Wet course could favor big hitters

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AUGUSTA, Ga. — A drenched Augusta National Golf Club will greet the field — which might not include world No. 1 Dustin Johnson — in the 81st Masters Tournament on Thursday morning.

Johnson’s manager, David Winkle, said in a statement to media outlets Wednesday afternoon that his client took a serious fall on a staircase on Wednesday at his Augusta rental home and landed hard on his lower back.

Winkle said Johnson hopes to play Thursday. He’s scheduled to go off in the last group of the day, at 1:03 p.m.

“He landed very hard on his lower back and is now resting, although quite uncomfortably,” Winkle said in an email. “He has been advised to remain immobile and begin a regiment of anti-inflammatory medication and icing, with the hope of being able to play tomorrow.”

The day will start with a ceremony by honoring the late Arnold Palmer at 6:40 a.m. as honorary starters Jack Nicklaus and Gary Player hit the ceremonial first tee shots. Palmer was the tournament’s first four-time winner. The tribute to The King, a four-time Masters champion and Augusta National member, was announced by chairman Billy Payne on Wednesday, but no details were revealed.

Once the first group goes off, the field will face a course that took on heavy rain Wednesday, forcing the cancellation of the par-3 contest after just two groups finished. More rain was expected overnight and early Thursday morning.

Moisture can be taken out by the club’s SubAir system, but how much is determined by Augusta National.

A wet course plays into the hands of world No. 2 Rory McIlroy, who has thrived under damp conditions in his career. McIlroy needs a Masters victory to complete the career Grand Slam.

No rain is in the forecast after play starts, but windy conditions are expected Thursday and Friday before calming down. Wind howled in the first three rounds last year and led to a high winning score of 5-under.

A wet course works in the favor of long hitters such as McIlory and Johnson, who fly the ball a long way and won’t need the roll that shorter hitters do at the 7,435-yard Augusta National to avoid having long clubs into the greens.

All eyes will be on Johnson, if he plays, and Jordan Spieth.

Johnson is seeking his fourth consecutive victory this season and is the hottest player in the world.

Spieth, the 2015 Masters champion, has a stellar record around Augusta National but has something to prove this week.

The 23-year-old Spieth, who British Open champion Henrik Stenson calls “this kid from Texas,” has finished tied for second, first and tied for second in his three Augusta starts. Of course, he lost a five-shot lead on the second nine last year in the closing round.

His downfall was a quadruple bogey on the par-3 12th hole, where he will be closely watched today Thursday for online when he steps on that tee.

He’s ready for revenge, saying he’s excited about the opportunity to return “and really tear this golf course up.”

Johnson, who attended high school at Dutch Fork in Irmo, S.C., 82 miles away from Augusta, is coming off his best Masters finish in seven starts, a tie for fourth.

Jason Day, the No. 3-ranked player in the world, has emotion on his side. He could be playing for his mother, Dening, who has cancer but didn’t have to undergo chemotherapy after a tumor was removed during a five-hour surgery on March 24.

Another player who will be watched closely is rookie Jon Rahm, who has won this year and is ranked No. 12 in the world. Only three players in Masters history have won in their first start, the last one being Fuzzy Zoeller in 1979.

“Fuzzy Zoeller won it as a rookie,” said two-time champion Tom Watson, who retired after last year’s Masters. “Tiger Woods won it in his rookie pro year. The old saying that you’ve had to have been here to know the golf course has been disproven.”

The closing of the course in the early afternoon on Monday and again on Wednesday cut into practice time for rookies such as Rahm. However, Phil Mickelson said the less Rahm knows, the better off he might be.

That’s why Mickelson said that during a Tuesday practice round with Rahm that he didn’t give him many tips on how to play the course.

“I think that when you are that good and as talented as he has been playing and as well as he is, you don’t want to give him hardly any, and it’s not for the reason that you think,” Mickelson said. “It’s not because I’m trying to hold any secrets. It’s because you don’t want to take your focus away from your game. If you’re playing well, no matter what golf course you’re on, whether it’s Augusta National, a U.S. Open setup or any other course, if you play well, the course is there to be had. But you can also over-burden yourself with trying to learn the course so much that it detracts away from your performance. And I think it’s better for him to just go out and play.”

No one is counting out three-time Masters champion Mickelson, who would be the tournament’s oldest winner at 46. He’s seven months older than Jack Nicklaus was when he won in 1986 at 46.

“I don’t care about the rankings, when you talk about the Masters you have to consider Phil Mickelson,” Jim Furyk said.



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