The Masters is returning to its normal April date this year, and with it will come a much more difficult challenge than it was in November
To get to Augusta National Golf Club, you first drive down Washington Road and turn into the main entrance. Once the security guards open the gate, you cease to be in a modest Southern city and enter a golfing paradise. Magnolia Lane lies before you, and behind that is Butler Cabin, the main clubhouse, and the course where, since 1934, the best golfers in the world have come to compete in the Masters.
Ian Poulter knows something about making that drive. He’s preparing to play his 16th Masters tournament this week dating back to 2004. But he still gets the same emotions upon coming here as he did the first time.
“I still enjoy it as much today as I did the first time I ever played it. I get giddy as much as everyone else gets giddy. It’s a very special place to play golf,” Poulter said this week as part of a promotional conference for Mercedes-Benz.
“As soon as you pull through the gates, as soon as you come out the backside of the clubhouse and see 18 green, the ninth green, the big scoreboard…it gives you goosebumps. You can’t help but take a video. It puts a smile on your face.”
Poulter has played 58 competitive rounds in his career at the Masters. He’s played it when it was sunny and calm with ideal scoring conditions, and he’s seen it when it was windy, firm, and scoring was brutal. He’s shot in the 60s 12 times but also failed to break 80. His career scoring average at the Masters is an even-par 72, a testament to the mix of conditions he’s experienced over the last 16 years.
The 2020 tournament, though, was something he, nor anyone else in the field, had ever experienced. The COVID-19 pandemic forced the tournament from its traditional April timeslot to a mid-November date. With the colder temperatures (April in Augusta is eight degrees warmer on average than in November), scoring plummeted. Dustin Johnson shot a tournament-record 20-under. Cameron Smith became the first player in Masters history to shoot four rounds in the 60s but still lost by five. Nine players finished double-digits under-par, the second-most in tournament history. The scoring average for the week was 71.75, again the lowest ever and only the third time it was below par.
Now that the tournament is returning to some sense of normalcy, don’t expect a repeat this time. Johnson played the par-fives in 11-under last November, largely because of the soft conditions allowing him to keep the ball on the green with his second shot. That won’t happen again.
“It’s already significantly different from a firmness perspective. Even hitting shots on the range today and talking to my caddie, who’s been talking to other guys who have been out there playing, the greens are firm, the fairways are firm,” Poulter said.
“Unlike last year when everything was super-soft. We had a lot of rain. The greens were super-spinny. You’re not really going to see those spinny second shots into these par-fours. You’re definitely not going to see guys be able to stop it on par-five greens with a good.”
Johnson’s 20-under total likely won’t be touched this week. There won’t be four sub-70 rounds again like Smith did five months ago. The game’s best will be tested in a way they weren’t back in November. Strategy, guile, and shot-making will be a much bigger factor.
It’s going to be a challenge, but for one lucky player, a Green Jacket will be their reward at the end.