It’s a tournament unlike any other but when golf’s finest players drive up Magnolia Lane with dreams of wearing the iconic green jacket come Sunday evening, there will certainly be a different feel to the Masters.
For the first time in the major’s history, the Masters will be held in November due to the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic, and without the patrons to inspire the players there will be an eerie feel to the action. It will be in stark contrast to the eruption of noise and sea of colour that greeted Tiger Woods on the 18th green as he clinched one of the most incredible victories ever last year.
The golf calendar has been flipped upside down by the coronavirus pandemic, meaning the Masters closes out the sport’s major season instead of opening it in style. But while Dustin Johnson, Rory McIlroy, Woods and Co will have to adapt to different Augusta conditions, the unfamiliar schedule also represents a whole new world for golf’s biggest broadcasters.
Nick Dougherty is tasked with controlling the Sky Sports studio when the Masters kicks off
Sarah Stirk and Paul McGinley will take charge of the presenting and debating area
The behind-the-scenes set up for the Masters in the Sky Sports studios at Osterley
The production team get to work ahead of what will be a busy four days of Augusta action
In November last year, Sky Sports were announced as the exclusive broadcasters of the prestigious tournament from 2020 onwards, finally stepping out of the BBC’s shadow to show extensive coverage throughout the week from Augusta National.
But Sky’s big plans for their April coverage were of course scuppered by the virus outbreak – which stopped all sport in its tracks – and they have since had to scramble around to ensure they deliver the goods for those stranded at home during lockdown 2.0.
‘There is always pressure on building the best possible Masters,’ Sky Sports’ director of golf Jason Wessely exclusively told Sportsmail. ‘It is the most watched golf event of the year and this time round it is going to be during lockdown so it will be a more captive audience.
‘People have waited 19 months for a Masters to come along, and there are lots of great story lines, and there are pressures on production as we’re not there. So for all those reasons there is a lot of pressure and it is going to be a Masters like no other, therefore that unknown quantity is also quite stressful. This one definitely takes on more enormity.’
And unlike other sports that are hosted in England on Sky’s coverage, the broadcaster have obviously been dealt with the added issue of limited numbers out in Georgia for the Masters – putting even greater strain on the production side of things in their Osterley studios.
Wessely added: ‘One of the biggest challenges is that when you’re at Augusta or any other golf tournament, you have a travelling circus with you of 60 to 70 people. And that unit pretty much all fly out together, they stay in a hotel together and they work on-site together. And that unit is constantly updated and communicated within.
‘So in a way that is really easy because that is your unit for the week, and you see people in the compound, in the bar in the evening, the next morning on the way to work. And everybody is on plan and singing from the same hymn sheet because that’s the same 60 or 70 people. When it is produced back here in Sky, you are then dealing with all the departments and it brings a lot more people and departments into your orbit. It feels like the whole of Sky have been involved in making the Masters work remotely.’
Rich Beem’s on-site presence at Augusta will be vital in ensuring coverage runs smoothly
Cara Banks (left), from the Golf Channel, has been added to Sky Sports’ ranks for the Masters
In fact instead of up to 70 people out at the Masters, there will only be one regular from Sky providing live updates from the pristine course that has served up some of the most spectacular memories in major history.
And the man tasked with that job is Rich Beem, whose presence will be vital in ensuring the live coverage of the Masters runs smoothly.
When referring to the previous production of the US Open and PGA Championship, Wesseley revealed: ‘The customer won’t see a great deal of difference but I think it has been obvious not being on-site in America. That’s the big thing this year. And we haven’t been able to send our whole team over and produce on-site in San Francisco and New York.
‘And what that denies us is an on-site presence of our commentators being able to go and talk to players on the range, with our studio being right there by the range. You feel the temperature, you can touch the grass and you are connected far better into the event. And so there is a greater feeling of authenticity by being there as a production team.
‘How we have got over that is that we have learnt a lot from having an on-course commentator on-site in Rich Beem in New York and San Francisco, and we will be able to have him on course in Augusta which is great news. And using that direct feed from on-course all the way back to the studio gives us somebody with eyes and ears on the ground calling the shots as they happen, which is absolutely vital.’
And how will the team in London be able to smoothly co-operate with Beem in Georgia, you ask?
Despite the remote challenges facing Butch Harmon, he is relishing the final major of the year
Revered golf instructor Harmon will be working remotely from his study in Las Vegas
Wessely responded: ‘We have an RF feed basically from his microphone and his head-set, and there is a radio frequency that links back into the international broadcasters compound in Augusta, and then we use facilities on-site given to us that then transfer that feed all the way back to Sky via satellite. So the lag time is negligible, it is incredible technology and we are able to integrate that within our coverage.’
As well as Beem, Sky Sports have added Cara Banks from the Golf Channel to their ranks for the Masters, where she will be doing live updates from the clubhouse with players when they walk off the course.
But to make the viewing for the customer as natural as possible, Sky – who have had weekly meetings with Augusta since March about their operation – are making the most of their experience from every other US tournament to ensure everything runs smoothly from the commentary base in London.
There will be the usual presenting and debating area, where the likes of Sarah Stirk and Paul McGinley will discuss the biggest talking points and set up the days play. And there will also be a fun zone which will be dominated by Nick Dougherty, which will include a touch-screen monitor, a Zen Green – which will change shape to allow the pundits to replicate putts just like on the undulated Augusta greens – as well as a swing simulator and the Sky Scope 3D Player Swings, where the sport’s biggest names will pop up in animation form.
World No 1 Dustin Johnson pops up in animation form on the Sky Scope 3D Player Swings
Dougherty putts on the Zen Green, which changes shape to match undulated Augusta greens
But behind the scenes, the production team will carry on as normal with social distancing measures in place. Wessely added: ‘We have three cameras in the studios, and two cameramen. We have a gallery of seven people at one time, plus audio next door of two people, and then we have a separate tech room with five people in.
‘And then the commentary team and the talent, so around 30 to 40 people working at the same time in the studio on the live Masters.’
But it is certainly a far cry from non-Covid times and the weight on Sky’s shoulders is massive, relying on just two on-site reporters to deliver the goods. Meanwhile, revered golf instructor and commentator Butch Harmon will be working remotely from his home study in Las Vegas, a massive 5,200 miles away from the Osterley studios.
Harmon is making a sensational return to Sky Sports for the Masters over a year on from his last stint at the mic, when it looked like he was going to call it a day after 23 years commentating for the channel.
And Harmon, Tiger Woods’ former coach between 1993 and 2004, who now looks after the likes of Dustin Johnson and Rickie Fowler, admits it will be an extremely strange but interesting experience not being able to commentate from Augusta.
Harmon – who knows Augusta like the back of his hand with his father Claude Harmon Sr having won there in 1948 – told Sportsmail: ‘Obviously we are going to have to rely on our producer and director in our ears telling us where we are going and what’s going on. For me, I won’t have everything at my fingertips like I would if I was on-site.
As well as the Zen Green, there is a swing simulator in the Sky Sports studio during tournament
Dougherty, in the Sky studios, can be seen behind a virtual reality hole at Augusta National
Alongside a running order of next week’s coverage, Sky have sent Harmon everything he needs to cover the Masters remotely from his study. This includes a prospect commentary box and headset, a systembase codec to link audio and communication back to Sky, laptop to control codec settings and an iPad while he will also have a computer in his home that will link to Sky via Skype that will act as a back-up if there are audio and communication problems.
But despite having everything at his disposal, Harmon – who has run regular tests at his home to ensure everything is up and running properly – has one concern about the commentary side of things, which was echoed by Wessely.
When asked if it will be tougher to commentate without patrons lining up the side of the fairways at Augusta, Harmon replied: ‘Absolutely, it makes it harder for the players too. The players have talked about it, the players I coach have all talked about it.
‘Not only does it pump you up as a player when the fans get behind you but those of us that are commentating. It gets us jacked up too because you hear it, you are involved in it, you’re part of it. I think the Masters especially will be different for that reason.
‘I think you just have to pay really good attention. I am going to have to be more attentive to what is going on around me because I can’t see.’
Harmon, who will be streamed on Zoom calls to the Sky studios to give his opinion on the action as well as performing his live punditry duties, continued: ‘When you are commentating, say someone is hitting a putt on the 10th green for birdie, and they are two off the lead and you hear this tremendous roar come up from 12 or 13, where somebody either hit it in the water or made an eagle on 13, you know something just happened.
There will be an eerie feel to proceedings at the ever-beautiful Augusta this week
‘You know the running order on who is on what hole and even though you are not watching it, you can almost tell someone has just eagled 13… he is only going to be two back or one back or in the lead or whatever.’
Wessely added on the matter: ‘It’s hard for them in that respect because they are dealing with live shots with no crowd, no atmosphere and often as a commentator you wait for the crowd to erupt before saying your line and now you can’t do that, and it really alters the feel of commentary. So getting the balance right between filling those gaps and not over-talking between shots is really hard.’
Following on from Woods’ incredible achievement last April as he defied the odds to end his 11-year wait for his 15th major title, the situation could hardly be any different.
But back in Sky’s studios, and the production team are confident that their meticulous planning will allow fans to enjoy the viewing experience as much as possible from the comfort of their own homes.
Augusta, a different proposition to any other major venues, have more stringent rules regarding broadcast access but they have allowed Sky extra measures they wouldn’t usually have gotten in years gone by.
‘The biggest piece really this year is that we’re on air from 12:30pm on Thursday and Friday with the feature group coverage, putting it on the main channel whereas before that has never been seen on mainstream TV,’ Sky’s director of golf revealed.
The Masters without patrons will be in stark contrast to the eruption of noise that greeted Tiger Woods last year
‘It has always been behind a red button, an interactive feed either on the BBC or on Sky so we are getting five hours additional live coverage on our main channel starting off with some big feature groups at 12:30, which is 7:30am Eastern Time in the United States. And that is something that is a major headline that we are telling our customers about and that we’re very proud about.’
The impending doom of the second lockdown easily could have put another obstacle in Sky’s way but fortunately for them, everything will go ahead as normal with every member of staff working on the production agreeing they were happy to travel in as usual.
In the studio itself, other than the coronavirus restrictions put in place – such as temperature checks, social distancing, and making sure microphones, headsets and seats are continuously sanitised – nothing will change when the cameras roll.
These unusual times may be dragging on and causing havoc to the sporting calendar, but Sky Sports and Augusta have done all they can to ensure we witness yet another magical Masters.
From Woods’ historic achievement last year, Jack Nicklaus’ remarkable swan song in 1986, to Greg Norman’s monumental collapse in 1996… the Masters will go on and Augusta is set to throw up some even more incredible memories once again as golf’s finest chase the illustrious Green Jacket.
Watch The Masters on Sky Sports The Masters and contract-free on NOW TV for exclusive live coverage of the tournament as well as previews, highlights and archive footage
Despite the absence of patrons, the major will still serve up many magical moments