Masters rookies have great chance to join exclusive club

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Go ahead and ask Fuzzy Zoeller if he has any advice for this year’s crop of Masters rookies. I dare you to try and spit out the entire question before he bursts in and starts dispensing advice.

Betcha can’t do it.

“They’re making a big mistake,” he interjected when I attempted that mission. “A lot of local knowledge goes into that tournament, so they should take a local caddie. Jeepers, what an advantage to have a guy who knows the course.”

He would know.

Thirty-five years ago, he became the only true first-timer to win in his initial trip down Magnolia Lane. Oh, sure, Horton Smith and Gene Sarazen were technically rookies – and Zoeller considers them part of the exclusive club – but prevailing in the first and second editions of the tournament, respectively, hardly offered the same stature as a guy toppling fellow competitors with a decade or two of experience among the azaleas.

With one potential spot remaining, there are 23 fresh-faced rookies in this year’s 96-man field, but the quality is more stunning than the quantity.

Five of ‘em already own multiple PGA Tour titles, including Jimmy Walker and Patrick Reed, each of whom have three in the past calendar year. Jordan Spieth only has one, but he’ll make his debut as the 13th-ranked player in the world. Others, such as Graham DeLaet, Billy Horschel and Victor Dubuisson, will arrive armed with the ball-striking abilities necessary to master Augusta National.


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All of which leads to this question: Can someone join the club this week?

As Zoeller himself insists, “There’s nothing impossible about it.”

He’s got plenty of company in that camp – and a lot of it comes from this year’s rookie class.

“I'm going to have to play my butt off,” Spieth said. “I have to have my A-plus game there, because I think it definitely helps to see that golf course multiple times. But if we go through the right preparation, I'm on my game, then I feel like I've got a good shot at it.”

“Whoever shows up at an event nowadays has a chance to win,” Reed said. “I'm definitely not going to say that I don't have a chance of winning. I feel like I do. But at the same time, I'm going to have to put four really good rounds together.”

That rallying cry doesn’t differ much from those of the dozens of competitors who are making a return appearance to Augusta. Which is pretty much the point. More than ever before, inexperienced players are seemingly imbued with the confidence to defeat ones who own more hardware.

Just in the past month, Reed triumphed over an elite field at the WGC-Cadillac Championship, Matt Every overtook Adam Scott at the Arnold Palmer Invitational and Steven Bowditch held off Matt Kuchar at the Valero Texas Open.

Each of them will be a Masters rookie and even though history tells us seasoned players have an advantage at Augusta, these recent results could negate that notion.

“The greens are really tough so obviously the Phils and the Tigers and Adam Scott, they're going to have kind of the upper hand,” said Harris English, one of those 23 rookies. “[But] there's a lot of good young guys who have not played the Masters yet that will probably get a good run.”

Much of that is because of pure talent, but a lot of it is due to the fact that unlike all other majors, there is a traditional sameness to the venue. Following his win, Bowditch admitted he knows the course mostly through playing it on PlayStation.

“I feel like I know the golf course from watching it as much as I have on TV,” DeLaet said. “You just have to hit it straight, hit it close and make putts.”

He punctuated that thought with a laugh – and it could be a rookie who laughs last or laughs all the way to the bank or one of a number of chuckle-related clichés.

Even so, most of the first-time participants – if not all – will fail to heed Zoeller’s advice about taking a local caddie. That’s OK, though. He’s got some other advice, too.

“Have fun and enjoy it,” he recommended. “It is a spectacular place. I think everyone plays better when they’re enjoying it.”

And if they do? Well, there just might be another member of that exclusive club.

“I’d welcome them with arms open,” Zoeller said. “Besides, we need a foursome.”