AUGUSTA, Ga. — Any optimism that the next Masters will be restored to its full glory of spring blooms and the endless chorus of cheers was dampened only by the reality of the calendar and the recent spikes in coronavirus cases.
It has been eight months since Augusta National Golf Club said it was postponing the Masters because of the COVID-19 pandemic. It has been seven months since the club targeted two weeks before Thanksgiving as the most practical time to play the 84th edition of what is usually the first major tournament of the year.
"I'm hopeful that we will see improved conditions regarding this virus, but April is less than five months away, so there's no assurance of that," said Fred Ridley, the tournament's chairman. "But we do have hopes that the tournament in April will be closer to normal than it is right now."
There is very little normal about this year's Masters, starting with the opening tee shots from both the first and the 10th tees. That has never happened on a Thursday morning.
Abraham Ancer, one of 26 newcomers to the Masters, was playing his final practice round Wednesday at about the time the 29-year-old from Mexico would have been taking part in the annual lighthearted Par 3 Contest, which was canceled. The Par 3 is largely entertainment for the patrons, and there are no patrons this time.
On Tuesday, Spanish star Jon Rahm skipped a tee shot across the pond, onto the 16th green, and watched it roll the length of the green, down the slope and into the cup. The No. 2 player in the Official World Golf Ranking raised his arms in celebration. There was video — and that was about it.
"Just imagine the roars that would have created in a normal year," said fifth-ranked Rory McIlroy, the 31-year-old from Northern Ireland who is a green jacket short of the career Grand Slam. "It's a different look. It's November, and I think everybody just has to embrace that we're here and we're playing, and that's a great thing."
In some respects, this Masters is a celebration of what golf has done and a sendoff the sport has never experienced.
Except for World War II and in 1971, when the PGA Championship moved to February in Florida, the Masters always has been the first major of the year. That rite of spring was about more than azaleas, dogwoods and the pursuit of a championship. For many, it signaled the start of golf season, whether that meant playing or watching.
"All the Masters I've watched over the years in Ireland, the golfing season started normally the weekend of the Masters," reigning British Open champion Shane Lowry said. "That's when everyone gets the clubs out of the garage and dusts off the cobwebs and gets out and starts playing. That's when the weather starts to go from 6 degrees to about 12 (Celsius, or low 40s to low 50s Fahrenheit). And it only rains a little bit rather than loads."
In November, it's more like the grand finale.
The Masters already is the most popular of the majors because it's held on the same course each year and there's a magic about Augusta National that creates so much drama. Is there a better way to end the year?
Sure, there are two more official events this calendar year for the PGA Tour after the Masters. That's not unusual considering no other sport has a longer season than golf — there was no break between the 2019-20 and 2020-21 seasons for the tour — but having a Masters in November reads like the final chapter.
Lowry, McIlroy and five-time Masters winner Tiger Woods are among the many players who will put their clubs back in the garage when they return home from Georgia.
Golf, like so many other sports, needs a feel-good finish. The PGA Tour was shut down from mid-March to mid-June. One of the majors, the British Open, was canceled. Golf resumed in June with a hectic schedule of only one true week off for 2020 — Thanksgiving — and no assurances of safe health for anyone in the traveling circus.
"I think when (the British Open) was canceled, I had serious doubts we'd play a Masters this year in 2020," McIlroy said. "I think the R&A were in a tough situation, the fact that if they pushed it back, the daylight in the U.K. just isn't there to hold a field of 156. One of the nice things about the Masters is its limited field."
Fifteen players on the PGA Tour have tested positive for the coronavirus at some point this year, including top-ranked Dustin Johnson. One player had to miss the PGA Championship in August, two withdrew from the U.S. Open in September and two more — including 2017 Masters champion Sergio Garcia — tested positive ahead of this week's competition.
Golf went on, though, and now it's at the finish line with no gallery. Imagine the final turn onto Boylston Street in the Boston Marathon with no one lining the streets to cheer runners.
The bigger challenge might be the starting line. The final day of practice was halted midafternoon Wednesday because of dangerous storms approaching and more rain expected for the opening round. The course already is slightly softer this time of the year and figures to play longer.
They're playing, however. The anticipation is building. The course looks like it always does, except for the color of the leaves down at Amen Corner and the lack of blazing colors of flowers everywhere.
Said Webb Simpson, who tied for fifth at the most recent Masters in April 2019: "They've done a great job of giving us a golf course that's similar to what we're used to, but obviously a few months earlier than when we normally are here."
Earlier than next April. Later than last April. Whatever. It's the Masters, and it's here. And after Jack Nicklaus and Gary Player hit the honorary tee shots, starters on the first and 10th tees will introduce each player with that familiar phrase: Fore, please.