With no patrons and a muted energy, the 84th Masters relies on Dustin Johnson to leave us longing for April
> One Masters tradition greatly missed last week? The annual buzz that exists beneath the majestic oak tree between the clubhouse and the first tee at Augusta National. This is where the golf industry gathers each April. The area was deemed “inside the bubble,” and only a few competitors would gather there sporadically. Sunday delivered an interesting foursome as a few players hung around to congratulate Dustin Johnson: Zach Johnson, Bubba Watson, Jordan Spieth and Justin Thomas. Thomas (No. 3) is by far ranked highest of that group, but also the only one without a Masters green jacket. He wasn’t very satisfied with his play last week, but a fourth-place finish showed that he wasn’t that far off, either. With his exquisite short game and his ability to hit it long, Thomas will no doubt (you’d like to think) get there one day. “I’m very confident I’m going to win around this place at some point,” Thomas said. “… I wish the tournament in April started tomorrow. I’ll just say that.”
> This writer just attended his 26th Masters, and every time I’m at Augusta National, there’s one person I can’t believe isn’t there walking the grounds in his champion’s green jacket: Greg Norman. That’s the guy. (He did give Dustin Johnson a putting tip recently at Michael Jordan’s club in Florida, so there’s that.) With his length and go-for-broke style, Norman got into the mix many times (he had six top-3 finishes), but it’s funny how fate taps some players on the shoulder, and not others, at Augusta National. The place is finicky that way. Johnny Miller and Tom Weiskopf never earned a jacket. Same for David Duval, Nick Price and Ernie Els. You have to wonder whether Rory McIlroy will be his generation’s Greg Norman. McIlroy is immensely talented and, in baseball parlance, is a five-tool player, and conditions seemed to be perfect for him at a November Masters. The course was much softer than it would be in April, and McIlroy has won all four of his majors in wet, “softer” conditions. Yet in the first round, as a record 53 players shot sub-par scores, McIlroy shot 75. Seventy-five! Of course he bounced back, as he does, and finished strongly, as he does, and tied for fifth place, as he does. He will be almost 32 when April rolls around, and with each passing Masters, the mighty task of winning at Augusta to complete the career Grand Slam will grow only more difficult.
> When Tiger Woods won his fifth Masters title in 2019, no hole was more pivotal than the 155-yard 12th. On Sunday in 2019, Woods stepped up and wisely hit a shot way left of that far-right hole location, leading him to make par. Four players in the final two groupings hit balls into the water there. On Tuesday of this year’s tournament, Woods was asked about the 12th hole. In a practice round a day earlier, he stepped to the 12th, winds swirling, and pulled 8-iron from the bag. Then he felt the wind shift behind him, and traded for a wedge. Eventually, he hit 9-iron.
“I’ve hit wedge to the front-left pin,” Woods said. “I’ve also hit 6-iron on that hole. It’s been one of those holes where you can’t … there is no other hole that’s like that. As simple as it looks, a simple little, as I said, wedge to 7-iron, it’s amazing what pressure will do, what the angle of the green and that just determine the shots that we’ve hit. I’ve done it. I’ve hit the ball in the water; I’ve hit the ball in the bunker; I’ve hit it in the bushes. I’ve been everywhere on that hole.” Five days later at that little 12th, he was in the water (three times), in a bunker (twice), and made 10. (This was no Bo Derek 10.) No wonder Dustin Johnson said he didn’t breathe easily until he watched his tee shot reach that putting surface on Sunday.
> Andy Ogletree, 22, the 2019 U.S. Amateur champion, is expected to turn professional sometime this week, the 84th Masters being his last start as an amateur. For him, even though he had to drastically change his plans (he originally wanted to turn pro after last spring’s NCAAs, which were canceled due to the COVID-19 pandemic), the Masters was worth the wait. He got to play the first two rounds with Woods, who was great to him, and ended up being the tournament’s low amateur. Plus, even with this year’s Masters having limited patron access, his mom and dad got to watch him and his grandmother also came to town, staying at the rental house and acting as tournament-week chef. Saturday night’s fare? Fried deer steaks. “It was good,” Ogletree said. “Southern cooking.” Could make for an interesting Champions Dinner menu one day.
> Austin Johnson, who has caddied for his big brother, Dustin, since 2013, said Sunday afternoon that maybe now fans won’t continue with the perception that his brother doesn’t care enough after he endured all these close calls at majors. Is that a misrepresentation? “One hundred percent,” Austin said. “That’s because we’re Southern guys, laid back; we talk a little slow. Everybody thinks we don’t really care. We put in every bit of work that everybody else does out here.”
Austin shared a funny story about him and his brother. As kids, they visited their grandfather, Art Whisnant, once a standout college athlete at South Carolina, and would belt tons of balls into Murray Pond near Columbia from his front yard. For years, this went on. (Whisnant told the Los Angeles Times that when the lake was drawn down 10 feet a few years ago, workers found 5,000 golf balls.) At times, when seeking a challenge, the brothers would look around and pick out some daring shots.
“The neighbors weren’t too happy about that,” Austin said, grinning, “but we were kids, you get bored, and you try to squeeze one between the houses.” Oh, maybe that’s why, as Rory McIlroy said on Sunday, D.J. can “drive it on a string.”
> Augusta National was very strange, very different, without patrons. Let’s hope they are back in April, because they are such a big part of the event, and create an atmosphere on that second nine on Sunday that can be replicated no place else in sports. It was downright eerie to walk down the 10th hole toward Amen Corner and not see seats around greens, or any observation stands, as Augusta National refers to them, around the greens. Jon Rahm said it was so quiet that he could hear somebody eating from a bag of chips 150 yards away. Those there (club members, family members, a limited number of media members) could watch shots 15 feet behind players at the 12th tee, or see players putt for eagles at 15 leaning on the Sarazen Bridge before walking a few steps to watch tee shots at 16. (By the way, no aces this year, especially with the top-right hole location and not the traditional feed-in left-side flag on Sunday. Bet you a Masters Moon Pie it won’t be there for the final round in April.) Bernhard Langer made a 63-foot putt in front of 12 observers. When Rory McIlroy and Brooks Koepka tried to make runs to get into the tournament, there was no extra push from the crowd to spur them on. Sunday at the Masters still was terrific, with players appreciative to have the opportunity to play for history, but everyone knew it wasn’t the Sunday we are accustomed to viewing at the Masters. We all will remember 2020.
> Last thought: Is there any other place on the planet where you can order a couple of delicious egg salad sandwiches and an ice-cold beer and still have to wait around for change on a 10-spot? Ah, the Masters. Dustin Johnson is right. He looks good in green. As Justin Thomas said, I wish April could get here tomorrow.
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