magnolia trees
© Curtis ComptonAn overnight storm April 5 knocked down a 160-year-old tree at Augusta National, one of the 61 magnolias lining the drive from Washington Road to the clubhouse's circular driveway.
Students of Masters history know that 61 magnolia trees have lined the drive from Washington Road to the clubhouse's circular driveway for decades.

Early Tuesday morning, though, Augusta National's famed Magnolia Lane sprang a leak.

"I guess it has 60 magnolia trees now, instead of 61," Phil Mickelson said.

An overnight storm knocked down a 160-year-old tree whose canopy helped create an essential element of Masters tradition -- the drive from Washington to the clubhouse, which beckons in gleaming white at the end of the roughly 330-yard drive. Tuesday, a sunny patch about halfway down the lane broke up the eastern row of magnolias like a gap tooth. By 10 a.m., much of the tree, which fell away from the road, had been removed.

"I was surprised that it wasn't replaced in the first half-hour," said Mickelson, poking fun at the club's compulsion to keep its grounds immaculate. "I don't understand how that happened. I think Chairman [Billy] Payne must have been sleeping."

Club spokesman Steve Ethun played along when asked if the tree would be replaced.

"It will be," he said, smiling. "Probably by tonight."

Shrouded in shade and history, the drive up Magnolia is invariably a highlight for tournament participants. Mickelson said it re-energizes him.

"This place does it right," said Mickelson, the defending champion and a three-time winner.

The gusting winds and heavy rain also felled a handful of trees on the course, including a tall pine to the right of the first fairway, and littered the pristine fairways with branches, pine cones and clusters of pollen. Wood chippers and chainsaws buzzed as fans arrived.

Tournament officials kept fans off the course until 8:45 a.m., 45 minutes later than normal. Workers carted off fallen tree branches, raked and used blowers, scurrying like party hosts cleaning up a mess before the guests arrive.

Around 9:45, perhaps 40 workers, including a blue-blazered gallery guard, raked up a section of the eighth fairway perhaps 50 yards by 15 yards. One of them even scooped up pollen clusters with his hands.

By about 10, it was one more idyllic morning at the Masters. Stiff winds flapped flags and pant legs and blew clouds across azure skies. Happy fans toted bags full of paraphernalia, snapped pictures and headed to their favorite spots on the course. The eighth fairway looked like the lush green carpet it had been before the storm.

"You would never know anything happened," said Frank Fiore, a first-time visitor from Tellico Village, Tenn. "Absolutely amazing."

Like practically everything else on the club's 365 acres, the magnolias have a story. They date to the late 1850s, when the property was a nursery and owned by the Belgian nobleman Baron Louis Berckmans. Along both sides of the dirt driveway, Berckmans' son planted magnolia seeds, which had grown into full-sized trees by 1931, when club co-founders Bobby Jones and Clifford Roberts first saw the grounds. Because the trees' branches were so long and low to the ground, making it difficult for cars to pass safely, they toyed with moving the main entrance, according to David Owen, author of The Making of the Masters.

Roberts gave great attention and care to the magnolias and trees on the course, often consulting with forestry professors and reading about tree care. Were he still alive, Roberts likely would be dismayed to hear that magnolias typically have a lifespan of 100 to 150 years, according to Donna Rayfield of the Georgia Arborist Association. Replacements likely wouldn't be too great a problem for Augusta National's honchos.

"They have both the means and the willingness to do dramatic things with trees," Owen said.