It's officially Masters week. And while this year's Masters is going to feel more unusual than maybe any Masters in history, the last major of 2020 is still overflowing with storylines. In fact, perhaps because this Masters is more unusual than any other, the 84th edition of this tournament will be full to the brim with intriguing narratives.
Some of the top storylines are repeats, of course. That's what happens when Rory McIlroy is still seeking the final major for his grand slam and Jordan Spieth is still wandering around in the desert. But others are quite new, such as Bryson DeChambeau gaining one Ian Woosnam in the weight department and the possibility of any number of players testing positive for COVID-19, which would knock them out of the tournament completely.
Much will be missed about this Masters -- no Par-3 Tournament, no patrons, no merchandise tents -- but there is also much to celebrate. Let's start with the fact that, even amid a global pandemic, Augusta National was able to safely arrange for the Masters to be played at all.
Here's a look at the top 10 storylines entering what should be a fun week at Augusta National.
1. Bryson DeChambeau flexes: This could (and maybe should) be among the top storylines to follow. DeChambeau heads to Augusta National a major champion intent on tilting the course his direction with hammered drives and the confidence that comes with taking a U.S. Open. It's still unlikely that DeChambeau wins back-to-back majors (because it's unlikely that any single player wins any event), but this week is less about whether he wins and more about how he goes about trying to win. I recently broke down every stroke he could take and how few clubs he'll actually need to carry. If DeChambeau plays Augusta the same way he played the U.S. Open at Winged Foot, not only will he be a two-time major champion, but golf will have a much more public and pressing problem on its hands when it comes to distance and how the most classic of all the golf courses handle the modern game.
2. Tiger Woods returns as defending champion: In his four prior Masters title defenses, woods finished T8, 1st, T15 and T3. That bodes well for this year even if the state of his game does not. Tiger is more likely to cater Wendy's for the Masters Champions Dinner than he is to win the golf tournament based on how he's been playing. And yet, he's the wisest, most disciplined golfer in the field at this specific course. The dirty little secret of last year's win is that he didn't actually do much coming home ... because he didn't need to. He played the second nine in 1 under -- hardly the stuff you dream about at the Masters -- and let everyone else dive headlong into Rae's Creek. There is a path to a sixth green jacket for him, I suppose, and it looks similar to 2019. But without a certain chaos that affects everyone not named Tiger and without the tee-to-green game he brought last year, it's a lot more complicated and a lot less likely than it was a year ago.
3. Rory McIlroy goes for the slam ... again: It seems that, over the years, the attention paid to McIlroy winning all four majors has probably waned a bit, but that doesn't make the potential accomplishment any less historic. McIlroy comes into the Masters playing ... fine but probably not at the level required to win. His big issue has been iron play, which is currently at one of the lower points in his career in terms of strokes gained (see chart). Still, if he sniffs the lead on the weekend and there are no other huge stories (Tiger, Brooks Koepka etc.), his bid to join Woods, Jack Nicklaus, Gene Sarazen, Ben Hogan and Gary Player as the only golfers to win all four majors will completely take over the event.
4. Lost boys: There are many. The two most notable -- Jordan Spieth and Phil Mickelson -- have a combined eight major championships and almost no chance to win this year. It's been a tough scene for both golfers in recent months (and years) on the PGA Tour, but Augusta does seem to hold revitalizing powers. Spieth, for example, has never finished worse than T21 at the Masters, and Mickelson has missed just two cuts since 1998. Either contending this time around would be a stunner to those who have been following along closely, but there have certainly been more bizarre outcomes at majors before.
5. Young superstars: A first-timer has not won the Masters in 40 year, but don't be surprised if that changes this time around. The "there are so many young studs" narrative gets overcooked in golf, but a very specific set of circumstances -- delayed Masters, historically good crop of rookies last year, no patrons -- has led to the real possibility that Woods could be slipping the jacket on the shoulders of someone who was not yet born -- Sungjae Im? Matthew Wolff? -- when he won his first Masters.
6. The first (or the second): There are so many great players looking for their first major championship that it almost feels inevitable one of them will win like DeChambeau did at the U.S. Open in September. Jon Rahm, Patrick Cantlay, Xander Schauffele, Tommy Fleetwood, Tony Finau and Hideki Matsuyama are among these players and all are also among the favorites at Augusta National. Even more interesting to me is the group stuck at one major win: Justin Thomas, Adam Scott, Dustin Johnson, Justin Rose, Webb Simpson, Patrick Reed, Jason Day and Sergio Garcia are included. Remember, 225 golfers have won at least one major, but only 82 have done it at least twice. Multiple majors are part of what separates the all-time greats from everyone else.
7. Is Brooks back? Remember when Koepka finished T2 at last year's Masters and would have won if he'd simply stayed dry on No. 12? I remember. That was before all the injury issues, of course, and the last 15 months have not been very memorable for the four-time major winner. However, he's coming off a pair of 65s on the weekend at the Houston Open and is playing better than he has in a long time. Of his 14 worldwide wins, he's finished in the top 10 (like he did in Houston) in the tournament directly preceding the tournament he won eight times.
8. Weather effects: How Augusta will play in November has been overplayed a bit thus far, which means that how incoming weather could affect the event has necessarily been not covered enough. The course seems mostly the same, though McIlroy did say chipping will be trickier because the Bermuda has not died off yet -- but the weather report looks like rain all four days in Augusta. This could mean a sloppier event than normal replete with mud balls and soggy fairways. This probably favors the biggest hitters (what doesn't, though?), but regardless, it's something to monitor throughout the week.
9. No patrons: Though there's no way to prove that the PGA Championship and U.S. Open outcomes were changed because those events lacked the buzz of normal major championships, though everything we know about what major championships are like would indicate that this is true. How could 30,000 folks watching you try to draw a 7-iron out of thick rough around a group of trees to a domed green not change your heart rate a little bit? Woods' old caddie, Steve Williams, referenced this recently and noted how it hurts players like Tiger who are trying to leverage the uncontrollable nature of a major week against more inexperienced golfers. That intoxicating feeling on a Saturday or Sunday afternoon that can make your head swim in every direction won't come into play this year. We unfortunately cannot live the alternate reality of a 2020 Masters with patrons in existence, but it's something to remember when Wolff takes a lead into what should be a Saturday afternoon heat chamber that plays far more placid than it otherwise would.
10. COVID-19 testing: The coronavirus has already claimed one Masters victim as Joaquin Niemann had to withdraw after testing positive. This has a legitimate effect on the outcome of the tournament. Niemann was not likely to win, but he was almost certainly among the 30-35 golfers most likely to do so. Players have always withdrawn from major championships for various illnesses and injuries, but never has the risk been as high or as ubiquitous as it is this year.