When world number one, Dustin Johnson tees-up in the defence of his Masters title on Thursday, it will have been only five months that he’s been officially allowed to wear the famed members green jacket away from Augusta National, the shortest spell between Masters tournaments in the event’s history.
Johnson was a record-setting winner at a Masters like no other last November, his 20-under par winning tally proving a relative procession to the Butler Cabin for the game’s top player. Lacking its usual fire that warmer April weather can bring, the great Georgia parkland lay at the mercy of the game’s best players and none more so than DJ; his towering ball-flight into receptive greens allowing him to throw darts into pins normally inaccessible in April.
Indeed, November’s Masters was different for many reasons, not least because of the absence of patrons, the famous roars through the pines associated with Augusta National replaced by the sound of silence. The usual colour around Augusta was also missing from our screens, no azaleas in bloom in November, while the cooler weather also stretched an already imposing, lengthy layout, playing into the hands of big-hitters like DJ.
Still, for all the aesthetic differences a change in scheduling brought, Augusta National, at its core, remained the same Augusta National designed by Bobby Jones and Alister MacKenzie, the former describing his creation as one to “make bogeys easy if frankly sought, pars readily obtainable by standard good play, and birdies - except on par-5s - dearly bought”.
That said, there was much to learn for those teeing up last November. Augusta National provides a constant learning curve but the more times you play it, the more you familiarise yourself with its idiosyncrasies. You understand where to defend and where to attack, where to miss and where not to. During the practice rounds of Masters week, you’ll see leading amateurs and relative rookies seek out past Masters, trading notes along the pine straw and picking the brains of those who’ve come through 72 holes unscathed.
Shane Lowry comes in this year off his best Masters finish – a tied-25th result in November – where he played two rounds with Tiger Woods, a man who’s played his way into the Butler Cabin no less than five times in an incredible career. Still fresh in the memory from that week in Augusta for Lowry is his front row seat to how the 15-time Major winner approaches one of the most demanding tests in golf, something the Clara man feels is a big advantage ahead of his return to Georgia this week.
“To get to play with Tiger for three rounds around there, you do learn a lot from that, I don’t care what anyone says,” Lowry insists. “I saw the way arguably the best golfer to ever play the game plays it around a place like that. You need to be clever around Augusta, you need to really know what you’re doing and where you’re hitting it, so for me to be able to see that first-hand, you do learn little things from that.
“Do I know specifically what I did learn? Not really, but I know I would’ve learned some stuff that will come back to memory when you’re standing over certain shots and in certain positions going forward.”
Only one man in history has collected more Green Jackets than Tiger Woods and that’s six-time Masters winner, Jack Nicklaus. The 18-time Major champion found a winning formula for playing around Augusta that only tournament reps can bring. We read constant speculation about the type of golfer that wins around Augusta; they hit the ball high from right to left, can land their approach shots softly on a six-pence, chip like a demon and putt like a dream. For Nicklaus?
“I hear players saying that ‘it doesn’t suit my game’. It’s not supposed to suit your game! You’re supposed to suit your game to the golf course.”
Take Dustin Johnson; he hits the ball from left to right and had no issues negotiating Augusta’s dog-legs in November. DJ’s learned to play the course over time. Success through repetition, which means those who played the November renewal, different weather or not, have a leg up on those who missed out. Why? Because experience around Augusta is arguably more important than any other major venue. And if Augusta is your ultimate horses for courses venue, then no horse has been more suited to the race than Nicklaus. His best advice for tackling Augusta National?
“My best advice would be to put the ball in the middle of the green on every hole and find out what type of breaking putt you have after that. There’s only four pin placements – you’re not going to be very far away.”
Who are we to argue with that?