AUGUSTA, Ga. – Masters practice rounds are now group efforts.
On any given day here, players young and old, grizzled and green, technical and instinctive, will join forces to tour Augusta National. The three- or four-man groups are essentially a meeting of the minds, with players and caddies exchanging tidbits of information about where to miss, how putts break and why different wind directions affect club selection.
Each player’s preparation is different, but most agree that it’s crucial to log plenty of practice rounds and to pick the brains of Masters veterans.
That’s why Matt Fitzpatrick, 21, practiced with Bernhard Langer, 58.
And why Jin Cheng, 18, took a spin with Tom Watson, 66.
And why Derek Bard, 20, hooked up with Larry Mize, 57.
At Augusta, sharing is caring.
Which is a bit unusual, of course, because in no other sport would world-class athletes help their competition succeed.
Can you imagine Steph Curry giving LeBron James tips on how to defend him?
Or Clayton Kershaw showing Bryce Harper exactly how and when he throws his filthy curveball?
Or Novak Djokovic telling Roger Federer how to return his lethal forehand?
Of course not.
Yet it is commonplace at the Masters for players to help each other on the most demanding course in the world – a venue that, Jordan Spieth’s recent success notwithstanding, typically requires a tremendous amount of course knowledge.
It makes sense that Watson would assist the younger and less experienced players, because they’re not really competing against each other. (His stated goal is to make the cut.) But why would Zach Johnson give tips to Kevin Kisner, and why would Rory McIlroy advise Andy Sullivan, and why would Phil Mickelson guide Bryson DeChambeau around Augusta?
Pressed about the unselfish culture that exists here, Watson bristled.
“It’s the right thing to do,” he said.
After all, it’s how Watson learned the course back in the mid-1970s, when he relied on advice from Ken Venturi and Byron Nelson. Now, Watson is paying it forward, inviting Robert Streb, first-timer Troy Merritt and Cheng, the Asia-Pacific Amateur champion, for a Tuesday practice round.
As an amateur, Tiger Woods practiced with Jack Nicklaus, Arnold Palmer, Raymond Floyd, Seve Ballesteros, Greg Norman, Fred Couples and Jose Maria Olazabal. They went through all of the necessary checkpoints – the proper places to miss, the different chip shots, the subtle breaks on the notoriously difficult greens. Woods, of course, went on to claim four green jackets.
Even Spieth, who at 21 became the youngest Masters champion since Woods, needed some help along the way. Last year, he played nine holes with two-time champion Ben Crenshaw and Woods. Spieth’s caddie, Michael Greller, spent 45 minutes with legendary looper Carl Jackson (who was on the bag for both of Crenshaw’s titles) before the weekend rounds, talking about every hole. Greller compared it to meeting Michael Jordan and breaking down the NBA Finals.
“Certainly picked his brain a little then,” Spieth said of his time with Crenshaw. “As you could imagine, with any of us when we’re out there playing with someone else, you don’t want to just get questioned about every single hole and this and that. So it was kind of light, just here and there.”
This year, it is the whiz kid, DeChambeau, who is peppering Crenshaw with questions. The 22-year-old might be most prepared amateur ever at the Masters, after leaving school last fall and playing 12 rounds at Augusta. More than that, he has quizzed everyone from local caddies to CBS Sports announcer Jim Nantz to Phil Mickelson about what he can expect this week. On Sunday, DeChambeau played nine holes with Crenshaw.
“We’re in a completely different place now than we were before I played with Mr. Crenshaw and had the chance to walk around with Carl,” DeChambeau said. “His knowledge and wisdom is immense.
“Like Jordan did last year, he gained a lot of knowledge from him, as well, and I hope to do the same and go down the same tracks as Jordan did last year.”
Over the past few years, Mickelson has embraced his role as a generous mentor to some of the Tour’s most promising up-and-comers. His experience is even more vast, and invaluable, at a place like Augusta, where he has won three times, all since 2004. Mickelson keeps a thick pad of notes – detailing everything from wind direction to club selection to breaks on the green – that he has accumulated over his 23 appearances here. On Tuesday, he started a game with frequent practice partners Keegan Bradley and Dustin Johnson, and also brought DeChambeau into the mix.
“I think that it’s a great history here,” Mickelson said, “but I also think that the course goes through so many changes that it’s fun to reminisce and look back and talk about the way putts used to break and the way they break now and things to look for. It’s just fun. It’s the only place, the only major that we play the same venue every year ...
“You get to relive those memories every year at Augusta. So for guys that have won it before, it’s fun to reminisce and talk about it, and then for the guys that haven’t played here before or are new to the Masters, it’s fun to hear those stories because it’s helpful.”
Early on, Zach Johnson, the 2007 champion, had his own go-to Masters veterans, whether it was Corey Pavin, Jeff Sluman, Tom Lehman or Davis Love III. “The guys that paved the way for me,” he said. And so on Monday, Johnson practiced with Kisner, a 32-year-old Masters rookie, and showed him the traditional hole locations and proper angles to attack.
“It’s great,” Johnson said. “It’s not like I knew everything. So you want to help him out. They are good kids. They are good guys for the game. I mean, why not?”
Well, mostly because Augusta National is arguably the most nuanced course on the planet, and because any small advantage – whether it’s knowing when to use a wedge or a putter from the closely mown areas, or reading the wild undulations on the greens, or understanding how the swirling wind on the 12th tee affects club choice – could mean the difference between a legacy-defining victory and a near-miss.
So why not keep that information close to the vest? Why share those precious insights honed over two decades of play? Why would you possibly help a fellow competitor?
“Everything out there, it’s pretty much in front of you,” McIlroy said. “I don’t feel like there’s any secrets out there, so I don’t feel like I’m giving anything away. I’m just passing on a little bit of knowledge that I’ve built up over the years and I really don’t mind doing it.”
And besides, any player can learn where to hit it at Augusta National.
He still has to execute the shot.