How might an autumn Masters look, feel and play? Here’s what the experts think

March 23, 2020

Looking for a nice problem? Consider this: How will the course play if the Masters is held in October? How will the fellas adjust to Augusta National in autumn?

Anyone who has been to Augusta National in October knows how beautiful the course is. The course has few hardwoods, but in the fall, which comes early to Georgia, they stand out amid the many pines. The members like to talk about how fast and firm the course often plays when the club has its annual opening weekend in October. But stubborn facts suggest the course would actually play softer and longer than it does in April, as October gets more rain in Augusta than April does, on average and over the years. One thing the club cannot buy is the thing it craves: firm, fast conditions that make the course more playable for players.

And now we are in the weeds of golf, a lovely place to be. But let’s not lose the big picture here: something is afoot in Augusta. The club has been making inquiries with local schools, government officials, hotel managers and others to see how a first Masters-in-the-fall would play out. That’s just a starting point. The club’s contracts with ESPN and CBS would create other complications, way beyond the growing patterns of Bermuda grass in October.

Golf at Augusta in October has been in the news before, years ago. In October 1992, two Southern powerbrokers held an unexpected press conference at the club. The older of the two men was the club’s courtly chairman, Jack Stephens, from Little Rock. Beside him was a bespectacled Atlanta real-estate entrepreneur named Billy Payne. Payne wasn’t a member of Augusta National then. He later became the club’s chairman and last year was inducted into the World Golf Hall of Fame. But in October of 1992 he was the head of the Atlanta Committee for the Olympic Games, where the Summer Games were played in 1996. The Payne-Stephens press conference was held on the lawn behind the club’s iconic clubhouse. They had a dream, for golf to return to the Olympics in 1996, with Augusta National as the venue.

The dream died quickly, a victim of political fallout regarding the club’s exclusionary membership practices. But when discussion of a Masters in October surfaced in recent days, the picture from that day suddenly came rushing back.

Had there been Olympic golf at Augusta National, the course would have had to be suitable for both men and women to play in a two-week period from late July to early August, during a sweltering stretch when Augusta National had always been closed. It showed how flexible Augusta National can be, when it chooses to be so.

Stephens asserted in ’92 that the club had the means to maintain its famously slick bentgrass greens in the summer. And that was before Augusta National had installed a SubAir system that controls the greens’ temperature and moisture.

Jack Stephens asserted the course could be prepped for tournament play year-round.
Jack Stephens asserted the course could be prepped for tournament play year-round.
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As for the Bermuda grass on the rest of the course, which every fall is shaved and overseeded with the perennial rye grass upon which the Masters is staged, Stephens said it could be prepped for tournament play at any time of year. And grass-growing has only become a more scientific pursuit since then.

Augusta, then as now, leaves nothing to chance. Stephens, a key member of Bill Clinton’s kitchen cabinet, announced a three-year “experiment” to study how the greens would fare over the summer. That process involved observing local courses, including neighboring Augusta Country Club, which had (and has) bentgrass greens on a year-round basis.

Of the summer plan, Stephens later said, “We became convinced that we could have a golf course for at least a period of two weeks.”

That’s Augusta-speak for, “We got this!”

Now, as speculation builds that the club might be planning for a fall Masters, that adaptability, and that attitude, will be most useful.

No Masters round has been played later than April 15, but in these extraordinary times, an October Masters could become a reality. One of the most likely weeks for a rescheduled tournament would be Oct. 5-11, shortly before Augusta National’s regularly-scheduled reopening. It’s a seasonal club. Since opening in 1933, it has shut down for play from late May until mid-October or late October.

“A Masters in the fall, October time, I think it would be pretty cool,” Rory McIlroy said on Sirius XM/PGA Tour Radio last week. McIlroy, who enters this extended forced break as the No. 1 ranked player in the world, needs only the Masters to become the sixth winner of the career grand slam. “It would be a very different look than what you usually see at Augusta,” he said.

“The course is in the best shape from eyesight that you can imagine,” Carl Jackson said the other day. “It’s still just beautiful.” He would know. Jackson began caddying at Augusta National in 1958 when he was 11 and holds the record for carrying a bag in 54 Masters, including 39 years for Ben Crenshaw, with whom he won twice.

Jackson said the course is pristine when the club opens to members every October but that the weather that time of year can be less predictable.

“That jet stream is gonna be mighty important,” he said. “They’re going to be rolling the dice.”

The average monthly temperatures in Augusta are actually identical in April and October — 77 degrees, on average, in the  daytime. The first half of October is generally four to five degrees warmer than the comparable window in April. As for rain, you may associate the Masters with passing showers, and they come often. But collected weather data shows that April is typically the second driest month of the year in Augusta, while October ranks fourth, with about a half-inch more average annual accumulation.

The par-4 11th, pictured in the fall in the 1990s, is among the holes that could play tougher in October.
The par-4 11th, pictured in the fall in the 1990s, is among the holes that could play tougher in October.

October is also the tail end of Georgia’s hurricane season. When Hurricane Michael cut a devastating path across Georgia in 2018, it wreaked havoc on Augusta on Oct. 11, bringing high winds, heavy rain and power outages.

The outside threat of tropical storms aside, the wind is actually gentler in October than in April. That doesn’t mean it would be easier. Jackson said October winds usually blow out of the north, which is in the players’ faces on the first tee and from right to left in Amen Corner. Good luck playing that second shot into 11, with that pond on the left of the green. A north wind would also make the two back-nine par-5s play longer.

What about one of the course’s most famous qualities, the speed of its greens? Jackson, who has caddied in many of the opening jamborees held each October, said the club would have no trouble getting the bentgrass greens to Masters speed. “The Augusta greens are always fast,” he said. “I can’t speak to them ever getting them down to ‘tournament quick’ in October, but the greens are still perfect.”

The biggest adjustment for the players likely would be the grass on the rest of the course. Players are accustomed to playing rye grass at Augusta. In the fall, the surface would be a rye-Bermuda combo platter, with the Bermuda being more dominant. That can get in a player’s head.

“I’ve played Augusta in October and there was still plenty of Bermuda within the over seeded rye,” Luke Donald, who has had three top-10 finishes at Augusta, tweeted recently. “In September would be pretty much all Bermuda fairways, so would definitely play differently.”

Reading grain — that is, the way the grass blades bend — is a fine art at Augusta National. It’s why great chippers, like Billy Casper, Seve Ballesteros, Jose Maria Olazabal, Phil Mickelson and Tiger Woods, have played the course so well. Bermuda would be even grainer than rye. Tight lies, especially around the greens, would be even more challenging.

There has been some speculation that you could have a Masters in September, after the Tour Championship, which is scheduled for late August at East Lake in Atlanta, Bobby Jones’s boyhood course, two hours by car from Augusta. If the club tried to conduct the Masters then, the grounds crew would be challenged to complete its rye overseeing, even for a club with Augusta National’s resources. A mid-October date, however, would give the club superintendent, Brad Owen, wiggle room to have the course ready to play more like it does in April.

“It would be easy in the first week of September to put the (rye) seed down and by mid-October they’d have it down to playing height,” said Darren Davenport, who pitched in for five years on the Masters grounds crew, from 1995-99. He is the course superintendent at Bartram Trail in nearby Evans, Ga. “It would cost them a lot of money, but they’d do it.” You’ll never hear Augusta National officials say they can’t do something because it’s too expensive.

Because of the watering required to get the rye overseed ready, the players would likely find a lusher golf course than they do in April. Even with the club’s ability to suck some of the moisture out of the greens and landing areas, the 7,475-yard design would still play longer than normal, not the firm, fast course that anecdotal evidence suggests is the norm.

“It would be softer, there’s no doubt,” Davenport said. “But with the SubAir and everything, they can get it close.”

Considering the softness of the course, the humidity and the wind direction, Jackson said he’d expect to see the players hitting at least one if not two clubs more into many of the greens. “The ball is not gonna roll an extra 10 yards,” he said.

In other words, good news for Brooks Koepka, Dustin Johnson, Bryson DeChambeau and other bash brothers, if you’re looking to do some early wagering.

If a fall Masters should materialize, Jackson said he’d particularly look forward to seeing how the usually gettable par-5s would play. “They’d definitely be using more club unless they’re downwind,” he said.

How cool would that be, to see the likes of Rory and Tiger and Jordan Spieth and Justin Thomas hitting long irons into those back-nine par-5s? Shades of Jack and Arnold.

Last year, when Mickelson won the AT&T Pebble Beach National Pro-Am in February, he said the winter course would bear little resemblance to the course the gents would be playing in June, for the U.S. Open. He was correct. A Masters in October would be a whole different thing, too.

But how wonderful would it be, in this odd and difficult year, to have the tournament then, as a grand fall golf party? To have a Masters golf tournament, famous rite of spring, played smackdab in the middle of football season? To watch the players try to figure out different grasses, winds, colors, clubs?

What a lovely set of problems to consider.