Despite COVID, the Azalea retains its role as Masters tune-up
- CC of Charleston photo
- CC of Charleston photo

The Azalea Invitational has long cherished its spot on the spring calendar. Traditionally played just a couple of weeks before the Masters Tournament at Augusta National -- just 155 miles up the road -- the Azalea has long drawn a diverse field of some of the top amateurs, mid-amateurs and juniors to the Country Club of Charleston (S.C.).

The tournament has served as a final Masters tune-up for many of the amateurs who have earned invitations to the Masters over the years, with the firm, fast, and boldly contoured greens offering an exacting challenge for those intensely preparing for Augusta.

The tournament was making its usual preparations this spring when the COVID-19 pandemic began to make its presence felt across the U.S. On March 13, the Augusta National Golf Club announced the postponement of the Masters Tournament and the Azalea Invitational soon followed suit.

What followed was a total reshuffling of the golf calendar. The college golf season was cancelled, as was the British Open. The USGA's slate of national championships shrank from 14 to 4, with the U.S. Open and U.S. Women's Opens delayed into the fall. Many amateur majors cancelled while others were rescheduled. The college season has restarted, but only for some conferences as others wait until spring.

And yet, after all of the turbulence, here we are, just a couple of weeks before the Masters, and the Azalea once again prepares to host a star-studded field, including three of the six amateurs who will be teeing it up at Augusta National this November.

Lukas Michel of Australia, Yuxin Lin of China, and Abel Gallegos of Argentina will all use the Azalea as a tune-up for Augusta. All earned their Masters invitations by winning major amateur tournaments in 2019-20: the U.S. Mid-Amateur (Michel), the Asia-Pacific Amateur (Lin) and the Latin America Amateur (Gallegos).

Related: Michel makes history as first international winner of U.S. Mid-Am
Related: Lin takes down Kanaya in playoff to win another Asia-Pacific Am
Related: Life-Changer: Gallegos wins Latin America Am, Augusta awaits

Lin plays college golf for USC and probably benefits, ironically, from the PAC-12's cancellation of fall golf participation, as it frees him up to be in Charleston for the Azalea. John Augenstein of Vanderbilt, also invited to the Masters due to his runner-up finish in the 2019 U.S. Amateur, is competing this fall in the SEC (finishing second in this week's Vanderbilt Legends tournament) and so will not be in the Azalea field.

2019 U.S. Amateur champ Andy Ogletree is not in the field, but his teammate and 2020 U.S. Amateur champ Tyler Strafaci is, perhaps using the Azalea as a "tune up for the tune up", familiarizing himself with the course he is almost sure to revisit next spring in the run-up to the 2021 Masters in its usual April time slot.

Strafaci will be paired with another USGA champion, 2019 U.S. Junior winner Preston Summerhays (who also became the youngest-ever winner of the Sunnehanna Amateur this summer).

A quartet of recent U.S. Amateur semifinalists -- Matthew Sharpstene (2020), Aman Gupta (2020) Cohen Trolio (2019) and William Holcomb (2019) -- are also in the field.

There are several other top college players who have carved out the time away from campus to play in the Azalea this year, including back-to-back European Amateur champion Matthias Schmid of Louisville, Spencer Ralston of Georgia, and Philip Barbaree of LSU.

The junior contingent is as strong as ever, with four Rolex Junior First-Team All-Americans playing this week: Summerhays, Karl Vilips of Australia, Wells Williams of Mississippi, and Jackson Van Paris of North Carolina.

Throw in the usual collection of mid-amateurs like 2015 Azalea champion Todd White of South Carolina, Philip Lee of Tennessee, Nick Maccario of Massachusetts, Jake Koppenberg of Washington and others, and the Azalea will once again have the a deep and diverse field, even if it is smaller than usual at 87 players.

The course, a Seth Raynor classic, will play differently than it does in March, but the weather looks to be spring-like this week, a reminder (even in 2020) that the Masters is not too far away.

ABOUT THE Azalea Invitational

72-hole stroke play championship with a 54-hole cut on a 1925 Seth Raynor design. Good mix of college players, juniors and mid amateurs. 7 spots available in a qualifier. Impressive list of past champions at this traditional event. Reigning USGA champs often use this tournament as a tune-up for the Masters.

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