Honorary starters, then rain, as 1st fall Masters begins

Sports

Jack Nicklaus waves after hitting a ceremonial first ball before the first round of the Masters golf tournament Thursday, Nov. 12, 2020, in Augusta, Ga. (AP Photo/David J. Phillip)

AUGUSTA, Ga. (AP) — Umbrellas replaced azaleas and the whirring of a drone filled in for the chirping of springtime birds on Thursday when the first fall Masters teed off at Augusta National.

Darkness and drizzle greeted Hall of Famers Gary Player and Jack Nicklaus for the honorary opening tee shots in the early dawn hours of the tournament, which was postponed from April because of the coronavirus pandemic.

“I was pleased it was dark, because you didn’t see where my ball went,” Nicklaus told reporters afterward.

The ceremony is usually a fan favorite at Augusta, with crowds waiting for the gates to open and then rushing to find a spot along the first tee box and fairway. No fans are allowed at this year’s event except for the players’ significant others and coaches, along with Augusta National members.

That meant only a few hundred people huddled under green and white umbrellas — wearing masks but largely ignoring the 6-foot social distancing requirements — were there to see the men who have combined to play in the Masters 97 times. Nicklaus won six times, Player three.

Normally a rite of spring, the Masters has a different look and feel this year, given the move to November. The course’s iconic azaleas have withered, and without large galleries the tournament has replaced the usual rope boundaries with green lines painted on the grass.

The shorter daytime — the sun will set more than 2½ hours earlier than in April — forced organizers to adjust the tee times, and that left Nicklaus and Player in a foggy gloam. A drone TV camera, allowed for the first time this year, also seemed out of place at the usually staid golf club.

The COVID-19 protocols prevented Nicklaus from bringing one of his grandchildren to caddie for him, like he usually does. So he turned instead to his wife, Barbara, who donned the traditional one-piece, white coveralls.

“I don’t think I can afford to get home after her fee,” Nicklaus joked.

The rain intensified shortly after the ceremony and play was suspended because of lightning in the area after only three groups had teed off. Because of the early sunset, players started on both the front and back nines.

Sandy Lyle, the 1988 champion, was among the early starters at No. 10. After teeing off, he peered into the fog clinging to the fairways, turned to the sparse crowd and said, “Where did it go?”

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