By Andrew Both
(Reuters) – If the Masters is a tradition unlike any other, a unique autumn showcase of golf’s most eagerly anticipated annual gathering will likely linger in the memory long after the Green Jacket donned by Tiger Woods last year is draped over the winner.
Played in late March or early April since its inception in 1934, the Masters was postponed this year until Nov. 12-15 after American sport shut down in March amid a widespread national novel coronavirus outbreak.
With no spectators on site for the first time, an eerie silence is expected with just a faint breeze whispering through the pines in place of the gallery roars that customarily reverberate across the entire course.
Usually there are eagle roars, hole-in-one roars, Tiger roars, a proverbial bush telegraph, all slightly different to the attuned ears of veteran fans and players alike.
“As a player, (I) always knew where the roars were coming from, and you could sort of sense who they were for,” said ESPN analyst Curtis Strange, twice U.S. Open champion.
Also likely gone will be the pink azaleas, usually bursting with colour in the bright spring sunshine.
Similarly missing in the absence of fans will be exorbitant prices for one-star motels and the daily traffic jams on the Washington Road that runs adjacent to the course’s front gate.
Due to limited daylight hours, a two-tee start will be used to get the 94-man field completed in timely fashion before the sun dips below the leafy horizon shortly after 5 p.m.
But for all the unique aspects of this year’s Masters, it will be pretty much business as usual for the players once the first ball is struck.
Inside the ropes, questions abound.
Can Bryson DeChambeau continue the sizzling form he used to muscle his way to a six-stroke U.S. Open victory in September, and will he revolutionise the way Augusta is played by routinely pounding his drives more than 320 yards?
“I want to see if this tsunami that is Bryson DeChambeau will completely alter the landscape of golf,” said NBC Golf analyst Brandel Chamblee in a conference call.
Other pertinent questions include whether Rory McIlroy can finally add a Green Jacket to his wardrobe and complete the career Grand Slam of all four majors?
And can Woods somehow find the old magic that he conjured up 19 long months ago to claim his 16th major title?
Woods has not recorded a top-30 finish since January and recent form gives little reason for optimism, though he will be discounted at one’s peril.
His old friend and former professional Notah Begay observed Woods at the recent ZOZO Championship and was not exactly impressed.
“There were definite signs of rust, definite signs of inconsistency, definite signs of just not knowing how certain shots were going to come out of the barrel,” Begay, now an NBC Golf analyst, said in a conference call.
“He was posing on a couple of approach shots that he hit, and one would come up six yards short, the other would come up six yards too far, which tells me he’s not calibrated yet.
“So is he going to be able to get calibrated in time to (successfully) defend his Masters championship?”
Double U.S. Open champion Andy North, an ESPN analyst, added: “I just don’t think he’s got enough, as he says, reps, under his wings to play at a level to beat these guys who have been playing a lot of golf.”
(Reporting by Andrew Both in Cary, North Carolina; Editing by Ken Ferris)