The Masters golf tournament appreciates fresh blood but typically insists on taking a pint of it before rewarding players.
Throw out the first two years of the Masters when everyone was essentially a rookie and Fuzzy Zoeller is the only first-timer to win at Augusta National – and that was 35 years ago.
Like cell phones and patrons running, rookie champions aren’t part of the Masters scene. There’s a strong sense, however, that might change in this Tiger-less Masters.
“Doesn’t matter if you’ve played here once or if you’ve played here 50 times,” said Patrick Reed, one of the 24 first-timers this year.
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“When it comes down to it, it’s just going to be one of those things that whoever is playing the best is going to walk away with the trophy.”
Reed has a matter-of-fact quality, which helps explain why he proclaimed himself one of the five best players in the world after his victory at the WCG-Cadillac Championship last month, his third win since last August.
From a sheer numbers perspective, this could be the year when a Masters rookie wins again considering more than one-fourth of the 97-man field is here for the first time. Subtract the Tiger Woods factor, throw in the recent trend of stars failing to finish on Sunday (Rory McIlroy, Adam Scott and Matt Kuchar) and the odds increase.
But, as veteran Davis Love III said recently, “It’s still Augusta.”
It’s still as much about knowing where not to hit shots as where to hit them. It’s about finding the delicate blend of aggressive and conservative play that Augusta National rewards. It’s about not being overwhelmed by the moment or feeling bulletproof.
“Obviously, experience and knowledge of the golf course is helpful,” defending champion Adam Scott said. “But it depends. If you go there and play well the first time, I think you can (win). There are some really talented guys showing up for the first time that are confident and believe they can win. And they should believe that.”
In addition to Reed, Jimmy Walker has three PGA Tour victories since last fall. Harris English, who looks built to be a Masters contender for years, has won twice. Victor Dubuisson, Graham DeLaet and Jordan Spieth are other first-timers who are likely contenders.
Phil Mickelson, who knows a thing or two about playing Augusta National, said he thinks this could be the first Masters in a few years where the greens are what he calls “Masters speed.” That means having a quickness that borders on dangerous, enhancing the subtleties of putting surfaces that possess a sort of gravitational pull toward Rae’s Creek in one corner of the property.
Especially at Augusta National, the more you play, the more you learn how to play the course. If the greens get fiery as Mickelson expects, it will limit the list of potential winners.
“Then players who have had multiple years playing here and know how to play certain holes, how to play certain pin placements, will have a distinct advantage,” Mickelson said.
“If the greens play firm and fast, I think you’re looking at less than a dozen (possible winners) But if it doesn’t, I think you’re looking at almost half the field.”
Spieth, who was a teenager when he watched Scott win last year’s Masters, came to Augusta last weekend and spent a couple of days at the club to “get the awe factor out.” He went into the champions locker room, studied the framed clubs donated by former champions and finally got to play his favorite hole, the par-3 16th.
Then Spieth went about getting ready to try and win the Masters.
“I think there’s an emphasis on (the lack of) first-time winners,” Spieth said. “But I don’t see it as a big deal at all. I think if I get my game ready, then it’s possible.”