2003 Masters: Amateurs were not awed by Augusta

Augusta, Ga. | Paired with Jack Nicklaus for the opening two rounds at Augusta National, amateur Hunter Mahan joked that he just wanted to stay out of the way of the six-time Masters champion.

Hearing this, Nicklaus smiled, rubbed Mahan’s shoulders and had a message for him.

“I was getting out of your way,” Nicklaus said.

At the 67th Masters, amateurs managed to get into everybody’s way – and that was a good thing. Somewhere, Bobby Jones had to be smiling because the amateur tradition at his beloved Masters was as vibrant as the azaleas. Three of five amateurs in the field made the cut: Mahan, Ricky Barnes, and Ryan Moore. Only once since 1985 have so many amateurs played on the weekend, and Barnes, the 22-year-old U.S. Amateur champion, even flirted with the tournament lead well into Saturday afternoon.

With rounds of 69-74-75-73, Barnes finished 21st, the best finish by an amateur at Augusta since 1998, when Matt Kuchar tied for 21st. One shot better and he would have tied for 15th, a finish that would have guaranteed a return trip down Magnolia Lane. But those who witnessed Barnes’ powerful game and finesse around the greens say he’ll be back many times in the future.

“Ricky is an incredible player, a very talented player,” said Phil Mickelson, who joined Barnes for an early-week practice round, then played alongside him in the third round.

As the final round concluded, Barnes stood in the dining room inside the locker room and scrolled through tournament scores, almost as if he believed he could electronically shave a stroke off his 291 total.

“It’s sad now that one shot might keep me out next year,” he said. “I can go through the week and think of four or five of them (shots). But it was a great week. Unfortunately, the dream has to come to an end.

“Great week. Great experience. I was able to play with the greatest player in the world (Tiger Woods) and the greatest players in the world. This builds a lot of confidence, to come out to the highest level of the game and nearly finish in the top 20. It’s a big confidence booster.

“Now it’s back to reality. I have class Tuesday morning at 9:30.”

Barnes is a senior at the University of Arizona; Mahan, the U.S. Amateur runner-up, is a junior at Oklahoma State. Barnes, whose opening 69 tied him for second place, drew more attention at the Masters, but Mahan also was right there through 54 holes in the race for the sterling silver cup awarded the low amateur. Mahan led the field in driving distance (296 yards) and he did not make a double bogey all week, an incredible accomplishment for a first-time visitor to Augusta.

Mahan said his goals were set higher than simply finishing as low amateur.

“Why settle for being low amateur when you have a chance to win the tournament and really finish high?” he said after rounds of 72-73 put him in a tie for 10th place. “You’re really going to limit yourself when you do that.”

Mahan finished T-28 after closing with 73-76.

There once was an intimidation factor for young players testing the pro ranks, but nowhere was that evident in the potent play of Barnes, Mahan and Moore, each of whom finished in the top seven in driving distance. Moore, who tied for 45th, made the lone eagle at the par-5 13th in the first round. Barnes reeled off five birdies in his opening round of 69, closing with a birdie-birdie punch to beat Woods by seven shots.

“He played beautifully,” said Woods. “He hit a lot of good shots. But more importantly, he really conducted himself well.”

As reigning U.S. Amateur champion, Barnes drew the traditional assignment of playing with the defending Masters champion; Mahan played with Nicklaus; and Moore, the U.S. Public Links champion who plays at UNLV, drew Arnold Palmer, who was making his 49th Masters start.

“Coming up 18, it was just incredible, the standing ovations, the way the fans receive him,” Moore said of Palmer. “It’s a goal to have someday, to reach a level where you’re that well respected.”

The three amateurs said they were nervous at times, but never showed signs of feeling out of place.

“Sure there’s intimidation,” Moore said, “but at the same time, college golf is pretty impressive. You’ve got to go low to win out there every week. We’ve been in these situations. I’ve played in the (U.S.) Open, Ricky has played in the Open, Hunter has played in a couple of Tour events . . . so I guess the intimidation factor isn’t as great as it could be.

“I think for us, we just realize we can make it out here, so let’s just relax and do it.”

After competing in the NCAA Championship, Barnes will play in the U.S. Open and British Open, and he has been invited to play in the European Tour’s Scottish Open the week before he visits Royal St. George’s. He said he might turn pro when he returns to Arizona following his two events in Europe.

“We’ll see how it goes, but I have plenty of time to think about it,” he said as he readied himself to go to the Butler Cabin to be interviewed alongside new champion Mike Weir.

“I’m going to go back to class and go, ‘God, I was just in the Masters.’ ”

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