There have been whispers for weeks from a few players who made casual scouting trips to Augusta. This was not going to be the golf course they left in November which Dustin Johnson torched to the record tune of 20-under par.
It won’t even be the golf course players have enjoyed in relative comfort for the last decade. Augusta National hasn’t bared its teeth since 2007-08 when everyone was howling that the roars had been silenced and the course was too hard.
“With firm greens, this golf course needs to be respected,” said three-time Masters champion Phil Mickelson, “and I think it’s been a long time since it’s had to be respected.”
If the scattered and isolated thunderstorms forecasted for Friday and Saturday don’t offer the kind of deluge that made the greens pin cushions on the first morning of last autumn’s out-of-season Masters, this will be the kind of test that used to define the Masters more often than not.
And most of the Augusta veterans are thrilled.
“In November when we played, the golf course is nothing like it normally is,” said Lee Westwood, making his 20th Masters start. “You could actually miss it in spots you were terrified about when you were making your plan, and you could be aggressive to certain flags. It wasn’t, as everybody would sort of say, a true Masters.
“This week it’s back to how the golf course should play, fast and firm, and this is how it is at its toughest. You’ll see, I think, people who have got a lot of experience around here coming to the top of the leaderboard again.”
In November, a record 26 players competed in the Masters for the first time. They were greeted by an opening round that was nothing but dart practice, with approach shots plugging into greens that even Augusta’s Sub-air system that sucks moisture out of the greens could not transform to firm in four days.
Consequently, the field collectively shot the lowest scoring averages in Masters history and Johnson shattered the tournament record for lowest score and fewest bogeys (four). Those rookies from the fall will have a rude awakening on Thursday.
“If it stays dry, it’ll be as difficult as the course has played in a long, long time, and that’s what I think we need to have,” said Fred Couples, the 1992 champion who owns the record with 23 consecutive made Masters cuts.
Jose Maria Olazabal, who won his second green jacket with an 8-under total on greens that were crusty and purple come Sunday, expects a real challenge this week: “I think, if the weather stays like this, we’re going to see Augusta as good as ever.”
Masters chairman Fred Ridley insists that the club has no intention of inflicting retribution because Johnson and the field abused it five months ago.
“We don’t have any prescribed score,” Ridley said. “The fact that Dustin was 20-under was a combination of his extraordinary play and that at the same time, admittedly, the golf course was soft.”
That said, the course has been tournament-ready for weeks ahead of schedule.
Normally they ease players in during practice rounds before ramping up the firmness and speed when the first round starts. But it was already sending wicked signals during the Augusta National Women’s Amateur on Saturday.
“From Monday, the greens are fiery, almost all of them,” said Adam Scott, the 2013 champ.
“Usually in the past when it’s been good weather, you’re kind of lulled into a false sense of security Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday around here and then they cut your legs out from under you on Thursday and you’re scared every chip shot and all of a sudden downhill putts are running to the edge of the green and stuff like that.
“That’s what was happening out there (Monday). Looked like it was at a tournament length, the grass around the greens and the firmness and the speed of the greens had that brown tinge on it. If that’s a sign of things to come, we’ve got to buckle up for this week.”
Carlos Ortiz of Mexico, one of a record-low six first-timers in this week’s field, played a practice round with 2017 champion Sergio Garcia and found an instant respect for the course.
“Sergio I think has played here like 20 times, 21 times, and he says he’s never seen the greens this firm,” Ortiz said.
Garcia confirmed that assessment: “I think that’s the way it is right now, it’s nice because it makes you think a lot, it makes you try to make sure your gameplan is right. Then you have to execute, which is always the most important thing. So it’s playing tough.”
This is not just a departure for Augusta National since November. It’s deviating from what players believe has been a concerted effort by the club to inject excitement into the tournament since Zach Johnson won at 1-over in 2007 and Trevor Immelman needed to shoot 3-over 75 to complete his wire-to-wire win in 2008.
Eight of the last 12 Masters have been won with scores in double-digits under par.
“I would say for the last decade, the greens here are in the top 25% of the softest we play on tour, and the golf course’s only defence is the greens, right?” said Mickelson, who was incredulous that he was plugging balls into greens five months ago.
The guys are so precise in their ability to fly the golf ball the correct yardage with every club that if you have soft receptive greens, it’s like having a military and then not giving them any weapons. It’s defenceless.
“So when the greens are firm, the precision, the course management, the angles, the leave where the ball is left, all of this stuff becomes incredibly important in your ability to play this course effectively.”
Jordan Spieth, who previously held a share of the course record at 18-under with Tiger Woods, thinks the club is implementing a course correction and says “the firmer the better.”
“If the membership here and those who are setting up the golf course get the weather they want to get, they like to see tournaments like 2014, 2016, a little bit ‘17, where it’s potentially less than 10-under par is a winning score, where it requires a lot more kind of course knowledge where you leave the ball and you have to hit an even more precise shot to get it where you want it to go.”
For the first time in a while, the players will have to respect a “true Masters” set-up.