AUGUSTA, Ga. (AP) — Tony Finau was to the right of the 11th green at Augusta National trying to chip to an imaginary front pin, a tough shot when it matters. This was the first full day of practice Monday at the Masters, and it wasn’t any easier.

The first attempt rolled across the green and off the putting surface. So did the second.

It was like that all over the famed course, where the azaleas blooms are on their last leg and turf is firm under a blazing sun, save for a few minutes during the solar eclipse.

The conditions — always pristine, because everything is at Augusta National — is as good as players can remember. There is rain in the forecast for the opening round, but otherwise players are faced with what could be the two “F” words that take on different meanings to different games — firm and fast.

“The course is very firm,” Xander Schauffele said. “It’s probably some of the best shape I’ve seen in previous years, to be honest. I don’t know how the weather has been, but it’s a shame that it might rain at some point this week because it’s looking like a really hard, really firm.

“I was hitting 5-irons that were coming into par 5s that were bouncing, tomahawking over the green,” he said. “And I was like, ‘This is pretty cool.’ It’s been a while.”

Tiger Woods was first out when the course opened at 8 a.m. playing nine holes with Will Zalatoris. Several of them stopped in mid-afternoon to don special solar sunglasses — Masters green with the famous logo, sure to be a keepsake — for a look at the eclipse.

“Get to watch the end of the world at Augusta National, right?” British Open champion Brian Harman said with a grin.

This is the start of the major championship season, and the anticipation has been greater than ever, mainly because of the field. It’s the first time players from Saudi-funded LIV Golf are competing against those who stayed on PGA Tour. There is more curiosity than animosity, evident by Schauffele planning a practice round with Dustin Johnson.

There wasn’t a ton of planning that went into this.

“It’s Dustin,” Schauffele said. “I saw him and … pretty on the fly.”

Johnson, among the first batch of players who defected to LIV, set the 72-hole record at 268 in the 2020 Masters in conditions as soft as any because it was played in November when the tournament was postponed because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

“If the course is playing hard and fast, it’s more difficult,” Hideki Matsuyama said, who won the year after Johnson. “Winning score is usually higher. When it’s wet, it can go to 20 under. I like both, but if goes to 20 under, my chances get slimmer. So I would like a tougher setup where it plays drier, faster and hard.”

Among players who chose not to play was Akshay Bhatia, for good reason. The Valero Texas Open was his fourth week in a row playing, and then his work was extended when he won in a playoff to qualify for the final spot in the Masters.

Bhatia’s left shoulder came out of its socket celebrating a playoff-forcing birdie putt on the final hole. He taped it up in time to hit wedge to the 18th on the first extra hole. And then he headed straight for Augusta and arrived about 1:30 a.m. Monday. Even for a 22-year-old, that’s a lot to take in.

“There’s still a lot to learn this week,” Bhatia said. “Just registering, getting the lay of the land. I’m going to talk to my psychologist this afternoon — he’s flying in tonight — and we’ll have a good game plan, some goals, and kind of get the ball rolling tomorrow.”

Bhatia is a true Masters rookie, one of 17 players (including four amateurs) who are competing at Augusta National for the first time.

Nick Taylor isn’t a rookie. He just feels like one. His only previous Masters was in 2020, when no patrons were allowed on the course because of the pandemic. The Par 3 Tournament was canceled because it’s mainly entertainment for the spectators and they weren’t there.

Taylor even skipped his ball across the pond on the par-3 16th, another Masters tradition that took a hiatus without fans in 2020.

“This is essentially my first true experience,” Taylor said. “Just having patrons out and stuff, that’s something I’ve not experienced. Even the locker room is a different spot now than it was when I was here, so I’m getting the lay of the land as the day is going.”

He couldn’t help but notice how much firmer it was from that November tournament in 2020. That’s going to be the real test at the Masters, depending on what the opening round holds.


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