Previewing the Masters 2020 at an Empty Augusta National

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A tradition unlike any other will indeed be like nothing the sports world has ever seen. It’s the Masters in November. Could anything be more 2020?

The traditional lead-up to golf’s first major of the year is usually filled with much anticipation. Anticipation of what’s to come. Of warmer weather for much of the country. Of a golf season coming out of hibernation. This year, the Masters finds itself playing the role of closer. Three months following the PGA Championship and eight weeks after the U.S. Open at Winged Foot, all eyes will be on Augusta National. The blooming azaleas have been exchanged for fall foliage. The roars that echo through the Georgia pines will be replaced by a form of quiet usually reserved only for the secluded 13th tee at Augusta National. It’s the sport’s final major championship of the season, and the golf world is more than ready.

It’s hard to imagine, but Tiger Woods is still the defending Masters champion. Nineteen months removed from his historic victory in 2019, Tiger returns to Augusta ready to host the annual Champions dinner, but in much different form than we saw him in more than a year and a half ago.

The field is set with 93 players, which could create challenges with close to two and a half hours less daylight and a sunset scheduled for about 5:30 p.m. this time of year in Augusta. The course will play different, especially without patrons lining the ropes, but make no doubt about it: come Sunday afternoon, the pressure that comes with the back nine of the final round at the Masters will be very familiar. Not only to the players walking the fairways, but for fans at home watching their favorite major from afar.

What can we expect from a Masters tournament in November? Here’s what to keep an eye on this week at Augusta National.

How will Augusta National play in November, and without patrons?

It’s a question that many have either asked or been asked in the week’s leading up to the Masters, but truthfully not many people know the answer to. Only a small group of players have ever traveled to Augusta to play the golf course in the fall. Aesthetically, the course will certainly have an unfamiliar look, but how will it play?

“The course is not totally different,” says 2015 Masters champion Jordan Spieth, who has experienced the course in the fall season. He says it traditionally plays much longer than what we see in April.

“It looks like some of the greens have a little bit of browning where it's starting to firm up already,” says Spieth, who finished tied for 21st at last year’s Masters.

“I haven't seen that kind of color on these greens other than 2014 and ’16. The two years where it played really firm, and that certainly makes a big difference on how precise you have to be in not only the ball flight that you use, but how high you hit it, too.”

With rain forecasted for much of the week in Georgia, the folks at Augusta National could have the greens running dry and fast early this week in preparation for the conditions that lie ahead. Regardless of how the golf course plays, the Masters is sure to generate the drama we’ve grown accustomed to without the traditional roars that echo through the historic plot of land.

With no patrons on site this week it’s hard for players to deny how strange it will be. Case in point: Jon Rahm, who had a hole-in-one during his practice round on Monday, and the only reaction he received was a light clap from a few of the workers who were busy preparing the golf course.

Call them what you’d like … fans, spectators or patrons (the term preferred by ANGC), they will be missed.

“It's the atmosphere that they create that makes the experience,” says 2013 Masters champion Adam Scott. “For me, the first tee at Augusta is the most nervous I feel at any point during the year. Walking to that first tee Thursday, the nerves are at an all‑time high, and that's because the eyeballs are on you. When it's going your way and the crowd is on your back, learning to use that as a positive thing to keep going is fantastic.”

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Will Tiger Woods be a factor?

The last time we saw Tiger Woods at Augusta National, he was clenching two fists in triumph after completing one of the most remarkable comebacks in sports history. In the week’s leading up to the 2019 Masters, Tiger had been showing signs that his game was rounding into form, with a T-15 at the Genesis was followed by at T-10 in Mexico and a T-5 at the Dell Match Play. His Masters victory was unthinkable after what the 15-time major winner had been through, but many that had seen his ball-striking during that leadup knew Tiger had a chance.

Fast forward 19 months, and frankly not much is expected of the defending champ. Yes, Tiger can maneuver his way around Augusta National with a blindfold on and still shoot under par, but whether he can contend this week against the game’s thoroughbreds is highly doubtful. Since the season restart in June, Tiger has played in just six events, and the results haven’t been pretty. A T-37 showing at the PGA Championship in August was the best of the bunch. Following a missed cut at the U.S. Open in September, Woods has just one start under his belt: a T-72 finish at the no-cut ZoZo Championship in October.

With just one of his last 10 rounds of golf scored in the 60s, Tiger’s form is as unknown as the November conditions. Despite the uncertainty, anyone who counts Tiger out completely has never seen the man play. He has continued to prove doubters wrong his entire career, through tragedy, scandal and debilitating back surgeries. Are there many that expect Tiger to win this week? Probably not, but if he can play himself into contention come late day Saturday, look for the tried-and-true instincts to kick in. The same brilliance that has produced five Masters titles.

Can Augusta National stand up to Bryson DeChambeau?

Since the post-pandemic restart, the golf story of 2020 has been Bryson DeChambeau and his added weight, muscle and distance off the tee. DeChambeau’s newfound length shredded Winged Foot at the U.S. Open, leading to a six-stroke victory and the first major title of the 27-year-old’s career.

Now DeChambeau heads to Augusta National Golf Club, a course, like Winged Foot, that is nearly 100 years old and steeped in history—and one DeChambeau plans on trying to gut. He has been up-front about his Masters preparation, saying it would involve hitting driver after driver as far as humanly possible. He claims he can hit his new 48-inch driver more than 400 yards in the air, leading some to worry that Bryson could overpower Augusta National. The 350-yard third hole? Drive the green. The iconic 510-yard, par-5 13th hole? Bomb it over the trees on to the 14th fairway for an easy approach into the green.

Traditionalists have expressed concern, though some think Augusta National will hold its own.

“Augusta National is not a golf course you win off the tee,” says World No. 2 Jon Rahm, who is quick to point out that DeChambeau’s short game is often overlooked and was a huge factor in his U.S. Open win. The Spaniard agrees that length is an advantage, but says it will take a lot more than distance to win the Masters.

“There are certain holes you still need to hit certain shots,” Rahm says. “We’ll see. I only have respect for what he’s done. We’ll see if he’s changed the game forever, or if it’s just a hot streak, which it could be.”

Picks

Win: Jon Rahm
Scroll through the list of the top seven players in the world, and only one player stands out without a major title. Jon Rahm. The level of talent the Spaniard has shown is bound to be validated with a major, and it happens this week. Rahm has back-to-back top-10 finishes at the Masters (T-4, T-9) and is in fantastic form heading into the week. Four top-10 results over his last six starts include a win at the BMW and a T-2 at the ZoZo Championship.

Value: Bubba Watson
The two-time Masters champion (2012, 2014) returns to Augusta in his best from in years. Along with multiple green jackets, his recent track record at the Masters should get attention. A T-5 in 2018 was followed by a T-12 in 2019, but his form of late is why Bubba could be a factor. Top 10 performances over his last two starts including at T-4 at the ZoZo championship in late October.

Sleeper: Cameron Smith
The 27-year-old Aussie checks the boxes for recent play and Masters success. Smith has picked up momentum this fall by backing up a T-11 at the CJ Cup at Shadow Creek with a T-4 at the ZoZo Championship. Seven of his last eight rounds have been in the 60’s and Smith has shown confidence at Augusta National where he finished T-5 in 2018.