AUGUSTA, Ga. — Since 1935, only one golfer has won the Masters Tournament in his first appearance: Fuzzy Zoeller in 1979.
The reason? It takes years of experience to unlock Augusta National’s secrets: the best angles into greens, the subtle pull of Rae’s Creek on putts, the places to miss shots and still have a chance to save par, the swirling wind in Amen Corner.
That’s why first-time Masters participants wind up in straitjackets, not green jackets. Usually, they leave the place shaking their heads — often after 36 holes — after struggling with the nuances of the course and the magnitude of the occasion.
At least, that’s the conventional wisdom, reinforced by the Fuzzy stat.
But professional golf is skewing younger and younger. The kids are better prepared coming out of college, hit the ball a mile and do not quake in their spikes when Tiger Woods walks by.
A record 24 first-time Masters participants will tee it up in the first round Thursday, but several already are PGA Tour winners and four are ranked among the top 25 in the world. Each is thinking the same thing: “Why not me?”
“I don’t think it’s out of the question,” said Jimmy Walker, 35, one of the first-timers. “I’m here to play well. I want to win and I think everybody here wants to do that. So why couldn’t a rookie win again?”
In the not-too-distant past, a young golfer would show up at Augusta National unprepared for the challenge that awaited him. It was up to him and his caddie to figure out the course.
Now, golfers show up with teams. Their practice is choreographed to the minute. They huddle with nurturing advisers. They get positive feedback. No one around them tells them they’re too young or inexperienced to play well.
“These days, kids have a mental coach, a strength coach, a swing coach, maybe a short-game coach,” said Jason Day, a grizzled veteran of 26. “I mean, they have so many people around them that are in place to make sure they are improving and competing.
“These kids are coming out confident. They’re coming out stronger, faster. Their games are a lot tighter and every year that goes by they are just coming out tougher to compete and play against.”
Young golfers today benefit from having played on national junior tours such as the American Junior Golf Association and then in top-notch college programs.
They have access to the best equipment, instruction and courses. They putt on fast greens every day, so the speed of Augusta National’s putting surfaces isn’t a shock to their systems.
They are taught at an early age to hit the ball hard and fear nothing.
“I’ve been watching these young guys and it’s amazing how far they hit the golf ball and how well they play,” said 83-year-old Arnold Palmer, who won his four Masters titles sans entourage.
Patrick Reed, 23, already has won three times. He recently ranked himself among the top five players in the world. He’s actually ranked 23rd but has played in only 43 PGA Tour events.
“It doesn’t matter if you’ve played here once or if you’ve played here 50 times,” said the ultra-confident Reed. “When it comes down to it, whoever is playing the best is going to walk away with the trophy.”
Jordan Spieth won the 2013 John Deere Classic two weeks short of his 20th birthday, thus becoming the first teenage winner of a Tour event since 1931. He made the U.S. Presidents Cup team as one of captain Fred Couples’ picks and has risen to No. 13 in the world ranking.
No one would be shocked if Spieth became the youngest-ever Masters champion in his first try Sunday. He’s that good.
“Jordan has a confidence about him where he doesn’t have to tell the world how good he is,” said Golf Channel’s Brandel Chamblee. “It’s an air. It’s an intangible quality that you can’t quite articulate, but you know that it’s there.”
Other top young players making their Masters debuts this week include 23-year-old Victor Dubuisson of France, ranked 21st in the world; Harris English, 24, who won a Web.com Tour event as an amateur and has since won twice on the PGA Tour; and Billy Horschel, 27, who once shot a 60 in U.S. Amateur qualifying and won the 2013 Zurich Classic in his 61st start as a pro.
Already this year, Walker and Reed have won twice and Masters rookies Kevin Stadler, Matt Every, Steven Bowditch and Matt Jones each has won once.
“It’s been such an unusual year,” said Charlie Rymer of Golf Channel. “And when unusual things happen it gives hope, it gives confidence to other players.
“You look at a Jimmy Walker or at a Patrick Reed — these guys are playing with a ton of confidence. They don’t care if Fuzzy Zoeller was the last first-timer to win here back in 1979. All they know is that the ball is going where they’re looking and it’s going in the hole and that’s what it takes to win golf tournaments.”
No one is discounting the value of experience at Augusta National. All things being equal, the golfer who has been here a few times has an advantage over the rookie because the veteran will have (hopefully) learned from his mistakes.
And everyone makes mistakes on this course.
For example, said Sweden’s Henrik Stenson: “When you come here the first time, you think it’s a good idea to hit a nice little draw left of the bunker on No. 2. But then when you overturn it and it goes in the pine needles and ends up in the creek, you realize that wasn’t the case.
“Even if a person tells you it’s not a good idea to miss it left, you don’t learn until you’re actually standing down there dropping in the trees. It’s a bit like when your parents told you not to do stuff and you still did it, right?”
That kind of local knowledge is the reason Masters rookies, if they’re smart, try to arrange practice rounds with veterans. Jordan Niebrugge, the 20-year-old amateur from Mequon, played his practice rounds with 13-time Masters veteran Steve Stricker and 2007 champion Zach Johnson.
There is a lot to be learned if the veteran is willing to share information.
“I give no advice to anybody,” said Jason Dufner, only half-joking. “They can figure it out on their own.”
Niebrugge said Stricker’s tips were invaluable. Niebrugge also spent time recently with six-time Masters champion Jack Nicklaus, who went over Augusta National shot by shot.
Eventually, though, it’s up to each player to figure out a plan that fits his game and his personality. Trial by error is the usual route.
“It’s a course where you definitely pick up a lot of things as you go along,” Stenson said. “With a few Masters under your belt, then it should become easier and easier to do well.”
Sooner or later, though, a first-time Masters participant is going to join the Fuzzy Zoeller club of one. And more are likely to follow.
“You see Rory (McIlroy), who is so young (24) and already has won a couple majors,” Spieth said. “Patrick Reed has already won three times within a six-month stretch. Guys are not scared to win. I believe that it doesn’t take as much experience as maybe guys would have thought five or six years ago.
“I can see where it’s difficult. But at the same time if you’re hitting the ball well enough and you’re putting well enough, it doesn’t matter where you’re playing. You can still win the golf tournament. I don’t see that it’s a big deal at all.”