Tiger Woods’ absence, Dustin Johnson’s title defense and more

Curtis Strange remembers a quiet atmosphere while walking the grounds of Augusta National Golf Club last fall.

“It was completely different from start to finish,” said the two-time major champion and ESPN golf analyst about the November Masters, won by Dustin Johnson. “When we went on air and the red light came on, we tried to act as normal as possible, and I think we did a good job because it was the start of the Masters, but it was different.”

It’s difficult to remember what “normal” life was before the COVID-19 pandemic. From a golf perspective, fans are getting a bit of a refresher with the build up to next week’s Masters at Augusta National Golf Club.

“Without patrons, it lost a lot of its soul, there’s no question about that,” said ESPN’s golf and SportsCenter host Scott Van Pelt. “I do think it will feel far more familiar and ‘normal’ this next week, even as so many things we typically do won’t.”

As the first men’s major championship of the season returns to its spring position on the schedule, Strange, Van Pelt and Andy North joined a group of reporters on a conference call to preview the event and discuss what changes they expect to see in this year’s tournament compared to the fall.

Tiger and DJ

You can’t talk about, or even think about, Augusta National or the Masters for long without the 2019 champion, Tiger Woods, coming up.

The five-time Masters champ is still recovering — now at home — from a February car crash near Los Angeles after hosting the Genesis Invitational.  Woods’ fractures from the crash are on the upper and lower parts of both the fibula and tibia, where a rod was inserted to stabilize the area. Screws and pins were used to treat other injuries in the ankle and foot, while doctors sliced muscle in the area to relieve pressure and swelling in the area (a safeguard against infection).

“I think (at Augusta), more than any other place they play, you think of Tiger. So much of his career sprang through that lens. From that bookend in ’97 hugging his father to ’19 hugging his children in essentially the same spot. You can’t help but think about him,” said Van Pelt. “I think because he’s won there and Tuesday with the Champions Dinner, you get together with that very small group and trade the stories and what have you, that his presence will be sorely missed.”

Dustin Johnson: How he uses a short memory and mental island

The conversation moved from the 2019 to the 2020 champion, Dustin Johnson, and his chances of defending his title just five months later.

“There’s not much that bothers him,” said Strange. “As I was talking to Butch Harmon yesterday, he said, ‘You know, he hasn’t played great the last three times out, no worry. No worries at all.’”

The Masters shop

Entering the Masters shop and leaving with a loaded bag is a rite of passage for anyone who’s been lucky enough to take a trip down Magnolia Lane.

North, a two-time major winner who’s best finish at Augusta was a T-12 in 1979, said he doesn’t go in the shop, “but my wife sure does.”

“Every year she comes back with more stuff than I can even imagine,” said North with a laugh. “But it is pretty cool. That logo is a pretty darn famous logo. From a gift standpoint, if you’re giving that to somebody, they usually appreciate it.”

Strange’s oldest son and daughter-in-law are in town this week, and he’s refusing to even look at his credit card statement. Van Pelt once left an entire bag of gear in an overheard compartment of an airplane. Everybody’s got a story from the shop.

“You just think you’ve got to be done. Who else could I need something for? Then every year, you’re like, ‘that’s a handsome quarter zip. Mom kind of likes that visor,’” explained Van Pelt, who spent $200-plus on ball markers to give away to friends and family.

“It’s every year. It’s a tradition unlike any other.”