Year after year, no matter the outside circumstances, the Masters creates memories. As Brendan Porath said in his pre-tournament essay, it’s not just about who won. There are always at least a few random shots and moments that stick with you for years afterwards.
The monumental decision
This year, a chilly early Saturday delivered one of those memories for me. For a couple of hours, the “monumental decision” that Bobby Jones and Alister MacKenzie envisioned all those years ago was suddenly relevant again.
A combination of cool air and wet turf turned Augusta National into a beast that played to something resembling its original length. The shortest-hitting player in the field, 62-year-old Larry Mize, needed a driver, a 3-wood, and a long iron to reach the par-5 8th.
But the main moment I’ll remember is when Jon Rahm, one of the longest golfers in the world, chose to lay up from the fairway on the par-5 15th hole. This is something I never thought I’d see a top player do again, especially after a decent drive. But on that chilly, damp Saturday morning, Rahm’s drive traveled only 288 yards, leaving him 244 yards to the pond-fronted green. This number clearly wasn’t a comfortable one for Rahm. I’m guessing he was between his 5-wood and his 4-iron.
In normal conditions, the second shot into No. 15 would be a no-brainer green light for the likes of Jon Rahm. These days, almost no PGA Tour pro thinks twice about pulling a long iron—or even a short iron—and launching it at the green, even if that green is, as Geoff Ogillvy puts it, shaped like the hood of a car.
But these were not normal conditions. And so, rather than risk going long with a fairway wood or falling short with a long iron, Rahm went wedge-wedge. It was puzzling, jarring… and kind of exhilarating. Finally a moment in professional golf when a player was forced to think and make a difficult decision! Rahm chose to lay up probably because of a combination of cold weather and a bad number. Perhaps he just didn’t feel like he had the shot. In balmy conditions on a perfectly dialed-in course, on the other hand, he would never have faced the dilemma. It’s sad, really, that it took fall temperatures and hurricane-driven rains on Wednesday to create this situation.
Jon Rahm's layup on No. 15 on Saturday morning, as it played out on the Masters app
Rahm wasn’t alone. Others in the Saturday-morning wave laid up from spots where they had gone for it the day before. Tiger Woods did just that on the No. 13.
In this context, Patrick Reed’s decision from 248 yards on 15 became all the more interesting. He was playing in the group behind Rahm’s. At 7 a.m., I found myself on the edge of my seat. Reed, who sits around the PGA Tour average in driving distance, settled on a fairway wood. He fired it at the pin.
What happened next—Reed went a bit long and left but got up-and-down for birdie—is less important than the fact that, for a two-hour span on Saturday at the Masters, risk and reward had returned.
Now, it’s important to note that soggy fairways are not normally a recipe for compelling golf. More than just about any course, Augusta National should play with some bounce, as firm turf magnifies great shots both off the tee and into the green. But for this one morning, the wet and cold conditions did reveal a dimension of Augusta that I hadn’t seen in a long time, except on those final-round replays on YouTube.
I’d love for “monumental decisions” to happen more often at the modern Masters. And I’d love for them not to come at the cost of millions of dollars in land and new tee boxes. Maybe that’s asking for too much. In any case, while 2020 will always be the year of DJ, I will also never forget Jon Rahm laying up from 244 yards in the middle of then 15th fairway, and thinking, This is how it’s supposed to play.
A canvas for all
Augusta National has traditionally given a wide range of playing styles a chance to excel, from bombers like Bubba Watson to tactical surgeons like a 43-year-old Tiger Woods to recovery artists like Patrick Reed. This year was no different; each of those types was represented. On Sunday, the power of Dustin Johnson was pitted against the precision of Sungjae Im and the scrambling of Cameron Smith.
The fact that Smith in particular was in the mix is a testament to Augusta National’s capacity to allow any type of world-class player to thrive. In his PGA Tour career, Smith’s Achilles’ heel has been his tee-to-green game. His best finish in his past three full seasons on tour in Strokes Gained: Approach or Off-the-Tee has been 103rd. This week, it was more of the same from Smith. Lots of missed greens and wayward drives.
The difference? Augusta National’s design allows for recovery, and its short-grass surrounds give a short-game wizard like Smith an opportunity to use his skills. His performance this week reminded me of his strong play at the 2019 Presidents Cup. Royal Melbourne, another Alister MacKenzie design, let Smith draw on his immense talents on and around the greens, and he put a scare into America’s best players.
It’s starting to look like a trend. Cameron Smith now has three top fives in majors. Two of those have come at the Masters and the other at the 2015 U.S. Open, held at Chambers Bay—not coincidentally, another course that provides recovery opportunities after wayward tee shots and plenty of short grass around the greens.
A balance of playing styles is good for golf. It makes Sundays more exciting. In the final round at Augusta National, Smith’s tendency to find himself in the woods was as relatable as his physics-defying punchouts were exciting. His chaotic game offered a satisfying contrast to the calm competence of Dustin Johnson and Sungjae Im. Unfortunately, players like Smith have become more rare in professional golf—a trend that I hope doesn’t continue. From Seve Ballesteros to Phil Mickelson to Jordan Spieth, many of the most beloved golfers have been Smith-like in their unpredictability. You never know what kinds of messes they’re going to get into next, or how they’ll manage to escape.
Certain types of setup and architecture allow this style of play to stay relevant. For the sake of both Cam Smith and golf, we need more venues like Augusta National, Royal Melbourne, and Chambers Bay—venues that reward the ability to recover from a misstep. Think about it: when all is said and done, which shot will you remember best from this year’s Masters? For me, it will be Smith’s recovery from the trees on the 9th hole on Sunday.
Whether they asked for it or not, Augusta National sets the example for the rest of the golf world. As a result, in the past, superintendents have often faced frustrating questions: Why can’t our course be as lush as Augusta National? Why can’t our greens be as fast? For 99% of golf courses, the answers are obvious, even if greens chairs don’t listen. Augusta’s annual schedule, budget, and maintenance regimen are geared toward the singular goal of producing as flawless a course as possible for one week in April. Those practices are simply not attainable anywhere else, and striving for them can be disastrous.
Hopefully, however, this year’s November Masters can serve as an antidote to the so-called “Augusta National Syndrome.” For the first time in memory, the course didn’t look perfect. The tree-shrouded 12th green and 13th tee, for example, were visibly soft, even muddy. It was a reminder that all golf courses, even the best ones, are living organisms that don’t look the same at all times of year. No amount of money or agronomic expertise can change that reality.
In April, we will likely see a return to the perfection we’re used to, but we should keep in mind the (very slight) shagginess we saw this past week. And we should definitely stop asking our superintendents why our home courses at their worst don’t look like Augusta National at its best.