News & Opinion

At Masters, tradition faces a dose of reality

Masters logo on a green jacket
The winner of the Masters will receive a custom-fit green jacket and membership in one of golf’s most recognizable clubs.

No patrons, no Par 3 Contest and tee times on both nines? Yes, this is a Masters unlike any other, but the essence of Augusta endures

It’s a tradition unlike any other

Before a pandemic made us all run for cover

So now we’re looking at a Masters in November

And not a week too soon in a year to remember

OK, so it’s not exactly Robert Frost, nor does 2020 offer much for the long-term memory. With all that has changed in almost every walk of life over the last eight months – very little of it for the better – the golf tournament that has clung tightest to its old-world sensibilities finds itself adapting to the times by necessity. A detour of tradition made by no one’s volition.

This Masters will be very different, perhaps not so much from a visual standpoint, but a competitive context. The annual Champions Dinner has been salvaged, albeit under COVID-19 safety guidelines, but there will be no Par 3 Contest, ostensibly because no patrons will be allowed on the grounds at Augusta National Golf Club. Once play officially begins, a two-tee start will be employed on Thursday, Friday and Sunday, with early finishes to both weekend rounds.

“That’s going to be very awkward,” Phil Mickelson said of dealing with Amen Corner so soon after breakfast. The grueling 11th, ultra-baffling 12th and risk-inducing 13th are holes you’d much rather face after finding some sort of rhythm on the front nine. From ball flight and green texture to wind strength and direction, the more data a player and his caddie can gather before entering Augusta National’s chamber of the unknown, the more comfortable they’re likely to be.

Sarazen Bridge at Augusta National Golf Club at the Masters
Dustin Johnson (foreground) and Rory McIlroy cross the Sarazen Bridge – named for Gene Sarazen, whose albatross on the par-5 15th hole led to victory at the 1935 Masters – on Tuesday during practice for the Masters.

Then again, there’s no such thing as skating through Amen Corner on the weekend, regardless of when a man encounters it. If the back nine historically offers more scoring chances than does the front, it also includes more potential round-killers: shots that must be executed with a water hazard entering the equation. Although a two-tee start isn’t unprecedented at the Masters – the final round in 2019 was conducted under the same provision – this marks the first time it has been implemented before the tournament began.

Why use two tees? Darkness and pro football. Sunset in Augusta occurs just short of 5:30 this week, so there’s not much golf to be played beyond that. Splitting 92 golfers into morning and afternoon waves and sending them off the first and 10th assures the completion of both early rounds if weather doesn’t interfere – although the forecast does not look good. Thursday is expected to produce the worst conditions of the week; any extended stoppage of play easily could turn the 84th edition of this event into a sloppy affair with a Monday finish.

Just one more reason to adore COVID-19.

Here’s an interesting hypothetical: Suppose a lengthy suspension at any point Thursday or Friday ultimately pushes the 36-hole cut into Saturday. If the tournament can’t make up enough ground and doesn’t finish by its prescribed time of 3 p.m. the following day, would CBS actually ditch the closing stages of the Masters to televise its allotment of NFL games an hour later?

So much for that tradition unlike any other. It’s hard to fathom the higher-ups at CBS and Augusta National not figuring out a solution to every possible scenario this weekend. It’s also difficult to imagine the network willfully dishing off the final nine holes of the most-watched tournament all year to Golf Channel or its own obscure sports channel. Too many confused and jilted viewers. Too much negative press reverb.

Masters scoreboard at Augusta National Golf Club
Manually operated scoreboards dot the grounds at Augusta National as a nod to a bygone era.

Perhaps thankfully, men in corner offices or green jackets don’t discuss such matters publicly. As for others in high places, maybe Mother Nature and Father Time are watching over this Masters with a sympathetic heart. We’ve waited long enough. Some of us have gone through too much. It’s the best week of golf all year, no matter when it is staged.

What can we expect when the big boys finally start keeping score? Rory McIlroy offered some terrific insight to ESPN’s Bob Harig after a two-day scouting trip to Augusta National late last month. “A lot more Bermuda [grass] in the fairways and in the surrounds of the greens,” McIlroy said. “The greens are exactly the same as they always are. [As] for the fairways, it just hasn’t been cold enough for the Bermuda to die off. That’s going to make things very interesting around the greens. Chipping will be a lot trickier.”

As if it were a piece of cake normally. If the weather acts up and the course becomes ridiculously long, courtesy of that rain and the persistent Bermuda, we could be looking at the world’s largest outdoor massage parlor for the bombers. At that point, a fool and his money would soon be parted if he didn’t spend some of it on Bryson DeChambeau, but you still have to knock your ball in the hole, and you have to do it 72 times.

Jack Nicklaus and Gary Player will tee off the festivities Thursday morning – another precious tradition spared in these uncertain times. And if all goes to plan, someone will slip his arms into an emerald blazer Sunday afternoon, a few hours earlier than usual but none the worse for wear. At that point, you can pop another cold one and watch a gaggle of NFL zebras spend three minutes reviewing what they just saw, thinking how April 2021 can’t get here fast enough.

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