By Jeff Shain, PGATOUR.COM
John Peterson may never be greeted with a bigger audience for an opening tee shot. Or faced a tougher act to follow.
Peterson went largely anonymous, though, as a swarm of humanity jammed around Augusta National’s first tee in the final minutes before his Masters debut last Thursday. Arnold Palmer, Jack Nicklaus and Gary Player were the objects of attention.
As luck of the draw would have it, Peterson was assigned to hit the first shot after the Big Three struck their ceremonial opening drives.
“I’m putting there behind the first tee,” Peterson said with a chuckle, “and not a single person is watching what I’m doing.”
Sometimes it’s the intimate moments – even in the middle of a crowd – that breathe life into a memory.
“I didn’t really realize when I was playing how big a moment I was part of, I guess,” the Louisiana pro said.
Hey, only one person each year gets to bat cleanup after Palmer, Player and Nicklaus. Then again, Peterson’s very presence in the lineup was a historic moment of sorts.
Never before had an active Web.com Tour member had a spot reserved for him in the Masters field. Peterson earned his from last year’s U.S. Open, where his tie for fourth at Olympic Club punched a highly unusual golden ticket.
He made it count, too, using an opening 1-under-par 71 as a springboard to make the cut. Though he took his lumps on the weekend, finishing with a tie for 60th, it might have been the only disappointing outcome from the week.
“I just struggled on the weekend,” he said. “Two more rounds at Augusta National never can hurt. I think I learned more in those last two rounds than I did in the first two. Next time I get there, I’ll be more ready.”
Right now, the 2011 NCAA champion just needs to decompress a bit. As he learned at the U.S. Open, playing a major requires far more energy – physical and mental – than your typical tournament.
Every shot is magnified; every decision seems to carry weightier impact.
“I didn’t really understand the kind of pressure that a tournament like that puts on you until you leave,” said Peterson, who will spend this coming weekend in South Carolina as fellow Web.com Tour pro Kelly Kraft gets married.
“I got here, and it was like a huge relief off my shoulders. People kind of build up the pressure to be more than it is. But then once you leave, you realize how big a moment you were part of.”
Or the people you’re hobnobbing with. Playing last Wednesday’s Par-3 Tournament, Peterson and fellow LSU alum David Toms stepped to the seventh tee to find one of Augusta National’s historic trailblazing members.
Former U.S. secretary of state Condoleezza Rice, who with South Carolina financier Darla Moore became ANGC’s first women members last fall, was happy to chat with the duo as they waited for the green to clear.
“That was cooler than meeting a golfer or someone in sports,” said Peterson, who shares the former secretary’s conservative views.
“She’s obviously one of our great politicians, but she really doesn’t like to talk about that. She likes to talk about golf and being a member. She was enjoying her first Masters, and since this is also my first Masters we started talking about that.”
Moments later, the afternoon took another uptick when Peterson nearly aced No.7, watching his ball fly perhaps six inches past the flagstick.
The next morning, Peterson had a laugh as he and Player warmed up in the quiet of Augusta National’s practice range.
“Arnold and Jack were in the clubhouse, but Gary was doing a full warmup,” Peterson said. “He did all these stretches and went all through the bag – just for one shot! I guess that’s how much energy he has. I thought it was pretty cool.”
One of Peterson’s practice rounds included a young Aussie named Marc Leishman, a Masters rookie who the rest of the audience soon would get to know as he led the opening round and stayed in contention until late in Sunday’s back nine.
“He was pretty sharp in the practice rounds,” Peterson said. “I was impressed."
Peterson’s opening 71 wasn’t bad, either, though he quickly found out what Augusta’s learning curve looks like.
He arrived confident in his putting, which helped him to top-16 finishes at the Chile Classic and Chitimacha Louisiana Open. After playing his first 16 holes without a bogey, though, he started falling victim.
Facing a 6-foot par save at No.17, he struck a putt with the intent of watching it curl right-to-left about 3 inches. Instead, it traveled slightly left-to-right.
“From my view, it looked like it broke uphill,” he said. “Then I remembered Rae’s Creek was to the right. You’ve got to keep that in mind on every hole.”
By the finish, Augusta National’s greens had so confounded his thinking that he was merely guessing on some putts. “When you’re confused over the ball, you’re not going to make anything,” he said.
After Augusta National, stepping back to the Web.com Tour might bring the danger of a letdown. Fortunately Peterson will have a chance to do it in steps, accepting a sponsor invitation to the PGA TOUR’s Zurich Classic next week.
But he knows if he wants to get back to the Masters, his path is best served going through the Web.com Tour.
“I need to get my card there to get to the PGA TOUR next year,” he said. “No matter whether it’s a mini tour event or the Masters, you want to play your best. I’m going to try to treat it the same as I would Augusta.”
It’s unlikely, though, that he’ll take the time to soak in the final hole at Athens or Knoxville or Omaha in the same way he and caddie Gentry Mangun did amid the dogwoods and azaleas at No.18.
“I looked at him and said, ‘Hey, dude, let’s just slow down a second.’ We got about 50 or 60 yards from the green and I said let’s just slow down and take all this in.
“Having the people stand up and clap for you when you come on the last green – that’s stuff I’d only seen on TV. It was really, really cool. That’s going to be something I remember forever.