By Stephen Delaney Hale
Photos Courtesy of Augusta National Golf Club
The people of Augusta have come to rely on the Masters Tournament for its annual economic boost. Last March, when it became apparent that the tournament had to be either canceled or postponed, Augusta National Golf Club took the more daring, and more costly, option of moving the tournament to the fall. As a result, the city still got its tournament, and the game of golf still got its most spectacular show.
But a lot had to be left behind.
There would be no Par-3 Contest, no beer tents, no massive pine-pollen storms or other things special to the Masters Tournament in springtime in Augusta. Yet the Masters proved to itself and its sport and beyond that the will of the committed, and the efforts of men and women of goodwill, can triumph when there is a thoughtful plan and the courage to see it through.
The first Masters Tournament was held in 1934, then each year after and canceled only from 1943 to 1945 due to World War II. The 2020 tournament was the 84th edition. What may yet prove to be the greatest pandemic in the history of the world could not stop the playing of the Masters. People just refused to let it go. But as the victorious Duke of Wellington said of Waterloo, it was a close-run thing.
The fall version of the Masters Tournament was very different from the beloved springtime event. While many of the November changes had participants and observers alike turning hopeful eyes toward a return to normalcy for 2021, some of those changes brought unexpected and pleasant surprises.
THE BIRDS: The chirping of the birds was still audible in November, and even seemed to be amplified over the television, because it was nearly the only noise to be heard.
THE GALLERIES: The massive crowds of April are generally estimated to be at about 35,000 to 40,000, although the tournament managers have never given an attendance number. There were no galleries in November due to COVID-19.
THE ROARS: April brings massive roars emanated by those galleries roughly three or four times an hour, and even more often and more loudly on the weekends, when a golfer pulls off yet another amazing shot. More than any other tournament, the Masters is known for its roars. Longtime patrons can keep score by the direction and intensity of those roars. There were none in November.
THE GUESTS: In 2020, the players were limited to bringing just one significant other and an employee because of the pandemic.
THE MEDIA: The press center that bustles with activity in April was noticeably quieter in November as many media members worked remotely for safety.
THE FOOD: In November, there was nobody selling beer or those great (and really inexpensive) sandwiches and other treats.
THE LAUGHTER: In November, very little laughter was picked up by the remote television network microphones placed around the course. In April, that laughter is a constant background hum.
THE SPECTACLE: The dazzling spring sight of 35,000-odd spectators generally attired in their best sports casual is part of the fun of the April event. There was no colorful fashion show in 2020.
THE FLOWERS: No blooming azaleas could be seen in November, nor could any of the other 17 vibrant plants whose names have been given to one of the 18 holes on the course. Augusta National is widely recognized as being among the world’s most beautiful spots, and in the springtime, it explodes in color.
THE COLORS: The stunning contrast of the unbelievably green expanse of grass with the brilliant white of the huge sand bunkers was there in 2020. But instead of blending with the hundreds of colors of spring, they were mixed with an abundance of fall hues. Many people agreed that it was beautiful in its own way – for just one year.
THE COURSE: Augusta National isn’t going anywhere. It was “found” by co-founders Bobby Jones and his business partner, Clifford Roberts, in 1931 as they rode out from Atlanta hunting for a place to build Jones’ “dream” course. Jones later said that when he turned off Washington Road in Augusta onto what was the former Fruitlands Nursery, he found his course already lying there among the giant Longleaf pines. “Perfect! And to think this ground has been lying here all these years waiting for someone to come along and lay a golf course on it,” Jones said when he viewed the property for the first time.
THE PINES: The Longleaf pine/wiregrass ecosystem was the dominant landscape of what became the eastern United States before Europeans stumbled upon the area. The trees are so tall and so straight that tens of millions of them were cut down to make telegraph/telephone poles and frontier houses. In a few places the ecosystem was protected, usually by private ownership, and most of the Longleaf pines on the golf course are over 150 years old.
THE ECONOMY: The city of Augusta is not merely linked to the Masters Tournament in people’s minds around the world, it’s a major part of the city’s economy. Thousands of well-heeled visitors who flood the city with cash and credit cards every spring, are not a bonus to the local economy. According to a study from Augusta University, the Masters millions that flow into the city in April are part of the very city itself. Like the outlying cotton fields, the Savannah River and nearby Savannah River Site that has employed 10,000 to 20,000 well-paid technicians, engineers and scientists for seven decades, that Masters money is a necessity for many. The Broad Street bars were bare in November, and the professors were proved right.
THE PAR-3 CONTEST: Augusta National, the Big Course, has a little brother tucked out of the way, and each year the players, media and patrons, flip from the crushing anxiety of preparing for what might be the biggest moment in their professional lives to a laughing walk in the park and a celebration of how lucky we all are to be here. We weren’t so lucky in November. There was no Par-3 Contest.
THE GREENS: In November, the famous undulating greens were still fearsome putting surfaces. They would not have been had the membership attempted to postpone the tournament until a summer date. The club closes a few months after the tournament each year and reopens for members in the fall. The wickedly quick bentgrass greens don’t fare well in summer heat.
THE GREEN JACKET: The donning of the green jacket by the new champion, helped by the previous year’s jacket winner. In November, world No. 1 Dustin Johnson, was helped into his jacket by 2019’s champion, one of the world’s all-time greats, Tiger Woods.
THE FIRST: Each year, April’s Masters Tournament is the first of golf’s four major championships. It is followed by the U.S. Open; The Open Championship held in Great Britain, where the sport was born, and the PGA Championship, which together make up the mythical grand slam of golf. Although the career Grand Slam is a totally imaginary thing made up primarily by the media and Arnold Palmer after he got his, winning all four in a career grants induction into greatness. The July timing of The Open Championship in 2020 put it squarely into the mouth of the pandemic on the east coast of England, and it could not be saved. But plans are that it will be back, same time of year, same place – Royal St. George’s Golf Club in County Kent near the English Channel- in 2021.
Last year was the first time The Open had been postponed since 1940-45, when it was lost to World War II, and 1915-19 when it could not go forward during the first World War and another pandemic that caused millions of deaths worldwide. (These major championships are made of stern stuff. If you want to postpone one, you had better bring a very big problem with you.)
The Thrill: While it was there among the players, the palpable vibe of the spectators was not felt in November. There was still anticipation and excitement, but not to the same level felt in April, when high expectations and the sheer joy to be there felt by thousands of spectators make everyone walk a little faster entering the gates.
“You walk through the gates at Augusta, there’s that energy, that anticipation,” Rory McIlroy said in November, making his 10th appearance at the only major keeping him from the career grand slam. “There’s still a golf course there. There’s still a golf tournament to be won, and you’ve got to make the most of it.
“They’re playing,” he said. “And that’s the most important part.”
Article appears in the April 2021 issue of Augusta Magazine.