Do the young guns have a chance?
AUGUSTA, Ga. – The enthusiasm was practically radiating off Bill Haas Tuesday afternoon under the big oak tree behind Augusta National’s clubhouse.
Masters (Tuesday practice round)
Images from Tuesday's practice round at Augusta National Golf Club.
Haas couldn’t get the words out of his mouth fast enough.
How was your day?
“I can play well here – I feel good – I’m hitting the ball solid if I can get a couple putts to drop – I can play pretty decent here – I cannot imagine what it’s going to be like on Thursday – I’ll be pumped just got to rip it out there.” (Breath.)
Ah, the energy of a first-timer.
And who’s to blame him? Haas rolled down Magnolia Lane for the first time this week as a player. Those years of watching his father, Jay, walk these historic fairways and hearing stories from his great uncle Bob Goalby, the 1968 winner, are coming to life. Now, it’s finally his time.
What have they told you about the course?
“If you go left on No. 2,” Haas said, “there’s a Delta ticket counter down there in the woods where you can get your ticket out of here Friday.
“On No. 15 today, I hit it left behind the tree. Bob eagled that hole when he won by hooking it around. So I was thinking, ‘Well now I have to hook it around the tree, too.’ ”
Haas, 27, can count himself among the lucky few. Not many newcomers to the Masters get such in-depth, first-person knowledge from family members who have been there before. Maybe that’s why, more so than any of the other majors, experienced players thrive at the Masters.
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Just think of the event’s most memorable moments: A 46-year-old Jack Nicklaus roaring to victory in 1986; a 43-year-old Ben Crenshaw winning one for Harvey Penick; Nick Faldo, at 38, winning his third green jacket over a 41-year-old Greg Norman.
Youth, it seems, gets swept away in the Southern breezes that sway the large pines that line these fairways.
Since 1980, just four men in their 20s have left Augusta wearing a green jacket. So what is it about this tournament that brings the best out of veterans and leaves young challengers searching for answers?
“There’s a lot of danger lurking around the corner here,” Henrik Stenson said. “It’s a tough place to do well your first couples of times. The first few years playing here you’re like, ‘wow,’ looking around at everything.
“You can surely contend if you don’t have that much experience, but it’s less likely to happen.”
There are 30 players younger than 30 in the 96-player field this year. Three of them are teenagers and 11 are playing for the first time. In fact, of the players under 30 here at Augusta, only four have played the Masters more than three times. Hunter Mahan (27), Sean O’Hair (27) and Camilo Villegas (28) are making their fourth starts, while Adam Scott (29) is playing for a ninth time.
A group of 20-somethings – Mahan, O’Hair and Dustin Johnson, 25 – joined Phil Mickelson for a practice round Tuesday. Mahan said he took notes all morning as Mickelson, who at 39 is making his 18th Masters start, talked wind direction, pin placement and shot selection.
“It was invaluable playing with Phil today,” Mahan said. “Knowledge helps here. He’s very open with what he’s seen over the years.”
Stenson, 34, is making his fifth Masters start and admitted that it wasn’t until last year that he finally felt comfortable with the course. He took a week off after leaving Augusta last year and diagrammed the course, taking extensive notes on where to hit the ball, and more importantly, where to miss. Executing that game plan, however, was another story.
“It comes down to how patient you can be,” said Stenson, who tied for 38th in 2009. “Everyone is going to get hit on the chin a few times even if you hit great golf shots.”
Make no mistake, there is plenty of talent to go around with the 20-somethings. Anthony Kim, 24, Johnson, O’Hair and Villegas each have three PGA Tour victories. Martin Kaymer, 25, has five European Tour titles. South African Charl Schwartzel, 25, also has five European Tour victories, including two this season.
According to Padraig Harrington, age is just a number, whether playing at the Masters or at a muni.
“The great thing is this game doesn’t distinguish for age,” said Harrington, who is making his 11th Masters start. “If you’re 45 and can hit the golf ball, you can win. We don’t really categorize players by their age. Yes, they will build with experience over the years, but they are good enough to win now.”
Ernie Els, making his 17th Augusta trip this week, agrees.
“I think they’re ready to play,” he said. “Their technique is better than what we had at that same age, their equipment is better, and they get looked after much better. So they’re much more rounded as youngsters than we were. They’re not as raw and rough.”
South Korean Chang-Won Han, 18, the Asian Amateur champion, just graduated from high school two months ago. He said he was overcome with nerves on Monday while playing the course. In fact, he bought a DVD of the 2001 Masters in order to check out the course.
Unlike Han, Matteo Manassero, of Italy, has to go back to high school next week. The 16-year-old is the youngest competitor in the history of the Masters. He said he’s been watching the tournament since he was 4 years old (that’s 1997, if you’re keeping track at home) and has already played Augusta seven times. He’s been texting friends about his experience.
“I don’t have words to tell how big and how exciting,” he said. “It is the Masters. It’s just a special place, a special tournament, a dream.”
The dream starts Thursday.