AUGUSTA, Ga. — Thursday evening, as the sun was dipping behind a smattering of clouds and bathing Augusta National in a glorious twilight glow, Amy Mickelson stopped dead in her tracks on the hill behind the 9th green. “Can we just take a moment to admire this?” she said, mostly to herself. “I’m kind of having a moment here.”
Even if you’ve been coming to Augusta for three decades, as Amy has to cheer for her hubby Phil, there was something extraordinary about the opening day of this Masters unlike any other. A thunderstorm early Thursday morning pushed back tee times nearly three hours, forcing many competitors to play until dark, which accounted for the unusually evocative light late in the round, of which former Augusta Chronicle scribe Scott Michaux said, “The last 45 minutes of play was perhaps the most idyllic I’ve ever seen at Augusta.”
But the rest of the day had an unreal quality, too. It was so quiet you could literally hear an acorn drop. With no gallery ropes — and no gallery — the lucky few folks on the grounds could eavesdrop on every green and tee box. It felt voyeuristic. On the par-5 2nd hole, Abe Ancer went for the green after a perfect drive but wound up making a messy bogey out of the front-right bunker. On the next tee box his caddie, Dale Vallely, offered a fact-based pep talk: “It was the right risk-reward choice. That was a good spot to be in two, but it was unlucky that ball [on the third shot] took a big hop forward…”
On the 3rd tee, Mickelson (Phil, not Amy) uncorked a massive block-slice and as his ball sailed toward parts unknown, he broke the awkward silence by muttering softly what everyone was thinking: “Wow.”
In a normal year the ambient noise of the gallery would have overwhelmed these little moments. But because of coronavirus concerns only a few hundred lucky folks were on the grounds on Thursday: reporters, WAGs, swing coaches, equipment reps, a smattering of Augusta National members (including Peyton Manning, who tried to blend in by not wearing his green jacket.) If you were talking at a normal volume behind a green Ian Poulter might give a hard look in your direction, because voices carry in this cathedral in the pines.
Cameramen and marshals were repeatedly (but gently) shooed out of sightlines by the players or, more often, caddies; in a teeming crowd they would have blended in, but against an empty landscape a lone human can be distracting. Augusta native Charles Howell expressed a particular appreciation for the clean, uncluttered look of the course, which also translated gloriously to the telecast. “Listen, this is Augusta National — there are no bad days out here, and without the grandstands, without all that, people can see and appreciate it,” Howell said. “There’s different angles and different layouts and different ways you can play a hole now. Yeah, there are no bad days here.”
First-round leader Paul Casey credited the purity of Augusta National with rekindling something deep within. “I was vocal earlier in the year at Harding Park about not enjoying golf in a pandemic,” Casey said following his 65. “I didn’t know how the fanless experience would be. And so far, I’ve not enjoyed it, and I’ve felt the lack of energy for me. The Masters, though, it still has a buzz to it. There’s an energy and a little bit of a vibe. Yes, it’s clearly a lot less than what we are used to, but there’s something about this place that is still there. I felt excited to be here.”
That was key feeling on this day: excitement. We waited 19 months for this day and somehow Augusta National exceeded expectations.