AUGUSTA, Ga. – In just his fourth Masters appearance, Jon Rahm already knew it was a one-off. Playing the final round last fall with rookie Sebastian Munoz, Rahm told him to soak in the experience but ultimately disregard whatever knowledge he’d just spent a week accruing at Augusta National.
“Anything you learn today, this week, forget about it,” Rahm told him, “because it will never play like this again – period.”
In the first November Masters, the fairways were sponges and the second cut was longer, the greens were more receptive and the closely mown areas less menacing. Able to take dead aim, rather than playing aggressively to conservative targets, Dustin Johnson shot 20-under 268 and smashing the 72-hole scoring record.
“I think he would have won whether it was in November or April,” Justin Thomas said. “He played far and away better than everybody else.”
But it was also abundantly clear that was an Augusta anomaly.
Johnson’s next closest pursuers were Sungjae Im, who was making his Masters debut, and Cameron Smith, who became the first player to record all four rounds in the 60s. Their 15-under totals would have been enough to win or force a playoff in all but three Masters over the past two decades. Finishing joint fifth was Dylan Frittelli, playing just his second Masters. Another shot behind, in a tie for seventh, was C.T. Pan, an Augusta newcomer who hadn’t posted a top-10 in 17 months.
“I don’t think it’s a coincidence that some first-timers or younger guys played well,” Thomas said, “because a lot of the past experience, it was engrained in my memory. There were just a lot of little things here and there that I had a hard time getting used to that just wasn’t the case last year.”
Thomas finished alone in fourth, building on a record at Augusta that has seen him improve his position each year since debuting in 2016. After finishing his final round last year, Thomas said: “I wish the tournament in April started tomorrow, I’ll just say that.”
With a few months to reflect, Thomas and others could point out exactly how differently the course played in the fall.
How approach shots stopped in the middle of the first green instead of skipping to the back.
How balls wouldn’t catch the slope and funnel all the way toward the middle or far-right pins on the par-5 second.
How they couldn’t count on using the backstop after finding the bunker short of the fourth green.
How an approach long of the flag on the seventh green wouldn’t necessarily spin all the way back to the front edge, or how the balls would hang up on the bank short of the 13th green, or how the chips behind the 15th green weren’t as terrifying.
“It wasn’t the same, not even close to being the same,” Rahm said. “You had to be very precise with the shots into the green. It was much easier off the tee because the ball was just plugging in the fairway. Chipping around the greens and putting, it was just slower, a little softer. It still played somewhat like it, because it’s Augusta National and experience is always going to help with certain areas. But very few years when we play in April does it play close to those conditions.”
Said Thomas: “We knew it was going to be like that; we knew it wasn’t going to be lightning fast or really firm like it can get in April. It wasn’t like we showed up on Thursday and it was like, Oh, wow. This isn’t what it was like the last three days. We knew what we were getting into.”
Indications are Augusta National will play this week as it was intended – 2015 champion Jordan Spieth said the “early rumors” were that it was already fiery two to three weeks ago. That certainly appeared to be the case Saturday during the final round of the Augusta National Women’s Amateur. With breezy conditions and cooler temperatures following a weeklong cold snap, the top female amateurs in the world, playing from the member tees (roughly 6,300 yards), could manage only one round in the 60s and just five sub-par scores. Many said the greens were as firm and as fast as they’d ever seen, anywhere.
And that was a week ahead of the Masters.
For first-timers like Munoz, there still was some experience to be gained from playing last November. Learning strategies off tees, start lines, wind directions. Getting visually comfortable.
Just not much.
“I’m not sure I’m going to take a whole lot into this year, if the golf course is playing very different,” Spieth said. “I’ll probably throw that one out if it’s going to be a firm Masters.”