The Masters 2021: Five talking points ahead of Augusta National

A look at some of the main talking points involving the main contenders

The Masters begins on Thursday, only 144 days since the delayed 2020 event in November.

We look at some of the main talking points heading into the season’s first major, at Augusta National.

Can world No 1 Dustin Johnson hold onto the Green Jacket?

The defending champion’s quest to go back-to-back in the shortest Masters turnaround doesn’t necessarily bode well. History doesn’t particularly favour him. Only three golfers have retained the Green Jacket – Jack Nicklaus, Nick Faldo and Tiger Woods – proving just how difficult a feat it is to hold on to that coveted garment. Maybe it’s the pressure of hosting Tuesday’s Champions Dinner. What’s more, of the past 19 defending champions, only four have recorded a top-10 finish the following year.

Johnson's win in November came on a much softer Augusta National, which suited the big-hitting world No 1 perfectly - his 20-under par represented the tournament record - while he was in red-hot form at the time. However, after reigning supreme in Saudi Arabia in January and finishing tied-8th in Los Angeles, Johnson has struggled in his past three outings: Sunday's tied-28th in Texas is his best result. He's a two-time major winner seemingly set on adding to that haul. Only perhaps not this week.

Will resurgent Jordan Spieth go back-to-back on his trusty track?

Victory on Sunday at the Texas Open ended a remarkable drought for Spieth that stretched all the way back to his Open triumph in 2017. The winless streak, which began immediately following his third major title - by age 23 - clocked in at a remarkable 1,357 days. After a missed cut at the Farmers Insurance Open in late January, the former world No 1 was ranked a wayward 92nd. However, since then he has been superb: Spieth has racked up a win and four top-five finishes in his past seven starts.

epa09118945 Jordan Spieth of the US on the fifteenth tee during a practice round for the 2021 Masters Tournament at the Augusta National Golf Club in Augusta, Georgia, USA, 06 April 2021. The 2021 Masters Tournament is held 08 April through 11 April 2021.  EPA/ERIK S. LESSER

And Masters pedigree? Well, he was tied-2nd in 2014, won it the next year, then came home tied-2nd in 2016. There was tied-11th the following year, and third in 2018, before his form blew up. One, sizeable, caveat, though: only two golfers have succeeded at Augusta National after winning the week before, the most recent being Phil Mickelson, in 2006. Still, it's worth remembering, Spieth prevailed the week before the 2017 Open.

Has Rory McIlroy’s Grand Slam quest come too early amid reset?

Another trip down Magnolia Lane, another chance for McIlroy to join Gene Sarazen, Ben Hogan, Gary Player, Nicklaus and Woods in completing the career grand slam. However, the four-time major champion comes into Augusta out of form and apparently out of synch. He hasn’t won since the HSBC-Champions 17 months ago, while he has three top-10s and two missed cuts in eight starts since his tied-5th at the Masters in November. He ranks now at world No 12.

AUGUSTA, GEORGIA - APRIL 06: Rory McIlroy of Northern Ireland plays his shot from the 15th tee during a practice round prior to the Masters at Augusta National Golf Club on April 06, 2021 in Augusta, Georgia.   Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images/AFP

Caused in part by a Bryson DeChambeau-induced pursuit of speed and even more distance, it prompted McIlroy to begin working last month with renowned instructor Pete Cowan. Is that partnership too nascent to reap rewards this week? McIlroy has three top-fives and three more top-10s in his past seven Masters – although he disappointed in the final group in 2016 and 2018. Also, a decade has passed since he surrendered a final-round, four-shot lead, eventually shooting 80. Almost seven years without a major is too long for someone of McIlroy’s unquestionable talent.

Will trailblazing Bryson DeChambeau walk the walk this time around?

Undoubtedly, DeChambeau was the story going into the last Masters in November. He had only recently muscled his way to an awe-inducing six-shot victory at the US Open, giving golf’s great game-changer a first major and ample vindication for his unique approach. He then rocked up at Augusta, made a mockery of yardages during practice and quickly declared the course a par 67 (it’s 72). Come game-time, though, DeChambeau faltered, finishing in a tied for 34th (his best round was 69, on Saturday).

FILE PHOTO: Golf - The Masters - Augusta National Golf Club - Augusta, Georgia, U.S. - November 13, 2020  Bryson DeChambeau of the U.S. after hitting his second tee shot on the 3rd hole during the second round REUTERS/Mike Segar/File Photo

However, he remains a fascinating character, and a pretty fantastic golfer, too: DeChambeau won the last month’s Arnold Palmer Invitational, then came home third at the Players Championship after going out in the final pairing. Make no mistake, he can still overpower Augusta, while his accomplished short game often gets overlooked. In form and in possession of more tools than most, it wouldn’t surprise to see the American “scientist” squeeze his hulking frame into the Green Jacket. Whatever happens, it'll be worth the watch.

How will returning Brooks Koepka fare after recent surgery?

Last month, Koepka posted a picture on his social media on crutches with his right knee wrapped in bandages. Understandably, the four-time major champion's Masters participation appeared in serious jeopardy. Then he showed up on course on Sunday. Few players possess Koepka's self-assuredness so, not only has the former world No 1 reportedly recovered sufficiently to compete, but he's eyeing another major crown. "If I knew I was going to finish second, I wouldn't have shown up," said the American, with typical hubris.

AUGUSTA, GEORGIA - APRIL 06: Brooks Koepka of the United States crouches as he lines up a putt on the practice green during a practice round prior to the Masters at Augusta National Golf Club on April 06, 2021 in Augusta, Georgia.   Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images/AFP

Injury aside, Koepka has performed well at Augusta of late: he was runner-up in 2019 and then tied-7th last November. And his two most recent tour starts? A win at the Waste Management Phoenix Open in February - his first in 19 months as injuries took their toll - and second at the WGC-Workday Championship. But then he slipped and fell, dislocating his kneecap and damaging ligaments. Given his mighty mental fortitude, maybe traipsing Augusta National's rolling hills will prove Koepka’s greatest challenge this week.