It’s the sound that truly defines Augusta.
An ambient hum that is constantly radiating in the background, magnifying the energy and intensity of the place and the moment. A cacophony of chatter, laughs and cheers that ripple from one corner of course to another.
For those four days in April each year, there’s a buzz that permeates Augusta National Golf Club. It’s a sound — a “something” — that is hard to describe unless you’ve set foot on the historic course. It ebbs and flows, rising up to deliver celebratory roars that shake the earth before settling back down into that steady, dependable hum.
In 2020, however, the grounds fell quiet.
No laughter among patrons shuffling through the concession stands. No greeters welcoming you to The Masters upon entry. No groans over missed putts that just slide by the hole. No roars reverberating throughout the course to signal a player making a charge.
Instead, there was just silence.
For all its prestige and majesty, the Augusta National was not immune to the COVID-19 pandemic that shuttered venues and limited attendance for sporting events throughout the year. For the first time ever, The Masters was held without patrons, shifting from its traditional slot in April to a date in November, replacing the pink and white hues of azaleas with the orange and yellow leaves of dogwoods and maple trees signaling the coming of cooler temperatures.
And golf’s greatest cathedral fell silent.
“It was missing that element that makes Augusta so unique, which is the noise,” said Scott Michaux, a longtime columnist and writer for the Augusta Chronicle who now contributes to Global Golf Post and the Irish Examiner. “Augusta needs the soundtrack to feel like The Masters. It looked like it, but it didn’t feel like it. There wasn’t that energy out there that, to me, is the best part of Augusta.”
With the exception of the club’s membership, tournament staff, player families and a limited number of media, there was no one there to watch Dustin Johnson break the tournament’s scoring record en route to his first green jacket. While other sports, like the NBA, were able to replicate the crowd noise and incorporate fans watching on Zoom, golf tournaments remained quiet from the first tee shot to the final putt dropping in the hole.
For a tournament so well associated with a crescendo of cheers, it was an odd experience. Stellar shots were greeted with, well, nothing. Made putts received appreciative head nods, but no claps. Approach shots that found the waters of Rae’s Creek registered a splash, but that was it.
And, for that few folks in attendance, it made simple things like enjoying a snack a perilous adventure.
“Jon Rahm made a reference to hearing someone open their potato chip bag, and it was actually me opening a brownie wrapper,” Michaux said with a laugh. “Everybody was turning to look at me like a cell phone had gone off in my hand, and I’m like what am I supposed to do?
“It was that quiet out there, and every little sound was amplified.”
What the tournament lacked in sound, it made up for in beauty.
With no patrons and no grandstands, viewers at home and the handful of attendees in person were greeted to a collection of sights and vantage points that had never been seen before.
Ryan Lavner, a writer for Golf Channel, already had covered several PGA TOUR events under the COVID-19 protocals prior to The Masters, so while he acknowledged the quietness of the place was jarring, it wasn’t unexpected. However, it was the visual experience of that particular week in November that left him speechless.
“Selfishly, though, it was a treat to see Augusta National stripped down to its core,” Lavner said. “With no patrons on-site, you can fully appreciate the beauty and brilliance of the design. The viewing experience was incredible — it’s the only week all year that we aren’t allowed inside the ropes, but for the first time I was able to see every shot and get as close as possible to the action. It felt voyeuristic.”
While many media often remain in the press center so they can better follow the action through camera feeds, particularly when the leaders are coming through toward the end of the day, many of them said they were able to get out and watch play in person.
For instance, the infamous Amen Corner, typically packed with patrons vying for the best angle to watch tee shots into the 12th hole, was wide open offering unfettered views and access.
“It was surreal,” Michaux said. “It was unbelievable to be able to walk to the back of the 12th tee and have your toes right up to the back of the tee box and watch those guys hit off there. Or stand directly behind the Sarazen Bridge and see balls flying into the green. It was amazing.”
The shift to November did present some new opportunities for The Masters, including unique on-course camera angles, the use of drones to capture distinct vantage points and, for one time only, hosting ESPN’s popular College Gameday show at its par three course.
“I thought it was a brilliant marketing move, and I thought it was a great thing for Augusta National to be willing to do for one of their partners,” Michaux said. “ESPN is a broadcast partner, and all of these networks were hurting last year for stuff. The Par Three Contest was taken away, so (Augusta National) gave them something else. There was a lot of compromise going on between the club, ESPN and CBS, allowing them to do new things they may never be able to do again, like hosting College Gameday.”
This year, The Masters is back in its rightful place during the first full week of April. In Augusta, it feels more like tournament week with a limited amount of patrons being allowed to attend. Already, videos of players skipping shots across the pond at the 16th hole reveal cheers in the background, albeit smaller ones than in years past. Still, it’s a step back toward normality for the tournament, the game and its fans.
And last year’s quiet pause will fade into the background, becoming a memory for those who were fortunate enough to experience it.
“I told my wife afterward that if, for some reason, I never got to cover another Masters, I’d be content,” Lavner said. “I saw Augusta National like never before. That’s why I bought even more merchandise than usual and saved my press credential, displaying it proudly in my office — I wanted to remember that I was one of the lucky ones there for the ‘Silent Masters.’”