It’s been only five months since Dustin Johnson won the Masters, but here we are again, back at Augusta at our regularly scheduled time, sweet-smelling magnolias and happy, chirping birds reminding us spring has arrived and our pandemic-altered sports world is slowly returning to normal.
Johnson may be destined to go down with the shortest reign in a green jacket, having slipped into his 42-long last November when the COVID-19-delayed Masters was completed in front of empty galleries. But the world’s top-ranked golfer is the favorite to win it again, so maybe he’ll get to keep it a little while longer.
Yet as much as Johnson’s pursuit of history is a top story line as the 2021 major golf season gets underway, this year’s Masters will be remembered not only for who is there, but for who is not.
Tiger Woods was the man who slipped that jacket onto DJ’s shoulders, surrendering the title he’d won in 2019 and the one the pandemic assured would result in the longest single-season reign on record. But Woods will be absent this year, his recovery from a single-car crash Feb. 23 ongoing.
Of course, the big, unanswered question is when, or if, Woods makes it back to golf — a question the notoriously protective Woods camp doesn’t appear interested in answering any time soon, with the same being true for California officials who declined to release their findings on the cause of the crash.
But the question of whether he can compete specifically at the Masters again also looms large. Woods’s intimate, historic, and compelling relationship with Augusta National seemed as if it would last forever, a combination of a game so perfectly matched to a course and a course so permanently welcoming to its past champions.
No matter how far Woods seemed to idle from reaching Jack Nicklaus’s majors win record, the victory two years ago was not only proof he could win a major again, but evidence any future major titles would likely also come at the Masters.
This is how ESPN golf host Scott Van Pelt recently put it to Golfweek: “I think [at Augusta], more than any other place they play, you think of Tiger. So much of his career sprang through that lens. From that bookend in ’97 hugging his father to ’19 hugging his children in essentially the same spot. You can’t help but think about him. I think because he’s won there and Tuesday with the Champions Dinner, you get together with that very small group and trade the stories and what have you, that his presence will be sorely missed.”
But someone will win the Masters, and since the betting line favors Johnson, let’s start with him:
▪ Johnson’s recent Champions Dinner menu reveal was a home run in my book, with a filet mignon/sea bass main course that’s tough to knock. But love his other touches such as an appetizer combo of pigs in a blanket and lobster and corn fritters. And any dessert that includes Georgia peaches (apple pie/peach cobbler/vanilla ice cream) is a strong choice.
The top of the potential leaderboard has plenty of usual suspects alongside Johnson, though the fate of four-time major winner and all-time trash-talker Brooks Koepka is still unknown. Which is a shame, as Koepka has recently found his form after a series of injuries, only to need knee surgery two weeks ago.
According to BetMGM, Johnson is an 8-1 favorite followed by Bryson DeChambeau at 10-1 and Justin Thomas at 11-1. Jon Rahm and Jordan Spieth are 12-1, with Rory McIlroy and Koepka, if he plays, at 14-1. But Rahm, whose wife is expecting their first child any day, advised bettors to stay away as he will leave to be with her.
▪ The state of Spieth is always fascinating, given his potential for absolute brilliance or soul-crushing failure. That Spieth already has one green jacket (won in 2015, when he was just 21 and in his second Masters) is a testament to the former; that he doesn’t have three (with ties for second in 2014 and 2016) a reminder of the latter.
At the start of the year, Spieth was down in the 50-1 neighborhood to win at Augusta, but across the past two months he’s moved way uptown, turning in five top-15 finishes. Keep it up and he might again look like the guy who had four top-three finishes in his first five Masters starts.
▪ A special welcome back to 2017 champ Sergio Garcia, who had to skip the 2020 tournament when he was diagnosed with COVID-19. Garcia can be maddening with some of his on-course histrionics over the years, but the joy he took in finally winning a major after 18 years on tour (something he openly questioned he could ever do) and doing so at Augusta, where the legacy of his idol and Spanish compatriot Seve Ballesteros is so strong, is a wonderful story line to revisit each year.
▪ Who can forget how the November Masters humbled DeChambeau, who went down to Georgia on the roll of all golf rolls, booming all drives and beating all greens, only to lose those drives in the autumn trees a few too many painful times to remember?
Having won the US Open last year, DeChambeau was confident he would tame Augusta like never before, only to finish tied for 34th and outside the Masters’ top 20 for the third straight year. His best finish remains the T-21 in his 2016 debut, when he was the low amateur and the reigning US Amateur and NCAA champion. He should make for some fascinating viewing this coming week.
▪ Here’s to taking time to watch the ceremonial first tee, where Lee Elder will get his turn in the spotlight. Elder will join Nicklaus and Gary Player as the honorary starters, a nod to Elder’s special and important place in the history of the game and at Augusta. He was the first Black golfer to compete in the tournament in 1975.
“The opportunity to earn an invitation to the Masters and stand at that first tee was my dream and to have it come true in 1975 remains one of the greatest highlights of my career and life,” Elder said in November, when the plans were revealed. “So to be invited back to the first tee one more time to join Jack and Gary for next year’s Masters means the world to me.”