Amen Corner, one of the most famous stretches of fairway in America, is coming into play early at the upcoming Masters Tournament at Augusta National Golf Club in Georgia. But this story has nothing to do with tee shots or putts on the famously named 11th, 12th and 13th holes, an elbow on the course that has produced some of the greatest moments in tournament history.
This year, it's the azaleas making headlines. More than the pines, the forsythia, the magnolias or the wisteria, it's the white, pink, dark pink, purple, fuchsia and red blooms of the azaleas, set against the emerald fairways and greens, that provide the background optics that make Augusta National one of the most beautiful venues in any sport anywhere in the world.
Typically, the azaleas are in full bloom during the Masters. This year, though, they were coming into full bloom in the Augusta area a month before the April 6-9 tournament. That may cause local folks, TV execs and course officials to say some prayers for the flowers to hold their blooms, at least until the winner dons the Green Jacket.
"It's the talk of the town," says Cindy James, nursery manager at Springwood Nursery in Evans, Georgia, a suburb of Augusta, about how long the azaleas will hold their flowers. "Customers are talking to me as they come in and are saying, ‘It's going to be interesting to see what happens with the azaleas at Masters time.'"
"Azaleas usually start blooming about two weeks before the Masters in the Augusta area," James says. "This year, though, they started blooming about the middle of February." Those were the early ones, she said, pointing out that various azaleas produce blooms in the spring in a sequence of early, middle and late. By the end of the first week in March, she said, the middle ones were in bloom.
"As far as driving around town, we have things in full bloom that should not be in full bloom for another month," says James. "Everything is weeks ahead of time." She points to the dogwood trees as an example.
"When the dogwoods are in full bloom, we're not going to have any more frost," she says. "That means spring is here. The dogwoods are in full bloom right now. They're usually in bloom when the azaleas are in bloom during Master week." In addition, she adds, the forsythia and Japanese magnolias have already finished flowering.
What's causing this early blooming?
A mild winter is to blame for the early bloom, experts say. Augusta had its fourth warmest winter in the area since 1875. (Photo: Julie Campbell/Flickr)
"It's the weather, says John Ruter, Armitage Endowed Professor of Horticulture and director of the Trial Gardens at the University of Georgia in Athens. "We've had a very mild winter with temperatures in the upper 70s for an extended period of time. Azaleas don't have a large chilling requirement, so they are going to go ahead and bloom."
How warm has it been in Augusta this year? It's the fourth warmest winter in the area since 1875, the first year weather records were kept in the area, according to Lauren Merritt, a National Weather Service meteorologist in Peachtree City, Ga. And, she points out, it's possible the winter of 2016-2017 could be the third warmest recorded winter in Augusta.
That's because, she says, two days are missing from this year's report. Those two days could make a difference because the average temperature in and around August this winter was 55.4 degrees F, just .2 degrees shy of the area's third warmest recorded, which was in 1879-1880.
What can Augusta National do?
What impacts how long azaleas bloom? "It varies on how warm and how dry it is," says Ruter. "Usually you can count on a good three weeks."
So, how will the weather outlook for the Augusta area in the weeks and days leading up to the Masters impact the sensory overload that is the beauty of the Masters landscape? That question is like wondering what kind of lie you are going to get from a ball drop after seeing a Titleist plop into a water hazard. There's a 50-50 chance temperatures and precipitation will be above or below normal. That normal, says Merritt, is temperatures that range from 40 to 70 degrees in early March to 45 to 75 degrees toward the end of the month.
Is there anything the gardening crew at Augusta National can do to slow down the flowers on the azaleas? Ruter thinks that's not realistic in a landscape which, befittingly in the case of Augusta National, is a setting that a century and a half ago was a plant nursery and where, to pay honor to that history, all of the holes are named after plants.
James isn't so sure. "I have always heard that they have different ways of doing things out at the Masters golf course to make sure the azaleas are blooming at that time. I don't know that for a fact. I've just always heard that. Icing them and different things like that." (Augusta National did not respond to a request for what, if anything, they might be doing to slow the azaleas along the course from blooming until Masters Week.)
"I don't know," James says. "I just don't know. It's going to be interesting."
The answer will come on the CBS broadcast … if not sooner.
Until then, stay tuned.