2004: First and last

Somebody could write a country song about this one: A 27-year-old kid, hardly a prodigy, wins his first PGA Tour event early in 1979, goes to the Masters that same year.

He never has been to Augusta in his life, never heard of Magnolia Lane, never realized that the bridge between earth and heaven starts right there at Augusta National Golf Club.

But stranger things are about to happen, because this is a year of firsts.

The kid wins the Masters, the first rookie since Gene Sarazen in 1935, 44 years earlier, to do so. He’s also the last rookie to do so.

He wins the first sudden-death playoff in Masters history, because three years earlier, in 1976, the tournament switched its playoff format from 18 holes to sudden death.

He birdies No. 11 to beat Tom Watson and Ed Sneed, becoming the first to experience the wild roller-coaster ride provided by the 11th hole in Masters playoffs.

Less than a month later, Fuzzy Zoeller and his wife, Diane, celebrate the birth of their first child. They named her Sunnye. It was indeed a sunny day when Zoeller won the first of his two major championships.

Why do first-time players historically have trouble at the Masters? Zoeller has some ideas.

“It’s always been a long hitter’s course,” he says. “Now it’s even longer. Short or medium hitters have a huge disadvantage. You can’t bounce it in there close to the hole all day. You need to be hitting shorter, higher shots.

“The young players are in awe of the place.

I understand that, because I love and respect Augusta National. But I was never in awe of it. I was never intimidated. I just played my game.

“The biggest thing, though, is probably the caddie. Today they all take their own caddies. I used an Augusta National caddie (Jariah Beard), and that’s why I won. He knew every blade of grass on the golf course. If a rookie came to me today, that’s what I would tell him: ‘Forget your regular caddie; take one of Augusta National’s caddies.’ ”

Twenty-five years ago: How the decades zip past, how the torrent of good times and the dribble of bad times accumulate. In 1984, Zoeller wins the U.S. Open in a playoff over Greg Norman. The same year, he has the first of three back surgeries. In 1985, he is awarded the U.S. Golf Association’s Bob Jones Award, given in recognition of distinguished sportsmanship in golf. In 1997, he finds himself on the defensive after joking that Tiger Woods should not order fried chicken or collard greens for the Masters Champions Dinner the following year.

Zoeller apologized many times for his remarks, although some people were not in a forgiving mood. He lost a measure of public support and commercial sponsorships, albeit temporarily.

He bounced back quickly, because it was clear to most that he meant neither disrespect nor insult. Today, he doesn’t talk about the incident, and he remains one of the most popular attractions around at corporate outings and exhibitions.

“We think Fuzzy’s about the best there is,” said Mary Cole of Three Rivers, Mich., at a recent golf event in Orlando, Fla., where Zoeller was making a promotional appearance.

“We were watching the Par 3 Contest at Augusta,” said her husband, Brad Cole, “and Fuzzy hit one close to the hole and then let a young boy from the crowd come up and tap the ball in the cup. Fuzzy is a wonderful representative of golf.”

Newell Brand of The Villages, Fla., recalled the time that Zoeller allowed Brand’s son, Fred, to hit a tee shot for him at Walt Disney World. “He’s never forgotten,” said Brand.

Looking ahead to this week’s Masters, Zoeller has some sober reflections on what the year’s first major championship has become.

“There are maybe 10 guys who can win,” he says. “It caters to the really long hitters. With the length that has been added to the golf course, the greens just aren’t designed to accept the kind of shots that most players have to hit in there.”

The 11th hole, where he made birdie to win that playoff 25 years ago, offers perhaps the best example of what Zoeller is saying. In the playoff, he hit an 8-iron second shot into the green at the 455-yard par-4. His ball finished 6 feet from the cup.

“I was 154 yards,” Zoeller said of the second shot. “I hit it up there, and my caddie, standing 150 yards from the green, says, ‘Right edge.’ And he starts walking.”

Beard, a full-time Augusta National caddie, knew the greens so well that he could read the putt from another time zone.

“I got down there,” Zoeller says, “and it was a right edge putt all the way. It went right in the middle.”

Today, the 11th hole plays 490 yards. Not only has it been lengthened 35 yards, but the fairway has been reshaped to prevent balls from bounding down the right side.

“I still drive the ball as far as I ever did,” Zoeller says.

And what does he hit into 11?

“Usually it’s a 4-wood or even a 3-wood,” he says. “That’s pretty severe, don’t you think? Here’s a par-4, 490 yards, with a pond at the left corner of the green, and I have to hit a fairway wood.”

And that’s why most players, in Zoeller’s opinion, have been removed from the winning equation. It takes either a bomber or a resolute guy with the magic touch of defending champion Mike Weir, who poured in putts as if they were basketball free throws.

Coincidentally, four of six sudden-death playoffs have ended on that 11th hole, the most famous being the Larry Mize chip-in in 1987.

Zoeller is 52. He maintains that he will play a full schedule for two or three more years, then cut back drastically.

“My son (Miles) is only 14,” he says. “I want to spend as much time as I can with him before he starts bringing home grandbabies.”

Surveying the canvas of his life, Zoeller pays homage to golf and all his golf friends. He reminds himself that he did it his way – whistling and joking along the path to two major championships, remaining a self-taught golfer who never took a formal lesson.

Then he says again that he can walk away from all this. He is the man who loves life even more than golf.

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