AUGUSTA, Ga. — Augusta National figured to play different in the spring compared with in the fall.
But as the first round of the Masters approaches, the home to the tournament appears to also be responding differently compared with some of the past events played in the traditional April week.
A firm, fast golf course has been lacking for several years, usually due to weather conditions. So far, a dry month that saw cold, windy conditions over the weekend yield to sunny, warm ones means Augusta National is setting up to be a sterner test than players are used to seeing.
“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, 61, who won the Masters in 1992 and is playing the Masters for the 36th time. “We need to have the course firm, fast, and hopefully there won’t be much rain.”
Thunderstorms are in the forecast for Friday and Saturday, but Augusta, Georgia, weather prognostications have typically been tricky and ever-changing. High temperatures are expected to be in the low 80s, which helps dry out the course if there is any moisture.
And the club also has the added benefit of a SubAir system, which is able to remove water from fairways and greens.
“In my memory, 2007 had the firmest greens I think I’ve played here in my years,” said 2013 winner Adam Scott, who is playing in his 20th Masters. “But in the practice round I actually remember being on the 16th green with Greg Norman and he poured some water on the slope and the water just trickled all the way across and off the green. It never got absorbed. That stood out for me. I didn’t do that, but it looks kind of similar.”
Three-time Masters champion Phil Mickelson is playing in his 29th Masters. He has seen the course in all manner of conditions, from soft to firm, from frigid temperatures to hot. He believes the course has been too soft recently, although he points out that is not necessarily anyone’s fault.
“I would say for the last decade, the greens here are in the top 25% of softest we play on [the PGA] Tour, and the golf course’s only defense is the greens,” said Mickelson, who has won the Masters three times. “So when the greens are firm, the precision, the course management, the angles … all of this stuff becomes incredibly important in your ability to play this course effectively.
“When the greens are soft, it’s irrelevant because you can fly the ball over all the trouble. Angles don’t matter. I plugged a 5-iron last November into the [par-5] second green.
“So if it’s firm, I think it’s going to be a real test. And major championships should challenge and test the best players. It’s a really hard job to set a golf course up right, because you’re always trying to find a line and not crossing it, and it’s a tough thing to do. But I think with firm greens, this golf course needs to be respected, and I think it’s been a long time since it’s had to be respected.”
For months, players have wondered whether there might be any repercussions from that performance — whether the powers that be at Augusta National were bothered and might want to make sure conditions are more difficult.
But November was an aberration anyway. The only time the tournament has been played outside of March or April was going to bring some unusual circumstances. The rye overseed the club uses in the fall had not grown in as fully as it does by this time in the spring. And there was a good bit of rain during tournament week, especially the first day, when play was delayed for more than three hours.
The course never got dry after that, leading to the lowest scoring average in the 84-year history of the event.
Now things are different. Potentially.
“It’s very dry out there, very sunny, and the greens are already starting to get pretty firm,” Rory McIlroy said. “This week’s going to be a huge premium on accuracy, on landing your golf ball on your numbers and being precise with your iron play. And the ball is not hitting and stopping. So you’re inevitably going to miss a few greens, and scrambling is going to be key, too. It’s certainly a different test than it was a few months ago.”