The green jackets have Augusta National “right where we want it” and for the first time in almost a decade, the course should have the big-hitters where it wants them — namely fretting about the bounces, the roll and, most of all, the greens.
Five months on from Dustin Johnson’s record-breaking soft-shoe shuffle into the Butler Cabin, the Masters should return to a test that will be unrecognisable to that most recent incarnation, but so reminiscent of the challenge of championships past that established this major as the ultimate risk-and-reward thriller.
As the governing bodies prepare to rein in the boom squad — the likes of Bryson DeChambeau who, with their 350-yard plus carries, are threatening to reduce Amen Corner to a few “Hail Marys” — Mother Nature has stepped up to the plate to ensure it will rather more intriguing than the drive, wedge and putt that typified Johnson’s glory in November.
No disrespect to the world No 1 — and it is eminently possible that he becomes just the fourth in history after Jack Nicklaus, Tiger Woods and Sir Nick Faldo to defend their Masters title successfully — but whoever prevails on Sunday will have conquered the genuine Augusta.
“The fact that Dustin was 20-under was a combination of his extraordinary play and that at the same time, admittedly, the golf course was soft,” Fred Ridley, the Augusta chairman said. “But that really had nothing to do with the way the course is playing right now. We have had ideal weather and this is the first year probably going back to 2013, when we actually came into the week with the course playing firm and fast, as it is right now. We have it right where we want it.”
Phil Mickelson concurs and the greenside magician is delighted. “I would say for the last decade, the greens here are in the top 25 percent of softest we play on Tour, and the golf course’s only defence is the greens, right?” the three-time champion said. “When the greens are firm, the precision, the course management, the angles, where you leave the ball… all of this stuff becomes incredibly important.
“When the greens are soft, it’s irrelevant because you can fly the ball over all the trouble. Angles don’t matter. I plugged a five-iron last year or last November into the second green. It actually plugged! The guys are so precise in their ability to fly the ball the correct yardage with every club that if you have soft receptive greens, it’s like having a military and then not giving them any weapons. It’s defenceless.
“However, when the greens are firm, those small sections are very hard to hit and you’ve got to really strategise. With firm greens, this course needs to be respected — and I think it’s been a long time since it’s had to be respected.”
Of course, the big boys will have a huge advantage with shorter irons in from the fairway. But keeping it out in the open could be difficult with the creeks, azalea, dogwood, pine needles and the pines, themselves, all being brought to the fore of the equation.
“It’s firm and fast not only on the greens but the fairways,” Ridley said. “The ball really is rolling. You know, Bobby Jones said often he wanted to create an inland links course when building the National… and we can have the characteristics of a links by having the ground play a big part in how the course is played. That’s what we are trying to do.”
The winning score should be somewhere around eight-under, providing the forecasted storms do not cause saturated havoc. Augusta has a sub-air underground system that sucks out the moisture and can counter a few downpours. So all good — as they say over here — for 2021 but the concern still mounts for the future. “We hope there will not come a day when the Masters or any golf championship will have to be played at 8,000 yards,” Ridley said. “This is an important crossroads; so we will continue to urge the governing bodies and all interested parties to put forward thoughtful solutions as soon as possible.”
Only 525 yards left to go. The message is simple. Augusta expects the R&A and US Golf Association to act on its distance report and introduce equipment restrictions to put a brake on the ball. When Ridley talks about this emotive issue, it as if he is speaking for the soul of Augusta National and, without meaning to be po-faced, in many ways he is.
The shock and awe of watching DeChambeau take on the trees on the right of the 445-yard first — and run it up within flick-on distance — is all very well, but the defining dimensions of this unique examination will be reduced in the process. Never is this more apparent than on the 13th, the celebrated par-five that over the years has come to represent the game’s struggle with technology.
In 2014, Bubba Watson hit the 510-yarder with a drive and a sand-wedge. So the club bought land behind the tee and were ready to extend. But then came the realisation that they would be changing the identity of one of the most revered holes in golf. Ridley has remained resolute. They will not lengthen, they will not add trees or lower the tee box, or turn it into a par four. Augusta will wait for the rules to be changed.
“The danger of radically altering 13 is that you would take away the eagle three and double-bogey seven and bring in a lot more fours, fives and sixes,” Justin Rose said. “And that what makes the holes great and, generally what makes Augusta great.”