AUGUSTA, GEORGIA | The signs don’t inspire a lot of optimism. More than 60,000 Americans a day are testing positive for the coronavirus and the death toll keeps climbing at roughly 1,000 daily. Georgia – the quickest state in the country to reopen – is one of the hottest spots for the continued outbreak of the virus.
A golf tournament would seem to be the least of the country’s concerns, yet the Masters is no ordinary golf tournament. This week marked the midpoint between when the Masters Tournament was supposed to be played in April and when it is scheduled to take place in November. When the postponed dates were announced during the time experts hoped would be the peak of the pandemic, seven months seemed like a safe cushion for getting the virus under control, yet COVID-19 hospitalizations nationwide have returned to mid-April levels.
Augusta National Golf Club – closed since March – has been silent since announcing on April 6 its intention to stage the Masters in front of a full cast of patrons in the fall. That pronouncement included a pretty important disclaimer from Masters chairman Fred Ridley: “We want to emphasize that our future plans are incumbent upon favorable counsel and direction from health officials.”
“I think the whole town is concerned, I really do.” – John Engler, Augusta business owner and former PGA Tour pro
Despite silence from Magnolia Lane, two disparate thoughts are racing through the minds of Augusta business leaders desperate for the revenue jolt a fully attended Masters Tournament would provide. The first is serious concern that the Masters will have to follow suit with the PGA Tour and either play behind closed doors or cancel. The second is a blind faith that Augusta National is capable of pulling off magic in the middle of a pandemic.
“If anybody can do it, they can do it,” said Sean Frantom, the sales and community engagement manager at Augusta’s newly opened Topgolf. “We hope and pray it happens for many, many different reasons. But right now, it doesn’t look very positive.”
“I think the whole town is concerned, I really do,” said John Engler, a former PGA Tour pro whose family’s business in Augusta includes a downtown hotel. “The No. 1 thing is for everyone to be safe and feel safe. If anybody can have fans it would be Augusta National. They’d be able to figure it out.”
How after 3½ months did we get to this exact same place? And how can the Masters pull off a Masters just 3½ months from now?
• • •
The morning of April 6, cars turning off Interstate 20 at Exit 199 rolled into a ghost town. The ramp wasn’t closed off, as is often the case, by state troopers. What few vehicles were out at 7:30 a.m. cruised the speed limit unhindered by traffic down Washington Road. The morning was bright, but the day was somber.
The Monday when the practice rounds for the 2020 Masters were supposed to start was during the peak of America’s lockdown aimed at halting the spread of the coronavirus pandemic. The country was braced for what everyone expected to be toughest days in an unprecedented campaign to mitigate the devastating escalation of COVID-19.
“The next two weeks are extraordinarily important,” Dr. Deborah Birx said from her daily Coronavirus Task Force platform. “This is the moment to do everything you can.”
Augusta National was doing everything it could. The club was already shuttered, its pastoral parking lots completely empty when they should have been filled with eager patrons flocking toward the gates. At 11 that morning, Masters chairman Fred Ridley sent out a statement that temporarily lifted the general malaise in Augusta and the wider golf world.
“We hope the anticipation of staging the Masters Tournament in the fall brings a moment of joy to the Augusta community and all those who love the sport,” Ridley said.
The club announced its intent to stage a Masters unlike any other the week of Nov. 9-15. “We intend to invite those professionals and amateurs who would have qualified for our original April date and welcome all existing ticket holders to enjoy the excitement of Masters week,” he said.
That April turning point against the virus didn’t happen – America’s coronavirus curve has not flattened but instead keeps increasing at alarming daily rates. The all-in-this-together mood of the spring has devolved into heated summer arguments about the unwillingness of many to do something as simple as wear a face covering in public buildings.
Meanwhile, the PGA Tour has announced that it will continue playing without fans for the remainder of the season through the Tour Championship in mid-September. The PGA Championship will take place in California in two weeks without spectators. The U.S. Open in September in New York is still hopeful it can accommodate at least some galleries.
The Masters Tournament? While the rescheduled date is still months away, the likelihood of “welcoming all existing ticket holders” seems less certain every day.
“When you see the PGA Tour say they’re going to have no fans the rest of the year and baseball is not going to have fans at all, how does Augusta say they’re gonna have them?” Frantom said. “And some question how does the Masters happen with no patrons. It wouldn’t be the same.”
A patron-free Masters might make for a great TV show, but it won’t help a local economy already suffering. The optimism that the economic boon a fully attended Masters brings to Augusta each year – its revenues are considered a “13th month” or “second Christmas” by local businesses – would be muted. That’s not good for Augusta, which was listed in a recent poll (distributed by the personal finance website WalletHub) as the most stressed city in Georgia and the 12th most financially stressed city in America.
“Not only did you lose the Masters in April, but you’ve also had three months of downturn and most businesses have suffered,” said Frantom, the mayor pro tem of Augusta and ex-club pro at now-defunct Jones Creek Golf Club. “It’s a double-whammy in a sense. From a city standpoint and a business standpoint, we are praying that we have the Masters and there are patrons. But as you see what’s going on across the country, it doesn’t look positive right now that it’s gonna happen.”
While Augusta National privately deliberates its options, the community has taken every step to protect its investment in a major event that in a normal year generates roughly $100 million in the local economy. Schools in Richmond and Columbia County quickly altered fall break schedules to coincide with the new Masters dates, providing not only a potential labor pool for the tournament but also an option for families who typically rent their homes during Masters week when it takes place during spring break.
Mayor Hardie Davis was one of the first to declare a state of emergency and close city parks and recreation facilities on March 16 when Augusta had fewer than 10 cases of COVID-19. With the support of local business leaders, he was quick to shutter non-essential businesses ahead of the rest of the state as well as implement a city-wide mask mandate before Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp overturned the local measures. Last week, the city again shut down all of its recreational facilities, including Augusta Municipal Golf Course (aka the Patch), due to a surge in confirmed local COVID-19 cases that surpassed 2,200 and pushed area hospitals closer to capacity.
The community knows what’s at stake if the country doesn’t get the numbers under control before Labor Day. It can’t afford the “double-whammy.”
“It would be very tough on the local economy,” said Engler. “We’ve talked to the Convention and Visitors board and their numbers are considerably down. Restaurants would take a huge hit. And what gets lost in the shuffle are people who rent houses, and that income for eight to 10 days affects the entire market.”
“Here’s why I think they can pull it off – because if they couldn’t they would have made that decision by now. I really believe that because they’ve got too many people counting on it.” – Walter Clay, Augusta business owner
Walter Clay understands the impact. The owner of Rae’s Coastal Café and French Market Grille in Surrey Center, two of the most popular restaurants during Masters week, has already felt the sting. With social-distancing restrictions, restaurants like his will only bring a fraction of their usual Masters-week revenues.
“It’s not going to save me,” Clay said of what typically accounts for an extra month of revenue in a year when he already has been closed three months and is currently operating at well under half capacity. “It’ll just be a good week. It’s different when you have people three-deep at the bar having a good time when waiting for a table.”
Clay, however, is optimistic that the Masters can take place with patrons.
“Here’s why I think they can pull it off – because if they couldn’t they would have made that decision by now,” he said. “I really believe that because they’ve got too many people counting on it. They understand the impact they have on the entire community and if they don’t think they can pull it off, they’re not just gonna wait and pull the carpet out.”
• • •
Augusta National’s silence thus far can be interpreted as either unnerving or encouraging. Practice round and tournament badge holders have not been contacted by the club asking whether they plan to travel and attend, much less anything regarding rain checks or refunds. The 2021 ticket lottery was conducted on schedule, but anyone who enters typically is not notified with acceptance or rejection until September.
That seems to give the club a little more time to make decisions. Rumors being bandied about by anyone with connections to the club are that the Masters folks are considering as many as seven different contingency plans ranging from cancellation or a fan-free staging to all-in attendance. We can only speculate for now as to what those contingencies might look like.
Augusta National certainly has the financial means and clout to ensure anyone who enters the property has been screened or even tested. They have the space to set up an on-campus rapid testing facility if necessary, but it would be on scale larger than anything being done to date with a tournament that in normal times attracts more than a quarter million people for the week
Masters patrons are willing to comply with rules at Augusta National that many would balk at anywhere else. If the club mandates Masters-issued face coverings or testing for every ticket holder, your choices would be to comply or not attend.
If the estimated 50,000 patrons who attend each practice round is too much to handle, they could offer them all refunds or rain checks to come back five months later for the 2021 Masters.
As for tournament-round patrons, most of whom have annual weekly badges, the club could certainly impose restrictions including not sharing badges. Anyone who can’t travel or doesn’t feel safe attending could receive refunds. The rest could be offered the chance to attend either Thursday-Friday or Saturday-Sunday, culling the volume each day to well under 50 percent of the usual capacity. Most patrons would agree that the $375 cost of a weekly badge would still be a bargain for only two days.
Masters patrons are willing to comply with rules at Augusta National that many would balk at anywhere else. Do not test the club regarding cell-phone usage on property. If it mandates Masters-issued face coverings or testing for every ticket holder, your choices would be to comply or not attend.
The usual grandstands might not be erected to avoid congestion. The tournament already presents the most efficient concessions and bathrooms operations which could be modified to maintain social distancing and sanitizing. Berckmans Place and clubhouse access could be strictly curtailed. The merchandise buildings could implement a theme-park, fast-pass kind of system where patrons could visit once in a predetermined time frame to limit occupancy. Or if that might still be too unsafe for the employees, patrons could be given some kind of one-time-use code to purchase merchandise online during the week (the Masters typically doesn’t not have an online marketplace).
These are the kinds of attention to detail that Augusta National is already known for and has an ability to implement in ways other organizations might not.
“There are so many things they could do to limit the flow,” Clay said. “One thing I’m certain is the people they put on the committee to figure this out are working diligently and are going to be some of the best brains to figure that out.”
Folks in Augusta feel that if the brain trust at Augusta National had been put in charge of the nation’s pandemic response to begin with, America might not be in the situation it is right now. Instead, they merely have to figure out how to present a Masters in a way that feels major.
“I think the tournament is going to happen and I’m cautiously optimistic they’ll have fans,” Engler said. “I think fans help make the tournament – the ambiance and the incredible roars in the pine trees.”
Top: Will there be patrons in the seats at Augusta National dining areas come November? Photo: Andrew Redington, Getty Images
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