BY PETE IACOBELLI
AUGUSTA, Ga. (AP) — A short stroll down Augusta National’s back nine is all it takes to see that something is missing at this Masters.
A look past the fairways and greens, and it quickly becomes apparent: The abundance of eye-catching, colorful plants have been replaced by dullish, green, spent azaleas. Augusta National’s signature blooms are the victims of Mother Nature.
“They’re not there,” said Aileen Brennan, who comes to the Masters each year with husband from Ireland. “It’s disappointing.”
Talk about climate change.
A winter where temperatures often reached the 70s in Georgia was followed by several hard freezes in March, giving the bright blooms that are as much a part of the Masters tradition as the champion’s green jacket little hope of lasting until tournament time.
“So this year,” Masters chairman Billy Payne said, “we have decided that our color of choice is green.”
Campbell Vaughn, a University of Georgia Agriculture & Natural Resources agent in Richmond County, Georgia, said he thought the course might face some problems when his azaleas at home began to bloom in late January and February.
Azaleas are short blooms generally bursting forward in a colorful array for a few weeks before their cycle ends.
“It looked like it would be hard for them to last anyway with the mild winter we had,” Vaughn said.
The temperatures in the Augusta area this past January averaged about 65 degrees, about 10 degrees higher than usual.
Perfect for dormant plants, trees and shrubs to awaken. Terrible, Vaughn said, for world-class botanists and horticulturalists, like Augusta has, to cultivate a panorama of color for patrons and TV viewers of the year’s first major.
Once temperatures plunged in March, the blooms were doomed.
On the bright side, the odd conditions were perfect for the greens and fairways, which Payne said are “looking and playing magnificently.”
The trade-off is the lack of a stunning, horticultural brilliance — the 13th hole here is named “Azalea”— that annually takes the breath away for many first-timers in the gallery.
Payne acknowledged in his state of the tournament address the temporary loss of one of Augusta’s most important touches, saying Mother Nature “has diminished our otherwise beautiful and traditional coloring.”
There have been all kinds of tales for decades how the nursery teams at Augusta Natation uses various tactics — even freezing the shrubs — to guarantee azaleas and other colorful plants explode at the perfect time, creating a spectacular show for TV and the millions watching around the world.
Vaughn couldn’t shed any insight on the stories. All the University of Georgia agent would say is that the club has skilled people — “Some of the best in the world” — who are experts at what they do.
“It’s hard to handle how this played out,” he said.
There are glimpses of what everyone has come to expect Augusta National to look like this time of year, with scattered patches of color amid the green. A few pale looking blooms are hanging tough around Amen Corner and there are several bright blooms near restrooms and concession stands between the fifth and 16th holes. Mostly, though, it’s just green and brown.
Clemson Extension Specialist for Horticulture, Bob Polomski, say many in the region can expect a show from late-blooming azaleas.
“There are mid- and late-season flowering deciduous and evergreen azaleas that were not (weather) affected and should put on a terrific display later this spring and summer,” he said.
That’s far too late, however, for those filling Augusta National galleries this week.
The weather-beaten blooms around the course have also caught the eye of the players.
Ernie Els, playing his 23rd Masters, said it’s stunning not to see different hues of vibrant color as you make your way around the course.
“We saw down the sixth tee, the youngster Bernd Weisberger, pointed it out,” Els said. “Must’ve been a hard freeze.”
The focus on golf, do the competitors miss them?
“Absolutely,” Els said. “You miss the smell.”
Terry Brennan and wife, Aileen, have a son living in Atlanta and make sure to attend the Masters when possible. The azaleas are one of things the couple from Ireland looks forward to the most.
“It’s a little different out there this year,” Terry Brennan said of the missing blooms. “We’ll hope for them next year.”
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