta National play much softer and longer on the weekend.
With limited daylight in mid-November, it will be a challenge to have all the players complete their rounds before dark on Thursday and Friday. And with the CBS commitment to the NFL late Sunday afternoon, the network may have to hand off the conclusion of the tournament to ESPN, assuming it is not pushed to Monday, when a.m. showers are predicted.
One thing that won’t change is the limited broadcast schedule, with just four to five hours per day on ESPN or CBS as opposed to wall to wall coverage for both the British and U.S. Opens. Scheduled TV times are 1-5:30 on Thursday and Friday on ESPN, 1-5 Saturday on CBS and 10-3 Sunday on CBS, with an extra hour available in case of a playoff.
The Masters will provide plenty of online tournament action, with the usual extensive schedule of featured groups, Amen Corner and holes 15 and 16. Because of the split tee starts, all day coverage of holes 4, 5 and 6 will be added, bringing the number of holes with complete online viewing to eight.
Due to the limited daylight, split tee times will be necessitated Thursday, Friday and Sunday, with Saturday also likely to go to a two-tee start if there are any lengthy delays the first two days. It is rare but not unprecedented for the Masters to play off both tees in threesomes, with last year’s final round conducted in that manner due to the threat of inclement weather Sunday afternoon.
Every player in the field will have to begin his round on No. 10 at least one day, and unlike the expected rainy weather, that will not be a factor. If scores get bunched up after 36 holes due to soggy course conditions, a change in the cut line just announced is the elimination of the 10-shot rule.
After completion of the second round, the field of 92 players will be cut to the low 50 and ties, with the 10-shot rule typically not a factor in determining the number of players who make it to the weekend.
The field is the same as it would have been had the tournament been played in April, with the original number of 96 participants reduced to 92 by Covid 19 (2017 champion Sergio Garcia and Joaquin Niemann, injury Angel Cabrera and a choice of broadcasting over playing Trevor Immelman.
As a result, four players ranked among the top 35 in the OWGR (Daniel Berger, 13, Viktor Hovland, 23, Ryan Palmer, 31 and Harris English, 35) will be missing from the field, along with seven tournament winners since the PGA Tour resumed play in June. Among the seven are Georgia residents Michael Thompson, Stewart Cink and Hudson Swafford. All 11 will receive invitations to compete in the 2021 Masters.
Ordinarily, the media would be focusing its attention on the defending champion, especially since it’s Tiger Woods, who earned a fifth green jacket last year, his first since 2005 and his first major since 2008. Woods won an event in Japan later in 2019, but in his last seven starts dating back to February, his best finish is a tie for 37th, and he has shown no indication that he is capable of capturing his 83rd career PGA Tour title, much less a 16thmajor.
Woods won three times in 2018-19 beginning with his stirring victory in the 2018 Tour Championship at East Lake, but has not looked like the same player in 2020. Despite his recent struggles, he’s still Tiger Woods and is capable of unexpected heroics at any time, especially on a course where he has enjoyed so much success, including the last time he competed there.
The player who has dominated the pre-Masters discussion is the last golfer to win a major championship – 2020 U.S. Open champion Bryson DeChambeau. He overpowered the field in the final round at Winged Foot in September, firing a 67 to win by six while the other contenders were shooting in the mid-70s.
DeChambeau’s ability to turn Augusta National into to a driver-wedge layout may be sidetracked by the expected rain and softer fairways, but will not reduce his significant length advantage over all but a handful of players.
This will be DeChambeau’s fourth Masters, with his best finish a tie for 21stas an amateur in 2016. He shared the opening round lead last year after a 66, but followed with a 75 Friday and wound up T29. He finished in the top 10 in putting in two of his three Masters starts, and if he can again handle the Augusta National putting surfaces, he will be extremely difficult to beat considering his prodigious length.
DeChambeau’s primary challenger appears to be Dustin Johnson, who closed with four birdies on his final six holes to tie for second last year. Johnson has four straight top 10s in the Masters and over his last six starts has a win in the Playoffs opener in Boston (by 11 shots), a trio of runner-up finishes (PGA, Chicago Playoffs event and last week in Houston), a third in the Tour Championship that gave him the FedExCup title and a T6 in the U.S. Open. He missed a few weeks after testing positive for Covid, but bounced back nicely in Houston.
After winning two U.S. Opens and two PGAs over the last three years, injuries have set Brooks Koepka back a bit, but he looked strong in a T5 finish in Houston last week. Koepka likely has some lingering negative feelings from his finish in last year’s Masters, when he made double bogey on No. 12 after rinsing his tee shot in Rae’s Creek and missed makeable birdie putts at 17 and 18 to finish one shot behind Woods.
Jon Rahm is seemingly in contention every week, with recent wins in the Memorial and Chicago Playoffs event and a runner-up finish in his last start at Sherwood CC. He was among the challengers last year in Augusta, tying for ninth, and was fourth the year before. The Spaniard is a pretty safe bet to be near the top of the leader board this Sunday.
Justin Thomas does not have an impressive track record at Augusta National, with last year’s T12 his best finish in four starts. The 2017 PGA champion definitely has the game to win the Masters, and comes into this week off a T2 at Sherwood.
Rory McIlroy captured his four major titles between 2011 and ’14, and continues to look for a Masters victory to complete the career grand slam. A T21 finish last year snapped a streak of five straight top 10s in Augusta, and he has not regained his form after some consistently outstanding play pre-Covid.
Given the recent trend of 20-somethings winning their first majors (DeChambeau and Colin Morikawa), the two most likely players (along with Rahm) to keep that streak going are Xander Schauffele and Patrick Cantlay, both of whom had at least a share of the lead on the back nine at Augusta National last year. Both have either won or placed second in recent weeks and both likely have a little extra motivation after their near-misses in 2019.
A longer list of pre-tournament favorites includes a trio of former Masters champions (Patrick Reed, Bubba Watson and Adam Scott),major champions Jason Day, Justin Rose, Webb Simpson and Louis Oosthuizen, a pair of talented Brits closing in on their 30thbirthday (Tyrrell Hatton and Tommy Fleetwood),the best player on the PGA Tour whose only win came in a weak field opposite event (Tony Finau), and the player carrying the heaviest burden of expectations from his home country (Hideki Matsuyama).
The two most prominent Masters rookies in the field are recent PGA champion Colin Morikawa and big-hitting Matthew Wolff, whose power game seems better suited to Augusta National than Morikawa, who has vaulted to No. 4 in the OWGR at the ripe old age of 23 despite being outgunned by DeChambeau, Wolff and the other members of golf’s bomber battalion.
The predicted precipitation would seem to put players like Simpson, Morikawa and Kevin Kisner at an even greater disadvantage, but the last time weather was a major factor in the final outcome, the winner was Zach Johnson, who prevailed in 2007 despite not attempting to reach a par 5 in two the entire week.