AUGUSTA, GA. - Like no other tournament, the Masters is as much about the course as the players. The Augusta National Golf Club is in ideal condition to test the 93 competitors. It's playing firm and fast, as co-designers Alister MacKenzie and Bobby Jones wanted it when the first Masters, then called the Augusta National Invitation Tournament, was played. That was in 1934, and the course has since confounded the game's best players, while also identifying the golfer who could best figure out Augusta National's subtleties.
This Masters should be no different, especially if, as club and tournament chairman Billy Payne said in his annual Wednesday press conference, the weather co-operates. Augusta National is at its most testing when it's dry and the ball runs and runs and runs. There's a possibility for storms in both the opening and second rounds, which could make the course play softer. But the turf is dry enough that the fairways and greens should still require players to hit precise shots.
Tiger Woods, ranked world No. 1, is the hot favourite. The four-time champion has won three tournaments this year, and six of his last 20 events. He was one of only two players on the practice green near the first tee one evening this week, as if to say that his experience in the 18 Masters he's played has told him that he will miss greens and need to make par-saving putts. The golfer who doesn't putt well has no chance at the Masters. Woods has been putting beautifully, especially since his fellow PGA Tour player Steve Stricker helped him earlier in the season.
But Woods is hardly the only golfer who stands an excellent chance of winning. There's Rory McIlroy, of course. The 23-year-old from Northern Ireland added last week's Valero Texas Open in San Antonio to his schedule. The winner of the 2011 U.S. Open and the 2012 PGA Championship, and the world No. 2, shot six-under-par 66 the last round to finish second by two shots to Martin Laird. Laird shot 63 and qualified for the Masters by winning – his only chance of getting in.
McIlroy's form suggests he's ready to contend for his third major championship. He took a four-shot lead into the final round of the 2011 Masters, but triple-bogied the 10th hole and shot 43 on the back nine to tie for 15th place. The setback strengthened his resolve to do better in the next major. Two months later, McIlroy won the U.S. Open at the Congressional Country Club in Bethesda, Md. by eight shots.
McIlroy is playing his fifth Masters. He's learned where to place his tee shots to provide the most favourable angles into the deceptively large greens; they're deceptive because hitting a green in regulation means little unless the player has placed the ball in the correct sections. To miss an approach shot by a little at Augusta National can mean missing by a lot. The slopes will kick the ball far away. Missing the 17th green long, for instance, can send the ball scooting 50 yards over a mound and beyond.
It's also important to keep the ball underneath the hole, because of the speed of the greens. John Low, a highly regarded British course architect of yesteryear, wrote that "Undulation is the soul of golf." McIlroy knows how to cope with and use Augusta National's undulations.
"It's obviously a very strategic golf course," McIlroy said. "So just about getting that right," he added, referring to his preparations since he got to the club Sunday.
Phil Mickelson is also expected to contend. He's won three Masters. But Mickelson didn't play in San Antonio because he didn't believe the course provided good preparation for Augusta National. He prefers to play the week before a major.
"I love this tournament so much," Mickelson said of the Masters, "and I'm nervous because I haven't been in competition since the Sunday of the Houston Open, and that's been, it will be 10, 11 days, I guess, as opposed to three, and what I'm nervous about is just those first opening five or six holes, being mentally tuned in."
Augusta National demands that players be "mentally tuned in." Bobby Jones said that the course was designed "to reward adequately the stroke played with skill – and judgment."
Come Sunday evening, as the Masters ends, the Augusta National Golf Club will have very likely proven to be the judge of the golfer who has played with skill and judgment. The winner will have handled the course. And make no mistake. There will be two winners: the champion, and the stimulating Augusta National course itself.