AUGUSTA, Ga. — Given the legendary control the Masters Tournament Committee has over its course—from SubAir systems instantaneously sucking rainfall out of the greens to an army of laborers nipping and tucking every blade of grass—it would seem that players could prepare for the only major played on the same course year after year with more single-mindedness than usual.
But the three inches of rain that fell Monday and Tuesday still present some curveballs that will give even more of an advantage to veterans with plenty of institutional knowledge.
"Through the years, I've accumulated a lot of knowledge about how to play this place under different conditions," says Tiger Woods, who showed up last week to take in the changes to the fifth and 18th holes and analyze what playing almost a full week later into April would do to the course. "I've got a pretty good little library in my head."
At the most basic level, rain reduces roll in the fairways and makes the greens slightly more receptive to shots coming in at steeper angles. The lack of roll in the fairway doesn't mean much to players like Rory McIlroy, who can carry it more than 320 yards, but for players with mid-pack power, losing 20 yards of roll out means picking entirely different lines off the tee.
"Most of the preparation for a major is focusing on tee clubs and the lines you like to take," says top teacher Tony Ruggiero, who works with a stable of PGA Tour players including 2009 U.S. Open champion Lucas Glover. "When the course plays out of character, you have to make the time to play the holes where you might not be as comfortable with the line the course and the weather is going to make you take."
A prime example? The 10th hole offers a speed slot that shoots tee shots played in the right place—down the right center, with a slight draw—upwards of 50 yards farther down, where the uphill approach to severely sloped green gets way easier. When the ball doesn't roll as much, players will be forced to use a harder-to-control driver instead of 3-wood to take full advantage of the slot. That makes clean ball-striking with the driver more of a factor than normal on a course that usually allows some forgiveness.
"When you don't get anything in terms of roll from your tee shot, a slight mis-strike and you know you're a couple of clubs longer into the greens," says Tommy Fleetwood. "That adds up."
Even though the greens are softer from rain, the SubAir system lets the tournament committee keep green speeds almost as quick as they'd like. That presents two subtle problems.
"Week to week, players develop a relationship in their minds between the conditions they see in terms of rain and dampness in the air and changes in green speed," says Golf Digest 50 Best Teacher Mark Blackburn, who works with Mike Weir and Chez Reavie among other tour players. "But here, they have so much control over the course that they can get the speeds right where they want them—which is progressively faster day by day. It's easy to get tricked into thinking they're going to be slower."
Ruggiero extends the point to include short game areas, emphasizing that the ball will behave differently with the combination of softer greens and juicier fairway grass.
"I found that the grass on the practice areas is easer to chip on compared to the course, so the only solution is to go out and play practice holes to get more comfortable with the conditions as they are," says Ruggiero, who is based at the Country Club of Mobile and the Sheraton Bay Point Resort in Panama City Beach, Fla. "The other issue is that so many players have a lot of experience with this place, and they rely on the memories they have of how certain shots and certain holes play. But when the conditions change into something different than you remember, it's hard to trust what is going on for you on a given day."
Instead of relying just on his memory and dozens of practice rounds he's played as he prepares for his third Masters, Bryson DeChambeau takes copious notes and applies a proprietary bit of science to his preparation and shot selection to account for changes in the weather.
"Rain affects moisture level, and that affects the way the ball reacts on the face," says DeChambeau. "There's a percentage to that, and we have to account for that. We adjust our numbers based on the moisture level and the firmness value of the greens and all that. We know relative to other golf courses how it lands on the green and how it rolls. We adjust for our percentages and go from there. If you don't account for it, you're going to hit it 30 or 40 feet instead of 10 feet."
On Wednesday, the sun broke out and Augusta National was postcard perfect—78 degrees with just a breath of wind. For the first time, players got a day when they fall into their standard routine.
"Getting ready is all about managing rest and energy," says Blackburn, who operates his academy at Greystone Golf and Country Club in Birmingham, Ala. "Every player has a different plan for doing that—and every player has a different tolerance for the chaos that sitting inside and waiting out a rain delay causes. For the best players, the more chaos and the harder the conditions, the more they like it. Because they know that half the field or more is already gone because they can't take it."