AUGUSTA, Ga. — Fuzzy Zoeller is the only living member of the most exclusive club in Augusta National history — rookie Masters Tournament winners.
The time might be ripe for another one to join him.
“I don’t see why not,” said Jimmy Walker, one of the most accomplished first-timers in the largest and arguably best freshman class in Masters history.
Eighty years of evidence suggests that it typically requires experience to win the Masters. Excluding the inaugural Masters in 1934 — when Horton Smith beat 71 fellow rookies — only Gene Sarazen in 1935 and Zoeller in 1979 defied the odds and won with zero prior Augusta experience.
As two-time winner Tom Watson once said, “It’s not written in stone that first-time players don’t have a chance to win, but anyone who’s playing it for the first time has a difficult chance.”
A demanding golf course and charged major atmosphere are typically the impediments to the uninitiated. But Jason Day nearly “pulled a Fuzzy” with a runner-up charge in his debut in 2011. He’s an example of the fearless young golfers who arrive on tour oozing confidence that once was considered something players earned.
“Usually it takes a few years on tour before a player can win, but that seems to be less and less the case,” said two-time U.S. Open champion Curtis Strange. “These guys come out more ready.”
Patrick Reed, the 23-year-old from Augusta State, won three tour events before ever appearing in his first major and promptly announced that he felt like one of the top five players in the world.
“I’m very confident,” Reed said Monday.
He’s not alone. Jordan Spieth is just 20 years old and already ranked No. 13 in the world. Walker is 35 but bloomed late with three victories already this season. Harris English is just 24 with a pair of wins since last year’s Masters.
In all, 14 of this year’s first-timers are ranked among the top 60 in the world — which has proven to be a threshold for previous Masters champions as No. 69 Angel Cabrera in 2009 was the only winner to ever be ranked higher. Those 14 players have a combined 24 victories on either the PGA or European tours, seven of them with more than one.
“I think kids these days, like I said before, they are coming out confident,” said Day, who at age 26 already has a second and third in the Masters. “They are coming out stronger, faster. Their game is a lot tighter and every year that goes by, they are just coming out tougher to compete and play against.”
There are plenty of theories as to why that may be the case. Day believes that young players today are coached better in all aspects of their game than generations before. Davis Love III thinks the things that used to make Augusta National a feared venue have dissipated as the rest of the golf world tries to emulate the club.
“It used to be you’d go to Augusta and those would be the fastest greens you putted — there and Memorial,” Love said. “Now, every other week is really, really fast. There are a lot of things guys are a little more prepared for.”
Defending champion Adam Scott, who finished tied for ninth in his Masters debut in 2002, thinks the nature of the golf course has changed to invite more styles of players to compete.
“It’s different from when I started,” Scott said. “I find driving accuracy there to be more of a factor than when I started playing Augusta. When I first went there, all I was told is your short game has to be amazing otherwise you don’t have a chance. I think it’s asking more of all parts of your game.”
Not to say the challenge isn’t still difficult — especially under major championship intensity.
“Probably the most sophisticated and most complicated set of greens in 18 holes ever put together,” said former PGA champion Paul Azinger. “I mean, every hole right out of the gate, starting with No. 1, and it takes a long time to understand the greens. … But there’s nobody going there naïve. Everybody who has qualified, if you’re referring to a Jordan Spieth‑type, he’s probably watched the Masters a dozen times or more. So they all know and feel the pressure but the golf course is just plain hard.”
Strange believes that it’s the allure of the green jacket awaiting at the end that dooms most first-timers when it matters.
“You might be calm, cool and collected and comfortable until you get to the weekend and if you are playing well, it’s a completely different animal there,” he said. “I experienced it at my first time to try to win there and everybody did. It is amped up, on steroids, everything how you can describe it on the back side on the weekend.
“We’ll see who the men really are come Saturday and Sunday on the back side. It doesn’t mean they can’t win but I think everything has to go their way. … I think they are prepared more than they were, they are more knowledgeable than we were but still the Masters brings on a lot of anxiety.”
Said Love: “Patrick has won a World Golf Championship. He’s been around big crowds and big tournaments. Jordan has had a pretty busy year. He’s got experience more than most guys. It’s still Augusta. It’s the Masters. It’s not easy but they probably have a better chance than guys in the past.”
The guys most talked about as potential rookie winners are Spieth, Reed, Walker and English. But 23-year-old Frenchman Victor Dubuisson is ranked 21st in the world and displayed an uncanny short game in reaching the finals of the WGC Match Play and broke through with a victory over Tiger Woods in Turkey last fall.
“I wouldn’t be a bit surprised if one of these young guys has a chance at the end,” said Andy North, another two-time U.S. Open champion.
Neither would any of these rookies.
“I don’t think it’s out of the question,” Walker said. “I’m here to play well. And I’m here to have a chance. I want to win and I think everybody here wants to do that. So why couldn’t a rookie win again?”
There are seven champions from the last decade in the field who are secure in the knowledge that they still have what it takes to win here. But there are 18 professional rookies who arrived not knowing that they can’t.
Sometimes, not knowing any better might be just what it takes to be the next Fuzzy.
“Doesn’t matter if you’ve played here once or if you’ve played here 50 times,” Reed said. “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.”
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