Watching the first-ever “November Masters,” the first thing that struck me was how different it was – and how much the same it was too.
My primary interest was in how the course would be presented so late in the year. I was less occupied by how the tournament would look without spectators. In fact, my mind wandered to how the town of Augusta must have been and how easy it must have been for the players and everyone else to get around without the normal traffic issues. Normally chaotic during Masters week, the contrast this year must have been obvious. Incredibly so.
Having said that, it was the course that held most of my interest. How would it play only a few weeks after an over-seed? My years living in the United States told me that, in order to get the grass established, there was likely to be a lot more moisture in the turf than there typically is in April. And there was, a fact that was compounded by the downpour that soaked the premises early in tournament week. That had so much to do with how soft the greens were once the event got underway.
Not to put it too crudely, but what we saw so much of was “splat golf,” the ball stopping virtually where it landed. The “trickle” was gone, that extra few feet of run-out on all shots. That is where the fear is at Augusta. It is the feature that makes players apprehensive on chips and putts. But that fact was hugely diminished, which showed up in how so many of the field hit so many shots more aggressively.
Not every shot though.
One unfortunate feature of the tournament and the soft conditions was the number of “mud balls.” Everyone was moaning about that. With good reason. Playing with mud on the ball is impossible. While you might understand what is going to happen, there is no controlling what happens. You always know where the ball is going to go. But no one has found a way to not make it go there.
One shot stood out for me. From the middle of the 11th fairway, knowing the ball was going to go left because of the mud on it, Rickie Fowler aimed at the few people standing to the right of the 12th tee, which is maybe 70 yards from the 11th green. And the ball still nearly went in the water left of the putting surface. That’s ridiculous. So I’m betting not one player in the field would have objected to “lift-clean-and-place” being allowed.
“What we were treated to was no less the Masters. And the tournament produced the right winner.” – Geoff Ogilvy
Still, all in all, what we were treated to was no less the Masters. And the tournament produced the right winner, one I have to say I tipped before the start of the first round. To me, the stars were lining up for Dustin Johnson as soon as the rain started to fall. Plus, more weeks than not for quite a while now, he has been playing the best golf.
Only very rarely does Dustin not show up on the leaderboard at the biggest events. And when he gets in the mix on a course playing long, he is always going to be a likely winner. I couldn’t believe he hadn’t won there already, to be honest. Augusta National is made for him really, especially so late in the year. His advantages, I thought, would only be enhanced. And they were.
With the benefit of hindsight that all makes me sound awfully clever. But I must come clean. I’ve been picking Dustin for every major for a while now. Eventually, I was going to be right.
It was nice to see him gain public validation though. The locker room has known for a while now that Dustin is a transcendent, “freak show” talent. His peers know that, if everyone turns up and plays their best, he probably wins. The same can also be said of Rory McIlroy. But lately at least, Dustin has been performing closer to his best way more often than Rory.
I am starting to form a picture – after 40 years of playing golf – of the best way to go about producing your best stuff. The model, if you like. And for me, Dustin ticks almost every box. He has almost every prerequisite. He has been smart enough – and I use that adjective on purpose – to never go down the “rabbit hole” with his technique. He has never messed with a winning formula. There have been no crazy excursions into swing-changing. He has never been “weird” with putting methods. He has stayed on the same track his whole career.
The thing about Dustin is he doesn’t seem to have any ego. He doesn’t care if people think he’s any good or not. Not much anyway. If most guys on the Tour are at eight or nine out of 10 on the “caring chart,” Dustin is maybe a one. And that is the most important trait any player can have.
Most people care what their swings look like. Or they worry about how their friends think they are playing. Or they get embarrassed when they make a big score on a hole. Whatever. But Dustin doesn’t seem to have any of those concerns. So, when he played well, it’s great. And when he plays badly, it’s still fine. He doesn’t worry that people might think he’s not good any more. It’s like, “I didn’t play very well this week; I hope I play well next week.” That’s genius and everything a psychologist would tell you to do, and Dustin does it all naturally.
There is so much more to Dustin than people first thought. It used to be that any success he had was attributed totally to his talent. But he has evolved into the best player on the planet through working hard. He has turned his wedge game around by using the Trackman to gauge the distances he hits each club with half, three-quarter and full swings. He knows exactly what a 100-yard shot feels like. And an 80-yard shot. And a 60-yard shot. And so on. And in identifying those feels, he fixed the most noticeable “hole” in his game. It was such a smart way to use modern technology.
There were other story lines at the Masters of course. Going in, many thought Bryson DeChambeau was going to hit the ball 400 yards off the tee and win by miles. But there is more to Augusta National than that, even if it lacked the usual nuance and subtlety we see when the course is playing faster and firmer. So, had Bryson brought his best stuff, this should have been a great opportunity for him.
“Cam (Smith) just has a nose for the occasion. He is able to raise his level when it really matters. So, I’d say he has majors in his future.” – Geoff Ogilvy
But it didn’t work out for him, which only underlines the fact that there is no one formula that is going to work well every time you play. Yes, Bryson has done some amazing things. But none of them mean he is going to play well every single day. His best is now really hard to beat. But he was nowhere near that at this Masters. That’s golf.
Bernhard Langer was great to watch, of course. It was amazing to see a 63-year-old man perform as well as he did. But given how far he hits the ball – or doesn’t hit it – it was also miraculous that he finished T-29. That is about as good as he could have done on a course playing as long as Augusta National clearly was. But experience always pays dividends in the Masters. Always.
From an Australian point of view, it was obviously great to see Cam Smith do so well. He has a great “ready for any challenge” way about him. We saw that in the Presidents Cup last year at Royal Melbourne when he beat Justin Thomas in the singles. Cam just has a nose for the occasion. He is able to raise his level when it really matters. So, I’d say he has majors in his future. He has the perfect spirit for that level of competition. And he is improving all the time, in all aspects of the game. I know for sure that, more and more, he commands respect on Tour.
Rory played well for the last 54 holes, but was basically out of contention as far as winning was concerned after that opening 75. Completing the career Grand Slam isn’t going to get any easier for him. Each Masters that goes by makes it more difficult. It isn’t yet too big a burden for such a special player – I still think he can do it – but it is only going to get heavier. By the end of the week he was playing as well as anyone. The form was there, but shooting himself out of it early has become a bit of a pattern.
And then there’s Tiger. He made a 10 on the par-3 12th hole. But these things happen. And he reacted in typical fashion with five birdies in the next six holes. So, while it was an aberration, every shot Tiger hit on the 12th has happened to other players. Before he knew where he was he was in double-figures. Unlike last year, it just wasn’t his week. It was Dustin’s, who is the best player in the game right now.