Autumn Masters offers new tests for Rory, Tiger, DeChambeau

Augusta (United States) (AFP) –


Next week's 2020 Masters will serve as an autumn closing act to one of golf's most challenging years instead of Augusta National's traditional spring launch of major thrills.

The Covid-19 pandemic that shuffled the season has also muffled the Masters, now moved to November from its traditional slot in April.

Instead of the usual packed galleries roaring their appreciation, next week's fan-free tournament will take place against a backdrop of relative silence.

Reds and yellows of autumn leaves will replace the vibrant colors of spring flowers, blooming camelias offering a different feel for those traveling to the clubhouse down Magnolia Lane.

"It's a once-in-a-lifetime unique week that we'll probably not see again. I don't know what to expect," three-time Masters winner Phil Mickelson said.

"It's going to be different but we get to compete in the Masters and it just doesn't matter where, when, how, who's watching, it doesn't matter."

The changes can't hide the excitement for a Masters unlike any other, with Tiger Woods defending his first major title since 2008, Rory McIlroy chasing a green jacket for a career Grand Slam and US Open winner Bryson DeChambeau bringing his length-at-all-costs technique to the tricky Augusta National layout.

"I'm always thinking about how I can get better and I think what's so cool about this game is it's never perfect -- you always can find something to be a little bit better," said DeChambeau, who talks of debuting a 48-inch driver at the Masters.

DeChambeau, who bulked up in size and strength during the layoff, blasted away for extreme length and position without regard to deep rough to win the US Open in September at Winged Foot.

He expects to play every hole at Augusta differently than before bar the 10th and the par-3s, with special plans for the seventh.

"It's downwind. I may go launch mode on that hole. It will be fun," said DeChambeau, who is yet to register a top-20 finish at Augusta in three previous outings.

"My whole goal is to play the best golf I possibly can. I feel like I've started to go down a path that's allowed me to have an advantage over everyone."

Dustin Johnson, just back after a Covid-19 layoff, and McIlroy are among those working on their swings with an eye to DeChambeau's moves.

"They're seeing that distinct advantage," DeChambeau said.

- Big edge to big hitters -

"The guys like what Bryson is doing, McIlroy, Dustin, the guys that can get it up there, will have a big advantage with that kind of distance," Mickelson said.

"But you (could) get wind and you get a lot of cold... the weather's a little bit more unpredictable."

McIlroy, who says he enjoys the lack of months of hype that precede a typical Masters, says he is ready for whatever a November Masters has in store for him.

"I feel like I've played Augusta in most conditions," he said. "I've played it when it's been in the 40s and I've played it when it's been in the 80s and 90s and sort of everything in between. I think I've played it enough to know what to expect no matter what the temperature and what the conditions are."

McIlroy would join the career Grand Slam list with a triumph, matching legends Jack Nicklaus, Gary Player, Gene Sarazen, Ben Hogan and Woods, who will try to match Nicklaus by winning a record sixth Masters green jacket.

Woods, whose 15 career major titles are three shy of the all-time record 18 won by Nicklaus, has shown little recent sign of the form that brought him an epic title 19 months ago, completing his comeback from back surgery.

But the 44-year-old former world number one is returning to a course he knows intimately and even in November he can rely upon that knowledge to try and turn back the clock one more time.

"I know the golf course, so it's not a new golf course, and maybe a little bit longer and a little bit more softer than we've probably experienced," he said. "But you just never know. This time of year it could be in the 70s, it could be in the 30s. Who knows?"

- Augusta has evolved -

In a year that has seen global protests over the death of unarmed Black man George Floyd while in police custody and Black Lives Matter become a major social movement, Woods says Augusta National has changed and evolved from more racist times, noting the admission of Black and women members well before the latest issues erupted.

"I think Augusta is just like any other part of the world. It has changed. It has evolved," Woods said.

"Yes, it has had some roots that I don't think that everyone's very proud of, but it has evolved. We have minority members now. It's more diverse.

"And just like anything, it evolves. Augusta certainly has and I'm sure it will continue."