2023 Masters: 5 things golf fans will be talking about this week
The Masters, as Jim Nantz says, is “a tradition unlike any other,” and that observation will ring true for the next week — for a different reason.
The 87th Masters will be the first event with a large number of players from fledgling LIV Golf competing on the same stage with members of the established PGA Tour, and questions abound.
Will the interactions be civil or resemble a civil war? Will Augusta National officials make the situation more challenging for the LIV gang through pairings for the first two rounds? Will LIV players be invited for pre-tournament interviews? Will PGA and LIV players be received equally by patrons?
That’s without mentioning the changes to the historic 13th hole or the proposed ball that would limit distance for elite male players. Throw in Rory McIlroy’s career Grand Slam quest, and there’s Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson, their generation’s best two players who arrive dripping with drama
The pros take center stage with practice rounds Monday to Wednesday and the competition starts for real on Thursday.
Waiting for answers provides fodder for delicious debates.
PGA TOUR VS. LIV GOLF
The topic has been debated ad nauseum: Would the breakaway LIV Tour players be welcome in the major championships?
Augusta National did not alter its qualifications, thus 18 LIV players will be in the field. But allowing them to play does not mean they will be welcome with open arms. Indeed, Masters chairman Fred Ridley noted this in a December statement: “Regrettably, recent actions have divided men’s professional golf by diminishing the virtues of the game and the meaningful legacies of those who built it.”
First- and second-round pairing and players invited for pre-tournament interviews will be telling. If, for example, Cam Smith or Dustin Johnson draw lousy tee times, Augusta National will be sending a message.
“Potentially even uneasy and uncomfortable because of the presence of LIV golfers,” Golf Channel personality Rich Lerner said in a conference call to preview the network’s Masters coverage.
THE 13TH HOLE
Augusta National officials finally decided to stretch the par-5 13th hole an additional 35 yards to make the challenge more formidable for today’s long hitters.
The iconic hole, which founder Bobby Jones liked to call a par four and one-half, had changed from risk or reward to an easy birdie, thanks to players’ increased distance off the tee.
Patrick Reed told reporters prior to the LIV tourney in Orlando that he and Dustin Johnson played recent practice rounds and “D.J. laid up both days.”
Said NBC analyst Notah Begay III: “The second shot on the longer 13 “is a very hard shot to a small target with the ball above your feet. In most cases, that’s calling for a left to right shot . . . and hopefully we’ll see more skill required than blasting something out there and then hitting a short iron.”
Will the change diminish the drama?
Advancement in physical conditioning and equipment technology have created longer hitters, and the rules makers have proposed a ball that restricts distance a bit for elite men players.
Almost all the PGA Tour players protest. The equipment manufactures protest. But Augusta National officials have long talked of the “distance problem” and Augusta’s stance on the proposal could be telling.
Ridley is “enormously influential,” Lerner said.
“As much as I’m against rolling the golf ball back, there were a few holes in the game of golf that when the pros played them, I did kind of wince,” Golf Channel analyst Brandel Chamblee said. “It bothers me to see players cut that corner (on 13) and have a wedge in there.”
TIGER AND PHIL
Even though he generally plays only in majors, Woods moves the needle like no other player. And Mickelson has long been an Augusta favorite. But some inflammatory statements kept him away from the 2022 Masters and his ensuing move to LIV did not endear him to the establishment.
The question for both: What happens in 2023?
With Tiger, his stamina is always a question. Surgeries and the aftereffects of 2021 car accident have taken their toll. But he made the cut at both the Masters and PGA a year ago. He has played in only one Tour event since the Open Championship last July.
“The fact that he was able to play at the level after basically being on the bench for six months, to come out and make a cut, I just can’t even get my mind around that.” Begay said. “I know he’s Tiger Woods, but it is the PGA Tour, and a high degree of play is required to compete at that level.
“He can still win. I mean, let’s not forget that. It’s not a question of ability. It’s a question of can he get through 72 holes and still maintain some strength and mobility in his leg on that final day.”
Since Mickelson’s stunning victory in the 2021 PGA Championship at Kiawah Island, he has made more news with his comments than with his clubs. His LIV performances have been unremarkable. Will he, at 52, become rejuvenated at Augusta National and defeat Father Time again?
RORY AND THE SLAM
Since winning the Open Championship in 2014, McIlroy has needed only the Masters to complete the career Grand Slam, a feat achieved my only Woods, Jack Nicklaus, Gary Player, Gene Sarazen and Ben Hogan.
He comes to Augusta with what he called “a ton of positives” after his third-place finish in the Dell Match-Play.
But Begay, who covered McIlroy in the Match-Play, said, “I don’t think he’s putting well enough right now. He put a new putter in play and did see some signs of life in his putting a times. (His chances) will come down to putting a little bit above his normal average. Last week he was ranked 175th in strokes gained putting, and he’s still eighth in strokes gained total, which tells you how good everything else in his game is.”
Chamblee notes a hurdle McIlroy faces is the mental challenge of less-than-stellar Masters’ performances and calls his start the key to his chances.
The analyst cites McIlroy’s first-round Augusta struggles and says his swing “is not a perfect fit for the golf course. Having said that, he’s monumentally talented and can get around these hurdles. But the first round is the most important day of the week for Rory.”