The rescheduled Masters, traditionally the opening major of the golfing season, takes place at Augusta National from Thursday. We look at some of the major storylines ahead of the pandemic-impacted 84th edition of the tournament, which will be played without fans in attendance.
Will Tiger Woods recreate some more Masters magic?
It will be forever remembered as Tiger’s titanic return. Almost 11 years after his 14th and most recent major victory, Woods not so much as rolled back the clock as hurled it off into Rae's Creek. Golf's lightning rod triumphed by a solitary shot, keeping his cool around the back nine on Sunday while his rivals lost theirs.
A 15th major crown was undeniably his greatest. Some championed it as the best comeback the sport has ever witnessed.
Yet that was April last year, and since Woods has hardly set the game alight. In his past seven starts on the PGA Tour, he has finished outside the top 40 all but once, while he finished tied-37th at the PGA Championship in August and missed the cut a month later at the US Open. Next month, he turns 45.
Then again, it is Augusta. Woods has five Green Jackets in his locker, and 14 top-10 finishes in all. Maybe. Just maybe.
Can Augusta National – or any of the field – stop Bryson DeChambeau?
The numbers didn’t lie, and registered a lighting bolt felt far beyond Augusta. On Sunday, a video emerged on social media of DeChambeau on the driving range at the Masters, yet more evidence that his sheer strength could well overpower all it needs to this week.
The American launched a drive and carried it 362 yards. Then, during a subsequent practice round, player partner Sandy Lyle laid out DeChambeau’s approach – and frightening advantage.
For example, on the 510-yard, par-5 eighth, DeChambeau hit 3-wood, 7-iron. What is more, baulked-up Bryson is now a major champion having prevailed at the recent US Open. He is the world No 6, with 11 top-8 finishes in 2020. And, although DeChambeau is yet to register inside the top 20 on three previous appearances at Augusta, this is his first outing as Bryson 2.0.
With the stats and the stature – both literal and figurative – little wonder he begins as favourite.
Will Rory McIlroy finally complete the major set?
After his 2014 Open success, for McIlroy, the career Grand Slam felt like a when, not if. A few months later, he added a second PGA Championship, a fourth major title by age 25. Now 31, he awaits still his fifth.
The Green Jacket has proved elusive. In the past five Masters, McIlroy has finished fourth, tied-5th, tied-7th, tied-10th and tied-21st.
Two years ago, he didn’t capitalise when teeing off in Sunday’s final group. He has often cited the pressure to capture the year’s opening major, as he seeks to become only the sixth man in history to clinch all four.
Had the Masters kept to its April slot, McIlroy would’ve been favourite: he hadn’t finished outside the top five in seven tournaments, winning the WGC HSBC Champions. He was world No 1.
However, since golf emerged after lockdown, McIlroy has slipped to fifth, posting two top-10s in 12 events. Maybe, though, he’ll benefit from the reduced hype, the somewhat pared-back expectations, and the positive distractions of becoming a first-time dad. For someone of his talent, six years without a major is way too long.
How big a role will the postponed, mid-pandemic Augusta play?
For the first time in its 86-year history, the Masters takes place not amid the spring bloom in April, but among the autumn leaves in November. Instead of those famous roars that reverberate around Augusta National on Sunday, the world’s top golfers will play out the season’s final major with next to no one in attendance – a measure put in place because of the pandemic.
Some estimate approximately 700 people will be on site each day this week. So how will the absence of the “patrons” affect the players? McIlroy, for instance, has previously cited the difficulty in getting competitive juices flowing in the quiet, while some golfers will no doubt thrive in the near-silence, or without thousands watching their every move.
As for the course, it is said to be playing a little trickier around the greens, with the fairways softer because of recent rain. The weather is expected to continue. Perhaps the altered environment opens up even more for a first-time major winner. Jon Rahm, the world No 2, and Xander Schauffele, the No 8, fit snugly into that category.