Fiery fairways at Augusta National to provide major test at Masters

A safe distance from the gates of Augusta National, badge selling appears slow. Parting with $600 would secure a practice-day ticket. A Thursday-Sunday package costs between $8,000 and $9,000, depending on the ability to barter. Prices are in tune with any “standard” Masters. If that seems curious given reduced capacity – only 8,000 spectators per day are expected – therein lies a nod to shortages of disposable income. Even ticket touts have to be aware of the economic impact of a pandemic.

Twenty quick weeks have passed since the 84th Masters concluded at a soft, eerie, empty Augusta. Much as those involved tried to deny it, this had the feel of a competition delivered through absolute necessity. It was joyful for Dustin Johnson, but joyless for onlookers.

The club will now relish this opportunity to stage the first men’s major with spectators since Shane Lowry took delivery of the Claret Jug to the strains of The Fields of Athenry at Portrush in July of 2019. There is excitement, too, at the prospect of Augusta biting back. Johnson’s 20 under par was, of course, due to excellent golf but this course was worryingly submissive. Bryson DeChambeau’s ongoing efforts to bludgeon his sport’s most sacred sites will not sit well with traditionalists, either.

Insist though he may that controlling the winning score is not a Masters goal, the club chairman, Fred Ridley, spoke with underlying glee about a tournament bearing some relation to the Open. Even by the club’s loftiest standards, Augusta is absolutely immaculate this week. Peril is perfectly masked.

“Bobby Jones said often he wanted to create an inland links course when he built Augusta National,” Ridley said. “We certainly don’t look like a links course because we have a lot of trees, but we can have the characteristics of a links course by having the ground play a big part in how the course is played, and that’s what we are trying to do.

“It’s playing firm and fast, not only the greens but the fairways. The ball really is rolling. This is probably the first year since Adam Scott won, 2013, when we actually came into the week with the golf course playing as it is right now.”

Ridley reaffirmed a point about the distance DeChambeau and others can hit the ball. “We hope there will not come a day when the Masters or any golf championship will have to be played at 8,000 yards to achieve that objective,” he said. Augusta’s scorecard yardage is already at 7,475.

The backdrop is more curious than we have come to expect. Ridley was pulled into the debate about Georgia’s controversial voting law. “I don’t think that my opinion on this legislation should shape the discussion,” the chairman said. Be that as it may, his view does matter.

A Los Angeles police report relating to the cause of Tiger Woods’s car crash in late February, arriving the day before the Masters begins, added another level of oddity. Woods was not fit enough to attend the champions’ dinner at Augusta on Tuesday and despite fellow players reporting him as in good spirits, the scale of his impairment has to raise serious questions over whether he will feature in the Masters again.

Among other past champions not in the 2021 field is Ángel Cabrera, who was arrested in Brazil three months ago after Interpol issued a red notice for alleged crimes committed in his native Argentina. El Pato won under towering Georgia pines in 2009 and was the man Scott defeated in a play-off four years later. What happened next is a source of great intrigue, to put it mildly.

One is left to wonder what long-term impact there will be on DeChambeau’s body, such is the violent action of his driver swing. For now the Californian is the most talked about man in golf, with US Open glory last year validating his merging of science and physicality. If DeChambeau dons a Green Jacket, golf’s boundaries will have been completely redrawn.

Jordan Spieth landed in Augusta fresh from success at the Texas Open. Spieth, once such a specialist at this venue, encountered all manner of professional problems in the almost four years since winning the Open at Royal Birkdale. There would be elements of fairy tale attached to Spieth’s resurgence continuing with a second Masters victory. Such an outcome is entirely possible.

There are question marks over Johnson’s form as he attempts to launch a successful Green Jacket defence. Brooks Koepka’s fitness is the key theme, with the four-time major winner still in the midst of recovery from knee surgery. Jon Rahm, another contender, arrived in Georgia on Wednesday following the weekend birth of his first child. “I’m ready to compete,” Rahm insisted. “I wouldn’t be here otherwise.”

Justin Thomas, the world No 2, looks to have the strongest pre-tournament claims. Thomas has improved year on year at this venue, to the point of a fourth-place finish last time out. When Thomas won his sole major thus far, the condition of Quail Hollow was similar to this week at Augusta. The effervescent Lee Westwood is always worthy of Augusta respect, even before his terrific 2021 touch is considered. Three more Englishmen – Matt Fitzpatrick, Paul Casey and Tyrrell Hatton – have legitimate hopes.

With fiery fairways and expectant galleries, Augusta has rediscovered its pulse. There is hope this major will offer glimpses into a more upbeat sporting world. What happens next is the domain of 88 players from 23 countries.

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