Where have all the flowers gone?

AUGUSTA, Ga. -- Something is missing from the Masters this year, a tradition that ranks right up there with Amen Corner, endless roars on Sunday afternoon and the winner's green jacket.


Red, pink and white azaleas that typically are ablaze for the opening round, have lost their bloom or were wilting fast. The beautiful contrast of white against the lush course comes from sand in the bunkers, not dogwoods.

Spring arrived early in many parts of the country this year, and not even Augusta National was immune.

"I saw them, but it was last week," defending champion Charl Schwartzel said, referring to the signature shrubs. "I was here a week ago last Thursday, and they were beautiful. But the first thing I thought was, 'They're all going to be gone.' I thought Augusta would be able to do something -- get the fans on them or something. It's weird."

Indeed, the Masters has gone green.

The 13th hole has an estimated 1,600 azalea bushes -- that's why it's called "Azalea" -- yet there are only a dozen or so bushes behind the green that still have blooms. Fans on the course Monday for a practice round posed for pictures in front of one azalea bush whose pink flowers rested on a bed of pine needles.

Not to worry, golf fans. The tournament will manage to go on. The course is still as beautiful as ever, with sunlight filtering through the Georgia pines and not a blade of grass out of place. But it's not the same. It's like an actor without makeup. Wrigley Field without ivy. Ian Poulter dressed in white.

"You're kidding. No flowers?" said Poulter, who arrived Monday dressed head to toe in white. "I can't believe that."

It's not the first time this has happened, and if nothing else, it should put the rumors to rest that Augusta National packs ice on the azaleas to keep them from blooming until Masters week.

Those aren't the only rumors.

"I always heard they had hot and cold water running through the pipes to control when it blooms," Jonathan Byrd said.

Byrd added his own piece of color -- a pink ribbon on his cap with the letter "K" to celebrate the birth of his daughter, Kate, on Friday. He showed up at the Masters expecting to be asked about his chipping and putting, not jasmine and camellia.

But he understands the significance of flowers at Augusta National, built on the home of a former nursery.

"It's what everyone thinks about," he said.

Joanne Taylor was sitting along the ropes on the 13th hole, her toenails painted "Masters green" for the occasion. She drove down for the Monday practice round from Dahlonega in the northern part of the state, where the blooms have come and gone.

"I've always heard they keep the azaleas in potted plants in a greenhouse, then brought them out for the Masters," she said. Ah, another rumor proved untrue.

The golf won't suffer. Players have raved about the conditioning at the Masters, and the excitement level is higher than usual for the first major of the year. Tiger Woods, who played nine holes early Monday with Mark O'Meara, comes into the Masters as the favorite after winning at Bay Hill two weeks ago.

Luke Donald and Rory McIlroy both won in the last month, trading spots at No. 1 in the world. Hunter Mahan has won twice. Schwartzel is trying to join Woods, Nick Faldo and Jack Nicklaus as the only repeat winners at Augusta.

And come Thursday, all the eyeballs will be on a little white golf ball, not the bloom on a dogwood.

But it's different, nonetheless.

"Everybody would love to see the flowers, and we'd love to have them here," said Lance Barrow, the coordinating producer of CBS Sports, which is televising the Masters for the 57th year. "But we have no control over Mother Nature."

The timing could not have been worse for Jennifer Markman of Atlanta. She has been coming to the Masters for the last 17 years with a tournament badge, which is good for admission Thursday through Sunday. But she had never been to Augusta during the practice rounds, the only days when patrons can take pictures.

Standing to the right of the 10th green, she held her camera steady for nearly 30 seconds before she took a picture. There were no golfers in sight. There were no flowers to be found. She was waiting for just the right moment, when a puff of wind blew the flag upright so she could capture its long shadow across the green.

She was pleased with the image, though it's not what she wanted.

"I'm upset all the azaleas are gone," she said. "This is my 18th year coming to the tournament, and I've never been able to bring my camera. This is my first year taking pictures."

She paused to stick out her lower lip, adding, "And somebody took all my azaleas away."