AUGUSTA, GEORGIA | For all the questions about what this Masters might feel like, what it might look like, what it might sound like and what it might play like, a long, uncommonly sultry November Thursday revealed a simple truth.
It’s still the Masters.
This is already a collector’s edition Masters, a one-off in autumn, played on the game’s most familiar layout, looking a bit like a painting without a frame because there are no patrons this time.
It’s almost trite to say it’s different but it’s true and it defined this Masters before Jack Nicklaus and Gary Player hit the ceremonial opening tee shots in the damp light of dawn Thursday.
When else might you see Rory McIlroy, Dustin Johnson and Patrick Cantlay walking down the hill at No. 1 after hitting their opening tee shots and being followed by no one?
Or see Phil Mickelson, after an opening bogey, smile and wave to his wife, Amy, who was standing alone between the first green and second tee?
As for the absence of noise, Bryson DeChambeau – golf’s Paul Bunyan – did his best to supply a soundtrack by hitting trees or bushes on three of his first five holes, a reminder to everyone that accuracy still matters even if it’s been devalued off the tee.
DeChambeau drew the closest thing to a crowd on Thursday when he started on the 10th hole. Approximately 100 onlookers – including NFL commissioner Roger Goodell sans his green jacket and Peyton Manning – gathered to see the show, many of them traipsing down the hill after him, their shoes squishing in the wet grass.
“It feels like you’re out here preparing for a Masters, not really playing in a Masters,” Kevin Kisner said.
It was so quiet that Tiger Woods heard the drone – a first for the Masters telecasts – hovering over the first hole as he played it.
“The Masters, though, this week, it still has a buzz to it. There’s an energy and a little bit of a vibe.” – Paul Casey
“A lot of firsts today. That’s kind of the way this entire year has been,” said Woods, who opened with a 4-under-par 68 that was his first bogey-free round in his past 106 at major championship.
After waiting 19 months since Woods won the 2019 Masters, having to wait out a three-hour rain delay Thursday morning was only a minor inconvenience. The triumph, at least until the green jacket is presented to someone Sunday afternoon, was in getting here.
Paul Casey, whose opening 65 put him in the lead with the late starters left to finish their first rounds Friday morning, put his kids on lockdown last week in their Arizona home to make sure he didn’t get any surprises from his coronavirus test in Augusta.
“I’ve never been so happy to pass a COVID-19 test in my life. Was genuinely nervous about that,” Casey said.
Casey has struggled to adjust to golf with no fans and insists it has affected his scoring. He prefers playing to the crowds.
Instead, all Casey could do was imagine the roar that would have come after he stuffed a 6-iron approach shot tight at the par-5 second hole, setting up an eagle that only his playing partners and their caddies acknowledged.
“I’ve had nothing or very little to draw from being out playing tournament golf,” Casey said.
“The Masters, though, this week, it still has a buzz to it. There’s an energy and a little bit of a vibe. Yes, it’s clearly a lot less than what we are used to, but there’s something about this place…”
Here’s how it is different in November:
There is still Bermuda grass in the fairways, mixing with the rye overseed that gives Augusta National its emerald beauty in the spring. From a distance, the course looks the same but up close, the playing surface is different.
There’s ankle-deep rough in spots where the winter grass has been left to grow in.
Throw in the rain and the place was soft, especially the greens even as the hum of the SubAir system could be heard pulling the moisture from the putting surfaces.
There are no gallery ropes for the fortunate few hundred on site (each player and members are allowed to bring a plus-one to the tournament) but there are painted lines directing the people in the gallery where to stand. Amazingly, the line is only a few feet off the 12th tee, close enough for a player to hear someone’s stomach growl.
A couple of concession stands are open with the usual fare minus two key things:
There is no beer and there are no cash registers. The pimento cheese sandwiches, the barbecue and the sodas (labeled cola, diet cola and lemon lime) are there for the taking.
The big white scoreboards tell the story of the leaders hole by hole, but there are no “Thru” boards to show the scores of the groups playing on each hole and phones are still not allowed on the course.
With no fans, players find themselves playing traffic cop at times where tees and greens intersect. Players on the first green and ninth tee, for example, trade hand signs to determine whose turn it is to play.
As for the golf itself, it was a joy to watch Thursday. Woods looked like the guy who won his 15th major here, hitting drivers like he was in charge, not his body.
Players made birdies in bunches and the leaderboard at sunset Thursday was heavy on experience – Casey, Webb Simpson, Lee Westwood, Louis Oosthuizen, Woods, Adam Scott.
DeChambeau did not deconstruct Augusta National as many feared he might but it was only one day. There was an element of symbolism blended with the sting for DeChambeau when he double-bogeyed the par-5 13th after pulling his second shot into the azaleas left of the green (and then hitting a provisional ball into the creek before he found his original shot and took an unplayable lie).
“This golf course, as much as I’m trying to attack it, it can bite back. It’s still Augusta National, and it’s the Masters,” DeChambeau said.
He was still DeChambeau, though. At the par-5 15th, his playing partner Oosthuizen hit a 7-wood second shot. DeChambeau hit a 7-iron. DeChambeau also hit an 8-iron into the par-5 second and a crooked 7-iron at No. 13.
Here’s the best part, though: DeChambeau averaged 334.6 yards off the tee Thursday. Larry Mize, who at age 62 is 35 years older than DeChambeau, averaged 247.4 yards off the tee.
They both shot 70.
They couldn’t be more different but therein lies the beauty of the game and this unique Masters.
“When it comes to the atmosphere of the event, it’s still the Masters,” Jon Rahm said. “It’s still the same course, the same beautiful place, classic scoreboard, the golf course itself.
“You miss it, but I feel like the essence is still there.”
Top: A smattering of patrons look on as Rory McIlroy, Dustin Johnson and Patrick Cantlay prepare to putt on the ninth green during the first round of the Masters. Photo: Jamie Squire,Getty Images
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