Danny Willett didn’t know that he was leading the Masters in 2016; it was only on his way to the bathroom, between the 15th green and the 16th tee, that the patrons of Augusta National began calling out to him: “Look up, you’re leading The Masters!”
He glanced up to the leaderboard and saw that it was true, Jordan Spieth’s meltdown on the 12th hole meant that a lifelong dream was now within Willett’s grasp. Later that evening, Spieth was helping Willett into the coveted green jacket.
Fans play a big role in every major sports event, but at Augusta, they can help define the whole experience.
When Larry Mize chipped in to beat Greg Norman in the 1987 playoff, the roar was so deafening that it made his baby son cry.
When Tiger Woods was en route to an extraordinary fifth title in 2019, an excitable surge prompted a security guard to rush to Woods’ aid. He slipped and almost wiped out the world’s most famous golfer.
When the 2020 Masters Tournament tees off in Augusta, it will all feel very different; the drama will play out on one of the world’s most hallowed sports grounds and the only thing you’ll hear will be the whisper of the breeze in the trees.
The coronavirus pandemic means that the 84th Masters will be played without the adoring patrons lining the fairways.
It’s hard to believe that when Woods returns to Augusta this month, he is the defending champion. So much has happened in the world since he slipped on his fifth green jacket in April 2019.
But the 15-time major winner, who must have thought he’d seen it all, will get to experience something new; the first major golf tournament of the year is now the last – a Masters in November.
When Bobby Jones and Clifford Roberts carved out their little slice of heaven in northeast Georgia, they created the “Augusta National Invitational.” That was in 1934 and five years later it became known as “The Masters.”
They quickly realized that in order to grow a new and prestigious golf tournament, they would need the media to experience its majesty and spread the word – hence the April slot in the calendar.
In an era long before the internet and jet-set travel, the tournament organizers figured that the best way to attract the country’s top sports writers would be to snag them as they were travelling back from baseball’s spring training camps in Florida towards their offices in New York.
Only twice, so far, has the tournament been played in a month outside of April.
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A different look
A November event, with or without patrons, will inevitably look different. One would assume that the iconic Amen Corner, with its striking banks of azaleas in full bloom, will seem a little more muted in November.
It would perhaps be too hopeful to expect that even the Encore variety of the shrub will have much color left in the march towards winter. Having said that, if there’s anywhere on earth that can get the best out of its horticulture, it is the former nursery on Washington Road.
The speed and ease with which plants and trees seem to grow on the property makes one wonder if their supplier is the same guy that sold Jack his beanstalk beans.
It may just be, though, that the backdrop could be even more spectacular with a November tournament. Georgia’s autumnal colors can be majestic, many leaves are still on the trees and so the course could be bathed in every warm hue from sienna to merlot.
Anyone who watches The Masters for the landscaping should still have plenty to excite them. There might still be some color on the Camellia on the 10th hole and the high definition cameras might just be able to pick out the Nandina’s red berries on 17.
For the players, patrons and television viewers at home, there is a strong sense of familiarity at The Masters.
It’s the only men’s golf major that is played on the same course every year – even ‘the home of golf’ St Andrews only gets to host The Open twice a decade – and as the roars sweep through Augusta’s grounds on a Sunday afternoon, they become easy to identify.
You can tell where the action is and often you can sense the difference between cheers for a birdie and an eagle; even a Woods roar seems to have its own sound.
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There won’t be anything like that in 2020 and on a course famed for its Spartan use of leaderboards, it will be interesting to see how the players navigate the emotional dynamic of one of the hardest tests in golf.
There certainly will be less expectations of them. For only the second time since its debut in 1960, there will be no par 3 competition on Wednesday – it was cancelled due to inclement weather in 2017.
And during the practice rounds on 16, will the players skip their balls across the water on onto the green? Without the patrons egging them on, what would be the point?
With 96 players making the drive up Magnolia Lane, this will be the largest field in a while at Augusta, but the quirk of the schedule means that arguably one of the world’s hottest players will not be there.
Daniel Berger has enjoyed a handful of top-five finishes since February, propelling the American to 13th in the world rankings.
That would normally qualify anybody for an invitation to Augusta, but because this tournament is being played as it would have been in April, when Berger wasn’t even in the top 100 when the rankings were published for the last time before the shutdown in the middle of March, he has been unable to qualify.
He’ll be left out in the cold, but if it’s any consolation, he’ll only have to wait five months until the next Masters in April 2021.
And the players who do tee it up in November might not be as cold as you’d think.
Forecasters are expecting the temperatures in Augusta to be 10 or even 20 degrees farenheit above average for November, with the mercury possibly even nudging 80 degrees. Anyone on the grounds who can shut their eyes and block their ears might at least feel as though the Masters in April.
That’s not to say, however, that it will be balmy at all times of the day and the reduction in daylight hours means that the course will have to be more crowded; for the first two rounds, groups of three players will tee off at both the first and 10th holes.
They will all miss the passion and the energy of the patrons, but for the lucky few with access to the course – the members at Augusta National and selected media – the 2020 Masters tournament will be an exclusive experience, the world’s best golfers, playing one of the most revered courses on the planet, putting on what will feel as though it’s a private show.
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That is something that money could never buy.
The Masters is known as “a tradition like no other” and whatever happens this year will certainly be a Masters like no other.