It’s not hard to understand what Monday was like in a town without the Masters practice rounds commencing as originally scheduled. All anyone has to do to create experience is leave their own shelter and look around wherever they live. Not much is happening anywhere. As the sign outside TBonz restaurant on Washington Road said, “We are in this together.”
But the first week of April in 75 years without a Masters cuts deep in this corner of the world – economically and psychologically. It is another treasured and valuable piece of life sacrificed to a global pandemic.
“I think it’s disappointing for Augusta,” said Al Russo, a retired Richmond County educator who should have spent this week volunteering again on the tournament’s rubbish control crew. “That’s our bragging rights, our showpiece, our identity. I miss it because it’s been a force of habit. It’s the first week in April in more than 20 years I haven’t been waking up at 5 o’clock and running over there.”
Amid the stark reality of the disrupted routines and traditions, it was welcome relief that Augusta National Golf Club chairman Fred Ridley, along with the rest of golf’s governing establishment, chose this week to issue tentative plans for rebooting golf later this year, including a proposed November 12-15 window to play the 2020 Masters.
“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 in a prepared statement, noting that future plans are “incumbent upon favourable counsel and direction from health officials”.
A Masters still taking place this year certainly offers a lot of hope for the region – if not exactly normalcy. But it doesn’t diminish the anxiety of the present.
This Masters week falls smack dab in the heart of what President Donald Trump called “a helluva bad two weeks” for the United States, with thousands of Americans suffering a range of calamity from lost jobs and businesses to illness and death due to the coronavirus crisis. A golf tournament seems trivial in all of that, but in Augusta losing the Masters is an integral part of the misery index.
“You keep reading in the paper and hearing the scare charts that this is the week (for an acceleration of coronavirus cases),” Sam Arazie, a retired Augusta primary school teacher, said on Monday. “I hope we get through it.”
It’s a difficult place for Augusta National to be in. The club is all about control. It controls its membership. It controls its perimeter. It controls its image. It controls its message. It controls the moisture in its greens. It controls mobile phones and anyone who dares bring one on its property.
About the only thing Augusta National hasn’t been able to control through the years is the weather, as rain has fallen on 44 of 83 Masters weeks and impacted rounds being delayed or postponed in 22 of them, including in 2019. Except when it was cancelled three years during World War II, the’ve always managed to finish the tournament anyway.
Global pandemic, however, has proven to be too powerful for even Augusta National’s control. The club is closed, with even its modest “Members Only” sign at the end of Magnolia Lane removed and stored away for safekeeping. The safety of its members, its participants and its patrons comes first.
The sprinklers were running in the front yard of the only house still located in the middle of Augusta National’s patron carpark, which was peaceful and empty on a Monday morning when it should have been bustling and packed with the largest crowds of the week.
Elizabeth Thacker, 85, was tucked safely inside the modest home they built in 1959, spending her first Masters week alone since her husband, Herman, passed away in October before the coronavirus was even a threat to their generation. A reporter from the Atlanta Journal-Constitution caught the grandmother of PGA Tour pro Scott Brown in the front yard later taking a shovel to a blocked sprinkler head.
“Yeah, it’s strange. But what are we going to do about it?” Thacker told him, adding that she intends to still be living there when the patrons hopefully return in November.
Staging a Masters in November will present logistical challenges well beyond hoping that the COVID-19 curve has flattened down to nothing. There’s co-operative football scheduling and overlapping CBS TV broadcast factors to consider. There are likely discussions with the Augusta-Richmond County school system to lobby for a later autumn break to coincide with the new tournament week so the high school kids can provide a large portion of the operations workforce (not to mention families that rent their homes). There is the lining up of volunteers to provide the usual services the Masters is known for.
There are also about two-and-a-half hours of light to work with, and Daylight Saving Time ends on November 1 (sunset in Augusta on November Masters Sunday is 5:25pm, local time). Getting the current field of 96 qualified participants around the course in fewer hours will be a challenge, likely requiring two-tee starts and co-operative weather. Hardwood trees instead of blooming shrubs will provide the contrasting colour as well as fallen leaves littering the famously immaculate course.
Of course, there’s a golf course to prepare to Masters standards. The bentgrass greens should be fast and perfect as usual in the cooler November weather (20.8 degrees Celsius average high compared to 25.2 degrees in April – though in 2019 the high temperatures for the same week in November ranged from 9 on Thursday to 18 on Sunday). The club’s maintenance staff should have no problem getting its overseed of perennial rye up to tournament speed a few weeks after the usual October re-opening of the club. Then they’ll have only four months and 24 days to get it all ready again for the 2021 Masters – 75 fewer days than there are between now and the first tee-time in November.
If any place has the resources and clout to make all that happen, it’s Augusta National. Dreaming about an autumn Masters while sheltering in place through the peak of this pandemic is the emotional lift Augustans need in these surreal and troubled days.
“I can’t wait,” said Arazie, whose job it will be to marshal about 100 local kids for the rubbish control crew. “I look forward to it. These guys will put on a wonderful show – to the max. They’ll get it done and done the correct way.”