AUGUSTA, Ga. — This morning, Xander Schauffele nearly drilled me in the skull with a golf ball.
It wasn’t his fault. He was preparing to tee off at the first hole of Augusta National, part of one of the earliest groups out at the 2020 Masters. I was ambling my way up the hill toward the tee box when I wondered, who’s that guy in the gallery practicing a golf swing … and then realized he wasn’t in the gallery at all.
The 2020 Masters has no patrons in attendance. That means no chairs, no cheers, no ropes along the fairways to guide you. That means if you’re not careful, you can get a whole lot closer to the action than ever before.
That also means a crucial element of the tournament — its heart, really — is missing ... which is just about perfectly on point for 2020.
The strange, dreamlike feeling that envelops the course now was evident even before sunrise. Strands of fog draped over the scoreboard just past the 18th green. Dew lay thick on the grass along the first fairway. A drone, its neon green lights glowing, rose up behind Butler Cabin into the predawn twilight and hovered, waiting.
You could fit the entire gathering that came to watch the ceremonial tee shots of Jack Nicklaus and Gary Player into an average college lecture hall, socially distanced. It’s too much to say this was a reverent group — this is a golf tournament, after all, not church — but there was a deep, almost solemn silence over us all.
Once a three-hour rainstorm blew through, groups made their way out onto the course, and then you got a full sense of just how different this year is. Sounds you never hear under normal conditions — individual bird chirps, the zip of drones, player-caddie conversations, sirens on the streets beyond the property — now stand out, stark against the still silence.
There are no patrons gathering to cheer brilliance, which meant Tiger Woods’ three-birdies-in-four-holes run on the second nine went unnoticed on the rest of the course.
There are no grandstands, which meant Bryson DeChambeau could go full Galaxy Brain and drop his second shot on 11 right about where grandstands overlooking the 12th would have been.
There are no gift shops open, which means no patrons hauling around a mortgage payment’s worth of Masters-logo merch for the folks back home. There are no lines for concession stands, which means no patrons gathering toddler-high stacks of Masters-logo plastic cups.
The absence extends outside the gates. Out on Washington Road, there are no country-club-looking bros in quarter-zips trying to sell badges as you exit off I-20. At the nearby Hooters, there’s no John Daly hawking John Daly merch outside his RV. There are no wait lists at steakhouses, no clogged-artery traffic jams entering the course.
But there are also no families here. No parents bringing their children, the way their parents once brought them. No groups of golf-trip friends, gathering with cigars, good cheer and green plastic cups of DOMESTIC or IMPORT BEER. No surprise wedding proposals. No older couples together for one more walk along the most famous fairways in golf. No wide-eyed stares as first-timers finally lay eyes on Amen Corner, or the spot on 16 where Tiger chipped in back in 2005, or the clearing down in the woods beside 10 where Bubba Watson lofted his Masters-winning shot in 2012, or the clubhouse, or the ancient oak, or everything else about this bucket-list destination.
The fact that this Masters even exists at all is a testament to everyone involved in this endeavor — Augusta National, the players, the broadcasters. A patron-less Masters is still a Masters. Come Sunday, someone will earn a green jacket, and it’ll fit just as well in Butler Cabin as it would out on the putting green with thousands of patrons looking on. Soon enough, Augusta will return to its vibrant, humming self one day, whether in 2021 or 2022. The patrons will return, and with them the soul of this place.
But it’ll be tough to put aside memories of 2020, of what it’s like without the joy and bliss that you see on the faces of everyone fortunate enough to land a badge.
Walking Augusta now is like walking through your home right before you move out. Or — in a more 2020 mode — it’s like walking through your hometown back during the early days of the pandemic, when the silence was tangible. Something essential is missing.
It’s quiet. It’s peaceful. It’s beautiful. But it’s not quite right.
Jay Busbee is a writer for Yahoo Sports. Follow him on Twitter at @jaybusbee or contact him with tips and story ideas at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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