AUGUSTA — We're not in November anymore.
The eyes of the golf world again shift to Augusta for the second time in five months, but don't expect this week's Masters Tournament to look much like November's birdie barrage.
Conditions unlike any other produced scoring unlike any other at a Masters unlike any other as the field took advantage of a soft, wet Augusta National Golf Club.
Dustin Johnson ran away from the field and set the all-time 72-hole scoring record with a 20-under 268 total. Cameron Smith became the first player to post all four rounds in the 60s and posted a score only bested by six other players in tournament history – and finished five shots back in a tie for second with Sungjae Im.
But that was November, and all of the talk this week ahead of Thursday's first round has been about the firm, fast conditions that will once again put precision at a premium.
"It's a lot different than November," said Kevin Kisner. "There's a little bit of an adjustment with the conditions. It's going to be pretty spicy. If they keep progressing the conditions, I think we're in for a big weekend."
The course conditions storyline is the biggest one in a tournament that has no shortage of them. Is it Jordan Spieth's time to again be a dominant force at Augusta? Can Rory McIlroy finally complete the career Grand Slam? Is Brooks Koepka healthy enough to compete? Is Justin Thomas ready to break through for his first green jacket? Can Bryson DeChambeau bomb and gouge his way to another major?
The firm and fast conditions may give the longest players, like DeChambeau, an advantage with their tee shots rolling out even farther to where they can practically throw the ball onto the greens. Or it could help the shorter players narrow the gap with their strong iron play into Augusta's notoriously penal putting surfaces.
DeChambeau and Johnson are the betting favorites, just ahead of Spieth and Thomas. Spieth has the lowest career scoring average of anyone who's ever played at least 25 rounds at the Masters, and he's coming off of a drought-ending win last week in Texas.
Augusta National and Masters chairman Fred Ridley said the tournament committee doesn't have a particular score they prefer for the champion, so there won't be any extra tricks in the course setup to balance out Johnson's record victory.
"The fact that Dustin was 20 under was a combination of his extraordinary play that at the same time, admittedly, the golf course was soft," said Ridley. "... This is probably the first year in the last, probably going back to, what year did Adam Scott win – 2013, I think, when we actually came into the week with the golf course playing first and fast, as it is right now. Our intention would be to maintain that throughout the week."
The forecast is mostly favorable, with some chances of thunderstorms on Friday and storms likely Saturday afternoon.
Players adjusted to the course conditions during their practice rounds this week – Kisner said he was hitting much shorter clubs than usual into holes like the long par-4 10th and 11th.
"I would say for the most part the golf course is going to play different," said DeChambeau. "... There's numerous instances on the golf course. Even No. 3, you're going to be able to bounce and almost roll it up the hill, at least from my driver, instead of just hitting it and stopping like it did last November. And yeah, there's going to be numerous instances where it's playing a lot differently. ... So it's pretty unique and interesting. I've never seen it this fast, this quick, but I certainly love the challenge."
The greens will be especially tricky over the first couple of rounds before the predicted storms.
"Rory said it five times: 'Have you ever seen the greens like this on Wednesday?' And five times in a row I said, 'No,'" Fred Couples said. "He was laughing. So I think if it stays like this, come even Friday, Saturday, Sunday, I mean, honestly, a 70 or 71 will be a heck of a score."
The season's first major is always a cause for big excitement, especially this year with a limited number of patrons in attendance after there were none in November.
With that excitement also comes caution over the course conditions, but leave it to Johnson to break things down into the simplest terms.
"It's still the same golf course," he said. "I mean, the shots that you hit, it doesn't really change. Just the spots where you land it kind of change depending on the firmness and where you're at or what club you're hitting. The golf course hasn't changed."