Things are about to get serious. And that doesn’t even count all the serious that has been taking place away from the golf course — the Saudi-backed challenger to the PGA Tour, the Phil Mickelson saga, Tiger Woods winning the first Player Incentive Program.
First, this week, there is the PGA Tour event that has The King’s name attached to it: the Arnold Palmer Invitational. Next week, the PGA Tour’s signature event, the Players, takes place on the Stadium Course at TPC Sawgrass. But getting closer is the biggest prize — the Masters. With exactly one month till the beginning of Masters week, we look at everything you need to know as the year’s first major, at Augusta National Golf Club, approaches.
What will Tiger do?
The five-time Masters champion said last month that he plans to be back at Augusta National for the Champions Dinner, which he missed last year after suffering serious injuries in a car crash outside Los Angeles on Feb. 23, 2021. When pressed about whether he would play in the Par 3 Contest or the actual Masters, Woods was noncommittal, although the chances of him actually playing in the tournament seem very, very slim. Woods said he’s still regaining enough strength in his right leg to walk a golf course and hasn’t done much outside of putting, chipping and hitting short irons.
Will Mickelson play?
The three-time Masters champion caused a firestorm last month, when author Alan Shipnuck published Mickelson’s controversial comments about the PGA Tour and the Saudi Arabian financiers of a proposed breakaway league. In the aftermath, Mickelson lost a few of his longtime sponsors, and Callaway paused its relationship with him. Mickelson, 51, hasn’t played since missing the cut at the Farmers Insurance Open in late January. In a statement released last week, Mickelson said he was taking time away from golf. Will we see him at Augusta National or even before then?
Will all the patrons be back?
Only essential personnel were allowed on the grounds at Augusta National Golf Club when the 2020 Masters was delayed until November because of the COVID-19 pandemic. The Masters returned to its traditional spot in April 2021, but the number of patrons was limited. In January 2021, Augusta National chairman Fred Ridley said the club would “continue our efforts to ensure that all who purchased tickets from Augusta National will have access in 2022, provided conditions improve.”
Can Rory McIlroy complete the career grand slam?
It has been a familiar storyline at Augusta National since McIlroy won The Open at Royal Liverpool in 2014 to complete three-fourths of the career Grand Slam. Before missing the cut in 2021, McIlroy had finished in the top 10 in six of the past seven Masters. He would become only the sixth player to complete the career Grand Slam in the Masters era, joining Gene Sarazen, Ben Hogan, Jack Nicklaus, Gary Player and Woods.
Will Augusta National show its teeth again?
After unusually soft conditions in November 2020, Augusta National course fought back in April 2021. The average round of 71.752 in 2020 was the lowest in Masters history. There were 152 sub-par rounds that year, including 65 in the 60s. As Hideki Matsuyama became the first Japanese player to win a green jacket, the average score was 73.063.
Top five contenders
The world No. 1 has four straight top-10s at Augusta National: a tie for fifth in 2021, tie for seventh in 2020, tie for ninth in 2019 and solo fourth in 2018. Rahm announced last week that he and his wife, Kelley, are expecting their second child this summer. Last year, Rahm didn’t arrive in Augusta until the day before the first round after Kelley gave birth to their son, Kepa, the previous weekend. He finished tied for fifth. Later in the summer, he won his first major by taking the U.S. Open at Torrey Pines.
Morikawa, 25, already has won two majors (the 2020 PGA Championship and 2021 Open Championship), claiming both in his debut in those events. It wouldn’t be a surprise to see him win a green jacket because of his stellar iron play on a course that puts a premium on second shots. He finished tied for 18th last year.
Thomas has only one top 10 in six starts at the Masters — a solo fourth in 2020. He had improved his position each year until finishing in a tie for 21st last year, after finishing 4-over par in his last two rounds combined. It should help having Mickelson’s longtime caddie, Jim “Bones” Mackay, on his bag this year.
The reigning FedEx Cup champion is undoubtedly the best player in the world who hasn’t won a major. He had back-to-back top-20 finishes at the Masters in 2019 and 2020 before missing the cut last year. Gaining strokes off the tee is a necessity at Augusta, and Cantlay ranks fifth (.692) on tour this season.
The 2015 Masters champion was a popular pick to contend last year; he finished in a tie for third. His play has been up and down lately, but Augusta National tends to bring out his best. Spieth has a pair of runner-ups and two thirds to go along with his Masters victory.
Names to know
Here are some notable amateurs who will be competing in the Masters:
The North Carolina junior was runner-up at the 2021 U.S. Amateur at Oakmont, earning him a spot in the U.S. Open and the Masters. He was the Tar Heels’ all-time leader in stroke average (71.39) through the fall of 2021.
The former USC golfer became only the sixth multiple winner of the U.S. Mid-Amateur in October. At the 2017 Masters, he became the first Mid-Amateur champion to make the cut and was low amateur at 6-over 288, which was good for a tie for 36th.
Jarvis, a freshman from UNLV, won the Latin America Amateur Championship at Casa de Campo as the 1,669th-ranked amateur golfer in the world. The 19-year-old shot a final-round 69 to beat the rest of the field by a stroke. He grew up on Cayman Islands, which has two golf facilities — an 18-hole course and a 9-hole course.
The 21-year-old Japanese star is the top amateur in the world and is being compared to Matsuyama. Nakajima won the Asia Pacific Amateur Championship in November and finished 41st in the Sony Open in Hawaii in January. He finished tied for 28th in the Zozo Championship in October.
The Michigan State star is the reigning U.S. amateur champion and will make his PGA Tour debut at this week’s Arnold Palmer Invitational. He rallied from 3 shots down with nine holes to play to defeat Greaser, 2 and 1, in the 36-hole final to become the first player from Michigan to win the U.S. Amateur.
The Englishman, who has a history of back problems and was working in a customer-service call center not long ago, produced one of the greatest comebacks in British Amateur history in June. He trailed by 8 with 17 holes to play in a 36-hole final, but rallied back and birdied the last four holes to force a playoff. He won on the second extra hole.
Three course changes to know
Changes to three of Augusta National Golf Club’s iconic holes will increase its overall distance from 7,475 yards to 7,510 yards. Here are the three holes that were altered:
No. 11: White Dogwood
The par-4, 520-yard 11th hole, which was the site of Larry Mize‘s famous chip-in to win a 1987 playoff, had its Masters tees moved back 15 yards and to the player’s left. Its fairway was also recontoured and several trees along the right side were removed. Now players can aim their tee shots left or right, depending on pin location. Historically, the 11th has been the second-most difficult hole on the course, behind only No. 10.
No. 15: Firethorn
The Masters tees were moved back 20 yards on the reachable 550-yard, par-5, which might make a few players more hesitant to hit their second shot over the pond in front of the narrow 15th green. Or at least it will make them do it with a fairway wood or long iron in their hands. Firethorn has been the second-easiest hole on the course, behind only No. 13 — another par 5.
No. 18: Holly
The most minimal of the recent course changes, the Masters tees were pushed back 13 yards, without “necessitating a change in length to the hole.” With many players blowing their drives over the left-side fairway bunker the past couple of years, the alteration might bring it back into play off the tee.
Work left to do
These notable players are outside the top 50 in the Official World Golf Ranking — or just inside it. The top 50 in the rankings the week before the start of the Masters will receive an invitation, if they haven’t already qualified otherwise.
Harold Varner III (current ranking: 49)
Varner vaulted up the OWGR standings with a thrilling victory at the Saudi International last month, winning with a 92-foot eagle putt on the 72nd hole. He missed the cut at the WM Phoenix Open and The Genesis Invitational, which didn’t help his cause in earning his first Masters invitation.
Cameron Young (current ranking: 51)
The PGA Tour rookie climbed up the rankings with a tie for second at The Genesis. Young was teammates with Will Zalatoris at Wake Forest and hits it very far; he ranks fifth in driving distance at 319.2 yards.
Richard Bland (current ranking: 55)
Bland, 49, needed 477 events — over 19½ years — before he finally won his first European Tour event, the British Masters in 2021. He was the oldest 36-hole leader in U.S. Open history at Torrey Pines last year. Bland lost a playoff to Viktor Hovland in the Dubai Desert Classic in January.
Ian Poulter (current ranking: 64)
Poulter, 46, has competed in 14 of the past 15 Masters, but he is on the outside looking in right now. He finished in the top 26 at Augusta in each of his past three starts, including a tie for 12th in 2019.