A rite of spring has given way to autumnal anticipation that has just about reached its ahead of the 2020 Masters which finally begins Thursday morning in the shadows of the Georgia pines.
COVID-19 wreaked havoc on everything in our lives, and even the meticulously sheltered and protected Masters was no different. The global pandemic forced Augusta National’s hand and the difficult yet obvious decision to move the annual tournament to the fall was made.
So, here we are, on the eve of the 2020 Masters, the first to be played in November. Golf fans are thankful, no doubt, to have the beloved tournament even if, like so many other things in our lives, it has been flipped upside down.
Whoever slips on the green jacket Sunday afternoon will certainly have earned it. But they will have done so under undeniably unique circumstances, as the Masters will look, feel and sound different this year.
“It does feel different,” three-time champion Phil Mickelson admitted in a Tuesday press conference, “but given the situation, we’re just thankful we have a tournament to play in. We’re thankful we’re able to participate and compete. We’re thankful people are able to watch it and enjoy it from their homes. This place is a spiritual place if you love the game of golf so we’re appreciative that it’s being played.”
It’s hard to even begin conceptualizing what the Masters will look like in the fall. That’s because we have a very clear, vivid picture of what it looks like in the spring. When April rolls around, that’s Masters times, with the azaleas and magnolias in full bloom. We know not a blade of grass will be out of place, and Augusta National will look as pristine as it always does.
That’s not to say it won’t look fantastic in the fall. It just will look different. In fact, as players arrived on the grounds and took to the course for practice rounds, we’re getting an idea of the visual stimulation the 2020 tournament will provide.
The sharp pinks and yellows have given way to muted reds and oranges. Unsurprisingly, it still looks like the nicest golf course on the planet because, well, Augusta for the Masters is the nicest golf course on the planet.
The aesthetic differences certainly will stand out above all else, but there also are subtler, necessary tweaks made to ensure the course — after a summer in the Georgia heat — lives up to its lofty standards in the fall.
Without getting too technical (here’s a nerdy breakdown), Augusta National is covered in Bermuda grass. That’s great for the spring, but in the fall, that grass goes dormant and turns brown. To counteract that, the greenskeepers have had to overseed the grass to revitalize it and get the course back into playing shape.
It certainly looks like a success, but to those who will get intimate with the grass this weekend, there certainly are differences.
“The ball doesn’t sit near as well around the greens,” Justin Thomas told the media Tuesday. “With the Bermuda and the overseed coming in, you know you’re gonna have some sketchy lies around the greens. Balls are sitting down so you’re not going to be able to get the spin you’re used to getting.”
Five-time winner and defending champion Tiger Woods mentioned there are players in the field who are switching wedges for the tournament, opting for clubs with a little more bounce to counteract the the lies around the greens.
“The ball has been popping up on us a little bit and rolling out,” Woods explained in his press conference Tuesday. “I’ve been up here in the fall a few times and have played it, and it’s been like this, but we’ve never played a Masters like this. It’s going to be very different for all of us. Some of the shots around the greens are going to be a lot more challenging than they have been in the past.”
Further complicating matters could be the weather. It is hurricane season in that region of the world, and the lingering remnants of Tropical Storm Eta could mess play some. Thursday figures to be the day most affected by weather with forecasts calling for scattered thunderstorms and a 90 percent chance of rain. For a tournament that already favors longer hitters, soaking the course with rain will only further the advantage for the big hitters.
This place is a spiritual place if you love the game of golf so we’re appreciative that it’s being played.Phil Mickelson
This new (hopefully temporary) world we all live in also means no patrons in the stands for the Masters. It could be downright eerie to watch the world’s best golfers play for the sport’s top prize without thousands of people cheering them on.
But it might also affect how the golf is played. Without the patrons — and the grandstands — the course opens up some, and that’s not always a good thing. That barrier is gone, which could leave some players chasing their golf balls into the woods or down behind a green where a group of people would have acted as a backstop.
“Whether people are off in the rough or not, it’s never stopped me from hitting it there, so that’s not going to be an issue,” Mickelson joked Tuesday during a press conference.
Mickelson, however, thinks that difference might be overstated.
“It’s not like a US Open where we have 8-inch rough and I need those people to tamp down that rough,” he said. “We don’t have that. It’s first cut all the way through whether people are there or not. I actually think the lack of people will keep that first cut a little higher and keep the ball from running into the trees. … I don’t think it’s going to play much different.”
By all accounts, a November tournament won’t adversely affect the idea of the Masters. Everyone is doing their best to find some semblance of normal in a world that currently is anything but normal.
And if it ends up being weird, at least we give to give it go again in five months when the 2021 tournament is played in its typical April slot.
At the very least, however, we’ll all get to kick up our feet this weekend and enjoy one of the greatest traditions in golf, even if it’s seven months late.
“It’s not easy to have the course ready in November, and they’ve done a remarkable job,” Mickelson said. “It’s not easy to put a tournament on in this era, with so many challenges, but we as players and as fans, are very appreciative of the hard work and extra effort that’s gone into this event.”