AUGUSTA, Ga. -- Rory McIlroy, who is known to be one of the most thoughtful and introspective golfers on the professional touring circuit, ended his pre-Masters news conference by going on an extended riff about Tiger Woods. That felt perfect because even though Woods is at home recovering from his car wreck, where he's been receiving visits from the best golfers in the world, he remains the unspoken center of the first major of the year. The absence of Tiger is felt in a more visceral way than the presence of many of this year's contenders for the green jacket. On Tuesday, fans were taking pictures of the spot on No. 16 where he hit that famous chip shot in 2005, like people visiting a religious shrine or a battlefield monument, and, with apologies, nobody gets that kind of sense of place buzz from following around Patrick Reed or Jon Rahm.
So Rory was describing going to check on Tiger, whom he found in better health than his imagination had prepared him to find after seeing the photographs of the wrecked car. This generation of golfers have the strange experience of both idolizing Tiger and of being his friend. Rickie Fowler, for instance, saved Tiger in his phone under the name Big Cat. These players grew up with his poster on the wall and now they just hang out in his family room, no big deal, where there's a trophy case that displays all 15 of Tiger's major championship wins. Rory looked at them when he was checking on his friend and wondered about the countless non-major tournament trophies.
"Where are the others?" Rory asked, a valid question given Woods has won 67 non-majors since turning professional.
"I don't know," Tiger told him.
Rory was left a little stunned.
"What?" he asked.
Tiger said some were at his mom's house and some were at the office and some are just around. The whole way back to his house, Rory kept turning this over in his mind, wondering about how the regular tournaments must have seemed like practice to Woods, and how he circled four weeks a year on his calendar, starting with April in Augusta.
"That's all I could think about on the way home," McIlroy said, and then added with a smile, "And I was glad he was OK, too."
This is a strange in-between Masters, because of the feeling that we just did this in November, and because Tiger Woods is at home and not here -- although the news that he was speeding before his wreck is still bigger golf news than anything that might happen in Georgia this week -- and because of the small masked crowd of patrons who are walking around a course made oddly unfamiliar without the huge grandstands set up as landmarks. Tournament veterans have stood near the 15th green and looked around in confusion, trying to get their bearings. It feels reflective of a larger national mood where many people are no longer fully in their mental and physical COVID-19 bunkers but still anxious about crowds and a return to normalcy.
The crowds are thin and feel that way, almost a throwback to the 1950s and 1960s when locals came out to the course on the Sunday before the tournament, carrying picnics and still wearing church clothes. Down at Amen Corner on Wednesday morning, which is normally Bonnaroo for travel baseball dads, there were only 17 people watching golfers hit the second shot on No. 13. Everyone tried to follow the stated mask and social distancing rules, out of respect for the history and the fear of trouble from Augusta National. People wanted to show respect and enjoy this piece of their old lives. Augusta was the same. The birds sang loudly in the trees. Augusta was different. The air didn't smell like cigar smoke for once. A few groups huddled around the green metal concession tables, masks pulled down to their chins so they could eat egg salad sandwiches and drink coffee. People talked about the pandemic on the television towers.
"My wife's getting the second shot," a broadcast guy at the No. 12 tower told a friend down on the ground. "Chicago is opening up."
Many normal conversations happened, too, the typical rituals of April in Georgia. A group of men complained about carrying around their $30 folding chairs. Business got done in between holes, the snippets of conversations moving in and out of earshot of other passing fans.
The club won't announce the projected attendance, but a safe guess would be only members, their guests and people with connections to corporate sponsors. In this second COVID-19 Masters, as much of the surrounding state of Georgia is divided over the new voting bill, the most exclusive, elite and establishment sporting event in the country somehow became more exclusive, elite and establishment. The security at the course is provided by Securitas, which used to be called Pinkerton, which was set up to bust unions. It doesn't get more establishment than that. The other day, one of those erstwhile Pinkerton guards walked over to a coffee bar set up near the clubhouse and asked if he might get a cup. People snapped to attention and returned with a sterling tray carrying the cup and saucer and a silver spoon and the requested two sugars. The guard could only shake his head at the opulence, efficiency and attention to detail.
"Only in America," he said.
Then he corrected himself.
In this in-between Masters, in this in-between year, the phrases "only in America" and "only here" could mean two dramatically different things depending on how you see this event and the recent voting law in Georgia. The Masters is never an easy ticket, but there is something democratic, lowercase "D," about the lottery. Anyone theoretically can attend. A Masters where attendance is predicated on being part of a very tightly prescribed and cloistered world is a very different-feeling event. All this is coronavirus-related, and clearly not intentional, but unintended consequences are frequently the way we catch a real glimpse of ourselves in the mirror.
It's hard to know if this feeling, this flickering reflection, is a function of a specific moment, or if these two visions of what happens in April in Georgia will grow further and further apart until this tournament exists for only half of the country. We are in an inflection point, in the country, in the pandemic, in golf. Maybe that's what McIlroy was getting at on some level. Rory wants a career Grand Slam now. Tiger wanted them in a single year. The field this week is focusing on golf, but Tiger was focused on history, on a uniquely American long view. If he can no longer play competitively, then his leaving the sport is more the end of golf than the end of a career -- or, rather, the end of a particular kind of universal golf, when a tournament made the whole world stop. When Elvis died, the rock critic Lester Bangs famously wrote an obituary that grows more and more true with each passing year. He said that with Elvis gone, there would never be anything that the nation agreed upon again, and so he used the column not to bid Elvis farewell but rather to say goodbye to legions of his fellow Americans. He wrote: "If love truly is going out of fashion forever, which I do not believe, then along with our nurtured indifference to each other will be an even more contemptuous indifference to each others' objects of reverence."
The course is ready for its close-up, as it always is, with the scoreboard war room in the media center going over final preparations for the big towering hand-operated leaderboards, and members getting gear for friends and having it delivered to cabins, and, out on the 18th green, Phil Mickelson showing Bryson DeChambeau how certain putts break, another example of the passing down of institutional knowledge at Augusta. The pandemic is slowing in some places and surging in others, but for the next four days in Augusta, Georgia, small groups of well-connected fans are doing something familiar enough to make imagining a return to normal feel not only possible but imminent. Next year the gates will be open again, and the air will smell like cigar smoke and huge crowds will gather around the most famous holes: 12, 16, 18. There will be a bunch of kids at the tournament again. We'll know more then about Tiger's health, and more about how Augusta National is positioned in the great national cleaving.
For now, this kind of in-between Masters will have to be enough.