Study time
November 09, 2020

Masters 2020: Here’s why practice rounds are so important at Augusta, especially this year

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Jamie Squire

Jordan Spieth walks on the ninth hole during a Masters practice round on Monday.

AUGUSTA, Ga. — “They can do whatever they want to the course.”

It’s one of those Augusta Axioms, somewhere between “the Masters doesn’t start until the back nine on Sunday” and “the roars echo through the pines.” However nauseating it is to hear the same sentence over and over, there’s a reason players and fans and media turn to the same cliches every year: They’re true.

Indeed, Augusta National Golf Club has unparalleled resources to mold the grounds as it sees fit. At 4:45 p.m. on Monday, there were seven maintenance crew members working on the 12th hole—two with leaf blowers ejecting any shred of debris, two fixing pitch marks on the green, one raking the bunker, and two more planting new sod on the tee to conceal divots. Talk about manpower.

Simply put, Augusta finds a way to make things happen, often overnight. On the Wednesday before the 2012 Masters, a tree fell directly on top of the roof of a bathroom near the 16th tee. By Thursday, there was no discernible damage. An asteroid could land on the first tee at midnight and there’d be no delay to tee times the next morning.

It should come as no surprise, then, that this golf course changes quite a bit—not just from year to year, but day to day.

“From yesterday to today was a big change” said Jordan Spieth, whose Masters coronation was somehow a half-decade ago. “And I’m used to seeing a significant change Wednesday to Thursday, and then a significant change Friday to Saturday, just as you walk on and around the green.”

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Jamie Squire

Rory McIlroy, at the ninth green on Monday, says he looks for the subtle changes that Augusta makes to the course each year.

Of course, this is why players are afforded practice rounds—to get a feel for how the fairways are running out, how firm the greens are, and other conditioning vagaries that would fly over the head of the average weekend warrior.

“It depends not just on the pin placement, but the condition of the sand,” Tiger Woods said when asked about how he likes to play the par-5 second. Yep, the condition of the sand. “Some year it’s heavier than others, and other years it’s a bit lighter, which allows you to play more shots.”

And it’s not just the conditioning that changes depending on the year—it’s the golf course itself. Augusta National is a living, breathing entity that has evolved with the ever-changing landscape of professional golf. It’s the only way a course can continue to challenge the world’s best players 86 years after the first Masters tournament.

There are the high-profile changes, like the “Tiger-proofing” of the early 2000s that beefed up a number of holes, or the lengthening of the fifth hole prior to last year’s tournament. But there are also subtle, often unannounced changes that a player has to discover on his own. Bryson DeChambeau suggested there was at least one new tree near the left side of the par-5 13th, ostensibly placed to make it harder to take an uber-aggressive line over the trees down the left side of the hole.

“It’s pretty cool,” DeChambeau said, “this place, it’s all about getting out on the golf course and seeing who prepares the best.”

Rory McIlroy, who can complete the career Grand Slam with a win this week, always makes an extra effort to take note of any under-the-radar changes that might not make headlines, but could make a difference come tournament time.

“It’s mostly to do with the greens,” McIlroy said at the Zozo Championship. “Or maybe they’ll extend a certain green by two or three yards in one section so they can add an extra pin placement, or they’ll add a couple of trees on a certain hole so you might not be able to be as aggressive. There are all those little nuances that people probably don’t know about at Augusta.

“We don’t have the luxury of a green book or anything like that there, so that’s why practice rounds are so important—just to try to really figure out if they’ve done anything. They like to be pretty secretive about it as well, so that’s why preparation is key going into the week.”

Adding to the unknown this week is the calendar. November brings different weather than April—even Augusta can’t control the weather—and different weather brings different turf conditions.

“It’s a little bit more Bermuda on it than there would be in April,” Lee Westwood said. The turf has been overseeded with rye grass, but the general consensus is it has not been cool enough in the area to kill off the Bermuda, which thrives in heat. “And the greens are a little bit slow at the moment. I’m sure they’re going to speed up.”

That’s the plan, but Mother Nature hasn’t signed off on it yet. Rain is forecasted for virtually every day the rest of the week, which would soften the fairways. But Augusta’s greens are all equipped with a SubAir system, which essentially acts as a vacuum that sucks moisture out from under the surface. So it’s entirely possible there’ll be a soft, wet golf course with firm, fast greens.

There will be only one way to find out.

“You just want to keep getting out on the golf course and keep playing different shots and just seeing how the ball reacts and what kind of lies you get,” Tommy Fleetwood said.

“I think this week, more than pretty much any other week or golf course, just being out on the course is so important.”