So many questions still unanswered with the Masters coming soon

Ezra Shaw/Getty Images

THOUSAND OAKS, Calif. -- Somewhat lost in the madness that was last year's Masters was Patrick Cantlay, the soft-spoken, stoic former amateur phenom who has one of the smoothest swings in the game if not the pro résumé to match.

Cantlay made an eagle at Augusta National's par-5 15th during the final round in 2019 to briefly take the lead, only to bogey the next two holes. With Tiger Woods winning and Brooks Koepka and Dustin Johnson right there, and Francesco Molinari's difficulties and all manner of other players in the mix, Cantlay was easy to miss.

But he did tie for ninth. And he tied for third at the PGA Championship a month later.

Sunday's victory at the Zozo Championship at Sherwood assures nothing when the field assembles for the Masters next month. But beating back two of the best players in the game in Jon Rahm and Justin Thomas with a final-round 65 certainly doesn't hurt. Neither does making only two bogeys over 72 holes.

Sherwood Country Club is not Augusta National. But having some confidence going there doesn't hurt, either. Nor does having some good memories to draw upon.

And he's not worried about peaking too early.

"I was able to win one of the tournaments Tiger won last year,'' said Cantlay, who won his third PGA Tour event. "So now I'm just going to try and win the other event that Tiger won last year.''

That is a simple way to look at the Masters. But in this strangest of years, a November Masters comes with numerous questions. What's the best way to prepare? How will the course play? Will the weather have an impact? What about no spectators?

Three top players -- Johnson, former Masters champion Adam Scott, and Tony Finau -- will arrive at Augusta National having dealt with COVID-19 diagnoses. Finau, who contended last year, tied for 11th at Sherwood in his first event back. Johnson was supposed to play this week but couldn't; Scott tested positive prior to the start of the Zozo.

That is just one wrinkle we've never had to consider in the past.

And what we know is that we really don't know.

"I think it's a once-in-a-lifetime unique week that we'll probably not see again,'' said three-time Masters winner Phil Mickelson, who shot a final-round 78 at Sherwood and finished second to last. "I don't know what to expect. I think playing the same course for consecutive majors is interesting in and of itself.

"I'm appreciative of the effort they're making, the Augusta National Golf Club, in providing this tournament and giving us the opportunity to compete for a Masters title and I think all the players are appreciative of that as well as all these tournaments that we've played because it's such a different environment.''

Mickelson won on the PGA Tour Champions last week and looked out of sorts this week. He's still unsure how he will approach the rest of his preparation for the Masters, trying to decide between a Champions Tour event in Phoenix or the PGA Tour event in Houston the week prior to the Masters.

Even Woods is unsure. The defending champion somewhat surprisingly broached the idea earlier this week of playing in Houston even though he has never competed the week prior to the Masters as a pro. He left the door open Sunday after playing with Mickelson and shooting 74 and finishing in a tie for 72nd in his Zozo title defense.

Although it seems unlikely he will add the Vivint Houston Open in two weeks, he didn't shut it down Sunday. And he knows he has work to do after finishing 25 shots behind Cantlay in another uninspired effort that has been the theme of his six tournaments since the PGA Tour's June restart following the coronavirus pandemic break.

Several times Woods has lamented the lack of spectators at tournaments due to the coronavirus protocols, an aspect that will be in place at Augusta National and that he said he was having difficulty figuring out.

"Sometimes we've been on the putting green there before we tee off and you hear roars out there on 12 and 13, they reverberate all the way up to the clubhouse, and [this year] there's going to be nothing,'' Woods said. "So that's one of the things that I've been thinking about the last few weeks is what is that going to be like.''

Thomas concurred. He felt he let an opportunity slip Sunday, playing the last 12 holes in even par and playing the par 5s in just 1 under par. Lesson learned, he said.

"I've got to find a way to kind of just stay a little bit more focused out there,'' said Thomas, who tied for 12th at the Masters last year. "It's crazy, but sometimes it's hard to just kind of keep the killer instinct and stay in the zone when it's as quiet as it is out there.

"It's tough, but we're all dealing with it and I just have to find a little bit better way with how to cope with that here in the next couple weeks because I've got a huge event on a course that I love. I feel like I'm playing well and I feel like I should have a great chance to win. A lot of positives this week. I can't look at it as a bad week, but it is upsetting not getting it done.''

Then there is Rory McIlroy. We've been sleeping on McIlroy a bit because he has not done much since the restart. Amazingly, the four-time major champion has only two top-10 finishes in 12 tournaments going back to June, with no chances to win over the back nine.

But he made 29 birdies for the week at Sherwood, shooting 67-66 on the weekend. But he managed just a tie for 17th -- eight shots back -- because he also had three double bogeys and eight bogeys. Just too many mistakes, he said.

And yet it never hurts to be making a lot of birdies.

McIlroy knows all about excitement heading to Augusta National. He has dealt with it since coming within a Masters win of the career Grand Slam when he won the 2014 Open -- not to mention his blown 54-hole lead in 2010. He has had five cracks at the career slam since, unable to get it done.

And in a different kind of year, McIlroy sort of likes the way this is shaking out. Figure out a way to minimize the mistakes. And turn a negative -- the lack of buzz -- into a positive.

"I like this more,'' McIlroy said. "There's not as much hype. Not as much ... just not as much noise. I sort of like this better.''

It definitely is going to a different kind of Masters.