AUGUSTA, Ga. — No one needed to see the colorful blooms at Augusta National Golf Club to realize this will be a much different Masters than the previous one. It was the color of the greens.
They were yellow. On Wednesday.
The excitement of the first men's major tournament of the year was mixed with no small measure of trepidation about the test the course might present this week without intervention and a little precipitation.
Fred Couples, who played his first Masters in 1983 and is competing for the 36th time, had a practice round Wednesday with Rory McIlroy.
"Rory said it five times: 'Have you ever seen the greens like this on Wednesday?' And five times in a row I said, 'No,'" said the 61-year-old Couples, who won the green jacket in 1992. "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."
A score like that would have meant getting lapped this past November, when the Masters had to take an autumn date after it was postponed because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Dustin Johnson played conservatively along the back nine because he had a big lead, and he still finished with a record score of 20-under-par 268 to win by five shots in the lowest-scoring Masters in history.
"I've seen some young guys this week have a slightly deer in the headlights look because they've walked out on a couple of those greens and they've seen the color of them and they've felt the firmness," Paul Casey said. "You can see they're kind of going, 'Whoa. This is a whole different animal.'"
Still to be determined is what the weather has in store for the rest of the week. The sun has added that scary shine to the putting surfaces starting with the Augusta National Women's Amateur on Saturday, when the winning score was 1 over. Scattered storms are in the forecast the rest of the way.
For the 13 golfers who played the Masters for the first time in November, it's like starting over.
"November is a Masters that we'll probably never see again," Webb Simpson said. "You know, flying hybrids, 5-woods, 3-woods to the hole and the ball stopping. It's good to forget about that, because that's not our normal Masters. It's in a way relearning the nuances."
Bryson DeChambeau and Phil Mickelson dropped balls left of the 10th green Wednesday morning to play chip shots to potential hole locations. Mickelson is a three-time Masters champion and a wizard with the wedge. After his second shot, he looked over at DeChambeau and said, "Boy, it's tough when it's dry."
So much about the Masters will be so different compared to November — minus expectations of the usual suspects — including a little more noise from at least some spectators.
Johnson's six starts this year include a win at the European Tour's Saudi International in early February, but he has been in a bit of a funk the past month. No one is suggesting the green jacket he won in November should come with a footnote given the conditions, because he was that much better than everyone else.
However, he won't be hitting 5-iron to a left pin on the par-5 second hole for a tap-in eagle like he did in the third round in November, taking on pins that were accessible in such soft conditions. Johnson talked about watching one player in his room hit 3-wood to a left pin on the 15th that landed and stopped near the hole. That's out now.
Jimmy Walker said no one could hold a shot on the 15th. He said he and McIlroy each had irons into the 15th that had no chance of staying there.
Masters Chairman Fred Ridley is a past president of the United States Golf Association, an organization suspected of being very good at payback. Most notable was Johnny Miller shooting a 63 in the final round to win the 1973 U.S. Open at Oakmont Country Club. The next year, Hale Irwin won at Winged Foot Golf Club at 7 over.
That's the U.S. Open, with a history of par being a winning score, or not far from it. The Masters, though, can be brutal when it's brittle and windy and cold. Zach Johnson won in 2007 in those conditions at 1-over 289, though it was the first time in more than 50 years that no one broke par at the Masters.
"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," Ridley said. "So it was ready to be played very well with a lot of red numbers. But that really had nothing to do with how the golf course is playing right now.
"I think we have the golf course where we want it."
It all starts Thursday morning with Lee Elder, the first Black golfer to compete in the Masters in 1975, joining Jack Nicklaus and Gary Player for the honorary tee shot. And then the curtain rises on the 85th Masters, which should feel like the Masters of old — even if that's only two years ago.
Johnson was a runner-up to Tiger Woods when the Masters was last held in April in 2019. So was Xander Schauffele, who thinks this year it might be even "crazier."
"When I say crazier, I mean firmer and faster," Schauffele said, adding a few minutes later: "I think every guy who plays professionally is a little bit of a masochist, so I'm here for the torture."