First Impressions


AUGUSTA, Ga. – They’ve left their footprints all over Augusta National without playing the course.

Now they want to leave their marks here.

They want to make history at the Masters.

Brian Gay, Francesco Molinari and Bill Haas are among 17 players who will be teeing it up Thursday in their first Masters. All three of them enjoyed up-close-and-personal introductions to the venue that didn’t include hitting shots. They’re hoping their unique connections to the place will help them join Fuzzy Zoeller as the only players to win the Masters the first time they played it (outside, of course, Horton Smith, who won the inaugural event in 1934).

Gay, 38, a three-time PGA Tour winner, spent a formative part of his youth growing up in Louisville, Ga., 40 miles south of Augusta. His mother is a native Georgian. He believes he was 9 years old when his parents took him to his first Masters. He’ll never forget asking Andy Bean for an autograph at the second tee box during a practice round and Bean waving him out onto the course to sign it.

Molinari, 27, joins his older brother, Edoardo, 29, as the first brother tandem to play the Masters since Jumbo and Joe Ozaki played together 10 years ago. The Italian siblings are close. They won the World Cup together last year. When Edoardo claimed a spot in the 2006 Masters after winning the U.S. Amateur, Francesco caddied for him. It was a special experience given they played with Tiger Woods for the first two rounds with Woods as defending champ.

Haas, 27, will become the fifth member of his extended family to play in the Masters. By winning the Bob Hope Classic in January, Haas earned his Masters invite. He joins his father, Jay, his uncles Jerry Haas and Dillard Pruitt, and his great uncle, 1968 Masters champion Bob Goalby, in the family line of Masters participants.

For Gay, this Masters is a hard-earned reward. He made it via four different qualifying categories. He made it as a Tour winner last year, through his world ranking, through his Tour Championship appearance and through his place among the top 30 on the final PGA Tour money list last season.

“It’s great, because I’ve missed it almost every way you can miss it,” Gay said.

Twice, Gay missed qualifying for the Masters by one spot on the PGA Tour money list.

“Missed by a couple dollars, really,” Gay said.

The Masters used to invite the U.S. Walker Cup team, but Gay made the team after Augusta National officials dropped the custom.

Gay came one match victory away from earning his way to the Masters through the U.S. Amateur.

“It’s exciting to make it,” Gay said. “Being from the south, growing up in the area, being the first tournament I ever went to see, the Masters was always the tournament for me.”

The downside this week is that Gay tweaked a back injury on the practice range, but he’s playing through it. He’s even writing a diary for the Augusta Chronicle.

Francesco Molinari earned his way to the Masters by making the top 50 in the world rankings at the end of last year. His brother, Edoardo, earned his second trip by also cracking the top 50. Francesco’s currently No. 41 in the world, Edoardo No. 35.

“We both wanted to be here together one day, and now we’re here and we are both playing quite well,” Francesco said. “It’s really a dream come true.”

They both arrive with momentum. Francesco tied for fourth at the European Tour’s Andalucia Open in his last start with Edoardo tying for second at the Arnold Palmer Invitational in his.

Francesco has been motivated to make it here ever since he caddied for Edoardo in that ’06 Masters. He wasn’t just inspired by his brother. He was inspired watching Woods play alongside his brother. Edoardo laughs at the memory of Francesco on his bag during any pause in play.

“I would look over, and I would see Francesco with a golf club in his hand, imagining he was hitting a shot,” Edoardo said. “I think he has a lot of fond memories of that Masters that will help him here.”

Haas is on familiar turf. His father, Jay, played in 22 Masters. Bill thinks he was 6 or 7 the first time he came with his father to watch a Masters. He caddied for his father here when he was in high school.

“I was here pretty much every year he made it when I was growing up,” Bill said. “I have a bunch of memories watching him play. It’s a dream come true to play here, but, honestly, I don’t know if I really dreamed it for myself as a kid. I always dreamed of my father winning it and didn’t think much about even playing in it.”

This special trio will be looking to strengthen their unique connections to the course in their first Masters.