One email correspondent gave me a good tongue-lashing last week for suggesting that this year’s Masters had lost some of its customary appeal when Tiger Woods was forced to withdraw after undergoing back surgery.
My indignant critic – a lawyer, naturally – said I clearly had no understanding of The Masters’ glorious tradition and history, which transcends the fame of any single player. He even told me I should give up writing about golf for good.
Well, that’s not going to happen (who else waxes nostalgic about his past bogeys?). But maybe the counselor had a point. Augusta will get along fine without Woods, who hasn’t won a major tournament since the U.S. Open in 2008.
The absence of the world’s No. 1-ranked player will hurt TV ratings. The resale market for Masters badges dropped 15 percent when the former Buick spokesman pulled out. But it’s a good thing for any golf fan who looks forward to watching fresh young faces emerge on the sport’s biggest stage.
There’s more young golf talent out there than ever. Just look at a list of the top 10 names on the PGA money list. I couldn’t pick half of them out of a lineup. Jimmy Walker is the No. 1 player on the PGA Tour. I wouldn’t know him from the Jimmy Walker who went No. 1 in the 1967 NBA draft, or the guy who played J.J. in Good Times.
But once the 78th Masters gets started today, we’ll know a lot more of the rising PGA stars on a more intimate basis. Come Sunday, 2013 champion Adam Scott might be putting the fabled green jacket on a relative obscure 20-something who won the event in his first or second career appearance.
No one has won The Masters in his first try since Fuzzy Zoeller did it 35 years ago. Augusta National has a way of humbling the young and foolish. Henrik Stenson, the world’s No. 3 player and one of the favorites this week, says you need “a few Masters under your belt” before you don the green jacket.
Oh, you can win your first major at Augusta. The last three Masters champs (Scott, Bubba Watson and Charl Schwartzel) were first-time major winners. But they had been humbled there before, and profited from the experience of yanking a ball into the trees or plunking one into Rae’s Creek.
Speaking of trees, the notorious Eisenhower Tree is no more. “Ike’s Tree” was a majestic, 125-year-old loblolly pine situated 210 yards from the tee left of the fairway. President Dwight D. Eisenhower hit the tree so often he said they should remove it. A freak ice storm did the trick in February.
Even old trees must give way to the young. There are 23 Masters rookies in this year’s 97-man field, roughly one-quarter of the total. That includes the customary six amateurs and 17 pros playing their first Masters. Of those 17 Augusta first-timers, 11 were winners on the PGA Tour last year.
There are eight players in the field who are under age 25 and ranked among the top 50 in the world. Pro golfers are like baseball pitchers nowadays. They’re maturing earlier than ever and challenging the notion that you have to pay your dues and suffer awhile before competing at the very highest level.
Rookies are at a disadvantage at Augusta. There’s a greater chance that the winner will be a long-suffering veteran who hasn’t won a major – like Sergio Garcia, Lee Westwood, Matt Kuchar, Brandt Snedeker or Ian Poulter. Or maybe Jason Day, who is only 26 but finished in the Top 10 of three majors a year ago.
Best player never to win a major? Take your pick. Stenson would be near the top, too. It tells you how deep the fields are today and how hard it is to win a major. It also reminds you how amazing Woods was to win 14 major titles, and how tough it will be for him to win five more and pass Jack Nicklaus. But don’t rule out the young guns this week. Some of these rising shotmakers, like Patrick Reed, don’t seem to know how young they are, and that they’re supposed to bide their time before making a run at the green jacket.
Here’s five players, all under the age of 25, who might be household golfing names before the weekend is through:
• Harris English: A 24-year-old native of Valdosta, Ga., English is currently fifth on the PGA money list. He’s a budding star who drives it 300 yards and hits precise, high irons. He leads the tour in greens in regulation. He won the St. Jude Classic last year. He has six Top 10 finishes in 13 events this season.
English is in his first Masters. But he played his college golf at Georgia, which allowed him to play Augusta twice a year. Northern Ireland’s Graeme McDowell, who played with English at Bay Hill, said he wouldn’t be shocked to see English on the leader board this weekend.
• Hideki Matsuyama: At age 22, Matsuyama is the top player in Japan and the leading Asian in the field. He’s not an Augusta rookie. In 2011, he became the first Japanese amateur to play in the Masters and was the only amateur to make the cut. Last year, Matsuyama tied for 10th in the U.S. Open, sixth in the British Open and 19th in the PGA Championship.
After becoming the first rookie to lead the money list on the Japanese tour in 2013, he joined the PGA Tour this year. He says he’s “not just happy” to be at Augusta. He thinks he can win. His long, high drives are suited for the place.
• Patrick Reed: The 23-year-old Texan declared himself “one of the top five players in the world” after winning the WGC at Doral for his third win in 14 career starts. Since 1990, the only other men to win three times by age 23? Woods, Garcia, Phil Mickelson and Rory McIlroy.
That’s good company. Reed doesn’t seem to care that the word “cocky” often precedes his name these days. He wears red on Sundays, just like Woods. Reed played at Augusta State, so he knows the course well. He’s a long hitter and good putter. Of course, he’s never putted in a Masters.
• Thorbjorn Olesen: If The Masters were held from Friday- to Sunday, the 24-year-old Dane would have won the green jacket in his first try. Over the final three rounds in 2013, Olesen played Augusta National in 10-under par. Too bad he opened with a 78. He finished in a tie for sixth.
Olesen tied for ninth at the British Open two years ago. He struggled to play through injuries after The Masters last season, but he has worked on his swing and played well on the European Tour this year. Olesen has a solid iron game. If he picks up where he left off at Augusta, watch out.
• Jordan Spieth: He’s 20 years old and 22-1 on the betting line. He burst onto the scene a year ago, finishing 10th on the money list and winning the John Deere Classic in a playoff two weeks before his 20th birthday. Spieth became the youngest American to play in the Presidents Cup, and today he’ll compete in his first Masters.
He hasn’t let up this season. Spieth is currently 12th on the money list and ranked No. 22 in the world. He’s considered wise beyond his years for a pro golfer. In July, he’ll even be old enough to drink.