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Masters golfers won’t see the blooms, but they will really miss hearing the roars

Rory McIlroy and Dustin Johnson walk together during a practice round at Augusta National Golf Club. (Rob Carr/Getty Images)
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AUGUSTA, Ga. — Among the missing at this unique Masters: blooms on the azaleas, ropes to rein in the crowds, lines for pimento cheese sandwiches, roars that rattle through the Loblolly pines, buzz around the putting green, business under the clubhouse’s 150-year-old oak tree, kids caddying at the Par 3 Contest and, come Sunday at sundown, anyone remaining on the course at Augusta National Golf Club because the tuh-na-mint, as they say in these parts, will have wrapped up hours earlier.

Take one of those essential elements away, and maybe no one would notice. Swipe them all, turn an event that normally signifies the arrival of spring into an appetizer for Thanksgiving, and the 2020 Masters will have an entirely unprecedented feel, a pandemic-enforced flavor and visuals all its own.

“I don’t know if it’s the look that I’ll miss,” said Rory McIlroy of Northern Ireland, again one of the favorites here, “or if it’s the atmosphere. It’s the buzz; it’s the excitement; it’s the anticipation.”

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The stakes are the same. The vibe just isn’t. The visuals in person are so striking, it’s hard to say where to start. The azaleas that line, among other places, the 13th hole would be an obvious choice. But there have been springs where that hasn’t happened, too. So where else?

“The first thing that stands out is just no ropes,” said Bubba Watson, a two-time Masters winner.

Good point. And why no ropes? Well, no fans. (Yes, I know the Augusta National green jackets prefer to call them “patrons.” They are, in fact, fans, the best fans in American golf, whatever label anyone affixes to them.)

Put the (dormant) azaleas aside for a moment. So many Masters traditions revolve around having thousands of people spread across the massive property. When the gates open in the morning, they race in with their folding chairs, high-tailing it to their traditional spots — by the 12th tee or ringing the 18th green — that they can stake out for the day. Their groups expand and contract like a flock of starlings depending on which player is doing what — and where. Over the summer, when the spread of the coronavirus seemed as if it might be abating, Augusta National officials hoped to be able to allow some sort of crowd on the grounds because fans are that essential to the Masters.

“By August, however,” Masters Chairman Fred Ridley said Wednesday, “it became clear that, despite extensive planning and a resolve to safely stage a tournament with at least a limited number of patrons, the realities of the situation made it clear that our hope was simply not the right course of action.”

Smart move by the club. Different feel for the tournament. The annual Par 3 Contest, a cute-fest involving the toddler children of players, was among the casualties. The concessions menu — $1.50 for egg salad or pimento cheese, $3 for barbecue, $4 for a domestic beer — doesn’t need to be posted.

“My favorite thing about the Masters is the sandwiches,” said Dustin Johnson, ranked No. 1 in the world.

Fans who aren’t around to eat also aren’t around to roar. During practice rounds, players mess around at the par-3 16th by skipping balls across the pond — not just to enjoy themselves but to delight the galleries. The buzziest moment from this Masters week was without question Spaniard Jon Rahm performing this stunt — and holing out. In front of no one.

“I was saying to Jon earlier … ‘Just imagine the roars that would have created in a normal year,’” McIlroy said. “That would have been pretty cool.”

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Pretty cool to envision such an eruption — for a trick shot before the competition even starts. Augusta National is a place where, for Monday to Wednesday annually, you could argue it’s better to have a ticket for batting practice than for the actual game. It’s a place with which any golf fan is intimately familiar simply because each of these holes is examined annually and each has produced some sort of signature shot. (Well, maybe not the fifth. The poor, forgotten fifth.)

But for the players, the framing of each hole is now vastly different — as if they’re playing a casual round on the Sunday before the gates open rather than a competitive round in the tournament. The absence of galleries — and the ropes used to contain them — could actually be more than just a visceral change. It could alter strategy.

“It’s going to be different because I’m going to be able to hit it on certain lines where patrons would be,” said Bryson DeChambeau, the prodigiously long driver of the ball who also stands as the pretournament favorite. “And I feel like that does provide me a little bit of an advantage in that case to be able to hit into those areas without thinking about it at all.”

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DeChambeau casually mentioned bombing it over the bunkers that guard the left side of the fairway at 18 and playing a 110-yard approach into the final green. Or blowing it through the fairway at the par-5 13th so he had a better angle for his second shot — with a pitching wedge. McIlroy suggested that, in normal times, missing to the right of the green at the par-5 second is a poor choice because the gallery tramps down the grass and makes for a wide swath of swampy turf between there and the third tee.

“Now you don’t have that,” McIlroy said. “You hit it to the right, you have a perfect lie.”

And what if, from such a perfect lie, a player holes out for eagle? How will the rest of the field know? Augusta National is normally a symphony, with each note from the gallery representing a different accomplishment from a specific player.

“You can feel the difference in each roar,” Rahm said. “You know if it’s a Tiger roar or a somebody else roar. You know what’s going on.”

That’s true from any point on the course. In a regular Masters week, the view from the first tee — the highest point on the course — is characterized not by the holes in view but by throngs of people blocking them. Stand there Thursday morning, and you would be able to see past the second green, down over the pond by the 16th, almost all the way to the (forgotten) fifth, on the outer edge of the property.

“It’s going to be stark in what we see, our sights into the greens, the energy that you hear from different roars from different parts of the golf course,” said none other than Tiger Woods, who won his fifth green jacket last year. “I mean, you’re on the putting green up [near the first tee], and you can hear eagles down on 13. That’s what this tournament is all about, and we’re not going to have that this year.”

That’s certainly what this tournament offers. But is that what this tournament is all about? We live in a world in which the Los Angeles Lakers won the NBA championship in front of zero fans in Orlando, the Tampa Bay Lightning skated with the Stanley Cup in front of zero fans in Edmonton, and the Los Angeles Dodgers took the World Series in front of a quarter-full ballpark in Texas. Shoot, in September, DeChambeau won the most recent major, the U.S. Open, without a paying customer on the property. Those champions are all legitimate.

So the azaleas aren’t in bloom. The galleries will watch on TV. There are subtle differences in the grass only the truest golf geeks (looks in mirror) could care about. But what’s different about the golf?

“Nothing, in the sense that this is the Masters and it doesn’t matter,” three-time champion Phil Mickelson said. “It doesn’t matter if it rains. It doesn’t matter if it shines. We get to compete for a green jacket. As a player, that’s all we care about.”