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What the big names in golf are saying as stage is set for Masters

Published: Apr. 7, 2021 at 8:37 AM EDT
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AUGUSTA, Ga. (WRDW/WAGT) - It’s the last day at Augusta National Golf Club before the shots start to count with the start of the 85th Masters Tournament.

Today is the last day of practice rounds, and when the tournament starts Thursday, the course is expected to play firm and fast, compared with the soft conditions of November, when the delayed 2020 tournament took place.

It’s the strongest field at the Masters in 10 years. The top 58 players in the world are competing.

And we’re hearing from some of the biggest names.

On Tuesday, we learned the groupings and tee times for the first two rounds of play.

One of everybody’s favorite names to follow, Phil Mickelson, will tee off Thursday just past 1 p.m.

Phil Mickelson speaks during a press conference at Augusta National Golf Club on April 6, 2021.
Phil Mickelson speaks during a press conference at Augusta National Golf Club on April 6, 2021.(ANGC)

He’s in a group with Tommy Fleetwood and Scottie Scheffler.

At 50 years old, Mickelson is trying to become the oldest player to win the Masters as the lefty hunts his fourth green jacket.

Jack Nicklaus currently holds that record, winning the 1986 Masters at 46 years old.

But Mickelson says it’s a challenge he’s ready to take on.

“I love coming back here, and my game, I think it feels better than the scores have been,” he said. “But I’ve got some work to do, and it’s been a fun challenge for me to get back to playing at a high level.”

Masters week 2021

And of course after a record-setting November, going 20 under par, we’ll all be watching world No. 1 and defending Masters champion Dustin Johnson.

Earning that green jacket was a long time coming for him.

He had finished top 10 in the previous five Masters tournaments before the win.

We’ve all heard how the conditions played a role in last year’s low scores, but Johnson said conditions aside, Augusta National still one of the hardest courses in the world.

“As of right now, the course is going to play pretty difficult, you know, but it’s still the same,” he said. “I mean, you’ve got to hit numbers and no matter if the ball is spinning back or staying in place or bouncing forward, you’ve still got to hit quality golf shots and land them in the spots that you want to.”

Bryson DeChambeau says he’s coming into the 2021 Masters Tournament much more humble.

DeChambeau let his bravado get the best of him the last time he was at Augusta National.

Bryson DeChambeau during a press conference at Augusta National Golf Club on April 6, 2021.
Bryson DeChambeau during a press conference at Augusta National Golf Club on April 6, 2021.(Rusty Jarrett | Rusty Jarrett/Augusta National)

He lost a ball, barely made the cut and finished a whopping 18 strokes behind Johnson. DeChambeau he chalks it up as merely another valuable learning experience in the constant quest for perfection.

He knows a 400-yard drive won’t do him much good if he winds up in a spot on those notorious Augusta greens where birdie is out of the question. But that doesn’t mean he has any intention of backing off.

His transition into a “big hitter” has been well-documented and became one of the storylines in November after gaining 40 pounds and showing off his monstrous power. And while he plans to have his distance be an advantage, he knows he needs to prioritize the smaller parts of his game this time.

“Length is only as good as you can hit your next shot, is what I always say,” he said. “And that’s the most important thing about Augusta National, is it doesn’t test just the driving. It tests your second shots, it tests the third shot, it tests -- you’re making for par, your 4-footer, you’re trying to make for par.

“I think that’s what’s so special about here is that you have to have every facet of your game working really, really well.”

But don’t worry. He still plans to launch those drives patrons are describing as heart-stopping.

Here’s something else we’ll be watching throughout the tournament: Brooks Koepka is on the course for the first time since undergoing knee surgery just less than a month ago. He needs to go through a lengthy morning rehab before he can get out on the warm-up range, but he promises his game will be good to go.

“he whole rehab process is all mental,” he said. “Two days after trying to go around on a bike, you know your knee can actually do it; it’s just whether you allow it to do it. All the connectors from your brain to everything, so you’ve just got to push yourself, and it’s painful at times. The rehab was strenuous, but I’ll be all right.”

Lee Westwood is changing up his caddie for his 20th Masters appearance. His son Sam will be on his bag, and it’s hard to tell who’s more excited.

“It’s amazing that I’m old enough to have my son on the bag and still be competing in these tournaments, and having Sam here to enjoy the experience with me, I have to close his mouth every now and again when we’re going around here; he loves it so much,” Westwood said.

Westwood is also trying to break Nicklaus’ record as the oldest Masters winner.

Nicklaus won the 1986 Masters at 46, with his son as his caddie, so Westwood sees the parallels in his plan for this week — when he’ll try to win the Masters at 47 with his son as his caddie.

Rory McIlroy is also at the Masters. He needs to win this week to become only the sixth player to complete the career Grand Slam.

Rory McIlroy of Northern Ireland and Justin Thomas smile on the No. 11 hole during Practice...
Rory McIlroy of Northern Ireland and Justin Thomas smile on the No. 11 hole during Practice Round 2 for the Masters at Augusta National Golf Club on April 6, 2021.(Sam Greenwood | Sam Greenwood/Augusta National)

Defending champion Johnson is trying to join his own elite group. Only three other players have won the Masters in consecutive years.

From the golf course to the main course, Johnson helped usher in another Masters tradition Tuesday night: the annual Champions Dinner.

The dinner is traditionally held the Tuesday before the tournament starts, and the menu is chosen by the previous Masters winner.

This year, Johnson went with pigs in a blanket, filet mignon and peach cobbler, among a few other dishes.

But there was talk of one huge figure missing at this year’s dinner: Tiger Woods, who’s still recovering after being seriously injured in a car crash in early February.

Tiger was not able to be in Augusta this week, but he was still very much on the minds of his fellow players.

Justin Thomas talked about his recent visits with Woods.

“I went over and saw him a couple times last week and tried to go over a couple times during the week whenever I’m home and see him. We texted Friday morning, and he said it’s kind of starting to set in,” Thomas said. “He’s bummed he’s not here playing practice rounds with us, and we hate it, too.”

And on social media Tuesday night, Woods tweeted how he missed being there on one of his favorite nights of the year.

He said he wished he could be there to run up Johnson’s bill for dinner.

McIlroy visited Woods recently and got a look at Woods’ trophy case.

He was astounded that it had only 15 trophies, all of them from the majors. The hardware from Woods’ dozens of other wins from around the world was absent.

It was clear Woods only cared about four weeks out of the year.

An honor for golf legend Lee Elder

A pioneer in the sport of golf was honored Tuesday for his contributions.

Paine College awarded Lee Elder an honorary doctorate degree.

Elder became the first African American man to play in a Masters Tournament when he competed in 1975.

Historically Black Paine College’s trustee chairman describing the importance of that moment, saying Elder overcame poverty and racial barriers to serve as a role model for millions.

Other guests of honor at the ceremony called Elder an American hero.

“You never thought you would see an African American play at Augusta National in the Masters. And so, when you see Lee on television at the Masters, you say anything is possible,” said Chris Womack, Georgia Power CEO.

Lee Elder honored with honorary doctorate from Paine College
Lee Elder honored with honorary doctorate from Paine College

Elder said: “I just want to say thank you so very much, I appreciate it very much. ... Thank you, Paine College. We love you, and we will see you in the future.”

And along with presenting Elder an honorary doctorate, the college also will be launching two scholarships in his name and starting a women’s golf team, with the help of Augusta National.

Elder will also serve as an honorary starter as the Masters begins tomorrow.

Air travel taking off in Augusta

The return of the Masters to April is good news for a lot of local businesses.

But it’s also helping revitalize another industry that was seriously hurt by the pandemic.

Augusta Regional Airport set a pandemic-era travel record on Monday.

And Daniel Field is also seeing an increase in the number of people flying in and out of Augusta as the week continues.

Augusta regional received more than $19 million in CARES Act funds to help continue its growth in business. Airport officials are hoping the funds along with incoming patrons will help get them moving in the right direction.

“We’re happy to see each day so far we’ve seen more and more people come in,” said Lauren Smith with Augusta Regional Airport.

“We love to see it you know we want to see the airport busy and economically we want to be prosperous as well so we’re happy to see everyone start to come back and start to travel again, as well.”

In other Masters news ...

  • Last night, the Rock Fore! Dough concert made its virtual premiere on social media. More than 600 people tuned in to see the virtual concert that was hosted by First Tee Augusta. It featured live performances from Darius Rucker, Luke Combs, jake Owen and other local musicians. First Tee is still accepting donations.

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