Augusta without azaleas? Strange weather means this year's Masters will look very different

Azaleas in full bloom from 2016. (Getty Images)
Azaleas in full bloom from 2016. (Getty Images)

Augusta without azaleas? It’s as unthinkable as baseball without green grass, hockey without a Zamboni, the Daytona 500 without beer. Azaleas define Augusta, the pink and white blooms a perfect backdrop to the impossible greens of the fairway and the towering pines beyond. But this year, the course will have a markedly different appearance. Azaleas will be as rare on the course as cell phones, thanks to the one force Augusta National can’t completely control: nature.

“Regrettably … the [warm] weather [caused] our normally spectacular azaleas and other flowers to bloom three weeks early,” Augusta National Chairman Billy Payne said Wednesday.

Over the course of the two months prior to the Masters, the city of Augusta suffered a wicked one-two meteorological punch: unseasonably warm weather throughout February followed by a vicious cold snap in mid-March. The warm weather drew out blooms on azaleas, dogwoods, and other Southern springtime plants, and then the hard freeze killed them.

“The freeze fried, absolutely fried the blooms that were out on flowers,” said Scott Smith, horticulture instructor at Augusta Tech. “It was devastating, and not just to flowers. South Carolina lost a lot of its peach crop.”

The hard freeze closed off what had been a supremely, unseasonably mild winter with a sledgehammer. Until just a few days before the Masters, February was a warmer month in Augusta than March.

“It’s been a really challenging year,” said Dr. Charlotte Christy, professor of botany at Augusta University. “This will be a serious test for any horticulturist.”

<a class="link rapid-noclick-resp" href="/pga/players/8016/" data-ylk="slk:Rory McIlroy">Rory McIlroy</a> might not have as much trouble with azaleas this year. (Getty)
Rory McIlroy might not have as much trouble with azaleas this year. (Getty)

Augusta National’s horticulture experts weren’t available to speak to Yahoo Sports on the matter of the azaleas; they are, as you’d expect, rather busy at this time of year. But other local experts extrapolated a few ways that Augusta National could have prepped the flora to handle both the unseasonable warmth and the bitter cold.

“If I had a large budget,” Christy said, the implication quite clear, “I would use portable structures to shade the blooms as much as possible. I’d also have fans that could blow cool air from ice blocks onto the blooms.”

Christy dispelled the long-standing rumor that Augusta National uses ice to chill its blooms and keep them pristine for viewers and patrons. “Given the amount of area, it would be logistically difficult to figure out how long you needed to chill the blooms, and how much ice you would need,” she said. “That would also leave you with waterlogged soil,” never an ideal situation when you’re talking major-level golf.

“You can try to keep the blooms cooler,” said Scott Roberts, meteorologist with WRDW in Augusta, “but when temperatures are 10 to 15 degrees above average temperatures for an entire month, there’s nothing you can do.”

Unexpected early blooms are a problem, but unexpected subfreezing temperatures are a catastrophe. Smith noted that Augusta National could have stemmed the loss of flowers in several ways, from the grass-roots (covering the buds with pine straw) to the technological (using thermal blankets) to the counterintuitive:

“Water, when it freezes, releases heat,” he said. “If you water early in the morning before a freeze, you allow the water to freeze on the buds and protect the buds.” It’s a technique often used to protect fruit from unexpected freezes in Florida. Flowers would be roasted no matter what, but tougher buds might survive.

“The flowers that were the survivors of the freeze, the ones that lucked out and weren’t tricked into opening early, they’ll be there,” Smith said. “There are so many different types of azaleas that bloom at different times. So there will be some late-season azaleas, but nothing like we’ve seen in past years.”

“I think,” Roberts said, “Augusta will have a very green landscape this year.”

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Jay Busbee is a writer for Yahoo Sports and the author of EARNHARDT NATION, on sale now at Amazon or wherever books are sold. Contact him at jay.busbee@yahoo.com or find him on Twitter or on Facebook.

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