For fall Masters, change comes to a tradition like no other

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With no spectators in attendance, members of media and officials watch as Tiger Woods tees off on the third hole during a practice round for the Masters golf tournament Wednesday, Nov. 11, 2020, in Augusta, Ga. (AP Photo/Matt Slocum)

AUGUSTA, Ga. – The pimiento cheese sandwiches are still here, and so is the Hogan Bridge over Rae’s Creek. So much else has changed at Augusta National this week, when the first fall Masters will be held without many of the traditions that make it a tradition unlike any other.

The azaleas have long since bloomed, the galleries will be sparse and even the green jacket presentation ceremony in Butler Cabin will look a little different for the pandemic-delayed tournament that tees off on Thursday — seven months after originally scheduled. The biggest change: With the course closed to the public, the roar of the crowds will be silenced and many of the fan-pleasing entertainment will be skipped.

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“We all miss the energy of the crowds. And yes, this year is going to be very different,” defending champion Tiger Woods said. “It’s one that none of us have ever experienced. So we’re all going to go through it together at the same time. It’s going to be a very different experience, and hopefully one that I can figure it out and be able to replicate what I did last year."

With COVID-19 still raging in Georgia and spiking across much of the country, tournament organizers canceled the Par 3 Contest, usually held on the Wednesday of tournament week and a draw for the practice round galleries.

Another tradition diminished without fans: golfers trying to skip their shots across the surface of the pond in front of the 16th green. Some players gave it a go — Jon Rahm notched a hole-in-one — but many more didn't see the point without fans egging them on.

“I don’t think it will quite have the same effect if (caddie Mick Donaghy) is asking me to do it," Tyrrell Hatton said. “I think we’ll leave that one for next April, hoping that, obviously, we’ll have fans here again.”

The Masters Club Dinner hosted by the defending champion went on, but it was moved from the second-floor library to the Trophy Room downstairs to allow for more spacing.

Club Chairman Fred Ridley, who traditionally slips the green jacket over the winner's shoulders on Sunday, said the presentation in Butler Cabin will go on, but with a little more social distancing than usual. The ceremony on the putting green — which is mainly for the fans at the course — won’t happen.

“We do think Butler Cabin is something that is really, not only part of the history, but emblematic of what the Masters is all about, giving the champion the green jacket,” Ridley said. “So we will be in Butler Cabin. Viewers may be seeing part of that room that they haven’t seen before because we are going to be more spread out, but we will have the same people in the cabin with the same basic ceremony. I think we can do it appropriately."

The ceremonial first shots by Jack Nicklaus and Gary Player will go off as usual on Thursday morning. But missing will be the throngs who rush — but not run — toward the first tee when the gates open, and line the fairway hoping to catch a glimpse of the former champions. (Also absent: the chairs and other belongings they leave in place throughout the day to hold their spots; at genteel Augusta National, no one would consider taking them.)

The change from spring to fall will also provide a different palette than the one that has been the backdrop for so many memorable shots over the years.

Out are the pink and peachy blooms of the azaleas and dogwoods; in are the autumnal gold, red and brown in the deciduous trees shedding their leaves. Bermuda grass that is usually dormant through April is mixed in among the emerald green rye, a surface players don't see at Augusta.

The stately Magnolias lining the main driveway have retained their full canopy, and the United States-shaped flower bed that mimics the Masters logo is in bright yellow bloom. But the crowd that usually lines up to take selfies in front of the iconic clubhouse is absent; behind the building, the grand live oak that typically serves as a gathering place is surrounded by fences and is off-limits.

With rain in the forecast, the lack of daylight could also come into play. Sunset on Sunday is at 5:24 p.m. — more than 2 1/2 hours earlier than it would have been on April 14.

Ridley said the tournament had already decided to abandon the rule that allows anyone within 10 strokes of the lead to make the cut. But with the shorter days, that has the added benefit of keeping the field predictable and manageable.

“It could come in handy as it relates to darkness,” he said.

The fall date also messed with the Masters' spot on the sports schedule.

Instead of the year’s first major, it will be the last, following the pandemic-delayed PGA Championship and U.S. Open. (The British Open was canceled.) So instead of slotting among the NCAA’s March Madness and Major League Baseball's opening week, this year’s tournament comes in the middle of the NFL and college football seasons.

Justin Thomas said he usually rents two houses — one for himself and one for an extended entourage that would come over for dinner or to watch the hockey playoffs but otherwise give him space to maintain his routine.

This year: No entourage (players are only allowed to bring a significant other, coach and trainer). No second house. No hockey on TV.

“In April there was quite a bit of sports on," he said. “It just kind of took my mind off of the big picture and the big moment of what was going on.

“I’ll miss that, but nothing is going to stop me from still watching sports,” he said. “I just won’t be doing it with them.”

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