Beginners in a Masters course

MICHAEL MADRID / USA TODAY SPORTS Jordan Spieth, ranked 13th, could break the rookie drought.
MICHAEL MADRID / USA TODAY SPORTS Jordan Spieth, ranked 13th, could break the rookie drought.
Posted: April 11, 2014

AUGUSTA, Ga. - It was a Kodak moment unto itself, and it might foreshadow a Sunday scene.

Fuzzy Zoeller walked down the narrow strip of land next to the water on the ninth hole of Augusta National's par-3 course. Tall, lanky Harris English ambled along beside him. Zoeller reached over and put his right arm around English's shoulders and looked up.

"Go out," Zoeller said, "and kick some butt."

Easier said than done.

Twenty-four rookies will tee off in today's first round of the Masters, a record in the 77-year history of the tournament. Only once since the second edition of the Masters has a rookie won it.

That rookie was Fuzzy Zoeller, 35 years ago, in 1979. Or, 10 years before English was born.

It's about time, Zoeller said.

"If it's ever going to happen again, this would be a beautiful year for it to happen," Zoeller said. "There is a ton of talent in this field."

Jordan Spieth is only 20, but he's the highest-ranked rookie in the field, 13th in the world. Jimmy Walker, 35, was 3 months old when Zoeller won; three wins since October have vaulted him to 24th in the world. Canadian star Graham DeLaet, ranked 30th, had a breakout 2013.

English is 36th, with two wins since June, and he hasn't missed a cut in 15 events.

Zoeller hope he makes it 16.

"Records are made to be broken," Zoeller said. "I'm pulling for him."

English could hardly have better karma for his Masters debut.

During a practice round Sunday, he made a hole-in-one with a wedge on the 142-yard 12th hole, the second ace of his life and the first as a professional, even in practice.

Yesterday, Augusta National chairman and Georgia alum Billy Payne betrayed his rooting interest: "I'm still trying to run down the University of Georgia guy, Harris English."

English, born in Valdosta, was on the golf team at Georgia, so he played Augusta National once each of his 4 years there.

"It's pretty cool," English said of the positive vibes.

Patrick Reed went to school even closer, at Augusta State. With three wins since August, Reed (the guy whose petite wife lugged his big tour bag as his caddie until recently) is brimming with confidence. He played the National three times in college, but he never made the sacred drive down Magnolia Lane.

"I wanted to put it in reverse," he said, "and do it again."

Clearly, he expects to do it again, and again.

"Doesn't matter if you've played here once or if you've played here 50 times," he said. "I feel like, with the competition these days, that whoever is playing the best - whether you have experience or don't - is going to pull off a victory."

He might want to exercise caution when scoffing at history. Neither Tiger Woods nor Jack Nicklaus won in his first two Masters tournaments, but both were amateurs then. Tiger won in his professional debut, and Jack won in his second try as a pro.

Typically, though, it takes more than a few strolls around the grounds to solve the National.

Henrik Stenson, the Swede who won the FedEx Cup last year and had two top-three finishes in the majors, will be playing his ninth consecutive Masters. He has missed the cut three times, twice in his last four tries. He finished 18th last year and has never finished better than 17th.

He is ranked third in the world, but you get the idea he still hasn't figured out Augusta National.

"It's the type of golf course where you can only accumulate experience from your mistakes. It's hard to take it all in over a couple of practice rounds," said Stenson, who, of course, missed the cut as a rookie. "This place can play so different, depending on the conditions. It can be cold and windy, or firm and fast, or soft and spinny. It takes times to build up that knowledge. There's probably not another course like it in the world."

The course's changing faces, its idiosyncrasies, its blind shots and its "diabolical" greens, to use Spieth's description, simply overwhelm first-timers.

"And, of course, it's a major championship," Stenson said.

None of that seems to faze the rookies.

Spieth has visited Augusta National twice since October, arrived Saturday for the tournament and has practiced constantly.

"I can see where it's difficult, definitely. But at the same time, I mean, if you're hitting the ball well enough and you're putting well enough, it doesn't matter where you're playing," he said. "I don't see that it's a big deal at all. I think that if I get my game ready, then it's possible."

But not probable. Not with what is demanded on and around these massive greens.

On Tuesday, Spieth chatted with putting legend Ben Crenshaw, the 1984 and '95 champion and a fellow Texas Longhorn, who cautioned Spieth to concentrate on speed, not line. Spieth could not get over how the laws of physics seem to be suspended on the National's short grass.

"It's the subtleties of the straight putts and the pull of Rae's Creek behind 12 green, 11 green," Spieth said. "Putts you think would be so straight [are not]; it's hard to get a grasp of, until you're on the course in tournament conditions and you can really see it."

Exactly.

Not all of the rookies are as brash as Spieth and Reed.

Steven Bowditch, a tour veteran who qualified for the first time with a win 2 weeks ago, joined fellow Australian and defending champion Adam Scott for an afternoon front nine Tuesday. Scott and his caddie, Steve Williams, a Masters savant who also caddied for Raymond Floyd and Woods, offered advice whenever Bowditch asked . . . but never too much.

"I think too much could be overwhelming for them, so I'm certainly not going to just give them verbal diarrhea about everything I've learned about the course," Scott said.

Scott drew chuckles when he recalled that, in his first Masters, he teed off with Zoeller, who, with typical irreverence, whistled a tune as they left the first tee.

Bowditch, like Scott, will be flying relatively blind. They didn't have connections like Walker's. He played the National as the guest of a member in 2011. He returned in December, and again last month. That should be enough, he said.

"I don't feel like a rookie," he said. "I feel like a pretty seasoned veteran."

Walker could be the exception to the rookie rule, as Zoeller was and like English hopes to be.

"Walking with [Zoeller], I was laughing pretty much the whole time," English said. "Got the nerves out of the way."

Nerves don't seem to be an issue with this group. They are different - Spieth is spunky, Reed is fidgety, Walker and English as laconic as they come - but they all have a chance to win.

Rest assured, ol' Fuzzy will be right there, waiting with a hug.


Email: hayesm@phillynews.com

On Twitter: @inkstainedretch

Blog: ph.ly/DNL

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