2023 Masters: Last-Minute Practice, and Tiger and Phil Return

AUGUSTA, Ga. — Augusta National Golf Club will be thick with spectators Monday, as one player after another sets out for official practice rounds before the Masters Tournament, the year’s first men’s golf major.

But plenty of them have tested the course recently, making special jaunts to Georgia to size up the grounds in advance of the crowds, cameras and ropes — practice rounds for the practice rounds, if you will.

They have the potential to inspire confidence: Rory McIlroy made the trek and played 54 holes, and in one round, he apparently recorded an otherworldly 19 putts across 18 holes.

“Look,” he said recently, “I had two good days.”

More critically, the rounds before the clamor give players chances to take the measure of changes to the course under less stressful conditions. The 13th hole, for instance, will play 35 yards longer this year, so Scottie Scheffler, the 2022 champion, has been sketching how his strategy might change.

“I used to hit 3-wood there because I can sling hook a 3-wood,” Scheffler said last month. “I can’t sling hook a driver on purpose. The ball just doesn’t spin enough. I can do it on accident, but I can’t quite sling it on purpose because I like to fade my driver more off the tee, and so when it comes to that tee shot and hitting a hard hook with the driver, it’s not really a shot that I’ll try just because it’s not worth the risk for me.”

Scottie Scheffler, the 2022 Masters champion, waited to greet winners of the Drive, Chip and Putt competition on Sunday.Credit…Doug Mills/The New York Times

Scheffler, appearing far more comfortable than he usually is before reporters, went deeper into overthinking No. 13.

“That hole was one where I’d hit the same shot I hit on 10,” he said. “The 3-wood, it has enough spin where the ball can actually stay in the air. With the driver, when I hook it, the ball doesn’t have enough spin to where it can stay in the air and hook that much. It kind of nose-dives. But the 3-wood, I can sit up there and it will just be like a boomerang. But that’s really the biggest change for me. Now I’ll just hit driver kind of out toward the corner and try and use more of the contouring to get the ball that way versus before.”

And for players making their Masters debuts, the spins through Augusta National can be a chance to stamp out at least some jitters.

“I got the bug out,” Tom Kim, the 20-year-old PGA Tour player, said. “Once I get there, I can kind of just play.”

Not that the veterans shun practice. Tiger Woods, ahead of his 25th Masters, was around the course on Sunday afternoon, striking balls and practicing his putting. He has not played a tournament round since February, when he tied for 45th at the Genesis Invitational. But everyone knew that he was largely using Riviera Country Club as a laboratory to prepare for the Masters.

He essentially said as much himself: “After this event, we’ll analyze it and see what we need to do to get ready for Augusta.” He finished 47th here last year.

Remember Phil Mickelson? He’s back, too.

Phil Mickelson at the second tee during a LIV Golf event at Orange County National last week.Credit…Reinhold Matay/USA Today Sports, via Reuters

Phil Mickelson’s Masters hiatus lasted only a year.

Mickelson, a three-time winner at Augusta National, skipped the 2022 competition amid the international uproar that began after he acknowledged Saudi Arabia’s “horrible record on human rights” but said he was open to aiding LIV Golf, its emerging league, because it could force the PGA Tour to change its economic structure.

“They execute people over there for being gay,” he told the journalist Alan Shipnuck. “Knowing all of this, why would I even consider it? Because this is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to reshape how the PGA Tour operates.”

Mickelson soon after defected to LIV, which Saudi Arabia’s sovereign wealth fund bankrolls. He played in two major tournaments last year, missing the cuts at the U.S. Open and the British Open.

Now, he will try his hand at the major course that has been more favorable to him than any other.

“I don’t have any expectations,” he said in a brief interview last month in Arizona. “I’m grateful we get to play because we were told — or there was talk — a year ago that you might not be able to play the majors. And now we can play the Masters; we can play in all of the majors.”

Pressed, though, on whether he is anticipating this week to carry the feel of the other Masters he has entered, he replied, “I do, yeah.”

At the 2021 Masters, not long before his P.G.A. Championship victory made him the oldest major winner, he finished in a tie for 21st.

From Winter Garden, Fla., to Augusta, Ga.

Brooks Koepka won the LIV Golf Orlando event at Orange County National on Sunday.Credit…Doug Defelice/Liv Golf, via LIVGO, via Associated Press

The PGA Tour players who are most likely to contend at Augusta National were off last week, when the circuit spun through T.P.C. San Antonio for the Texas Open. LIV golfers had no such respite: They played a tournament in Winter Garden, Fla., near Orlando, over the weekend, when Brooks Koepka emerged as the class of the field.

Whether the schedule will make a difference at the Masters is anyone’s guess, or simply in the eye of the beholder.

Bubba Watson, who won at Augusta National in 2012 and 2014, said LIV’s calendar had thwarted the approach he had employed for years: arriving on Friday; attending the Augusta National Women’s Amateur on Saturday before practice on the driving range; and usually logging a round on Sunday afternoon.

Ordinarily, he said, he avoided playing the week before a major so he could take a mental break before facing the challenges of elite competition. But maybe, he confessed, a pre-Masters tuneup would prove helpful: “Maybe I need to gear up for it and see where I need to work or where I don’t need to work.”

Other LIV players insisted that their schedule was compatible with their customary preparations.

Mickelson, for example, stuck with his custom of visiting Augusta for part of the week preceding the Masters. If anything, he said, LIV’s three-day format offered him the option of more practice time in Georgia.

And take Dustin Johnson, a two-time major winner. He last played a tournament the week before the Masters in pandemic-disrupted 2020, when he tied for second at the Houston Open and then stormed into Augusta, posted the lowest score in Masters history and claimed his first green jacket. Although Orange County National Golf Center is hardly Augusta National — Johnson earned his PGA Tour card when he played a qualifying school event there in 2007 — he said that any competition is good to have before a Masters.

“That’s really good preparation,” Johnson said in an interview. “Any time you’re playing going into a major, it’s always good to get some rounds under you.”

Zhang wins the Augusta National Women’s Amateur.

Rose Zhang after winning the Augusta National Women’s Amateur tournament in a playoff on Saturday.Credit…Doug Mills/The New York Times

How breathtaking was Rose Zhang’s play across the first 36 holes of the Augusta National Women’s Amateur? She shot four over par in Saturday’s final round and still won the tournament.

It was not easy — she had to outlast Jenny Bae, whose Saturday scorecard had her two under on the day, in a sudden-death playoff, as well as a weather delay — but a grip change during the round allowed Zhang to unlock her swing just in time.

“When things matter the most and you have a big lead but the job’s not done, it definitely puts a lot of things into perspective,” Zhang, 19, said. “I tried to stay as composed as possible, but at the same time, I was a little tight the first couple holes. I just felt like my swing wasn’t comfortable, and I really just tried to stay in the moment. I figured out a little trigger point in my golf swing, and from then on, it was kind of smooth sailing, grinding from there.”

Zhang had arrived for Saturday’s final round, played at Augusta National, with a formidable cushion built up during the competition’s first two days at nearby Champions Retreat. Her first-round score there, a six-under-par 66, was a tournament record. The new standard lasted until the end of Zhang’s second round, when she signed for a 65.

“I really, really do love this golf course,” she said of Augusta National. “Sometimes, it’s just interesting that I never really get my A-game when I’m out here. When I was out at Champions, it felt so easy to me. Everything just came to me. I was making putts. I was hitting greens.”

Zhang teed off on the 13th hole during the final round of play.Credit…Doug Mills/The New York Times

A single mistake at Augusta National, though, “is magnified,” she said.

“I think that just being able to kind of get back on track, that was my biggest feat” on Saturday, Zhang said. “I was able to have the outcome that I wanted while staying in the moment.”

With her victory at Augusta National, Zhang, a Stanford sophomore, has achieved what amounts to a career Grand Slam for women’s amateur golf; she had won the U.S. Women’s Amateur, the U.S. Girls’ Junior and an individual N.C.A.A. championship. Another Stanford golfer recorded a similar feat.

You’ve probably heard of him, since his name is Tiger Woods.

Wise withdraws: ‘I need to take some time away.’

Aaron Wise, the PGA Tour’s 2018 rookie of the year, will miss this year’s Masters.Credit…Douglas P. Defelice/Getty Images

Aaron Wise, the PGA Tour’s 2018 rookie of the year, has withdrawn from this year’s Masters.

“Golf is just as much a mental game as it is one of physical skill, and the mental piece of it has been a struggle for me recently,” Wise, 26, wrote in an Instagram story on Friday. “I don’t take the significance of playing at Augusta lightly, but know that I need to take some time away to focus on my mental health so I can get back to competing at a level I am proud of.”

Wise has appeared in seven tour events so far in 2023, with his best finish a tie for 18th at the Tournament of Champions in January. Since then, he has missed four cuts and did not advance beyond his group at the match play event in Texas last month. He competed in one previous Masters, taking 17th place in 2019.

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