The azaleas bloom again in the Georgia springtime, but the Masters tournament normally underway this week won’t be played at Augusta National Golf Club until nearly Thanksgiving at the earliest.
Can it possibly be?
Will spring still come north this year without its annual harbinger, now postponed by the coronavirus pandemic?
The last time the Masters wasn’t played was in 1945, near the end of World War II.
“This is a crazy time,” longtime amateur and PGA Tour Champions player John Harris said. “You know it’s serious if the Masters is postponed. It sure is a rite of passage in Minnesota.”
Invited to play in 1994 because he won the U.S. Amateur the previous summer at age 41, Harris is one of 10 Minnesotans — dating to Howie Johnson in 1970 — who have competed in a “tradition unlike any other.”
He and others such as Sammy Schmitz, Troy Merritt, Chris Perry, Dave Tentis, Gary Jacobson and Joel Goldstrand each played one Masters. Alexandria’s own and 1996 British Open champion Tom Lehman played 13, finishing tied for third in 1993 and second in 1994.
Somewhere in between, Tim Herron played six, the last in 2007.
“The one I finished 11th, that was a good memory,” Herron said of 2005. “Just being there is a good memory.”
Those Masters memories include collectibles he keeps at home in Minnesota: Crystal goblets awarded for eagles made on competition days and closest-to-the-pin shots in Wednesday’s kid-friendly, par-3 contest. The prized possession owned by the guy known as Lumpy is a bright yellow hat with small green print. He bought it for $100 from a formerly reluctant Augusta National litter collector, one of many who kept the grounds so pristine.
“I wanted something unique,” he said. “Not many people have a Masters litter hat.”
The Masters is that tradition unlike any other because of its many traditions, including a pretournament one in which players skip shots across No. 16’s pond and onto the green. Since the first Masters in 1934, it’s been the only major played every year on the same course, tumbling through a former nursery, with each hole named after a tree, shrub or flower.
Past champions are invited to play year after year until they can play no more. In his youth, Herron was paired with Jack Nicklaus for an unforgettable practice round. Another day, Herron played a practice round with 1979 Masters champ Fuzzy Zoeller and two-time major winner John Daly. Zoeller pulled a fan from the gallery at the par-3 12th hole in famed Amen Corner and let him swing for the green.
“I asked Fuzzy if I could do that with one of my buddies,” Herron said. “He said, ‘No, son, you’ve got to win the Masters before you start pulling those shenanigans.’ ”
On Thursday, Kentuckian and world No. 4 Justin Thomas posted on Instagram that he misses the crowds, the roars, club members’ familiar faces and locker-room attendants, the pimento cheese sandwiches, the green grass and beautiful azaleas. And battling it out at one of the world’s prettiest golf courses against the best players on the planet.
“I miss it all,” he wrote.
Tentis played in his only Masters in 1984 as a college golfer, invited because he played in the 1983 Walker Cup. A 1980 White Bear Lake high school graduate, he played for NCAA champion Houston, where he lived across the hall from a kid named Jim Nantz and arrived as Fred Couples left.
He stayed that week in the “Crow’s Nest” reserved for amateurs, atop steep stairs in the clubhouse, overlooking Magnolia Lane. He paid $10 a night for the room, $15 daily for breakfast, lunch and dinner. His final bill: $165.
He arrived the previous Thursday and stood eighth in registration beside Sam Snead 30 years after Snead won his last of three Masters. “That’s one of the few times anyone ever called me ‘Sonny,’ ” Tentis said.
Tentis sneaked into the champions’ locker room one night, pulled the putter from Tom Watson’s bag and made a few strokes in the air. He noticed how worn and slick the grip was and thought Watson needed a new one. Years later, he read the two-time Masters champ liked it that way so he would grip the putter tighter.
He shot 74-78 the first two rounds and missed the cut as Ben Crenshaw won his first Masters. Three years later Tentis injured his shoulder, which essentially ended his pro playing career. He never returned to Augusta National.
“I thought I’d be back,” said Tentis, a longtime club pro now at Troy Burne in Hudson. “But it was fun the year I got. I’m not complaining.”
It’s just golf
Asked what he remembered most about his one Masters played, Harris said, “Just how hard it was and how overwhelmed I was.” He made the Friday cut, shot 80 on Saturday and tied for 50th in a Masters that fellow Minnesotan Lehman probably should have won.
Accepted as an Augusta National member years later for his commitment to amateur golf, Harris now better knows the banks and swales of a course that, at any length, demands two things: Hit each green’s quadrant where the hole is positioned that day, and keep the ball below that hole on greens famed for their speed.
“And make sure you play that break toward Rae’s Creek,” said Merritt, the former Spring Lake Park High School golfer whose first PGA Tour victory sent him to the 2016 Masters. “It’s a real thing.”
Merritt acknowledges what he calls “the Masters mystique” that he overcame enough to tie Dustin Johnson and Rory McIlroy for Friday’s low score, 71. He was the only player that week who didn’t three-putt.
“You have to remember it’s just golf,” Merritt said. “You still have to hit fairways, hit greens, make putts and do not get caught up in a moment.”
He made the cut, played on the weekend and tied for 42nd.
“Sunday at Augusta is one of the coolest days in golf,” Merritt said.
In normal times, Harris would be called home to Augusta National this week, as all members are for the Masters. Merritt, busy now in isolation with family time, would make weekend appearances for his corporate sponsor World Fuel.
“I don’t even think of sports or the Masters not being played,” Merritt said, “but I know my friends are going absolutely berserk not being able to watch.”
In normal times, the Masters would be the season’s first major — played in the promise of spring, rather than the last in late fall without azaleas in bloom.
“It’ll be good,” Harris said. “The flowers will be a little different, different ones in bloom. But the golf will be good and it’ll show beautifully on TV.”