By Andrew Both
AUGUSTA, Ga. (Reuters) - The natural order was restored -- kind of -- as Masters week began under an azure April sky in front of appreciative spectators at Augusta National on Monday.
Five months after a unique November Masters that was staged with virtually no spectators due to coronavirus concerns, a limited gallery of a few thousand has been allowed onto the hallowed grounds this week.
Perhaps about 7,000 fans were on hand, barely 15% of the crush normally allowed for practice rounds, but it made for an idyllic viewing experience for those lucky or well-connected enough to get through the gates.
While there are no grandstands, the pink azaleas and white dogwoods that provide such a pretty spring backdrop to famed Amen Corner are a familiar sight, even if the former are already fading from the dazzling pink of full bloom.
Players are certainly enjoying having patrons around, and even more so looking forward to hearing some roars echo through the whistling Georgia pines come Thursday's first round.
"Even though there are a lot of people, it's just amazing how many people this place can hold at a capacity because it still felt like not that many people," 2013 champion Adam Scott told Reuters.
"More than anything it's going to be nice Thursday through Sunday to see people out at the golf course."
Fellow pro Patrick Cantlay particularly savours the ban on mobile phones.
"It's so refreshing," he told reporters. "Everyone is way more interactive and polite ... compared to other tournaments. It just is a great atmosphere. I know we are only at a limited capacity, but these are the best fans or patrons of the year."
Two young men on a day trip from Atlanta sitting behind the 18th green enjoying the sunshine were enjoying the relaxed experience.
"It's almost peaceful," said Mike, who declined to give his last name but revealed he got his ticket through a corporate connection.
"I was expecting a lot of energy. I've never seen it like this but it's a nice balance. It's a much more genuine natural golf experience."Added his friend Neel: "It's a little muted but it's liberating to be out away from a (computer) screen for a day."
There were plenty of big names for the fans to watch, including defending champion Dustin Johnson and perennial fancy Rory McIlroy.
They played the front nine together, before Johnson departed for the range, leaving McIlroy to play the back nine alone, followed by a couple of hundred spectators.
McIlroy, who recently began working with instructor Pete Cowen, carved his drive at the long par-four 11th into the pines, before reloading and hitting a bullet right down the middle.
"That's sort of like Pete said, just get it in position and then turn," McIlroy said to caddie after his second drive, seemingly sound advice that sometimes is easier said than done."
(Reporting by Andrew Both; Editing by Lisa Shumaker)