AUGUSTA, Ga. — By the telling of the men who play golf at Augusta National Golf Club, particularly those who arrive this week for their fourth or eighth or 12th Masters, there is no way to know what you’re seeing until you have seen it a year later, and a year after that, time and again. Since Horton Smith won the very first Masters in 1934, only two players have taken the green jacket in their first trip here — Gene Sarazen, who won the very next year, and Fuzzy Zoeller, who won in 1979.
For all the fawning language and pastoral shots that will accompany this week’s television coverage — and Monday kicked off what is projected to be a warm Masters week, though the early spring has nearly closed azalea season — there is a nastiness beyond the beauty that must somehow be tamed. History would suggest the ability to do so isn’t inbred. It’s learned.
“It’s an intimidating place,” said Paul Azinger, who played in 16 Masters. “Everybody who’s going there as a first-timer has watched it on television. They know the significance of what it means to win that event.”
Jack Nicklaus won a record six green jackets, yet didn’t take the first till his fifth try. Nick Faldo won on his sixth, Vijay Singh his seventh, Jose Maria Olazabal his eighth. Phil Mickelson is one of eight players with at least three Masters victories, but it took him 12 painstaking trips to get that first one. That sounds easy to Ben Crenshaw. He won the first of his two green jackets on his 13th trip. On average, champions have played six Masters before winning.
Keegan Bradley walked into the PGA Championship last August, the first major championship of his young career, and promptly won the thing. That got Bradley into this Masters, his first. Here, the record books would say he has no shot. Webb Simpson has won twice in the past year and risen to 10th in the world rankings. He even played Augusta National for the first time when he was 12. Yet this is the first time he has qualified for the tournament, so how can he be among the list of likely winners? History would say he can’t.
Simpson, acting the veteran, said he knows the reason. At Augusta National, where you should place your shots isn’t as important as where you shouldn’t. That’s a hard lesson to learn, because those two spots — perfect and disastrous — can lie perilously close together.
“You need to know where you can miss shots around here,” Simpson said. “It’s so hard to be precise on every hole.”
Take the very first hole, just as an example. The slight dogleg right typically features a pin on the left-hand side of the elevated green one of the first two days, a tempting target. But miss left, and the ball will roll well down the slope, leaving a nearly impossible up-and-down. A slight difference in execution — say, an extra yard or two one way or the other — can bring entirely disparate results.
“An inch or two here or there can mean the difference in 100 feet or 50 feet,” Azinger said.
Ten years ago, Adam Scott arrived from Australia for his first Masters, a precocious 21-year-old. He never shot worse than par, finished tied for ninth, and thought, he said Monday, “What’s the big deal?” It took him until last year, when he tied for second behind Charl Schwartzel in a thrilling Sunday finish, to get back in the top 10.
“If you have a few tough rounds out here — and I have out here — and it gets away from you,” Scott said, “you actually feel a little embarrassed because it looks so ugly.”
For a first-timer, that can take years to overcome. In a way, though, last year’s tournament defied the idea that you don’t know what you’re doing until you know what you’re doing. Schwartzel became the first player to birdie the final four holes to win, and he did so in just his second Masters. One of the players he beat was Jason Day, a 24-year-old Australian playing his first. Day, though, did his best to replicate the experience before he had it himself. He chatted with Faldo, who won here three times, then walked the course with other veterans.
“You can go around to all of the past champions and pick their brains,” he said. “Just keep asking questions. Just go through 18 holes.”
Because for each of the pin positions on each of those 18 holes, there’s a place to be and a place to avoid, and knowing which is which, in most cases, can only be determined over time.