Sunday, June 20

84th Masters Tournament kicks off in 2020 fashion

The 84th Masters Tournament already had taken on a subdued feel Monday morning because of COVID-19 restrictions when the pandemic impacted the tournament again. Some players hadn’t even started their practice rounds when the latest news hit.

The 2020 Masters, which is being played seven months later than normal and without patrons or the bright colors of spring because of coronavirus, lost another player from the field – a former champion – due to a positive COVID-19 test.

Sergio Garcia, the 2017 winner, is the second player to be forced to withdraw because of a positive test. Joaquin Niemann withdrew last week.

Photos: Monday Practice Round

The news about Garcia came about an hour and a half before club chairman Fred Ridley delivered some uplifting news. In a noon news conference, Ridley announced plans to honor Lee Elder and lend a helping hand to Augusta’s Paine College – a Historically Black College and University – in Elder’s name.

Elder, now 86 and the first Black to play in the Masters Tournament 45 years ago, will be an honorary starter with Jack Nicklaus and Gary Player to kick off the 2021 Masters in five months. The hope is that the country has the virus under control enough by then to have patrons witness Elder’s honor.

“As it relates to considering Lee’s participation this year, I guess I would just say that we thought this would be a much more appropriate and a much greater celebration if we did this in April of next year, when we hope — and I emphasize the word hope — that we will have many patrons viewing us along with our viewers around the world,” Ridley said. “We thought it was the right thing for Lee to have that moment in time that we hope will last forever.”

Ridley said Elder would not permanently join Nicklaus and Player as an honorary starter.

Elder said Ridley broke the news to him on a phone call about 10 days ago, and he keep it under wraps until Ridley made the announcement.

“It was such wonderful news,” Elder said. “My wife and I had just finished breakfast and we were sitting talking and the phone rang. When I got off the phone there were a few tears being shed. It was something I’ll never forget: to have the chairman himself call and tell you this was more gratifying. It’s something I’ll cherish for a lifetime.”

Ridley also announced Augusta National’s creation of the Lee Elder Scholarships at Paine. Two scholarships will be awarded annually, one each to a student athlete who competes on the men’s and women’s golf team. Augusta National also will fund the creation of a women’s golf program at Paine.

Photos: Lee Elder at the Masters

“I think like all organizations, we’ve been moved by the events of 2020,” Ridley said. “There’s been a lot said about racial justice and opportunity, and our question was not so much what can we say but what can we do.

“So I guess I would say that this announcement is in part a call to action in that regard,” he added. “Lee has had a long relationship, we have had a long relationship with Lee. Certainly dating back to 1975 but he’s been our guest here almost every year at the Masters.”

As for Garcia, his active streak of playing in 84 major championships in a row has come to an end. Adam Scott, the 2013 champ, will take over that lead Thursday when he tees it up for the 77th consecutive time in a major.

On his Twitter feed, Garcia said “After 21 years of not missing a major championship, I will sadly miss the Masters this week. The important thing is that my family and I are feeling good. We’ll come back stronger and give the green jacket a go next April.”

Scott, Tony Finau and Dustin Johnson tested positive for COVID-19 in the months leading into the Masters, but were cleared in time for what is the final major championship of the calendar year.

“So it is terrible timing (for Garcia), and this is the silver lining for myself, and I was talking about it with Dustin, is we got it at a time where it meant we weren’t going to miss the Masters,” Scott said. “But it seems like almost one guy a week, or maybe just a bit more, test positive, and there’s going to be a couple here.”

On Monday, players made their way around a course that lacked the buzz of galleries excited to see their favorite stars on the first day of practice rounds. Instead, defending champion Tiger Woods and his playing partners worked on their games like they would at their local clubs, not the most prestigious major championship in the world.

Photos: Tiger’s First Practice

Woods didn’t share his thoughts on how the course played after his practice round with pre-tournament favorite Bryson DeChambeau, Justin Thomas and 1992 Masters champion Fred Couples, but others did.

“I think it was already most likely going to be a softer test than April, and I think with the scheduled forecast, it will definitely be softer,” said Patrick Cantlay. “That will be the biggest difference. The grass might be just a little higher and the course may play just a little slower than normal. I think a lot of that is also just weather dependent, and the fact that it’s November this year, it may be more of a talked about thing, as opposed to if it was just a rainy week in April.”

Nature’s colors were seen around the course, but not the normal ones from azaleas and dogwoods that bloom in April. Instead, some shades of fall were starting to show on some of the trees.

Photos: Bryson DeChambeau’s Monday Practice

It was strange sight to see Monday practice rounds without patrons. From the top of the hill by the big oak tree fronting the clubhouse, players could be seen moving around the course, as far away as the second green, which would normally be blocked by fans.

“And so that atmosphere will be lacking this year, simply because of not having the fans,” Cantlay said. “I think the fans here are some of the most educated fans, and some of the most respectful fans, and so they really add to the tournament in a way that every week they don’t. It’s hard to explain.”

Scott said the gallery helped carry him to his sudden-death victory over Angel Cabrera in 2013. He said the gallery was so loud walking down the 10th fairway – the first playoff hole, where he won with a birdie – that he had to raise his voice to make himself heard to caddie Steve Williams.

“When it’s going your way and the crowd is on your back, learning to use that as a positive thing to keep going is fantastic,” Scott said.

The manual scoreboards were in their normal spots, but there were no grandstands. Instead of the course being roped off, green dashed lines are painted on the ground for the few volunteers and media. Crosswalks are still in place, however, and are manned by volunteers.

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