AUGUSTA, Ga. -- The Augusta National Golf Club is known for its lushness and greenery, but that is not how anyone would describe what its 18 greens look like ahead of the 85th Masters. With a day still to go, Augusta's greatest defense -- a complex, devilish set of some of the best greens on the planet -- is looking particularly fierce following the two easiest Masters of all time.
During Tuesday's practice round, golf balls were already hopping shin-high on some of the approach shots players were hitting. Augusta can control whether this firmness increases or decreases as the tournament approaches and unfolds, but the current agronomic makeup of the golf course could provide us with a Masters we haven't seen in a long time.
The reasoning behind why it's so much firmer and faster than it was just five months ago is two-fold. First, there's more sunlight at this time of the year to dry the course and the greens out. Also, it's further away from the overseed, which requires massive amounts of water.
Speaking of water, that's the one thing that could soften things up going into Thursday's first round. Rain is expected on three of the four tournament days. If it misses the area, though, hang on, buddy, because it's going to be a ride.
"If it stays dry, it'll be as difficult as the course has played in a long, long time, and that's what I think we need to have," said 1992 champion Fred Couples. "We need to have the course firm, fast, and hopefully there won't be much rain."
It's what nearly everyone is hoping to see because Augusta is unique in that, even in the toughest agronomic conditions, it can still be set up for scoring. So you could see one day of insane, U.S. Open-like conditions and another day where birdies and eagles are flying. Control is paramount, and Augusta has it completely heading into the tournament.
"I would say, for the last decade, the greens here are in the top 25% of softest we play on Tour, and the golf course's only defense is the greens," said three-time champion Phil Mickelson on Tuesday. "So if it's firm, I think it's going to be a real test. ... I think with firm greens, this golf course needs to be respected, and I think it's been a long time since it's had to be respected."
Augusta National chairman Fred Ridley confirmed Wednesday that this is the best condition he's seen the course in during his 20-year stint at the club. He also said it's the fastest it's played going into the week since Adam Scott won a green jacket in 2013.
What does this mean for who could win the tournament? Well, it puts a disproportionate burden on elite iron play. The best iron players in the world since Feb. 1 (according to Data Golf) are good bets for this style of play. Here's a look at that list featuring strokes gained on approach shots.
- Collin Morikawa (1.87)
- Jordan Spieth (1.40)
- Justin Thomas (1.32)
- Sergio Garcia (1.21)
- Viktor Hovland (1.20)
- Tony Finau (1.18)
- Brooks Koepka (1.13)
- Jon Rahm (1.08)
- Will Zalatoris (1.07)
- Corey Conners (1.07)
Of those players, Spieth, Thomas, Garcia, Rahm and Koepka have built up a great knowledge bank at both Augusta National and major championships in general. Knowing when to attack and when to throttle down will also be at a premium. Wisdom and patience will be incredibly important, according to Mickelson.
"When the greens are firm, the precision, the course management, the angles, the leave where the ball is left, all of this stuff becomes incredibly important in your ability to play this course effectively," said Mickelson. "When the greens are soft, it's irrelevant because you can fly the ball over all the trouble. Angles don't matter. However, when the greens are firm, those small sections are very hard to hit and you've got to really strategize on where you leave it. That's the whole defense of the golf course."
All of this also places a premium on short game. Golfers on Tuesday were taking putting lines on the greens that make the New York City subway system seem straightforward. Thinking outside the box and not being afraid of bizarre-looking shots will be important over the next four days.
In sifting through all of this data and the chatter wafting through the property, it seems as if the best iron player with the most course knowledge and a strong level of creativity and recovery is the best bet for the week. And if all of this doesn't scream "Jordan Spieth is going to win by seven strokes this weekend," I have no idea what in the world does.
Watch all four rounds of the 2021 Masters starting Thursday with Masters Live as we follow the best golfers in the world throughout Augusta National with Featured Groups, check in at the famed Amen Corner and see leaders round the turn on holes 15 & 16. Watch live on CBSSports.com, the CBS Sports App and Paramount+*.