- Associated Press - Monday, April 2, 2012

AUGUSTA, GA. (AP) - Something is missing from the Masters this year, a tradition that ranks right up there with Amen Corner, endless roars on Sunday afternoon and the winner’s green jacket.

Color.

Red, pink and white azaleas that typically are ablaze for the opening round, have lost their bloom or were wilting fast. The beautiful contrast of white against the lush course comes from sand in the bunkers, not dogwoods.

Spring arrived early in many parts of the country this year, and not even Augusta National was immune.

“I saw them, but it was last week,” defending champion Charl Schwartzel said, referring to the signature shrubs. “I was here a week ago last Thursday, and they were beautiful. But the first thing I thought was, `They’re all going to be gone.’ I thought Augusta would be able to do something _ get the fans on them or something. It’s weird”

Indeed, the Masters has gone green.

The 13th hole has an estimated 1,600 azalea bushes _ that’s why it’s called “Azalea” _ yet there are only a dozen or so bushes behind the green that still have blooms. Fans on the course Monday for a practice round posed for pictures in front of one azalea bush whose pink flowers rested on a bed of pine needles.

Not to worry, golf fans. The tournament will manage to go on. The course is still as beautiful as ever, with sunlight filtering through the Georgia pines and not a blade of grass out of place. But it’s not the same. It’s like an actor without makeup. Wrigley Field without ivy. Ian Poulter dressed in white.

“You’re kidding. No flowers?” said Poulter, who arrived Monday dressed head to toe in white. “I can’t believe that.”

It’s not the first time this has happened, and if nothing else, it should put the rumors to rest that Augusta National packs ice on the azaleas to keep them from blooming until Masters week.

Those aren’t the only rumors.

“I always heard they had hot and cold water running through the pipes to control when it blooms,” Jonathan Byrd said.

Byrd added his own piece of color _ a pink ribbon on his cap with the letter “K” to celebrate the birth of his daughter, Kate, on Friday. He showed up at the Masters expecting to be asked about his chipping and putting, not jasmine and camellia.

But he understands the significance of flowers at Augusta National, built on the home of a former nursery.

“It’s what everyone thinks about,” he said.

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