AUGUSTA, Ga. – They were still serving breakfast in the clubhouse and the morning fog remained lowly clung to Augusta National’s rolling hills when Dustin Johnson began his methodical march to victory at what felt like, on nearly every level, a bizarro-world Masters.
The early start.
The spongy golf course.
The hint of fall in the trees.
This was unquestionably a tradition unlike any other.
But the most glaring variation on the established theme was the relative silence as Johnson began his quest. The media outnumbered the masses on the first tee, and one of the fortunate few who could follow along quietly acknowledged a chance to enjoy a “private Masters.” Augusta National without fans is still Augusta National, but there was no denying that something was lost in the silence.
Golf, like every other sport, has come to terms with life without fans as the pandemic has transformed most sports into TV-only products. But the Masters without those masses? Well, that’s different.
It was immediately obvious on Sunday as Cameron Smith cut Johnson’s lead to two strokes with early birdies and the front-runner, a group back, having no way of knowing. Instead of the traditional cheers and roars, only the sound of wind rustling leaves and the occasional applause from a volunteer was heard around the property.
“It's becoming, I guess, the norm, but it's still very odd at this place to see it. You kind of miss the roars,” Brooks Koepka said. “That's the one thing I miss the most is just kind of the excitement, the buzz that goes around. Even when you're just kind of walking around on Tuesday, you can almost feel it in the air at this place, and I kind of miss it.”
Where there should have been cheers, there was only background noise: A firetruck racing down Washington Road, a golf cart shuttling volunteers, a drone buzzing just out of sight near the putting green.
“Down 1 today you could hear the drone over there,” Tiger Woods said. “You don't hear drones here.”
When Smith roped a 9-iron around the pine trees to 4 feet at the ninth there were no echoes. When Woods made a septuple-bogey 10 on the 12th hole, a deafening hush was eerily absent. And when Johnson birdied three straight starting at the 13th hole to put the tournament away, the smattering of applause just didn’t fit the moment.
Amen Corner on Sunday with a green jacket on the line; some would consider this church at golf’s cathedral. This year it actually sounded like church. The soundtrack to this Masters was disorienting, with players becoming acutely aware of how the patrons provide an essential framework beyond the applause and cheers. Without the “white noise” of the gallery, the normal isolation of a Masters round felt, in a strange way, exposed.
“Yesterday afternoon there was something going on kind of through the trees on a different property, a bunch of people screaming and cheering. I don't know what they were cheering for or what was going on. But stuff like that, you don't really hear whenever you have all the fans because you have the white noise,” Patrick Reed said. “You don't hear other players usually on other holes because there's fans between us and the other holes; it kind of bounces off. Now you can hear everybody.”
There’s a reason why this was the first Masters played in November. A pimento cheese sandwich just doesn’t go with a pumpkin spice latte, and something was slightly off about Augusta National, too. The fairways didn’t have the familiar bounce and the greens were fast but soft, players explained. It had something to do with different grasses and growing seasons, but the entire effect was strangely disorienting.
“It felt wrong in terms of kind of like the ball plugging or a putt being really slow or something not being very fast,” Xander Schauffele said. “I was talking to Henrik [Stenson], I'm sure it was harder for him to deal with. He's been out here more than I have. I'm not scarred by what Augusta is normally like.”
There was nothing normal about this pandemic Masters, and the common theme among players was one of gratitude. If patrons are allowed back on Augusta National next April, there will be a greater appreciation for what the galleries mean to the tournament.
“The atmosphere, the crowds, the patrons, the feelings that you normally have here that you didn't quite have. More than any other week of the year I feel like you're nervous a little more often, and it didn't quite have that,” Rory McIlroy said. “I’m not saying it's a bad thing; I loved the feeling of being relaxed out there and it's something I probably need to try to adopt going into five months' time.”
In five months, golf’s best will return to Augusta National, with or without patrons, because the competition is still the centerpiece of the Masters. But if it means again competing in relative silence, even in April, it still won’t feel right.