AUGUSTA, Ga. — Masters chairman Fred Ridley had plenty to discuss in his annual news conference Wednesday, but as the tournament heads into the first day of competition Thursday, Ridley took a moment to acknowledge the absence of five-time champion Tiger Woods.
“Like all of you, I was deeply saddened when I learned of Tiger’s tragic car accident in February,” Ridley said. “Tiger Woods is one of the greatest competitors in the history of all sports, and he is and forever will be a part of the fabric of Augusta National and the Masters Tournament. Our thoughts are with Tiger and his family and loved ones with whom he shares such a close bond. He is greatly missed this week, and we continue to hope and pray for his recovery.”
Woods, who continues to rehab and recover at his home in Florida, used his social media accounts Wednesday to send a message of thanks to first responders and all those who assisted him after the one-car crash. Authorities also released information about the cause of the crash, which was attributed to Woods driving at an excessive speed.
Woods was missed perhaps nowhere more than at the Champions Dinner, hosted Tuesday night by 2020 champion Dustin Johnson. Attendees confirmed Woods sent a message to Ben Crenshaw, who read it to the assembled golfers.
“It was really generally upbeat and that he was thinking of us and wishing he was there and wishing everyone the best for the week,” 2013 champ Adam Scott said. “And congratulating D.J. It was all just positive things about the evening, which was nice to hear. Sounded very positive to me.”
Fred Couples, a good friend of Woods’s, said the two texted “four or five different times throughout the day, and I sent him a picture playing the first hole, and then I somehow snuck a picture last night of Dustin, and I sent that to him, and he goes, man, I love it, miss it. You know, he’s doing fantastic.”
Koepka says he’s ready
Four-time major champion Brooks Koepka was in doubt for the Masters after recent knee surgery from an accident at home, but after recovering quickly enough to get here, he says he’s serious about adding the Masters to his trophy case.
“I feel fine,” he said after practicing Wednesday. “Doing all the right things to just keep the swelling down. Doesn’t hurt when I swing, so we’ll see. [Expectations] are still the same, yeah, to win. That’s the only reason I’m here. If I didn’t think I could win I wouldn’t be here.”
No sleep, no problem
First-time dad Jon Rahm can’t wait to tee off, even if he’s been sleep deprived since he and his wife, Kelley, welcomed their son, Kepa, only a few days ago.
“From Thursday to Monday I didn’t sleep much, didn’t hit a single golf shot,” said the Spaniard, who is ranked No. 3 in the world. “You know, maybe I haven’t prepared as much as I have in the past, but definitely mentally in a different state. A lot of times practicing for a major you spend so much time thinking about golf, and for four or five days, it wasn’t even on my mind, which is kind of refreshing.
“I’m coming here later than usual, but I’m here ready to compete. I wouldn’t be here otherwise.”
No one gets it better than one of Rahm’s Thursday playing partners. Rory McIlroy even managed to inject a little competitive fire into Rahm’s round.
“My first round as a dad, I shot 64, so he’s got that to live up to,” McIlroy quipped.
“He’s probably just had the greatest few days of his life, right. It’s such a cool feeling,” McIlroy said. “You’re riding high. There’s so many emotions that are involved. But I think Jon’s an awesome player and he’s played well here over the last couple years, and I’m sure he’s going to handle everything really well.”
Question of length
Ridley spoke again about one of Augusta National’s recurring golf concerns, which is how far golfers can drive the ball, and how much farther they seem able to keep pushing that distance. At a place such as Augusta, where land is limited, it can be tough to counteract the technology of golf clubs and golf balls, and when you consider that Johnson won in November with a record 20 under par, tournament organizers would love to rein that in somehow.
“As I have stated in the past each year, we look at every hole of our golf course. Fortunately, we do have the ability to make any number of changes to protect the integrity of the course,” Ridley said. “At the same time, we hope there will not come a day when the Masters or any golf championship will have to be played at 8,000 yards to achieve that objective.
“This is an important crossroads; so we will continue to urge the governing bodies and all interested parties to put forward thoughtful solutions as soon as possible.”
The Champions Dinner is always a popular topic of Wednesday conversation, and the 1992 champ, Couples, was thrilled about sitting next to good friend Ray Floyd this year. With the pandemic moving last year’s tournament to November, some past champions were unable to attend or chose not to out of caution, and Floyd was among them.
“He’s 78 years old, he looks 50,” Couples said. “He looks like he did when he stopped playing with me when I was 50 and he was 60, 65.”
Couples understood last year’s absences, but he has learned to cherish every chance he has to make it.
“I hurt my back and didn’t come a few years ago, and I regret it because it was the last one that Arnold Palmer was alive for. I missed that,” he said. “But the year before, Arnold gave a speech that I could probably give word for word. It was intense and amazing. But again, since I won, I’ve sat next to Raymond. He always grabs my arm and he says, ‘We’re sitting here.’ ”