AUGUSTA - For some, last April’s postponement of the Masters, and then the spectator ban during November’s make-up date, was particularly painful.

So, Monday, as the green gates of Augusta National opened just a crack to allow back a small percentage of the usual crowd, it was cause for celebration. A very proper, hushed celebration, but a celebration nonetheless.

Say you’re used to going annually and consider the walk through America’s most famed golf course, “the highlight of the year.” That’s Augusta’s Leslie Hickson. And for her, there was but one treatment for the depravation of 2020: Shopping.

Monday morning, she emerged from the massive reopened Masters merchandise center at the entrance to the course with almost more than two hands could carry. She had returned with such burning enthusiasm, hot enough to melt a credit card.

To the grand reopening of the April Masters on this first day of public practice rounds Hickson wore a Masters vest, a Masters hat, a Masters shirt, Masters earrings and necklace. What more could she possibly buy? Plenty. A partial inventory of her purchase revealed a couple Masters lunch bags, three Masters t-shirts, a Masters golf glove, three Masters hats, a green Masters teddy bear, Masters footie socks, a Masters Christmas ornament. And she had on order a Masters garden gnome.

“It’s just wonderful here,” she enthused. “I love walking around here. It’s so beautiful and everything runs like a finely-tuned machine.”

Monday was all about the Masters machine taking back some portion of control. Augusta National can banish the common weed from its grounds, engineer its membership, control its image as any painter controls the canvas. Still, it couldn’t resist COVID, no one could.

It can rebound, however. The Masters merchandising was cranking back up, not full speed but at a steady hum. The breakfast of a pimento cheese sandwich was once again in play on the other side of the ropes here. Oh, and there are gallery ropes again – there were none in November – but still no stands. Players again skipped balls across the pond in front of the 16th green during practice. There was no need for that tradition last November as there were no fans demanding to be entertained.

The club hasn’t said what percentage of its normal gallery will be allowed here this week. And likely won’t, as it treats attendance as proprietary information. The commonly used figure among some of the volunteers here is 20%. That would make this tournament at least 20% more fulfilling than November’s.

“It’s nice to have people back out here,” Kevin Kisner, the former Georgia Bulldog player, said Monday afternoon. “It was fun to interact with them. I like the amount of people. It’s not overbearing but you can still interact with some people you see. Not huge crowds yet. I’m assuming there will be more throughout the week.”

It’s certainly not close to all the way back. Monday morning, as the glamor practice pairing of defending champion Dustin Johnson and Rory McIlroy made its way along the front 9, one long-time gallery guard looked back on the scene and said, “Normally the crowd would be four or five deep around them. Now it’s barely one deep.”

Not that fewer can’t be better, at least for the fortunate few who had a Monday practice round badge. Behind the tee at the par-5 12th hole, one of the most popular vantage points on the course, Jude Thompson of Louisville and his wife spread out as if enjoying their own personal picnic. In partial repayment for all the loss of last year, this one day in 2021 was perfect, sunny, bright blue and just slightly cool to the touch.

“It’s surreal,” he said, knowing the usual crowd at this section of Amen Corner.

“It’s awesome,” said his buddy, who wished to remain unnamed, “not having to fight for a space at all.”

Jordan Spieth, the 2015 Masters champion, spoke about how good it was to get family and friends back on the course after they were barred in November. “Everyone is just as excited as every other year, if not more so, because they might even be able to see more golf around that Amen Corner stretch,” he said.

“It won’t take many people for it to feel close enough to normal to be a fantastic event,” Spieth said.

Being here, to borrow from a local football conference, just means more.

Just how much, Augusta’s Ashley Hurt, back on the grounds after a year away, is happy to explain. Her father helps on the big hand-turned scoreboard at No. 18. So enamored is he with the position that he built a replica of the board and keeps it, complete with that year’s results, on his front yard.

After last April’s tournament was postponed but before the new November date was announced, there was the chance the make-up would conflict with Ashley’s scheduled fall wedding. So, hypothetically, what if it had come to a choice between working that Masters or getting to his daughter’s wedding?

“We would have re-scheduled the wedding,” she said. (The timing worked out, you’ll be happy to know).

Simple enough choice for the loyalists here: Those who can get into Augusta National and the Masters go to Augusta National and the Masters. Never take the chance for granted.

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