Do you ever have weird dreams about sporting events? Like, you’re watching the AFC championship game, except all the cornerbacks are characters from Narnia? Or Roger Federer is playing himself in the Wimbledon finals, only the match is happening on a beach volleyball court covered with cornflakes? Of course you do. That’s what bonds us as humans. It’s also what makes this week’s Masters even more intriguing than usual.
Golf’s grandiloquent rite of spring is coming to us just two weeks before Thanksgiving, and it’s so friggin’ weird. Replace the blooming azaleas with seasonal gourds. Garnish your pimento cheese sandwich with pumpkin spice. Substitute the early-April chill of Augusta with the mid-November chill of Augusta. Can Tiger defend? Will Bryson bash his way through? How did Georgia go for Biden and who do we thank? Megan Schuster and I have got you covered with our Masters Preview, Autumn Edition, cranberry sauce on the side. —Elizabeth Nelson
Will Bryson’s distance war on golf translate to Augusta?
Megan Schuster: I hate to start out with numbers. As a former journalism major who weasled her way out of taking any math classes in college, I would much prefer to talk about fire ants, feuds, and videos soundtracked by angsty Kings of Leon songs. But the best way to tell the story of Bryson at the Masters this year is by the figures.
Last week, Bryson played a practice round at Augusta National, and Golf Digest’s Joel Beall reported a few startling developments from that outing. On the first hole, Bryson reportedly hit a 380-yard drive and was left with just 65 yards to the hole. Let me say that again: a THREE-HUNDRED AND EIGHTY–YARD DRIVE. If you didn’t pass out from reading that, allow me to continue. At the par-5 no. 15, he reportedly hit a 9-iron onto the green for his second shot. And at the par-4 no. 18, his second shot came from just 100 yards out. There are even more eye-popping figures in Beall’s piece, but these give a taste of just what we might see out of Bryson this weekend.
The question now is whether Bryson can control his swing for four rounds—and if he can, what that will mean for Augusta. There’s been a lot of discourse lately about whether Bryson will “break” this course and force it to change to give his competitors a fair shot. We saw that happen after Tiger stormed the grounds for a 12-shot victory in 1997, and Augusta has continued to tinker as distance has become more and more of a factor on tour. But let’s not get ahead of ourselves. To date, Bryson’s best finish at the Masters is tied for 21st. This is a demanding, mentally challenging course that has flummoxed even the sport’s greatest players over the years. I’d like to see Bryson master what’s in front of him before we start talking about him “breaking” anything.
Are we forgetting about golf’s other muscle man, Brooks Koepka?
Schuster: First of all: never. Second, let us not forget that Brooks was in prime position to win this tournament last year before some heaven-sent wind kicked up at no. 12 and dropped his ball, Ian Poulter’s, Francesco Molinari’s, and Tony Finau’s into Rae’s Creek in back-to-back groups. Brooks has steadily improved at the Masters over the course of his professional career. The first time he played, in 2015, he finished T-33; in 2016, T-21; in 2017, T-11; and in 2019, he finished T-2 (he didn’t play in 2018). Those are pretty exceptional results for someone who’s played in this tournament only four times.
Of course, this year, Brooks has been battling injury. An infamous image of him popped up during August’s PGA Championship—Brooks laying on the grass in the middle of the second round, getting his hip stretched out by his trainer.
Brooks has been getting some mid-round work done at TPC Harding Park. pic.twitter.com/irLzmHkyMq— Golf Digest (@GolfDigest) August 8, 2020
That immediately brought the concern trolls out of the woodwork, but it turns out they were right to be worried. After playing eight times in a 10-week span, Brooks was forced to withdraw before the start of the FedEx Cup playoffs, citing a knee injury, and he also missed this year’s U.S. Open in September. After the U.S. Open announcement, Koepka’s trainer, Blake Smith, said, “We thought the last few weeks would help, but he needs more time to compete at 100 percent. He’s super bummed, but he’ll come back bigger and stronger.”
It seems that time off has helped. Koepka said last week that he feels “as good as ever,” and he’s been playing practice rounds at Augusta trying to get his feel back before Thursday’s first round. Brooks may not be entering this tournament as the biggest threat on the board, but his game should never be underestimated. And if he gets a chance to beat Bryson, Brooks’s petty levels could just put him over the top.
Can Rory complete the career Grand Slam, or will his putting undo him?
Nelson: So much has transpired since a baby-faced, 21-year-old Rory McIlroy entered the final day of the 2011 Masters with a four-shot lead, only to experience a full-blown Sunday freak-out and finish with a humiliating eight-over-par 80. McIlroy would rebound at the next major by beating the brakes off of everyone in sight at the U.S. Open at Congressional, and eventually would establish himself as one of the great stars of the golf firmament, winning two PGA championships and an Open title before the age of 25. McIIroy is a tremendously compelling talent and a wonderful ambassador for the game, so it can seem churlish to point to ostensible holes in the 31-year-old’s formidable résumé. Nevertheless, it’s difficult not to wonder what might have been different had the Northern Irishman not experienced salty tears while going triple bogey, bogey, double bogey on the 10th through 12th holes at Augusta on that miserable Sunday nine years ago. McIIroy has contended in subsequent Masters, carding top 10s every year between 2015 and 2018, but it never felt like he would finish the career Grand Slam.
Tee to green, Rory is as good as anyone in the sport. That is where the complications begin. McIIroy has had elite stretches with the flat stick, but just as often it has undone him in crucial moments. He has gone through a litany of different clubs, coaches, and grips to try and tame the one element that has eluded his greatness. Rory’s recent form has not been particularly sharp—he has just two top-10 finishes in his last twelve starts—and Augusta’s greased-lightning greens are not traditionally a place to go looking for a missing putting stroke. Rain is in the forecast, which may slow the greens down, but even that would require adjustments on the fly. For all of his wonderful play, it’s been a remarkable six years since Rory bagged a major. He would make for a hugely popular and deserving champion this week, but the proof lies in the putter.
Does the Tiger-Phil thing still have its magic at the Masters?
Schuster: I’ll start with this: If Tiger Woods’s body cooperates, he can win the Masters whenever he damn well pleases. No one has a better touch, feel, or confidence around Augusta National; no one has made it more of a home-course advantage. The problem, though, is that first caveat. Woods has played in only five tournaments since August, and just one in the past six weeks. His best finish in that time was a tie for 37th at the PGA Championship; most recently, he finished tied for 72nd at the Zozo Championship, and he missed the cut at September’s U.S. Open. So we don’t really know what to make of the defending champion’s health coming into this weekend.
Tiger also won’t get the benefit of his classic roars—the ones that called him home on Sunday’s back nine in last year’s tournament and helped him win his first green jacket in 14 years. Another player who’ll be missing those cheers this week is Phil Mickelson. Our beloved lefty has most recently been seen vacillating between the PGA and Champions Tours, and hocking “wellness coffee” and shirts designed for the grandfather in your life. It seems like Phil has entered a different stage in his career—not a bad one, necessarily; he’s become a wonder on social media and his memeable antics are likely endearing him to a whole new generation of sports fans. But you no longer have to factor him in as a threat in every major.
It’s hard to envision Phil making a serious run at a win this week, and I guess that’s the difference between him and Tiger in 2020. Phil seems content to show up and have a good time. Tiger is still out for blood.
Can Dustin Johnson do more than walk the walk?
Nelson: See him prowl the links with the intensity of a coiled jungle cat approaching mealtime. Watch him unfold his lank but powerful 6-foot-4 frame step by graceful step as he approaches yet another 350-yard bomb off the tee, a veritable links lynx. Win, lose, or miss the cut, there is no doubt that Dustin Johnson has presence. He has results, too: The 36-year-old South Carolinian has won at least one tournament in each of his first 13 years on tour—only Tiger, Jack, and Arnold hold longer streaks to start their careers. Johnson has done it all, or most of it: He was world no. 1, captured a major title, and helped raise a Ryder Cup. As such, it’s a paradox that the thought which always comes to mind when seeing Johnson on the course is: Why hasn’t he done more?
In any sport, there are figures who are so mesmerizing relative to their peers that it can feel weird to try and grasp why it is they ever lose. Wilt Chamberlain scored at will, made the NBA change the rules of basketball, moved with balletic grace and pile-driving force, and still won only two NBA championships. Two is not bad! But it seems strange compared to Bill Russell’s 11.
This is roughly Johnson’s dilemma. For an athlete so consistently dominant, there is cognitive dissonance around his lack of major championships—his only one coming at the 2016 U.S. Open at Oakmont—especially as peers like Koepka and veterans like Tiger keep adding to their total. DJ has been in contention at recent majors and tied for second at the Masters in 2019. There’s a nontrivial likelihood that he’ll win any tournament on any golf course at any event he enters. Don’t be surprised if he saunters into the last group on Sunday.
What should we expect from the Golf Boys?
Nelson: Sometime several years ago, four American golfers of varying accomplishment christened themselves “the Golf Boys” and released a series of videos intended to parody modern pop while also showing off their golf prowess. A lot of people didn’t even notice this, but I did. I’m not suggesting I became preoccupied with the Golf Boys to the point of watching this video over and over, or that it occurred to me that there ought to be a synth-pop response from a British perspective, but then again I’m not saying I didn’t. It made an impression.
Two of the four Golf Boys are not relevant to this week’s Masters—Hunter Mahan is sidelined by injury, and I honestly don’t know where Ben Crane is. But two remain in contention. Bubba Watson—he of the overalls in the “Oh Oh Oh” official video—is already a two-time champion whose length and left-handedness makes for a built-in advantage at Augusta.
The other Golf Boy to watch is Rickie Fowler, who’s currently saddled with the suckiest-in-sports label of Best Player to Never Win a Major. Fowler deserves better than the luck he’s been dealt and has finished as high as second at Augusta. He hits it plenty far, but it would be a fitting irony in the age of inflated giants if the 5-foot-9 150-pounder turned the current narrative of heavyweight golf on its juiced-up head.
Will the Barely Legal Crew steal the show?
Schuster: If you haven’t heard of this group (and you probably haven’t, considering Elizabeth and I just made it up), the Barely Legal Crew consists of Collin Morikawa, Matthew Wolff, and Viktor Hovland (apologies to guys like Haotong Li, Jon Rahm, and Cameron Champ, who recently aged out). These are the heirs apparent to the Jordan Spieth, Justin Thomas, and Rickie Fowler “young guns” title. And they’re off to a great start.
You may remember that Morikawa won the PGA Championship this year at Harding Park (or you might not, it’s been a long few months), and that Wolff finished T-4 at that tournament and second a month later at the U.S. Open. This group is just dangerous enough to swoop in and steal the glory from the favorites—and wouldn’t it be fun to watch Tiger canonize someone in this generation with a green jacket?
Who will win?
Nelson: Will November spawn another monster triumph for Bashin’ Bryson? I don’t think so. However thoroughly he feels he’s cased the joint, I still don’t believe Augusta can be tamed by brute force alone. I’m going with Tony Finau. The strapping 31-year-old played in the Sunday group with Tiger and Francesco Molinari in 2019 and more than held his own amongst the two major winners. He’s got the game and experience to finish the job this time. I can Finau it in my bones.
Schuster: I adore that pick, and wish Tony all the best in his endeavors this week. I, on the other hand, can’t shake the feeling that we’re going to get some Brooks-Bryson fireworks this week, and if it comes down to that, I think Brooks’s desire to crush Bryson in head-to-head competition will outweigh any other mitigating factors.