AUGUSTA, Ga. — Tiger Woods had just birdied the 16th hole at Augusta National. A few hundred yards away, the operators up in the scoreboard looming over the 7th green dropped a large red 3 into the correct slot.
In a normal year, this would have brought cacophonous cheers from the gallery around the scoreboard. This year, though, the clanking of plates and conversation between the operators inside drew only a shushing from a course marshal. There were players preparing to putt, and the quiet talk deep inside the scoreboard was resonating all the way to the green.
The absence of patrons at Augusta has robbed this place of its heart. It’s like a symphony without a string section. The sounds you’d regularly hear — the tik!s of putters, the thmp!s of sand wedges, the chik!s of approach shots — all are now in high-def. And the cannon-blast of Bryson DeChambeau’s driver resounds over half the course.
But more than that, here’s what’s fascinating and unexpected: all the little sounds of golf and nature normally drowned out by ambient gallery noise now echo across the course.
“It's crazy to see and realize the little things we can hear from so far away,” Jon Rahm said Saturday morning. “I mean, somebody could be digging into a bag of chips 150 yards away, and sometimes you can hear it, which is crazy.”
The way sound travels across the open fairways and tall pines of Augusta has led to some unexpected, odd, often funny moments. The sounds of individual bird calls are audible. A pine cone falling from a tree echoes. Footsteps on tiny gravel paths echo like a radio tuned to static. The voices of two volunteers telling jokes carry far enough that an entire hole can hear the punch lines.
You’re acutely aware with every step of how open and exposed you are at Augusta right now, how careful you have to be to preserve the silence in every direction. You’re not allowed to carry cell phones on Augusta National, but if you were, and the ringer happened to go off, it’d be audible across the entire property — and every one of the half-dozen people nearby would know exactly whose phone just rang.
Players are divided on whether the silence helps or hurts their game. “You miss the sound, you miss the cheer, the roar, and if you hit a great shot, you miss all that,” Louis Oosthuizen said. “ It's almost a little bit more difficult to really get yourself pumped up.”
On the other hand, there’s a purity to the silence here, nothing more than you and your game. Anyone who’s ever played an early-morning round of golf knows the serenity that comes with having the course to yourself. It’s a calming feeling ... just not one you’d expect at one of the world’s best-known courses during one of sports’ marquee events.
“There's really not much going on out here,” Scottie Scheffler said. “It's really peaceful. I haven't felt distracted at all with there being no people out here.”
“I wouldn't say it's easy or more difficult to concentrate,” Rahm said. “It's just a little different.”
No one’s allowed on the property outside of Augusta National officials, members and their (few) guests, players and their (very few) guests, and a handful of media. Even birdies and eagles only draw a few isolated claps. The irony, though, is that one person moving in a sight line can be a whole lot more distracting than an entire gallery shuffling and murmuring.
“It's almost more difficult because there's a lot more movement going on with single people walking around,” Oosthuizen said. “When there was 30,000, 40,000 people, you're fine just going [ahead and hitting].”
Volunteers and course officials tend to congregate around the 18th hole, and there were several dozen gathered around the first tee early Thursday morning for the ceremonial start of the tournament. So Sunday’s winner should see a small gathering, at least, as he walks up the 18th fairway.
In the meantime, though, we’re in for two more silent rounds from Augusta. Listen closely; you never know what you might hear.
Jay Busbee is a writer for Yahoo Sports. Follow him on Twitter at @jaybusbee or contact him with tips at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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