Masters springs back to normal after records tumble in fall

Augusta (United States) (AFP) –


Augusta National is back at its formidable best, ready to welcome the world's top golfers next week for the 85th Masters with lightning-fast greens and blossoming spring flowers.

Five months after a rain-softened layout surrendered a course-record 20-under par 268 to winner Dustin Johnson under the autumn leaves, the Masters promises a classic challenge for the green jacket once again.

"It looks like it's shaping up to be a normal Masters," Johnson said after a March practice round. "I'd imagine it's going to be pretty firm and fast.

"It's definitely not going to be as soft as it was. The course is in immaculate condition. Really good shape."

Johnson, reigning US Open champion Bryson DeChambeau and Players Championship winner Justin Thomas are fancied by oddsmakers but the US trio will be tested by four-time major winner Rory McIlroy, trying to complete a career Grand Slam, Spain's Sergio Garcia, the 2017 Masters winner who caught Covid-19 and missed last November's virus-postponed shootout, and a host of others.

"If I had to miss any Masters, that probably was the one," Garcia said. "The Masters is unbelievable, but it didn't have the feel that it has in April, for sure."

Recapturing a feeling of greatness is also what England's 47-year-old Lee Westwood has done the past few weeks, finishing second to Thomas at the Players and DeChambeau at Bay Hill in consecutive weeks -- with three Masters practice rounds after that.

"It's as hard as I've seen Augusta play, even when it has been the week of the Masters," Westwood said. "It was playing long, and the greens were like rock. They were really releasing out."

A limited number of spectators will be allowed this year after being banned in 2020 over Covid-19 safety issues.

Tiger Woods, the 2019 champion, will not play after suffering severe leg injuries in a February car crash.

Lee Elder, the first black player in the Masters, will join Jack Nicklaus and Gary Player for Thursday's ceremonial opening tee shots.

DeChambeau, whose power-hitting style won a US Open, threatened to overwhelm the course last November, saying it was a par 67 for him. But he suffered dizziness and stomach illness and was never a threat.

"The stress of the tournament, just the spotlight, the whole thing, it all took a toll," Dechambeau said.

This year, he's 10 pounds lighter, relaxing his mind and hitting the ball even longer.

"I'm definitely hitting it a lot further than I was in November," he said. "So there are some places that I will look at taking that are going to be a little different than last time probably."

Johnson won the Saudi International in February and will try to become the first back-to-back Masters winner since Woods in 2001-2002.

"When I play my best golf, I feel like I can beat whoever I'm playing against," Johnson said.

Johnson said he didn't feel slighted with a green jacket reign lasting only five months instead of year.

"I do not feel shortchanged. It wouldn't bother me if I only had it for a day," he said. "It definitely gives me more confidence."

Thomas, the 2017 PGA Championship winner, has steadily improved with every Masters result up to fourth last year. He controversially used a homophobic slur last January during a round and lost sponsor Ralph Lauren. His grandfather died as well, wearing on him before his Players win.

"It took a lot on me mentally. I had to figure it out and had to get over it," Thomas said. "To win a big championship again is incredible."

- Rahm ready to leave -

Third-ranked Spaniard Jon Rahm might not see the Masters weekend even if he makes the cut. His wife Kelly is due to give birth to their first child that weekend.

"There's a chance I have to just turn around and leave," Rahm said. "I'm ready to go at any moment's notice.

"Being a father is much more important than any golf event would ever be."

McIlroy has struggled since the pandemic shutdown, his best showing fifth at last year's Masters, his sixth top-10 in seven years at Augusta.

"There's going to be some good days, there's going to be some bad," he said. "But I feel like I'm on the right path."

Australia's Cameron Smith became the first player to shoot four rounds in the 60s in the same Masters and shared second last year.

"That was very cool," Smith said. "Looking forward to going back."