Morning Read contributors team with RotoWire and Buffalo Groupe writers to offer insight into the week ahead at Augusta National
Seven months late, Masters week finally has arrived.
Because of the coronavirus pandemic, golf’s most recognizable rite of spring, the Masters Tournament, shifted to the fall. Augusta National Golf Club will not allow spectators – or, patrons, in the club’s parlance – but millions of golf fans around the world have circled this week on their calendars since the event was moved from early April.
Morning Read, with RotoWire as a playing partner in this virtual roundtable, has teamed to provide insight into the event and its key performers ahead of Thursday’s first round. RotoWire’s Len Hochberg and Greg Vara, Morning Read contributors John Hawkins and Mike Purkey and Dan Wooters of Buffalo Groupe, Morning Read’s parent company, have answered some of the key questions ahead of Thursday’s first round. We hope that their insight will help get you ready for the exciting week ahead, whether you're planning to wager a few bucks on the action or just invest your time in watching.
The first fall Masters is upon us. Are you more or less intrigued with the Masters being played in the fall instead of its traditional April slot?
John Hawkins: It’s like Christmas in July, and I’m stoked, but probably more thankful it wasn’t cancelled than anything else. The Masters has a distinct spring flavor to it under normal circumstances, and that’s where it belongs. I’m intrigued, but there’s no need to make this a habit.
Len Hochberg: I'm anticipating it more, because we've all waited so long, but not really any more intrigued than if it were in April. Sure, it will be interesting to see how the course plays in November. It presumably won't happen again, so it's not a huge deal for me. I'm more interested in the myriad golfer storylines.
Mike Purkey: I’m not among those who thinks Augusta National will play appreciably different in the fall than in the spring. Temperatures for tournament days are supposed to be in the high 70s and low 80s, with some rain in the forecast. Except for the lack of azaleas and dogwoods in bloom, it looks an awful lot like April to me.
Greg Vara: More intrigued, but less excited. The Masters' April slot is perfect, it's the first major of the season after a long break, and football is still months away. I'm curious to see how the course plays in November and I am still excited, but I prefer the April slot.
Dan Wooters: The fact that we will have a televised golf tournament from Augusta National next week probably won't hit me until the ceremonial first tee shots. I will watch every shot but be less intrigued as to when a “normal” Masters is on. Imagine if Tiger Woods finally were to have broken through this year instead of last year, in front of no spectators? One of the greatest moments in the history of sports would have fallen flat. It’s always more interesting when everyone involved can participate.
With Augusta National’s recent acquisition of land behind the 13th tee, should the 510-yard par-5 hole be lengthened?
Hawkins: Absolutely not … yet. It’s the greatest golf hole on earth because the risk/reward factor is so potent. Adding 40-50 yards would turn it into a routine three-shotter for anyone but the longest hitters, which would compromise the hole’s integrity and make it less exciting to watch. Don’t mess with perfection. Leave it alone. For now.
Hochberg: Things have not gotten completely out of hand … yet. The 13th still is a compelling and pivotal hole as is. They can make some other adjustments first, such as repositioning the tee box. Lengthening one of the iconic par 5s in golf should be a last resort. I don't think it's necessary to do it now.
Purkey: I’d rather see a huge pine tree mysteriously appear in the left corner of the dogleg. The 13th is perhaps the most exciting hole on the course, particularly on Sunday afternoon. I don’t think a new back tee makes it any better.
Vara: Yes. It wasn't always this way, but if the wind isn't up, Augusta doesn't have much of a defense against these bombers. I realize that lengthening the course isn't always the answer, but when scoring becomes too easy, something has to be done.
Wooters: If Augusta National wants to continue lengthening the course and trying to become “bomber proof,” go right ahead. However, shot values would be lost. It remains to be seen whether players such as Bryson DeChambeau and others will begin a trend, but even if they do, golf still mostly comes down to the 5 inches between the ears. Augusta National is sacred ground, and it should remain that way.
Experience matters at Augusta, and there often is a 40-something contender (last year, 43-year-old Tiger Woods actually won it). Which “old guy” in the field is your best bet to be in contention on Sunday?
Hawkins: Lee Westwood picked up a quality Euro Tour victory in Abu Dhabi back in January, which suggests he still has some excellent golf left in him. He also has an oversized history of major-championship heartbreak, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing at this point in his career. Never mind that Westwood stunk it up in Houston last week. The guy has a habit of inhabiting the game’s biggest leaderboards, and at age 47, he’s running out of opportunities finally to finish on top of one.
Hochberg: I can't believe I'm writing this, but Bubba Watson. He's actually had a pretty darn good 2020: nine top-25s, of which five were top-10s, including his past two starts in strong fields, at the CJ Cup and Zozo Championship. And his past two years at Augusta, at ages 39 and 40, have been a tie for fifth and a tie for 12th.
Purkey: Well, on today’s PGA Tour, 30 is the new 40, so the definition of “old” has changed. Dustin Johnson is 36. Is that old enough for you?
Vara: Zach Johnson. He'll probably be a popular answer, but he's 44 and playing well right now. Johnson hasn't shown much game over the past couple of years, but he found something in recent months and hasn't let up. He's a former champ, of course, so he knows how to navigate Augusta National.
Wooters: As much as I might like to say Tiger Woods again, his game is not trending as it was in 2019. Phil Mickelson has been beating up on the old guys, but he has not been able to hang with the younger crowd lately. Bubba Watson, 42, a two-time Masters champion could contend again. Watson has been riding an upswing with two consecutive top-10s, and there’s no place that he loves more than Augusta National.
Speaking of Woods, what do you think of his chances this week?
Hawkins: Slim and none, although you never know when Slim is going to fly into town. Woods hasn’t factored at a tournament since winning in Japan more than a year ago. He’s the defending champ here, of course, but I think he felt a sense of closure after winning a fifth Masters title in 2019. Comeback complete, mission accomplished. Greatness never sleeps, but Woods will need a pretty loud alarm clock to get himself up for this gathering.
Hochberg: Not much. He clearly hasn't had his A game this year, or even his B game. Even though he might be the one or two golfers who could find his game at Augusta, it's a large ask. Plus, no one will be affected adversely by the lack of fans more than Woods will be. Making the cut is likely, given the percentage of the 96-man field that will make it.
Purkey: I’d never say that Woods has no chance. He can make magic happen at Augusta National. But I wouldn’t bet one dime on him, no matter how long the odds.
Vara: Unfortunately, not good. He opened poorly in his most recent start, at the Zozo Championship, but he bounced back in the next round, which gave me some hope, but he had nothing left for the weekend. Consistency is the issue right now, and there's no way that he can win without some consistency. Could he find it this week? Sure, but I don't see it happening.
Wooters: Woods is the defending champion, and he has five green jackets, so never count him out. However, I don’t see it for him this week. He has not played well since the Presidents Cup almost a year ago, and his spotty 2020 schedule has done him no favors. His magical 2019 run was made possible by the foundation he built while contending at multiple majors in 2018 and PGA Tour victory No. 80 at the Tour Championship. If he can rebuild that momentum, he will be competing with the top players again. It’s just not going to happen this week.
Who’s one sleeper (30-1 odds or greater) whom you have your eye on this week?
Hawkins: Louis Oosthuizen is a gigantic steal at 50-1. He has come very close at Augusta National before and has played a lot of excellent golf in 2020. It’s crazy that this guy has never won in America, but I wouldn’t be surprised if he worked his way into the mix again. At that point, anything can happen.
Hochberg: For all of the injuries and seemingly so much left on the table through the years, Jason Day (35-1) has had a fantastic career in the majors well beyond his one win. He tied for fifth at the Masters last year, one of four top-10s in nine career starts at Augusta. He's never missed a cut there (one WD, in 2012). He tied for fourth over the summer at the PGA, giving him a 16th top-10 in 39 career major starts.
Purkey: Matthew Wolff is 33-1, but I wouldn’t exactly call him a sleeper. His two major-championship finishes are T-4 and second. He’s only 21 but he’s not afraid of the moment.
Vara: Webb Simpson is right around 30-1 in most places, which means he qualifies in my eyes. Simpson struggled here initially, missing the cut in three of his first six starts at the Masters, but he has posted top-20s in his two most recent starts, including a T-5 last year. That alone isn't enough, of course, but he's my pick because of the way he played over that past 12 months.
Wooters: At 60-1, Scottie Scheffler presents tremendous value for a guy who was right there at the PGA Championship before tying for fourth and was named the PGA Tour’s rookie of the year. His game is back on the upswing. In high-pressure situations with no spectators as distractions, the kids just out of college seem to thrive the most because it feels like just another week to them.
Who’s your pick to win the Masters?
Hawkins: Jon Rahm is a major champion waiting to happen, and there’s reason to believe the time is now. He should have won the premium-field gathering in Southern California three weeks ago. He did win the Memorial and a FedEx Cup playoff tilt this summer and seems to contend every time he tees it up. He drives it a mile and owns a brilliant short game, although his short fuse gets more attention than either of those assets. Someone really should jump out at you if you’re picking him to win a Masters. Rahm has improved in leaps and bounds over the past year. He’s ready to get vertical.
Hochberg: The only outstanding question for me relating to Dustin Johnson was: How would be rebound from a positive COVID test? As we saw at Houston, quite well. Right now, his majors legacy centers on all the ones that he didn't win. But he's finished top-10 in four straight Masters, including a tie for second behind Woods last year. He was co-runner-up at the PGA and T-6 at the U.S. Open. At the beginning of the year, it didn't seem possible that he could regain the world’s No. 1 ranking. This week, he'll reinforce his standing.
Purkey: I’m going to keep picking Rory McIlroy until he wins. Sooner or later, I’ll be right.
Vara: Bryson DeChambeau. This is one event where it's important to have a solid track record in order to succeed, but Patrick Reed proved two years ago that it's not a necessity. I'd feel a lot better about this pick if DeChambeau had even a top-20 here, but he doesn't. With that said, I didn't expect his game to translate to a U.S. Open setup, and look what happened there.
Wooters: In three starts at the Masters, Jon Rahm owns two top-10s and no finish worse than T-27. The No. 2-ranked golfer in the world is one of the game’s top drivers and is building momentum again. Look for Rahm to slip on the green jacket this week and be ready to defend it in just five months.
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