AUGUSTA • Augusta National did not create firm and fast conditions for this week's Masters because last year's champion Dustin Johnson went 20 under par to shatter the course record on a rain-softened layout.
But club chairman Fred Ridley had no complaints about the difficult conditions that greeted golfers when the year's first Major teed off yesterday.
"We have the golf course where we want it. It's playing firm and fast, and not only the greens but the fairways," he said. "Our goal is to maintain it for the week."
A world-class field of 88 golfers will face a lightning-quick course at the 85th Masters, a very different test from last November's Covid-delayed event dominated by Johnson.
The world No. 1 will seek to become the first repeat winner since Tiger Woods in 2002. Fellow Americans Bryson DeChambeau, who has a prototype driver in his bag and plans to challenge par-five and long par-four holes from his very first tee shot, Justin Thomas and Jordan Spieth are also heavily tipped.
Brooks Koepka, not so long ago the game's dominant force thanks to his four Majors from 2017 to 2019, will play despite recent knee surgery. He has not competed for more than a month and the state of his game is hard to appraise.
The same could be said of Northern Irishman Rory McIlroy, whose recent struggles suggest he will have to wait to complete a career Grand Slam.
Three-time Masters winner Phil Mickelson said iron shots and setting up proper position for approaches will be the key to solving Augusta's formidable greens.
"You don't have to play perfect but you have to be smart and have to have great touch around the greens," he said. "It's going to be a strategic, difficult challenge that forces you to think about angles. It comes down to the one defence of this course, which is the greens."
Canadian Mike Weir, who won the 2003 Masters, warned that putting would be pivotal. "The faster greens have a little more pace to them," he said. "You really have to think. Those landing areas shrink down when the greens get firmer like this and the precision shot-making is heightened."
Such shots will elicit roars from a limited number of spectators allowed under Covid-19 safety protocols after last year's Masters was played without fans due to the coronavirus.
"Bad shots are punished a little more and the good shots are rewarded because the areas on the green are so small," Australian Marc Leishman said.
"The more you know the course, the bigger advantage it is. When it's like this, there are places that you have to put a big red X in your yardage book and make sure you don't hit it there."
Lee Elder, the first black golfer to play in the Masters, this year joined Jack Nicklaus and Gary Player as honorary starters yesterday morning. Elder, 86, has limited mobility and did not hit a tee shot but his presence was keenly felt. As was the absence of five-time winner Woods, back home in Florida due to serious leg injuries suffered in a February car crash.
There is a chance of thundery showers today that could soften course conditions, one likely reason the course has been firm and fast so far this week.
"If the rain doesn't come, then it will be really fun," sixth-ranked Xander Schauffele said. "It has the potential to be even crazier. Some world-class players are going to look like fools out here."
Quick-drying greens should produce the usual back-nine Masters drama on Sunday anyway, with huge risks but opportunities available. "The little kid in you comes out here," said 2012 US Open winner Webb Simpson. "The guy who doesn't make many mistakes is going to do pretty well come Sunday."
AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE, REUTERS
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