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Masters Tournament Azalea Bloom Clouded by Mild Georgia Winter

Masters Tournaments Azalea Bloom Clouded by Mild Georgia Spring
An azalea is seen at the 10th hole during a practice round prior to the 2011 Masters Tournament at Augusta National Golf Club. Photographer: Timoth. A. Clary/AFP/Getty Images

Even truckloads of ice may not be enough to maintain one colorful tradition of the Masters Tournament by the time the golf season’s first major championship begins this week.

Most of the thousands of azaleas that line the fairways of Augusta National Golf Club probably are already in full bloom due to a warmer-than-usual winter, and may lose their flower petals by the time the tournament starts, local horticulturists said.

To prevent early flowering, officials of the Augusta, Georgia, club sometimes deposit “dump trucks full” of ice on the roots of azalea bushes to halt the bloom, according to Matthew Chappell, an assistant professor of horticulture at the University of Georgia’s College of Agriculture and Environmental Science.

“I don’t know if they’re going to be able to hold the plants back enough,” Chappell said in a telephone interview last week. “We’re so far ahead of schedule, we might miss the bloom. The possibility exists that they could have bloomed out by the time the Masters is played.”

Outside of “normal care,” Augusta National hasn’t done anything to try to delay the blooming period, according to a statement from the club. Masters Tournament spokesman Steve Ethun declined to comment on whether that care included icing the roots. The Masters is scheduled for April 5-8.

The flowering bushes, in shades of red, pink and white, are as much a part of the Masters and Augusta National as the green jackets of club members. They are planted throughout the property, including in front of the 158-year-old clubhouse, and the par-5 13th hole is named “Azalea,” part of another tradition to label holes after plants at a course built on a former nursery. There are 1,600 azaleas on No. 13 alone, according to club figures.

‘Most Noted’

“This hole bears the name of the plant for which Augusta National is most noted,” according to a description of the 13th on the club’s website.

From Feb. 27 to March 28, the high temperature in the Augusta area reached more than 75 degrees Fahrenheit (24 Celsius) 17 times, according to data compiled by the Georgia Automated Environmental Monitoring Network. Over the same time period for the previous seven years, there were an average of seven days above 75.

The warm air, plus soil temperatures that reached above 60 degrees as early as March 1 and hit a high of 69 on March 24, have led most of the area’s flowers to begin blooming already, Chappell said. Sid Mullis, a University of Georgia extension horticulture agent for two decades in Richmond County where Augusta is located, said soil temperature there typically doesn’t top 60 until May 1.

Under conditions such as this year, Chappell said, even the most drastic measures will only delay flowering for 3-7 days.

“It’s hard to hold off the inevitable with dump trucks full of ice,” according to Chappell.

Closed Gates

It’s difficult to gauge the status of the plants at Augusta National, a private club that discloses little about what goes on inside its gates. Flowers on many of the azaleas around the city, about two hours east of Atlanta on the Savannah River, have already begun to disappear, according to Mullis, who cares for the municipality’s plants.

The Masters isn’t the only springtime sports event in the U.S. that’s feeling the heat in its flower beds.

Officials of the Kentucky Derby, the first part of thoroughbred horse racing’s Triple Crown, said on the event’s website on March 20 that thousands of tulips typically blooming around Churchill Downs in Louisville, Kentucky, on the first Saturday in May won’t make it this year due to warm weather. About 2,100 roses will replace the tulips, which probably will bloom about two weeks before the May 5 race.

Augusta National features more than 30 varieties of azaleas on the course that bloom at different times, so the club increases its chances of having a colorful appearance during tournament week, Mullis said.

“How they do it, I don’t know,” Mullis said. “I’m sure there will be color out there, it just won’t be like a normal year.”

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