AUGUSTA, GEORGIA | Depending on whether you prefer spring or fall, the question of whether Augusta National has ever looked better than it does this week is open for debate.
One thing is for sure – it has never looked like this – from several hundred feet in the air as state-of-the-art drones provide a view of the Masters never before offered.
In a unique year without patrons at the game’s most unique event, the addition of drone technology has literally and figuratively elevated the viewing experience whether on television or on various other platforms that show and tell the Masters story.
“What we’ve done has been magnificent. The views of this property are shots we’ve never seen before,” said Harold Bryant, executive vice president and senior vice president of production for CBS Sports.
“It’s captured people’s imaginations and opened up things as well. It’s been phenomenal what we’re getting out of it.”
If you are of a certain age, you remember a time when the Masters proudly limited its television coverage, showing just the second nine on Saturday and Sunday. Fans without access to tournament badges begged for more television coverage and to many, the first nine holes were a mystery.
Over time, that changed.
Weekday coverage expanded. Weekend coverage expanded. Eventually all 18 holes (and the par-3 course on Wednesdays) became part of the viewing package whether through traditional outlets or on the Masters’ expansive and innovative online platforms.
Until this novel November Masters, the use of drone footage had been a dream rather than a reality.
Part of it was the technological challenge of putting machines in the air that can deliver high-quality images without disrupting play.
Another part was making sure drones buzzing around the property would not intrude upon the experience for patrons and players.
It’s been something CBS Sports and the tournament’s television partners have been intrigued by for a while but had been reluctant to try.
Then the COVID-19 pandemic hit.
With no patrons on property and with the Masters out of its familiar April date, the time was right.
“We worked very closely with Augusta National and we realized this was a unique opportunity in this unprecedented time,” Bryant said.
“We said, ‘Is there a way to take advantage of it and create new angles we’ve never seen?’ They were fully on board. They said, ‘Let’s dig into it and come up with an idea.’ This was the perfect time to do it.”
“We’ve used drone technology but this is the latest and the greatest. It’s a stealth-like drone.” – Harold Bryant
During his pre-tournament press conference, chairman Fred Ridley teased the addition of drone coverage for this Masters. Now that it has debuted, the social media reaction has affirmed its popularity.
It is not as easy as equipping a drone with a camera and sending it flying. There have been trial runs, flight paths have been studied and the equipment has been tested and tweaked.
“We’ve used drone technology but this is the latest and the greatest. It’s a stealth-like drone,” Bryant said.
“The technology has gotten better. It’s very nimble and it has stabilized lenses. It can stay up high enough and far enough away to capture these images.”
There are actually two drones, allowing one to be up while another is being readied. It’s up to Steve Milton and Lance Barrow to choose when and where the images will be seen.
“The drone is like (different) camera angles. We have them. We will use them accordingly,” said Barrow, the coordinating producer for CBS Sports.
Like many things, one of the tricks to making the drone footage so compelling is being careful not to overdo it. Finding that balance is part of the evaluation being done this week and beyond as Augusta National and its broadcast partners determine if the drones will fly in the spring.
“We will reevaluate and see how it goes,” Bryant said. “We can touch so many parts of the course. We can stay on the perimeter. Maybe we’ll be able to do it when patrons are back.”
For all of Augusta National’s familiarity to viewers, the drone shots change the look. Whether it’s an aerial perspective of Amen Corner or a look down on the Eisenhower Cabin near the 10th tee, it has made the familiar feel fresh.
The best part?
“It’s when it starts low and rises up over the trees…you can see the scope of the property. It’s just amazing,” Bryant said.
“(Thursday) night around 4:45 or 5 p.m., that golden hour, that was perfect.”
Top: A drone flies over Augusta National during the first round of the Masters on Thursday. Photo: Rob Carr, Getty Images
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