Augusta National sits quiet. Life bustles by the esteemed club, which is closed for the summer and typically is not on the mind of the golf world.
In a normal year, the Masters Tournament would be three months in the past, the major championship season complete. The club’s reopening to its membership is still three months in the future.
Behind the gates and inside the club’s various offices, there would be plenty of activity. Running the Masters and Augusta National is a year-round entity, big business. It never stops.
Times are completely different, of course. For the first time since 1945, a Masters was not played in April. Back then, it was due to World War II. Now it’s because of the coronavirus pandemic.
That caused the Masters to first postpone and then reschedule the event for November.
The announcement came on April 6, on what would have been Monday of the 2020 Masters week. The new tournament dates were set for Nov. 12-15.
“We want to emphasize that our future plans are incumbent upon favorable counsel and direction from health officials,” said Fred Ridley, Augusta National and Masters chairman. “Provided that occurs and we can conduct the 2020 Masters, we intend to invite those professionals and amateurs who would have qualified for the original April date and welcome all existing ticket holders to enjoy the excitement of Masters week.”
The club has offered no updates in the intervening three months, and the clock is ticking on a fall Masters.
What’s going on?
Well, it’s impossible to say with certainty. Nobody in any official capacity is speaking at Augusta National, and there have been no hit-you-over-the-head clues.
A cursory check of several hotels in Augusta, Georgia, shows that they are packed for that week, meaning that the original reservations transferred from the April date appear to remain intact.
In May, the club went ahead with its lottery for 2021 badges that include the Augusta National Women’s Amateur, the three practice-round days and the tournament — although badges to the four rounds are extremely limited. And it has already notified those who have obtained the Women’s Amateur badges, with the lottery for the remainder of the tournament still to be conducted.
There is no indication that Augusta National has reached out to its patrons to offer refunds for 2020 badges or postpone 2020 practice-round tickets to 2021.
That suggests that everything remains open to possibility, from a tournament with a full array of spectators (seemingly more unlikely now) to limited fans to none at all or even cancellation — although the latter would seem extreme, given the relatively successful return to golf through six weeks on the PGA Tour. Not to mention, the PGA Championship is going ahead without spectators, and the U.S. Open is still hoping to have a very limited number of spectators.
Still, when the announcement was made, Augusta National bought itself the most time. The club was clearly banking on seven months being enough of a cushion to curb the pandemic and allow for some sort of return to normalcy.
But for most of the country, we are back where we started, with rising COVID-19 numbers across the country and in Georgia, delays in testing results and no easy access to fast-result tests that a place like Augusta National could procure, if enough were available.
Inside those gates — more likely, in Zoom conference calls among the various leadership — there must be a good bit of seething going on as it relates to the lack of progress, leaving the club far less time to sort out the various scenarios.
No spectators is the simple route, but the club still does have four months to figure out a way to have fans on site, clearly an important facet of any Masters. And this would require the number of cases in Georgia to drop significantly by November.
It will be complicated, and a lot has to happen to make it work, but Augusta National has the financial resources as well as a strong team behind the scenes that you know is working through numerous plans and looking to seamlessly pull them off.
There is a way forward, and here is how it could work.
Patron-free practice rounds
This would be incredibly unfortunate, but it’s a nearly impossible situation to manage in the current climate. An estimated 50,000 fans descend on the grounds during the Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday practice rounds. Many of them are there for the first time. And from day to day, it’s almost universally a different set of people.
The prudent thing for Augusta National to do is defer their tickets to 2021, offer refunds to those who can’t make it then and halt the current lottery. That is a huge financial hit to the club, but it has done it several times over the years when a practice-round day is rained out.
Losing three days — and all of the merchandise and concession revenue — is obviously a huge blow. But how do you pare 50,000 people down to, say, even 10,000? It is easier to have them come back in April and concentrate on the tournament rounds, which will be enough of a challenge.
Limited patrons at tournament rounds
Other than a few random daily tickets, Augusta National sells badges that are good for four days. Attendance is anecdotally less during tournament rounds than practice rounds, but it’s still an abundance of people and seemingly far more than can attend a sporting event given the current situation.
So how do you whittle down an estimated 30,000 or so a day to, say, 10,000 spectators a day?
Limit the days they can attend
Augusta National might be the only place that can do something like this. But it could reach out to its patrons and offer them a choice: You can attend Thursday-Friday or Saturday-Sunday, but not all four days. Set a deadline, and those who don’t respond are assigned whichever has more room. Explain that the price of $375 per badge is still a bargain for two days, that these are unprecedented times and that this is the way forward.
If that is unsatisfactory, they can request a refund for their badge.
Some, especially international travelers, are likely to take them up on the refund offer. Others who don’t want to risk going to the Masters in this environment might also seek a refund. And now Augusta National would have a better handle on the number of people who come in each day.
This is not to say this system is perfect. What about the hotel rooms that these people have booked for the week? Do the hotels offer refunds (they should for fear of incredible negative reaction). And what about the secondary ticket market? Patrons had already received their badges for the April tournament. Many of them were sold (against club policy) to second and third parties. That is not Augusta National’s problem, but it is a potential issue.
This will require a big change in the national testing situation. Back in April, it seemed reasonable that the country would have a handle on widespread testing, including rapid-response tests for situations that require an immediate result or one within a small time frame. It is happening with the various sports leagues, but can it be done to the level Augusta National would need?
Let’s say it can be done: If it’s 10,000 a day and you want to test every day, that’s 40,000 tests. The club would undoubtedly test everyone who is going to be on site — members, officials, players, caddies, media, workers, volunteers, etc. Let’s round the number to 50,000 tests. Can that many be acquired? You’re looking at $5 million to buy that many tests, which a club that routinely makes 10-digit land purchases can easily absorb. It’s more about the logistics.
How would testing work?
Perhaps not every person would need to be tested every day. With the above-mentioned plan, you’d have roughly the same people attending on Thursday-Friday. That brings that total testing number down, a cost and hassle savings. Again, Augusta National has the resources and the acumen to pull this off: It could set up testing sites starting on Wednesday for those planning to come the first two days. If a ticket is to be shared for the second day, that person would also need to be tested. Anyone who can’t make Wednesday would be tested Thursday morning, but with the knowledge that it might delay getting onto the grounds.
Entry to the course for the first two rounds would require a negative test; a positive test means no entry.
Then you do the same thing for the weekend rounds. Require those badge holders to be tested on Friday and Saturday morning, needing a negative test for entry.
There would be one other caveat: There could be no in and out with badges. One person, one badge per day.
This would be a monumental undertaking. But Augusta National has an abundance of land across the street from the new Berckmans Road, the spectator entrance to parking. And with fewer in attendance, the need for all the parking normally in use is mitigated. You could envision Augusta National setting up a testing location and system that is more efficient than the ones we see now.
COVID-19 tests, as we are learning, are not foolproof. But they do give you a level of confidence to proceed.
Social distancing, Augusta style
What happens once inside the gates? Can 10,000 to 12,000 people a day safely traverse the wonderfully undulating grounds?
It would seem the practice of planting chairs around various greens would have to be curtailed, but it would be done on a first-come, first-served basis, with volunteers and officials assuring proper distancing for those not in the same family.
Grandstands are in operation at several locations, most notably at the fourth hole, Amen Corner, to the side of the 14th tee — which offers a view of the 13th green as well — and to the left of the 15th green. Social distancing protocols could be put in place at all of them, including the grandstand located behind the driving range.
It’s also possible that they simply go without bleachers and seating and just ask people to roam around and keep their distance, using a mask when in close contact with others.
Keep in mind, Augusta National might be the one place on earth where people do what they are told — and are shown the door if they do not comply.
This gets tricky. Thousands of people crowd into these venues to buy Masters shirts, hats and memorabilia, as well as food, while on site. The latter is easier with lines that can accommodate distancing. The former will take some planning.
One easy way to handle merchandise: Give those who enter a one-time ability to purchase it on online with a code that works once, during a certain time frame that ends a week after the Masters. A small, tidy window. The Masters might actually sell more merchandise this way and might have to even limit the amount you can buy.
And it would allow officials to use the merchandise venues for other purposes, perhaps to offer more food options.
This serves another purpose, as it cuts down on the number of personnel on site who would be needed to work the various merchandise pavilions.
Another way: Assign patrons a certain window when they can visit. Limit them to one trip and monitor the number of people in the buildings at any one time. That too can work, although it’s more complicated than simply selling the stuff online.
It will be November, with cooler temperatures. The idea of wearing a mask outdoors is far easier to envision in that environment than it is in the summer. And if you think the Masters will have a hard time enforcing such an edict, ask anyone who has ever tried to use a cellphone on the grounds how that worked out.
A Masters without spectators would be a huge disappointment. Ultimately, if it comes to that, it would seem Augusta National still wants a 2020 Masters. There are still enormous worldwide television rights fees to collect. A November Masters without spectators would still be compelling to a worldwide television audience. And if the PGA Championship can be played without fans, so can the Masters. Then you hope for the best in April.
But don’t try to argue that it doesn’t matter. The atmosphere at Augusta National helps make the tournament. Just imagine Tiger Woods winning last year … in virtual silence.