Opinion: Change is in the air at Augusta National during Masters week in November

AUGUSTA, Ga. – The eyes of the sports world turn south this week to the strangest of all mismatches between time and place during this pandemic. The Masters, that iconic harbinger of spring, now serves as a prelude to Thanksgiving. This is indeed a tradition unlike any other.

There will be no azaleas in bloom at the 2020 Masters. There will be no roars erupting around the course. There will be no gallery ropes, because there will be no galleries. The April pastels are long gone, replaced by the overwhelming presence of pine green, with just a smattering of autumn orange, yellow and red.

The strangeness of it all sinks in on a walk around the hallowed and hushed grounds during Monday’s practice round. You find yourself wondering: Where is everyone? You know the holes by heart, but the place looks different without boundaries. When the fairways and greens are not guarded by ropes and armies of volunteers, one can easily wander here and there, so you watch your step lest you end up marching into a fairway when a tee shot might be on its way right to you. 

Then comes a revelation. This will be the first time the world has ever laid eyes on Augusta National Golf Club at any time other than April. (The PGA Seniors’ Championship was played here in November 1937 and again in December 1938, but of course there was no television back then.)

Fall leaves and November shadows highlight the 13th hole as Bubba Watson and Webb Simpson walk to the green during a practice round for the Masters at Augusta National Golf Club. (Photo: Rob Schumacher-USA TODAY Sports)

This private club has lived a secret life for decades except for one week a year, when it becomes the very public face of golf. We know it so well in the spring. We know it not at all the other 51 weeks of the year.

What other sports venue is so reclusive? Wimbledon, perhaps, but even it hosted the 2012 Olympic tennis tournament outside of its usual spot on the calendar. We’ve seen the Rose Bowl many times other than New Year’s Day, the U.S. women’s soccer team’s victory in the 1999 Women’s World Cup coming immediately to mind. Fenway Park and Wrigley Field have hosted football and hockey games outside of their traditional baseball seasons.

But Augusta National? Other than those early days of April, who knows what lurks beyond those elusive gates? Not us – until now.

Any exploration must head right to the heart of Amen Corner, the venerable spot where the 11th green, 12th hole and 13th tee meet, as famous an intersection as there is in sports.

On the walk over, a splash of color appears on the left side of the 11th fairway: a tree in blazing red beside another drenched in orange. South Africa’s Louis Oosthuizen, taking practice swings, is silhouetted against this autumnal backdrop. One can only imagine how many times TV producers will try to capture that scene when the tournament begins.

Then comes the tee box on the famous par-3 12th hole. How different it looks without several hundred chairs lined up on the hillside. It appears simpler, uncluttered. It’s like a very familiar movie set, suddenly looking completely different from how you remember it.

Most of all, you notice the quietness of the place, and know what’s missing when there are no ropes, replaced this year by spray-painted dotted lines in the grass. It’s the spectators. The Masters will have none of its traditional and beloved roars this year, the sounds of silence most noticeable on Sunday.

“There’s no doubt the missing galleries is going to be the biggest difference,” said 2013 Masters champion Adam Scott.

Change is in the air at the 2020 Masters. Club chairman Fred Ridley announced Monday that Lee Elder, who became the first Black man to play in the Masters in 1975, will be an honorary starter with Jack Nicklaus and Gary Player at the 2021 Masters. The club also announced it will fund a women’s golf program at Paine College, an historically Black college in Augusta, while also endowing scholarships in Elder's name to Paine's men's and future women's golfers.

“I think like all organizations, we’ve been moved by the events of 2020,” Ridley said. “There's been a lot said about racial justice and opportunity, and our question was not so much what can we say but what can we do.”

That's Augusta National, so traditional, now changed by this extraordinary year.

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