The 2021 Masters Tournament begins at 7:45 a.m. Thursday, with the honorary tee shots of Lee Elder, Jack Nicklaus and Gary Player.
After that, the scores count and everyone is chasing defending champion Dustin Johnson, in hopes he’ll put the green jacket on them Sunday afternoon in Butler Cabin.
In what finally feels like a tiny bit of normalcy, the Masters has returned to its traditional April spot on the calendar, and there will be a few patrons roaming the grounds at Augusta National.
Here are five storylines to pay attention to as you watch online and on ESPN in the afternoon:
The crowd reacts to a birdie by Tiger Woods on the 11th green during the second round of The Masters golf tournament at Augusta National Golf Club. Rob Schumacher-USA TODAY Sports
Thankfully, after a one-year absence, patrons have returned to the grounds of Augusta National Golf Club. While everyone was grateful the Masters took place in 2020 amid a global pandemic, the absence of roars created an eerie silence. Although the galleries will be much smaller than usual (estimated at one-fourth the size), they will provide an essential soundtrack around keyholes in Amen Corner and along the entire course. Those resounding reactions serve as signals to the players, who can read the roars like they read the greens, using them to know when another competitor is climbing the leaderboard.
The green on the 18th hole is shown at Augusta National Golf Club, the site of the Masters golf tournament, in Augusta, Ga. AP Photo/Rob Carr
Firm and fast. If you had a dollar for every time a participant spoke those words the last three days, you’d be celebrating like a Masters champion. Seriously though, the players will face major championship slickness, unlike any seen at Augusta National in at least eight years. During practice rounds, approach shots trickled down slopes and players carefully studied the long, breaking putts they’re certain to face over the next four days. Is this a response to the record scoring of the last two years? Not entirely. Mother Nature has cooperated in recent weeks, enabling the maintenance staff to regulate the moisture on the fairways and greens, which should exact a premium on precision, patience and course management. There’s rain in the forecast, but it will take a significant amount to soften a stern test of golf ability and IQ.
Dustin Johnson celebrates with the green jacket after winning The Masters golf tournament at Augusta National GC. Rob Schumacher-USA TODAY Sports
Dustin Johnson was an obvious favorite in the fall, arriving in Augusta playing the best golf of his career. He’s still ranked No. 1 in the world but hasn’t been as sharp of late, recording only one top-10 in five U.S. starts in 2021. In this seven-part series, Golfweek dug into what has made DJ a champion. Still, he’s played the course better than anyone in recent years, posting four top-six finishes in his last five Masters. A difficult examination should favor the game’s most talented players and those with the most experience. Johnson, making his 11th appearance, begins his quest to become the tournament’s third back-to-back champion at 10:30 a.m.
Brooks Koepka chips onto the 4th hole green during round one of the 2021 Farmers Insurance Open at Torrey Pines South on January 28, 2021 in San Diego, California. Donald Miralle/Getty Images
After he won the Waste Management Open in January and finished runner-up in the WGC-Workday Championship in late February, the four-time major champion was an obvious favorite to win his first green jacket. He hasn’t played since. Koepka slipped at home in early March and underwent surgery to repair ligament damage and a dislocated kneecap. He spent the last month in intensive rehabilitation and returned to the course on Monday, playing four holes. He lacks full range of motion in his right knee and can’t bend down to read putts. A shot from the pine straw lining Augusta National’s fairways could spell disaster. Koepka’s record here is strong; he’s broken par in his last 10 rounds and was the runner-up in 2019. He tees off at 10:06 a.m.
Xander Schauffele hits his tee shot on the 9th hole during the first round of the Players Championship at TPC Sawgrass – Stadium Course. Photo: Jasen Vinlove-USA TODAY Sports
10:42 a.m. — Xander Schauffele, Jon Rahm and Rory McIlroy; 2 p.m. — Jordan Spieth, Cameron Smith, Collin Morikawa. There’s a good chance the 2021 Masters champion emerges from one of these two groups. Masters: Tee times, featured group Spieth (2015) is the only past champion in the two threesomes and confirmed his return to form last week by winning the Valero Texas Open. Schauffele is a recent runner-up, as is Smith, who became the first golfer to shoot four rounds in the 60s at the Masters last fall. Everyone expected McIlroy to claim multiple titles by now, and despite his consistent top-10 finishes, his career will be unfulfilled unless he completes the career Grand Slam. Rahm’s combination of power and touch is an ideal fit for the course. He’s 3-for-3 in top-10 finishes but didn’t land in Augusta until Wednesday due to the birth of his son over the weekend. Morikawa, one of golf’s best ballstrikers, is seeking his second major crown after winning the PGA Championship last August.