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Bryson DeChambeau hits from the fairway on the second19 hole during a practice round for the Masters golf tournament on Monday in Augusta, Georgia. AP photo

Even as Dustin Johnson was carving up Augusta National on his way to a Masters title last November, golf fans had their sights set on this week.

This week was when the azaleas would be out. When the patrons would be back. And when the Sunday roars would return.

This was when the Masters would feel like the Masters again.

Lately, though, there have been storm clouds over what was shaping up to be a joyous scene. The reaction to the controversial voting law in Georgia has turned the Masters from a moment of celebration into a subject of scrutiny.

There has been a push to remove events from Georgia due to the law, which detractors find discriminatory and have said is reminiscent of Jim Crow. There has been just as much pushback from the law’s supporters, who argue it is logical and that the efforts to punish Georgia are just more examples of that now household phrase, “cancel culture.”

The discussion gained life when Major League Baseball moved the All-Star Game out of Atlanta, and offered its disagreement with the law as its reason for doing so. Now, there was precedent. Sports events being moved was not just a hypothetical, but a reality.

And up next for the bulls-eye was the Masters and Augusta National, which has come under fire before for its history of race, gender and exclusion.

Now, instead of everyone talking about whether or not Bryson DeChambeau’s booming drives will mean success at Augusta or if Jordan Spieth’s gearing up for another green jacket run, the overarching theme has been political. Keith Olbermann put a video on Twitter calling for the Masters to be boycotted. President Biden was asked about whether the tournament should move out of Georgia. Players who showed up to the course earlier in the week were questioned about the issue, and asked to offer their positions on voting rights.

The New York Times addressed the controversy and its effect on the golf tournament, referring to the “political onslaught” Georgia is enduring and that the Masters’s response is “business as usual.” The Wall Street Journal ran a headline: “The Masters Plays Through Georgia’s Voting Law Controversy.”

Masters chairman Fred Ridley said in a news conference on Wednesday that he is against any boycott because of the state’s voting laws.

 

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The small gallery of patrons watches Phil Mickelson tee off on the 14th hole during his practice round for the Masters on Tuesday at Augusta National Golf Club. AP photo

Even before Ridley’s comments, on the inside, the course must have been screaming.

The course and tournament have dealt with their critics before, but usually that heat fades once the public sees the lush green fairways, pristine bunkers and beautiful flowers, not to mention the compelling action, and gets swept up in the spectacle all over again.

But lately, the blows to Augusta’s annual party have kept coming. The pandemic forced a break in tradition and moved the Masters to the fall, robbing the course of its celebrated look, atmosphere and challenge — Johnson’s score of 20-under was the lowest in tournament history, and soft fairways and greens showed viewers just what Augusta looks like without teeth.

Then came the news in February that Tiger Woods was hurt in a car accident, and would certainly be out for the tournament, if not the rest of his career. Woods wasn’t the defending champion, but he was the last one to win in front of a cheering gallery, and he’s the symbol of the sport and this tournament in particular. No one gets the patrons louder than a charging Tiger, and no one draws viewers like he does when he’s on TV wearing red on black. The Masters doesn’t need Tiger, but it’s not the same without him.

And now there’s this, a controversy that’s tied to the same issues that have dogged Augusta National for years. Now, the attention is for a whole different reason.

Surely, Augusta National doesn’t want people talking about this. Not with “The Masters” in the same sentence. They want people talking about how nice it is to be back, how great it will be to see the bank of fans behind the 12th tee and down the 16th hole, the challenge of the back nine and the pressure on Sunday of winning a tournament that’s better than any other.

And it will be a great tournament again. It will feel like the Masters again.

Just with one heck of a distraction — the kind Augusta National could not have wanted to see.

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