Augusta National and players prepare for a Masters like no other

“It’s going to be eerie. It’s going to be different,” Rory McIlroy said. “But at least we’re playing for a green jacket.”

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Rory McIlroy watches his putt on the 13th hole during a practice round for last year’s Masters.

Rory McIlroy watches his putt on the 13th hole during a practice round for last year’s Masters.

Charlie Riedel/AP

Nothing about this Masters will look familiar until the champion slips his arms through a green jacket.

The purple, pink and white blooms of azaleas and dogwoods, which provide such a magnificent accent to Augusta National in spring, give way to the orange and gold hues of autumn. The course might look familiar with its emerald green fairways, blazing white sand in the bunkers, towering Georgia pines and the still water of Rae’s Creek.

It just won’t sound the same, not without thousands upon thousands of spectators framing each hole and sending those piercing roars from all corners of the course.

It won’t be the same.

What makes this Masters unlike any other is the calendar. Golf’s annual rite of spring is now two weeks before Thanksgiving. And without its patrons, the cathedral of golf will never be quieter.

“It’s going to be eerie. It’s going to be different,” Rory McIlroy said. “But at least we’re playing for a green jacket.”

Not even that much was certain when the COVID-19 pandemic began shutting down sports around the world a week before the first day of spring. The Masters was postponed — a relief to those who initially feared cancellation — and then rescheduled for Nov. 12-15, the final major of an unforgettable year.

When the pandemic did not loosen its grip, the club had no choice but to close the door to its patrons. No need for those green “Golf Traffic” signs posted about the city, or people lining the streets of Washington Road looking for tickets.

There won’t be a Par 3 Contest, with players dressing their children in white coveralls. The first-time players might not know any better. For the veterans, it might not be much different from their scouting trips to Augusta National. They will know what they’re missing, the sights and sounds.

“You walk through the gates at Augusta, there’s that energy, that anticipation,” said McIlroy, making his 10th appearance at the only major keeping him from the career Grand Slam. “There’s still a golf course there. There’s still a golf tournament to be won, and you’ve got to make the most of it.

“But they’re playing,” he said. “And that’s the most important part.”

Tiger Woods had to wait 19 months to play another Masters.

He won his fifth green jacket, as significant as any of his 15 majors considering where he had been. His one-shot victory last year capped one of the more remarkable comebacks in sport, which included four back surgeries and a DUI arrest from a bad mix of medicine while trying to cope with pain.

Woods ended the year by winning in Japan for his 82nd career victory, tying the PGA Tour record held by Sam Snead. Excitement was building toward this year, especially the Masters. And then it stopped. Woods, keeping a limited schedule to get the most out of his 44-year-old body, had played only two tournaments when the pandemic stopped sports.

And then he hardly played at all — one time before an ordinary performance at the PGA Championship, two FedEx Cup playoff events before he missed the cut at the U.S. Open, and one tournament in the two months leading to the Masters. Las Vegas set his odds of tying Jack Nicklaus with a sixth green jacket at 35-1.

“The entire year has been different for all of us,” he said. “And my run-up to Augusta is unlike anything I’ve ever experienced. That’s just the way it is.”

But it’s Augusta National, a course he knows as well as any. His optimism hasn’t waned.

“My game is definitely better than it was at the U.S. Open,” Woods said last month. “I feel a little bit more prepared, a little bit better, and hopefully that translates into playing the golf course.”

Even as the defending champion, and golf’s biggest star, Woods is playing second billing at this Masters.

Bryson DeChambeau has been the talk of golf since golf returned. He added some 40 pounds of muscle and mass, all designed to enable him to swing faster and harder and hit drives farther than anyone imagined. It carried him to a six-shot victory in the U.S. Open with a game that defied convention. And that was just the start.

DeChambeau took a month off ahead of the Masters to work on a 48-inch driver — the size used by World Long Drive contestants, his inspiration — with hopes of dismantling Augusta National the way Woods did when he hit pitching wedge into a par 5 on his way to a 12-shot victory in 1997.

“If he can get a 48-inch driver in play, he’ll shoot 20 under or better. It’s going to be a slaughter,” said World Long Drive champion Kyle Berkshire, who provides feedback to DeChambeau. “He might as well be the only one on the course.”

DeChambeau won’t be the only one on the course. It will just feel that way.

Players are allowed to bring one significant other and a coach. Augusta National members can attend. That’s it. And for the Masters, that’s not much at all.

By now, the players should be used to the silence. Spectators were not allowed at the PGA Championship or U.S. Open, and only recently have a very limited number of fans been allowed in Bermuda and Houston.

But nowhere else than Augusta National will the quiet be so difficult to ignore.

“It echoes there. It travels. You can figure out who’s doing what, and the roars for certain people are louder than others,” Woods said. “It’s unlike any other place in the world.”

Still, they’re playing. It’s the Masters. Woods is chasing another green jacket. Five players already have taken their turn at No. 1 this year. It should be quite a show, just like always, right up until the point CBS signs off from Augusta National on Sunday afternoon so it can broadcast an NFL game.

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