Masters like no other arrives with golf powering to a crossroads

The major championship to change the complexion of golf? Since he strode to victory in the US Open it has not been about what Bryson DeChambeau will do at Augusta National. The question, instead, relates to what Bryson DeChambeau will do to Augusta National. Bryson the Bludgeoner has been the fascination of this post-lockdown spell, with those who preside over the sport edgy over what will transpire if the American demonstrates that this famous Georgian property can be dismantled by power.

Nervous shuffling was evident as Fred Ridley, the Masters chairman, delivered his annual – if delayed – pre-tournament address. Augusta National, which at least appears an increasingly powerful voice in respect of broader dynamics in golf, is not of a mind to stand by and watch brawn overshadow art.

Ridley left the distinct impression he would consider it an affront if sacred ground continues to be by-passed up to 400 yards at a time. Shifting tees into new Zip codes is not, to the chairman, the answer. “I’ve been reluctant thus far to make any major changes regarding adding distance to the golf course,” he said.

“I think there are unintended consequences that come out of that; the scale and the scope of the hole changes when you add distance. The look of a hole changes, the design philosophy changes. I’ve always been very conscious of maintaining the design philosophy.

“Having said that, I think we are at a crossroads as it relates to this issue. We have always been very supportive of the governing bodies. We will continue to be supportive. We think it’s good that the game of golf is governed by the USGA and the R&A. We think they are great stewards of the game. But I’m hopeful with the work and studies that have been ongoing for some time – I understand there will be publication in April – that we’re coming closer to a call to action.”

This would put Augusta on a direct collision course with equipment manufacturers, who are adamant technology must be advanced rather than rolled back. It brings into play the prospect of a Masters-specific ball, for example. In direct reference to the 13th, a par five which leading players can easily reach in two shots, Ridley was candid.

“The 13th hole still provides a lot of drama but its challenge is being diminished,” he said. “We don’t think that’s good for the Masters, we don’t think that’s good for the game. But the issue is a lot larger than Augusta National and the Masters. We have options, we can make changes, but not every golf course can.”

There are times when DeChambeau’s antics can appear over the top. On Tuesday he wandered to the 1st tee with two drivers in hand – battering one shot left, one shot right – as experimentation continued. Yet it would also be unfair to portray the Californian as a one-trick pony. His putting and wedge play have dramatically improved in 2020. The true test of the former at least lies ahead; his putting statistics at the Masters are historically awful. “My short game should be really good,” said DeChambeau. One tool he has never lacked is confidence.

Biblical rain late on Tuesday further softened an already inviting course. Given the events of 2020, weather problems are not likely to cause much of a fuss for those lucky enough to be on site, but Thursday’s forecast has raised eyebrows. If widely predicted storms hit Augusta – and with daylight hours much reduced from when the Masters typically takes place in April – organisational chicanery will be required. The good news for now is that the weekend outlook is actually better than could reasonably be anticipated for Georgia in November.

Conditions would appear to suit Rory McIlroy as he looks to join golf’s most exclusive club, that of players who have tasted success in all four majors. They also suit Dustin Johnson, Justin Thomas and Bubba Watson, who is something of a forgotten Augusta specialist. Hitting towering, long shots could never be considered a drawback at Augusta but it seems especially valuable at this point in the year. Brooks Koepka should be a leading contender but questions of fitness continue to hover over the Floridian, who has also shown a damaging propensity to three-putt on this course.

If applying form, there is no case whatsoever to be made for a successful defence of the Green Jacket by Tiger Woods. Nineteen months on from shaking the sporting world to its foundations, Woods is grasping desperately for momentum. His putting has regressed into a particular source of concern; few players get better on the greens as they get older.

Logic, though, does not necessarily apply in respect of Woods and Augusta. Magnolia Lane seems to trigger a fresh state of serenity within a man who is now left with absolutely nothing to prove to anyone. The 44-year-old’s almost freakish knowledge of the course can offset technical woes. If recent years have taught us anything, it is to discount Woods at our peril. He can always win under the towering Georgia pines, though saying that is fundamentally different to stating he will.

The weirdness of it all will hit home as Jack Nicklaus and Gary Player clamber on to the 1st tee to strike ceremonial drives, moments after daylight arrives and with only a handful of select guests looking on. There are no azaleas to decorate Amen Corner. Even Augusta National cannot tamper with nature to that extent. Beautiful autumnal leaves form the backdrop to a competition for 92 players – including six amateurs – who represent 23 countries.

There has never been a November, patron-free Masters before and most likely never will be again; alternative glances towards the future will be essential if DeChambeau adds a Green Jacket to his wardrobe.