(CBS DFW) — The Masters returns this week, only five months after it was previously played. A lot has changed in golf since November. Tiger Woods is out of the game for the foreseeable future; Jordan Spieth has seemingly found his rhythm again. And some things remain exactly as they were. Dustin Johnson is still the top-ranked player in the world, with Justin Thomas, Jon Rahm and Collin Morikawa lurking close behind.
And, of course, the Masters is still the Masters.
The first major of 2021 (and the third of the 2020-21 season) brings with it the feeling of a sport that’s grown comfortable in its pandemic ways. The wide-open nature of the sport already lent itself to social distancing. The PGA Tour was the first to return from the COVID layoff last June and hasn’t missed an event on the rearranged schedule yet. Plenty of golfers have tested positive or been ruled out because of close contact with someone who has, however. Because the bigger names routinely take weeks off between appearances anyway, it’s somehow been less noticeable.
Fans have been allowed at some events as well. And with the country opening up, that will continue at the Masters. Only players and necessary staff were on site in November. Speculation has it that there will be around 12,000 patrons per day on hand this week, as opposed to the usual 40,000 or 50,000. Most them will likely have ties to players, club members and employees or large corporate sponsors.
Those on hand, and those watching at home, will be treated to a stellar field vying for a green jacket, golf’s top prize. The world’s top 46 ranked players will be teeing off. That includes everyone from Dustin Johnson down to Will Zalatoris. It does not include Woods, who is still recovering from a car accident in February.
Johnson is the defending champion and is looking to become just the fourth player ever to win back-to-back Masters. (Jack Nicklaus, Nick Faldo and Woods are the others.) The world’s top-ranked player since last August is a favorite to slip on another green jacket. But he’ll have his work cut out for him. His putter has been off. And aside from a T8 at the Genesis Invitational in February, he doesn’t have any top-10 finishes since his last Masters win.
Thomas and Spieth are also favorites. Thomas’s most recent win came at the Players Championship a month ago. And save for the Genesis and the WGC Dell Technologies, he’s finished top 20 in every appearance this season. Spieth has been on fire since February. A win last week at the Valero Texas Open caps off a run of five top-10 finishes in his last seven appearances.
— The Masters (@TheMasters) April 7, 2021
While Spieth’s return to major contention is certainly one of this year’s biggest storylines, there are plenty of others. Bryson DeChambeau, the Tour’s longest-hitting player, will be once again looking to tame Augusta. He hasn’t yet, but he figures to keep trying. Rahm is still looking to win a major, but is playing well, with five top-10 Tour finishes this year. Morikawa remains poised on the edge of greatness, and a Masters win at the age of 24 would change the conversation around the rising star. Rory McIlroy will once again look to complete a career grand slam.
Augusta National, a par-72 measuring about 7,500 yards. The change in elevation, from the highest point on the course, the 10th tee, to the lowest, the 11th green, is the same as leaping from a 10-story building. The course promises to play a lot differently than it did last fall. Players are already noting how much firmer and faster — and ultimately more difficult — conditions are. Contrast that with the soft conditions in November that helped in Johnson’s record performance. Rain could soften things up on Thursday and Friday and help push down scores. But if the forecast stays dry, scoring opportunities could be limited.
Augusta is friendly off the tee, even with the mild rough added over the last decade or so. But angles into the greens are more important than just hitting fairways. Short irons into the par-4 third and seventh are among the most uncomfortable on the course. Sandwiched between two famous back-nine par-5s at 13 and 15, the approach to the heavily contoured 14th green is equally tense. Firm conditions overall promise to bring out the contours of the greens even more. Accuracy is rewarded, and inaccuracy is penalized.
Horton Smith, who won two of the first three Masters, analyzed the course in 1936. “It is one of the few courses that really presents two games on almost every hole; a game to reach the greens and another to figure the ever-challenging contours after reaching the greens.”
An anonymous player made a similar point more recently. “One of the best things Augusta does is mess with you. And the way they mess with you is they give you options. Pros don’t like options because then they have to make decisions.”
Here’s a look at the Masters favorites:
Dustin Johnson (9-1)
Johnson, the reigning champion, has finished in the top 10 in each of his last five Masters. That includes a second place in 2019 and a win in 2020 with a 20-under score that bested the field by five strokes. That kind of scoring isn’t likely this time around. And his recent performances have been a little lackluster. But the world’s top-ranked player has still earned his place as the favorite, given his success at Augusta.
Justin Thomas (10-1)
Thomas, the world’s second-ranked player, has steadily improved his position over the course of his five Masters. He went from the 39th in 2016 to fourth last year. There isn’t much room for improvement, but Thomas is one of the few players out there who could find a way. He may be the sport’s best player with an iron in his hands, and this is a course the rewards iron play.
Jordan Spieth (10-1)
It’s been awhile since Spieth was seen as a favorite in a major. The 2015 Masters champion has a complicated history in this event. In the year following his win, he suffered one of the worst collapses the tournament has seen. Spieth has struggled in recent years to regain his former glory. But he’s climbed the rankings to 38th from 82nd to start the year. And his game has looked good. His recent resurgence, including his first win since 2017, may have him believing again.
Watch the Masters live Saturday, April 10, 3:00-7:00 p.m. ET and Sunday, April 11, 2:00-7:00 p.m. ET on CBS.