Historic Masters rookie class could make noise
April 06, 2014
By Helen Ross, PGATOUR.COM
- Three times a winner in the last nine months, Patrick Reed will be one to watch at Augusta. (Chris Condon/PGA TOUR)
When was the last time two players made their Masters debuts with three PGA TOUR wins already on their resumes?
Would you believe never? That's right. So history will be made this week when FedExCup leader Jimmy Walker and Patrick Reed, who stands second in the rankings, tee it up at Augusta National with 22 other Masters rookies.
Sam Snead is the only other player to compete in his first Masters -- well, technically, the tournament was called the Augusta National Invitational back then -- after having already won three tournaments. He did it in 1937 -- the fourth time that what has become the season's first major was contested at Augusta National.
The 1937 Masters, in fact, marked Snead's first appearance in any major, as is the case for Reed this year.
That said, it's been 35 years since a player won the Masters in his first appearance -- and the answer to that trivia question is Fuzzy Zoeller in 1979. Augusta National is a course with as many nuances as azalea blossoms and its history, at times, particularly on the back nine on Sunday, can be overpowering.
So while Walker and Reed are the hottest players in the game right now, the Adam Scotts and Rory McIlroys of the world enter the Masters as the favorites. But if there is ever to be another "rookie" winner like Zoeller this crop of first-timers offers several strong candidates.
Walker set the tone for his breakout year early when he won the Frys.com Open to kick off the new 2013-2014 wrap-around PGA TOUR season. The 36-year-old picked up two more victories in his next seven starts and has quietly held onto the top spot in the FedExCup all season sans one week in early 2014.
"I'm having a lot of fun," Walker said. "It's just validation for me, a lot of years being out here and working hard. And to see it all kind of pay off, that's what I've been waiting for. ... And (I'm going to) keep working hard (because I) want to keep doing it."
Reed's three wins, meanwhile, came in a span of 14 starts dating back to last year's Wyndham Championship where he denied 20-year-old phenom Jordan Spieth what would have been his second PGA TOUR win in a four-week stretch. Spieth, who ended the season as the PGA TOUR Rookie of the year, will be playing in the Masters for the first time, too.
Two other Augusta National rookies -- Harris English and Jonas Blixt -- have already won twice on TOUR, and six others have one win under their belts.
Small wonder, then, that CBS' Jim Nantz, who is broadcasting the Masters for the 29th consecutive year, feels these youngsters could provide a major storyline -- particularly now that Tiger Woods had to withdraw after having back surgery last week.
"I think we're going to see something special happen from this rookie class," Nantz said. "I think once this tournament starts we're going to see a pretty quick transition from fact that Tiger isn't here to young players like Jordan Spieth and Patrick Reed having an impact. I expect big things from these guys.
"I know the track record for rookies at the Masters is not good but these guys don't care about past history and how they are supposed to perform. Jordan has proven that every step of the way seeing courses for the first time. And Reed is fearless. I think both are going to do exceptionally well."
Reed, who played Augusta National three times while a student at nearby Augusta State, doesn't figure to be intimidated by his surroundings. Not to mention, the 23-year-old beat many of these same pros at the World Golf Championships-Cadillac Championship last month -- where he essentially anointed himself as one of the top-five players in the world during his post-round remarks.
Reed's supreme confidence may have been off-putting to some. People even started calling him America's Ian Poulter, a comparison which, by the way, Reed loves.
But like so many of the game's up-and-comers, Reed learned by emulating the game's ultimate closer -- even adopting Woods' penchant for wearing red on Sundays ever since his junior golf days.
"It's one of those things we grew up watching the great players and Tiger, what he's done, that has pushed us harder to want to reach our goals," Reed said. "And we want to basically play the game how he's done and the dominant fashion that he's done. ...
"And we see guys like Dustin Johnson and Bubba Watson who win, who hit the ball 5,000 yards, hit driver, wedge on every hole. And you have guys like Zach Johnson who really think and strategize around the golf course. And the year he won the Masters, didn't go for a single par 5. But led the field in birdies on par 5s in stroke average.
"And it's one of those things we're all believing there's a lot of different ways to win, a lot of different ways to be competitive. And with that aspect we're just trying to find basically what works for us and it just seems to be working."
Spieth certainly found his comfort zone on TOUR quickly, starting the 2013 season with no status, winning the John Deere Classic, making the elite field of 30 at the TOUR Championship and nabbing a Captain's Pick for the Presidents Cup.
Still, he's only two years removed from the University of Texas golfer who played in Augusta State's tournament the weekend prior to the Masters, then was in Vijay Singh's gallery on Monday when the World Golf Hall of Famer skipped the ball across the water in front of the green at the par-3 16th.
This Sunday, Spieth expects to have dinner with his former Longhorn teammates after they finish the tournament. He'll likely be playing nine holes on Monday with two-time Masters champion Ben Crenshaw, a fellow Texan. Spieth hopes to play with Ryder Cup Captain Tom watson, as well.
But can he win?
"I think so," Spieth said. "... I'm going to have to play my butt off, 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."