(CBS Miami) — In a typical year, The Masters is played in early April, ushering in the majors season for professional golf. This has not been a typical year. A month before The Masters’ originally scheduled April start, the PGA Tour suspended play due to the spread of COVID-19. Tournaments resumed three months later, with a revised schedule. The PGA Championship, U.S. Open and The Masters were all pushed back. The Open Championship was canceled.
Since June, the PGA Tour has managed to string together a full slate of events with minimal hiccups. With the end of the FedExCup Playoffs, the schedule rolled over to the 2020-21 season, which, because of rescheduling, will include six majors. The U.S. Open was played in mid-September, with Bryson DeChambeau capturing his first major. November brings the rescheduled 2020 Masters, with all the storylines that would’ve bubbled up seven months ago along with a few new ones.
Tiger Woods is the defending champion at Augusta after his surprising win 19 months ago. It was his fifth green jacket, more than a decade removed from his last major title and even longer since his last Masters title. The years in between were filled with injuries and personal issues. And with his recurring back problems, it seemed his golf career was over. But Woods eventually recovered and regained his form. And that Sunday he held off seven players, who finished within two strokes of the lead, to complete one of sports’ greatest comeback.
Woods, who is currently ranked 33rd in the world, hasn’t played like a contender of late. In his last two events, he missed the cut at the U.S. Open and tied for 72nd at the Zozo Championship. His last top-10 finish came at the Farmers Insurance Open back in January. While Woods knows Augusta as well as anyone, his game doesn’t look like he could execute on that knowledge. Nor does his back seem well enough for him to put in the necessary practice.
“Unfortunately things are just more difficult for Tiger,” says CBS Sports lead golf analyst Nick Faldo. “A little bit older, and the back hasn’t been good. His back rules his everything, golf and life probably. It rules his practice. That’s very important. We forget that he cannot stand and hit putts like he used to, can’t put the work in. He certainly hasn’t put the competitive reps in, and he hasn’t had the results. Everything is a challenge this week.”
CBS Sports on-course reporter Dottie Pepper is slightly more optimistic about Tiger’s chances. “If there’s anyplace he’s going to get it done, I would think it would be here, based upon his history here, his passion for playing this place, certainly remembering what happened last year. But I think he’s also a guy who has struggled because he does feed so much off the energy that crowds provide for him.”
Byson DeChambeau is quite a different story. DeChambeau returned from the three-month hiatus earlier this year noticeably bulkier and has proceeded to overpower courses with his alleged 48″ driver. Now ranked sixth in the world, he won the U.S. Open in September and tied fourth at the PGA Championship back in August. He led the PGA Tour in Shots Gained: Off the Tee last season and has continued this season. Can he go back-to-back?
“We’re able to watch him warming up on the range with his launch monitor, launching it 365 [yards], that sort of thing,” Faldo says of DeChambeau. “He’s getting quite consistent at that. We’ve heard all sorts of rumors about some of his practice rounds. How close he’s been to the first green. How short the second has played. He’s knocked a three-wood onto the third. He is a completely different animal right now. He’s spearheading the whole distance debate. But I’m a fan of his. He’s done it physically, and he’s applied the science, matching a ball and the face and the shaft to get all of your optimums. He’s looking twice the size that he did even in May.”
Pepper noticed some opportunities where DeChambeau’s distance will serve him well. “I walked the golf course with Bryson in mind today. And I looked at different places somebody who could carry the ball that far would hit it and places that they would cut corners. There is a gap in 13 that he could take it up high and left and take it into an area that’s beyond the trees and pushing the 14th fairway. It can be done. The same thing at eight. He’s going to have to shoot that ball in there a little bit. And at five. If he misses left in the bunkers — they’re pretty much pitch-out bunkers. But if he can carry it up there, in these conditions, there are definitely advantages. We need to be reminded that it’s still getting the ball in the hole. And while he did it at Winged Foot, I think this is a little bit different animal we’re looking at here at Augusta National.”
Rory McIlroy is still searching for a career grand slam, his last major wins coming back in 2014. He remains near the top of his game. McIlroy didn’t really find his stride coming out of the coronavirus hiatus, failing to notch a top-10 finish until the Tour Championship in September. He followed that up with a tie for eighth at the U.S. Open. In Faldo’s view, “Rory seems like he’s been one of the players who has suffered from lack of atmosphere. Rory feeds off that. Obviously hasn’t played his best. Hasn’t been able to get completely on a fantastic run.”
This is just a sampling from a field that includes 19 of the world’s top-20 players. Daniel Berger, the world’s 13th-ranked player, is the only player missing from that group. He would certainly make the field based on his recent body of work, which includes four top 10s since the break. But the field for this week’s Masters is based on the field determined back before its originally scheduled dates. And, at that point in time, Berger ranked outside the top 100.
While Berger will have to watch on TV, plenty of young guns will be on hand, including fourth-ranked Collin Morikawa and 14th-ranked Matthew Wolff. Morikawa catapulted to the top of the rankings with wins at the Workday Charity Open and PGA Championship. Wolff is still awaiting his first win, but has three second-place finishes in recent months.
The looming threat of COVID could thin out the field at any time. Any player who tests positive will be forced to withdraw. Joaquín Niemann announced his withdrawal last Friday after a positive test. Sergio Garcia was forced to do the same on Monday. Other notable players, including Dustin Johnson and Adam Scott, have been forced to withdraw from events since the game’s return.
The field will face an Augusta National course they’re not quite used to. For one the atmosphere will be different without fans. Players who rely on the crowd’s energy won’t have that support. That’s been the case since the sport’s return in June, but this will be the first time at Augusta. The weather could be another issue, with a strong chance of rain all four days. Soft conditions will make for a more forgiving course, particularly for the longer less accurate players. Cold temperatures won’t be an issue however.
Here are the favorites:
Bryson DeChambeau (8-1)
DeChambeau has seven top-10 finishes since golf returned back in June, including two wins. His latest came at the U.S. Open in September. He’s driving the ball better than anyone, averaging 344 yards off the tee. And a softer course, given the likely wet conditions, will be even more forgiving for his long game. If he can drive reasonably straight and putt reasonably well, he has a solid chance at another major.
Dustin Johnson (9-1)
Can Johnson add a second major title to his resume? He’s coming off a tie for second at the Houston Open and a top-10 finish at the U.S. Open. The world’s top-ranked player has three wins since June and two more second-place finishes. He also placed second in the 2019 Masters and has made the top 10 in each of his last four appearances at Augusta.
Jon Rahm (11-1)
Rahm, ranked second in the world, is looking for his first major. With two wins and three more top-10 finishes since June, his game is ready. His best finish at Augusta was fourth in 2018. Rahm, like DeChambeau and Johnson, is another of the Tour’s bombers. And the conditions look favorable for him to unleash his drives on Augusta.
Watch the Masters live Saturday, November 14, 1:00-5:00 p.m. ET and Sunday, November 15, 10:00 a.m.-3:00 p.m. ET on CBS.