Masters 2020: The critical ways Augusta National will play differently in November versus April
The 2020 men’s major calendar, with one event canceled and the other three postponed, has been unique to say the least. But late-fall major championships aren’t new—they just haven’t happened in a long time. While the Masters has always taken place in March or April, early U.S. Opens were frequently played as late as September and October before settling into the traditional June date in the early 1930s. The PGA Championship was often held later, sometimes in November and once even in December.
Still, it’s a strange year when golf’s annual rite of spring takes place in November. No doubt, we’ll be excited for the later date of the Masters just as we were for a September U.S. Open, but it will be novel to see how Augusta National looks and sounds devoid of the typical eruptions of blooming flora—or the eruptions of roars and gasps from the patrons—and with gold and orange accents rather than pinks, reds and whites.
Beyond the aesthetics, the bigger question the date change creates is this: How will the golf course play in November, and what effect will it have on the tournament?
Let’s start with some basic assumptions. Cooler end-of-season temperatures during this year’s Masters could impact scoring, though Augusta, Ga., weather is typically quite fair in November with normal highs in the 60s versus April highs in the 70s (nights are eight degrees colder on average). A significant cold spell or excessively breezy week would likely result in elevated numbers. Two of the four highest-winning Masters scores were largely the result of difficult weather. Zack Johnson won in 2007 with a one-over-par 289 total amid blustery 20-mph winds and weekend highs that never broke 60 degrees. In the 1956 Masters, Jackie Burke, Jr. came from eight shots back on Sunday to win at one over, as 20- to 30-mph gusts strafed the course over the weekend, causing leaders Ken Venturi and Cary Middlecoff to shoot final-round scores of 80 and 77, respectively.
Heavy wind aside, the greatest impact the schedule change is likely to have is on Augusta National’s grass. The most fundamental question will be: How will Augusta’s notoriously fast greens play compared to a normal springtime Masters? The answer, barring an extreme rain event, is they’ll play the same.
Here’s why: Bentgrass greens, like those at Augusta National, thrive in cooler weather. Fall already provides ideal growing conditions, but the club has the added ability to control each green’s climate and moisture content via sub-surface air systems. The systems can vacuum water from the greens if they’re too moist, and they can also adjust the temperature of the root zone, cooling the grass during excessively hot days and warming it to promote growth during cold (morning) periods.
The ability to manipulate temperature and moisture levels is critical at Augusta National because the greens are located in vastly different microclimates. Think of the disparity between the small 12th green, located along a shaded creek at the lowest section of the property, and the large 18th green, exposed and situated at its highest point. The incredible range of temperatures, sunlight, size and contour throughout the course means that each green needs an individual program, which they receive whether it’s April or November.
A view of the 15th green. If conditions are soft during a November Masters, reaching the green in two will be more challenging for much of the field.
Where there is likely to be a significant difference is in the fairways. Augusta National’s fairways are Bermuda grass, though almost no one plays on them—during the late spring and summer, when the Bermuda grows aggressively, the golf course is closed (the club is typically open from mid-October to late May). In the fall, to prepare for the arrival of members and as the Bermuda begins to go brown and dormant once temperatures drop, the fairways are scalped and a heavy application of perennial ryegrass seed is spread across the entire course, except on the greens. For the emerald ryegrass to take root and grow, the fairways and roughs must be watered excessively.
This typically takes place early in the fall, before prime play. You probably saw it playing out in near rear-time this fall when Eureka Earth shared on social media aerial images in late September of a very brown Augusta National, then within a week, the course had returned to its lush green self. After several weeks the ryegrass stabilizes, then continues to grow and establish over the winter months. By the time April arrives, the grass is dense and hearty, and the fairways and green surrounds can be firmed up and mowed to a racy height of approximately .350” to .375”.
It’s unlikely this year that the ryegrass will have had enough time to establish, at least not to the degree it would if it had an entire season of growth. Though Augusta National is capable of nearly anything agronomically, there’s a probability that the fairways will be playing softer than in the spring because of the water needed to encourage the rye to grow, as well as the inability to cut it as low and tight as desired. Meanwhile, the 10-day forecast hints that rain also could be in the offing during tournament week.
Suffice it to say, if Augusta National is playing soft, it’s playing long. (The Masters tees are listed at 7,475 yards.) Raymond Floyd, according to one tale, perhaps apocryphal, said when he played the course in the fall he had to move up to the members tees to have the same clubs into greens as he hit during the tournament.
Conventional wisdom, then, would suggest that softer conditions shrinks the field of likely winners, as long courses favor long hitters (attention Bryson DeChambeau). The ability to carry drives great distances—important if there’s less roll-out—and hit shorter clubs into greens is an advantage at Augusta National just as it is anywhere.
And yet, that alone is not likely to be determinative of who wins. In the last 15 Masters, the winner has ranked anywhere from first on the PGA Tour in driving distance (Bubba Watson, 2012 and 2014) to 165th (Johnson), based on statistics from the beginning of each season in January through the Masters. The average driving distance of those winners was 297.8 yards. That suggests that to have a chance to win at Augusta, players must average around 297 yards off the tee. For perspective, 100 players did just that during the 2019-’20 PGA Tour season, and driving distances during the Masters are typically slightly longer than at other tour events.
The greatness of Augusta National has always been the diversity of holes on the course and how the architecture spreads out the field. It doesn’t favor a particular strength or style of play. And while big hitters have fared well over the years, none of the past five green jacket recipients have finished in the top 20 in driving distance on tour.
A view of the 13th green. It's likely that Augusta National's greens will play relatively similar in November compared to April given that bentgrass thrives in cooler weather.
If the course is playing longer, it will likely mean fewer par 5s being reached in two shots, and that will mean more players are trying to get up and down for all-important birdies. If that happens, it could come down to a tournament decided by recovery shots, ball-striking, wedge play and putting—all the things great architecture measures beyond pure distance.
Then again, that’s only if the course is playing soft. It’s Augusta National, after all, where anything is possible.
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Special thanks to Golf Digest’s ranking panelists, a number of whom have played Augusta National in the late fall and provided information for this article.