Near normal during Covid-19: Drama assured in Masters Tournament 2021

Gary Player and Jack Nicklaus will tee off as Honorary Starters together with Lee Elder, the first person of colour ever to play at the Masters
The truth is that nature just is. It is neither malevolent and cruel nor benevolent and kind; it just is. Thus, nature is unconcerned whether this coronavirus emerged from a laboratory or from an abattoir and killed about three million persons so far. The grass still grows, the earth still spins on its axis and, of course, the azaleas still bloom on the fabled grounds of the Augusta National Club. They bring to mind Ralph Waldo Emerson’s thought about flowers being a proud assertion that a ray of beauty outvalues all the utilities of the world (however briefly!)

Nature is the ultimate example of a perfect systems dynamics model, where a stimulus here will produce an outcome there or somewhere else. For the next four days the contestants will try to “manage” the “system” of the weather, the swirling winds, the slopes and speeds on greens, the havoc in their respective minds of swing thoughts.

These are the best players in the world by any yardstick. They can hit the ball with great strength and putt with the utmost delicacy. Dustin Johnson, the defending champion, won here in November when the fairways and greens are soft and inviting of direct attack but the course is vastly different in April, the normal date, when the fairways are harder and running longer and the greens, while being perfect, are firm and bouncy. More greens will be missed requiring scrambling for pars. Not easy. Furthermore, if the very dry weather, as on today, continues till Sunday, the greens will be like glass and exceptionally difficult. Kuchh bhi ho sakta hai, kuchh bhi (anything can happen, anything).

Johnson answers questions in interviews briefly and directly to the point that flummoxes the interviewer, while Rory McIlroy amplifies his answers to provide historical, geographical and psychological context. Johnson is fully ready to compete, while McIlroy is in the throes of correcting his swing for soft shots.

Gary Player
Bryson DeChambeau has no hesitation talking about what new weapons of “course destruction” he carries in his bag, and he does intend to use them to his advantage; he is the clearest of all in his attitude. Lee Westwood is reluctant to talk about his approach to winning this event as it might compromise his chances. Everyone has a different take. While the faster fairways will neutralise some of the advantage off the tee that DeChambeau will have, he doesn’t worry as his second shot may be a putt on at least one par 4.

Jordan Spieth is very happy to be back in peak form, coming off a win last week. He’s comfortable with himself, having won and lost and contended for several years. He has accrued more course knowledge than others from great caddies and players over the years and soaked all that up like a dry sponge. He doesn’t worry either as he hopes to rekindle his already stellar career by notching up this first Major of the year. Of course, Justin Thomas is also playing very well and after his win at the Players, he is full of confidence. Tournament in November did not suit his game as he prefers the faster course of April. He knows he will don a Green Jacket, but when? He’s already 28!

Until 1960, only US players had ever won the Masters. In 1961, Gary Player of South Africa won and people expected that now several foreign players would start winning here. Nothing happened. Player smashed through again in 1974 but again nothing happened. However, when he burst through to win his third Masters in 1978, the flood gates of foreign players winning to break the near American monopoly burst open, with Seve Ballesteros winning in 1980. Since then, of the 40 Masters played to date, 19 have been won by non-US players hailing from Spain, England, Wales, Scotland, Germany, Argentina, Canada, Australia and Fiji. Even the Indians, starting from a near-zero base, have featured here starting with Jeev Milkha Singh followed by Arjun Atwal, Daniel Chopra (under the Swedish flag), Anirban Lahiri and Shubhankar Sharma. All these, and others such as Jyoti Randhawa and Shiv Kapur, have won laurels in Asia, Europe and two victories on the US PGA tour. Indians haven’t won the Masters but India is a nascent golfing country and at least several have competed at the Masters. There is always a beginning. They all blossomed in golf nurseries such as at the Delhi Golf Club in India. The pipeline is getting stronger, wider, deeper every year and increasing success on the International stage is imminent. In the 2021 Masters, a full 35 per cent of invitees are non-US but none from India. Dozens of young Indians are getting ready though, being skilled through several newer golf courses including at the Delhi Golf Course now redesigned by Gary Player. 

Jack Nicklaus
The weather is perfect, very cool in the morning to pleasantly warm, indeed hot, by the afternoon. From 50,000 patrons (spectators) in earlier years, only about 10,000 are being allowed in this year to give a semblance of normalcy. This is good for players as they react to live patrons, drawing strength from their supporters.

There is no tournament like the Masters and players feel that no tournament treats players the way they are treated here.  It’s not a long course, nor does it have heavy rough like many majors do, and the fairways are wide. The defence of this course then is only their greens. This tournament does not offer a “greens book” that shows the different slopes and angles. You have to develop your own body of knowledge through years of apprenticeship under many different playing conditions. The course sets up differently for those who draw or fade, for leftys, and again differently for length off the tee. It’s all about “learning” with humility. Did Ernie Els have a six putt on the first hole a few years ago? Did Tom Weiskopf score 13 and Tiger Woods 10 on the treacherous Par 3 twelfth? Did birdie, even eagle chances, turn into bogeys and double bogeys? All that happens, and much much more, as this seemingly benign golf course bites back.

Gary Player and Jack Nicklaus, with 9 Green Jackets between them, will tee off as Honorary Starters together with Lee Elder, the first person of colour ever to play at the Masters reflecting changing politics. Then the contestants will enter the fray. There will only be one winner but with so much skill and talent, it’s the complete uncertainty of “who” that makes the drama.

Bets please, gentlemen!

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