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Time might be right for first-timer to win Masters

By Teddy Greenstein, Chicago Tribune –

AUGUSTA, Ga. — Nick Faldo had won twice on the European Tour and finished seventh in the British Open when he debuted at the Masters in 1979.

Yet he recalled driving down Magnolia Lane and not being able to breathe.

“The first time you arrive on the grounds, you actually see a sign that says: ‘Keep off the grass,’ “ he said. “So you think: This is going to be a tricky week.”

Oh, how the Masters has changed. In essence, there are no first-time players here.

There are 15 “first-time participants,” as Masters Chairman Billy Payne called them, but how do you classify Kyle Stanley, who logged rounds here as a sophomore at Clemson? Or Scott Stallings, who had been on the course 14 times before returning Monday? Or Webb Simpson, who first played Augusta National when he was 12?

“That’s the most important thing as a rookie,” said Faldo, a CBS analyst who won three green jackets. “Come in the week before, get your acclimatization, get over all the aura, and then when you come back tournament week, you’re ready to play.”

Simpson, 26, grew up five hours away in Raleigh, N.C., and was able to play as a youngster because the pro at his home course had worked at Augusta National.

“I remember it like it was yesterday,” he said.

On the 18th hole, Sam Simpson told his son that if he made a birdie, he’d buy him a Scotty Cameron touring putter he’d been eyeing. The 12-year-old Simpson hit driver, 3-wood to 4 feet but could not strike gold.

“We go to the pro shop, and he’s feeling bad for me and gets me the putter anyway,” recalled Simpson, who shot an 80 that day. He returned as a 20-year-old and carded a 72.

Only three first-timers have won here, and only one really counts. Horton Smith won the first Masters in 1934. Somebody had to. Gene Sarazen triumphed in ‘35 after missing the inaugural. Fuzzy Zoeller took the title in 1979.

No newbies have won it since, though Australia’s Jason Day came within two shots last year.

“The emotions going through my body, through my head, were unbelievable,” he said.

It was such a draining experience that Day can’t remember any of his rounds, half-joking: “I may have short-term memory loss.”

Luke Donald tied for third in his maiden voyage in 2005, firing three sub-70 rounds.

“I was in a good mood, I suppose,” the Northwestern alumnus said. “And that obviously goes a long way with golf.”

Keegan Bradley won’t be intimidated when he tees it up Thursday for the first time here.

“I’ve won every major I’ve ever played in,” he said to laughs in the media center. “So I don’t think it’s that hard, to be honest.”

Bradley joined Francis Ouimet (1913 U.S. Open) and Ben Curtis (2003 British Open) by winning in his major championship debut. He beat Jason Dufner in a playoff in the 2011 PGA Championship.

“There’s a bit of first-time ignorance (that can be a benefit),” he said. “You just go out and play the course. That can help sometimes.”

Here’s something else that can help: The course is soft from buckets of rain.

“The experience of playing here is not as important,” Phil Mickelson said, “because you don’t have to fear the greens. There’s a very good chance that a young player, an inexperienced, fearless player, can attack this golf course and win if you don’t need to show it the proper respect.”

Faldo played well to start, he said, “and you think: It’s not too difficult. And then the Augusta gods grab you. You hit two minor bad shots and run up a triple (bogey) and a double. And you go: ‘Where did that come from?’ “

ESPN analyst Andy North can relate. He played his first round here in 1976, shot a 66 and recalled thinking: “Man, I might win 10 of these things.”

He hit it beautifully again the next day, he recalled, “but I had it in the wrong place on every single hole.”

He shot a big, fat 81. The Augusta gods had spoken.

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